I love Montauk, and here’s a tiny glimpse of why.
Some background for our summer guests: While once the site of the first cattle ranch in a land that some 150 years later became the United States of America, Montauk has consigned the cattle drives to history and is now all about fishing. Period. The evidence is everywhere — the rod-holders on the pickups and S.U.V.s, the recreational boats, charter boats, head boats, and monster draggers lined up at the docks, the commercial fish-packing houses at the harbor entrance, and the sheer number of boats of all kinds tied up at the picturesque harbor.
Montauk’s is one of the finest harbors on the East Coast, given that it once was a totally protected freshwater lake that was opened to the sea in the late 1920s by Carl Fisher, who simply dynamited away the strip of land separating Lake Montauk from Block Island Sound. After developing the swamps of Miami into a resort area, Fisher decided to make Montauk the “Miami of the North.” And he might have succeeded but for the market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Depression. (Put aside, please, that today even thinking about dynamiting a section of land in order permit saltwater intrusion to destroy the ecology of a freshwater lake could get you strung up from a tree being hugged by Al Gore and the Enviros.)
Back to my story. Fishing today is a far different industry from when President George Washington authorized the construction of Montauk’s iconic lighthouse. Even the Fox News crowd could not lay blame solely on Obama for the intricate web of regulations that have governed fishing for the last half-century. Each category of fisherman — recreationals like me, the commercial charter boat guys, the draggers and long-liners who go out for weeks at a time — is subject to different rules regarding how many of each species of fish can be taken, when they can be taken, and how large they must be in order to be “keepers.” If it is too small, too big, out of season, etc., it must go back into the water, dead or alive.
No more digressions. Early in June, Pinks and I and another couple were eating at Wok ’n’ Roll, the Montauk main drag Chinese restaurant with a huge sign out front advertising its specialty: “You hook ’em, we cook ’em.”
We brought to the restaurant our ubiquitous plastic supermarket bag containing some striped bass and fluke fillets from fish I had recently caught. The restaurant manager, Li, gave us a big season-opener greeting, seated us, weighed our bag of fish, gave us our drinks, took our order as to how we wanted the fish prepared (there are 10 options), and went back to the kitchen to get things cookin’.
As Li disappeared through the kitchen door, a middle-aged man and woman arrived with their white plastic supermarket bag and, seeing no waitstaff, the guy put his bag on the scale. We were sitting adjacent to the scale, and as I turned to chat with our friends, I heard the plastic bag rustle. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I spied the bag move. Nah, couldn’t be, and I turned back to our conversation. Then another crinkle, and this time I swiveled in my seat and saw that the bag was definitely moving. What the . . . ?
As the embarrassed newcomer reached for it, the bag jumped off the scale and onto the floor! The guy stooped to recover it, but the bag kept on wiggling and slithering across the floor, as if it instinctively knew to avoid the grasp of this kneeling, red-faced predator. But when the guy finally got a grip on one end of the plastic bag, ta-da, out wiggled the fish from the other, open, end — a 12-to-15-inch sea bass. (This is a fish you would recognize if you ever ordered a whole cooked fish in a Chinese restaurant.)
Now this was the scene: The guy was on his hands and knees trying to bare-hand the freed fish and get it back into the bag, but the fish was having none of it. One needs to be careful with these critters because while sea bass have no teeth, they have spines that are deadly. Grab a sea bass the wrong way, and you have, as my grandson Nicholas would say, a big ouchie.
The customer’s female companion was standing aside with her hands hiding her face. She was not laughing. Neither was the guy. In fact, he was frantic. Not only had he outed himself as a rank amateur because he did not clean his fish before he brought it to the restaurant, and not only was his dinner escaping before a restaurant crowded with baseball cap-wearing fishermen, he was also now being revealed as a cheat: Even assuming the fish met the 13-inch minimum — which was not at all certain — the season for keeping sea bass did not open until the following week, and this guy was trying, for the second time that day, to catch and keep this illegal fish. It could have cost him $500 if there had been a D.E.C. cop having dinner at Wok ’n’ Roll that evening.
Virtually everyone else in the restaurant was there because they brought legal fish they caught, and they were enjoying the poacher’s degradation. This could have been a new high in group schadenfreude. An unexpected floor show.
Sigh, as you might have guessed, this story ends badly for the fish. Even with a hook in its jaw, the bass might have had a shot at escaping as long as it was in the sea, but it had no chance at enduring freedom while gasping and slithering about on Wok 'n’ Roll’s well-worn linoleum. It did give its all, though, and did get some measure of revenge: The guy, on his first reach for the fish, had yelped and pulled his hand back when he got stuck by a dorsal fin. A table of six well-oiled guys just off a charter boat cheered when that happened. Being the nice guy I am, I just smiled into my bottle of Tsingtao.
The humiliated amateur persisted — after all, what choice did he have? The fish was rebagged, and this time the guy tied the handle loops to prevent a recurrent escape. I don’t know what he ultimately did with the sea bass, because after the rube got it back in the bag, he straightened up, turned to his companion, commanded “C’mon,” and, with chin pressed to chest, stomped out of the restaurant.
Ain’t life grand?
Martin London is a retired trial lawyer who lives in Montauk with his wife, Pinks. He writes about life there and in their winter home, St. Barts, at londonsbh.blogspot.com.