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NYFS Newsletter 1998-vol19-no3-1
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Spring/Summer 1999 Newsletter

Tales of an Island: Fishing and Fisherman on Long Island’s East End
John Eilertsen with stories contributed by Stewart Lester and Johnny Collins

Suffolk County, New York, is home to almost one and a half million people. The county occupies the eastern two thirds of Long Island and, including several smaller islands off the east and north coasts, contains approximately 1200 square miles. The eastern end of the island divides into two narrow, unequal branches, or forks, called the North Fork and the South Fork. The North Fork looks across Long Island Sound to Connecticut, and the South Fork faces the Atlantic Ocean. The two forks, also called The East End, consist of the towns of Southampton, East Hampton, Riverhead, Southold, and Shelter Island, and were settled by Europeans of English descent in 1640, making the area the first English-speaking settlement in New York State. Native Americans, however, had settled in the same area some time after the last Ice Age, between eight and ten thousand years ago.

All of Suffolk County is an area steeped in maritime traditions. Generations of residents have earned their livelihoods harvesting the Great South Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound, and to the east, the streams, creeks, bays, and harbors of the Peconic Estuary System. Flounder, fluke, swordfish, bass, cod, menhaden, sturgeon, oyster, clams, scallops, eels, crabs, and countless other species of fin and shell fish have, over the years, sustained fisherman through good times and bad. Although local commercial fishermen are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their traditional lifestyles and occupations, they are still here.

Members of East Hampton town’s fishing community are proud of their fishing heritage, but they recognize that times are changing. Jarvey Wood, now over 80 years old, was born in a section of East Hampton called the Springs. Jarvey recalls that, as a youngster, he could walk for hours over fields and through woods, following creeks and shore lines and paths walked by his father, grandfather, and great grandfather. His great grandfather and grandfather were fishermen and whalers, and his father was a fisherman, " . . . so naturally I come fishing too." The biggest change, Jarvey and others have noted, is the vast number of people "from away," who know little or nothing about the old ways in general, or about fishing in particular. Stewart Lester, born in Amagansett a generation after Jarvey, remembers a shark incident involving a little girl.

I saw them bring a mako in the Yacht Club one time. They had caught it about two o’clock in the afternoon, and they had it on the gin pole, it was so long, probably weighed out about 350, 400 pounds. His head hung in the water to the gills. Now they had it hanging off the boat all the way back to the club’s dock, they got into the club around five-thirty that night, and they hung them up on the dock, you’d swear he was dead. Now a little kid, a little girl about five or six years old went up and started poking his eyeballs. Aaaraugh! I grabbed the kid and pulled her back. That shark was just waiting and if anybody walked within what he thought was striking distance, boy, he’d go boom! And you should have seen the people! They couldn’t believe it. They thought it was dead, and she started poking his eyeballs, and it went wild. Those people just didn’t know any better.

The late Johnny Collins, a fisherman, boat builder, and storyteller, once told Stewart and me of a prank played on tourists on party, or charter, fishing boats.

You’d wait for someone to fall asleep, with his fishing line still in the water, trolling a line behind. And very quietly you’d pull the line in and tie a bucket on it, and throw it back overboard. See, it catches up with the end of that line and, "ZZZZZZZZZ, Oh, boy, I got a fish!" And he’d crank and crank on the fishing pole for three-quarters of an hour and finally come up with a bucket. It wouldn’t amuse him too much. You gotta have a fellow with a sense of humor, I guess.
But one of the community’s favorite tales is not told about people "from away," but about one of their own, someone who "should have known better." Johnny Collins related the tale to me in 1982.

There was an old captain on a small dragger, and he was fishing around the shoals off Gardiner’s Island with just his first mate on board. And this first mate was a good worker, but not real sharp, kind of slow, in fact. Anyway, they were finishing up a day’s fishing, and heading back to port when the engine on that old boat just died. So the old captain scurries below to work on the engine and hollers out to the mate, "Throw the anchor." He was worried that the boat was going to drift right onto the shoals, and he wanted to anchor the boat till he got the engine started up. Anyway, he’s working on the engine, and he hears his first mate holler back, "There's no 'stwing' on it." The captain kind of wonders to himself, "What is he talking about?" But just then he gets the engine started, and in his hurry to get topside and get underway again, he forgets all about the mate.

The captain gets the boat underway, but in just a few minutes, the engine dies again, and the captain sees the boat drifting back towards the shoals again, so again he runs below to work in the engine and again he hollers out the mate, "Throw out the anchor." After a moment or two, he hears the mate holler back, "There’s no 'stwing' on it." And again, before he can answer the mate, the engine starts up. So, he runs back topside and gets the boat underway again. And again he forgets to ask the mate what he was talking about.

But in just a few moments the boat’s engine conks out again, and as he runs below to work in the engine again, he hollers out, "Throw the anchor." Of course, the mate hollers back, "There’s no 'stwing' on it," but this time the captain can’t get the engine started, and worried that they could go aground on the shoals, he starts screaming, "Throw the anchor, throw the anchor." And the mate hollers back, "There’s no 'stwing' on it, there’s no 'stwing' on it."

Finally the furious captain screams out, "Stwing or no stwing, I’m the captain. Throw out the damn anchor!" And almost immediately he hears a splash as the mate finally throws out the anchor.

Well, right after that, the captain gets the engine running again, and he goes topside, and hollers out to the mate, "Pull in the anchor," and the mate just looks at him, and the captain says, "What are you waiting for? I said pull in the anchor!" And the mate says, "I can’t. There weren't no 'stwing' on it." And the captain finally understands that the mate was trying to tell him there was no line tied to the anchor.

Well, this time the engine keeps running, and they get back to the dock, and the captain starts telling everyone he knows about what happened with the first mate and the anchor, thinking everybody will think it’s funny. And most folks did laugh, but not at the mate. And now, if someone tells you to do something really stupid, or something that you know is not right, folks will shrug and say, "Stwing or no stwing, you're the damn captain."

Tales and stories are an important part of any community. Among East Hampton’s fishing folk, these stories and many like them educate youngsters about the "things they ought to know about life," as one fisherman once explained to me. And, they express shared values and attitudes within the fishing community. And, as Johnny Collins used to say, "They’re kind of fun to tell and hear, I guess. Makes you feel good."

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Tales and stories are an important part of any community. Among East Hampton’s fishing folk, these stories and many like them educate youngsters about the 'things they ought to know about life,' as one fisherman once explained to me. And, they express shared values and attitudes within the fishing community.
—John Eilertsen

Photo of net mending
Mending Net. Photograph by John Eilertsen

Photo of Jarvey Wood
Jarvey Wood. Photograph by John Eilertsen

Photo of bottle fish
Bottle fish. Photograph by John Eilertsen

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