As the sun rose over a foggy horizon, a group of nine fishermen and one fisherwoman set a gill net east of Two Mile Hollow Beach, trying to catch the last striped bass of the season.My friend Kevin Miller asked me if I wanted to meet them at six-thirty in the morning. “Do you want to ride in the boat?”
A small boat is pushed through the surf break to set the net in the ocean. The two net ends are maneuvered with winches in the back of two pickup trucks on the beach. The trucks replaced workhorses back when the Native Americans taught the English settlers how to fish.
Maybe I unconsciously thought I would die, but after watching a marathon run of Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid” until 4 a.m. I couldn’t make it out of bed in time. My husband and I sauntered down at a more civilized hour, past a saucer-like mega mansion taking shape in the dunes and plovers looking for food along the shore.
We found Mr. Miller standing on the back of a truck bed, guiding a heavy rope around a winch. “You should have seen the sunrise,” he said, “I’ve never seen anything like it before. There were two levels of fog and the sun rose over the second level.”
Guilt and jealousy rising in my throat, I could only imagine how beautiful it was that morning. The temperature rose to 50 degrees before noon, the first Sunday of December. The sun had burned off all the fog and I felt lucky just to be walking the beach. By then, the crew was pulling the net in, retrieving the fish.
“Take that and make chowder,” Mr. Miller said as a large surf clam landed on the back of the truck.
Molly, one of two black Labradors in the crew, was first to spot a striped bass being reeled out of the water. “We got a dog that likes fish in the net,” Mr. Miller said.
“It must be pretty thick off there,” said Charlie Niggles, Molly’s owner.
“That’s a fish-picking dog right there,” Mr. Miller repeated as Molly tried to pull the fish out of the five-inch nylon net mesh with her mouth.
Previously called a “haul seine,” the gill net is close to three-quarters of a mile long. The mesh was larger, six and one-quarter inches, until the Department of Conservation deemed it a “dirty” way of fishing. Still, the DEC used the older net to conduct fish studies because it was the most efficient way to catch fish. Go figure.
“I feel sorry for these poor boys today,” Billy Havens told us, nodding his head. A mile or so down the beach, the Lester crew was doing the same thing.
“Just gonna pull the head on it a little,” Mr. Niggles said as he inched the truck eastward, closer to the other truck. Aside from the second winch operator, two fishermen were in the boat on the trailer, behind the second truck. Everyone was working to pull the net, and hopefully the fish, closer to shore.
“If I get in your way just tell me to back up,” said one fishermen working the shore, to another.
This was a motley yet polite crew, put together spontaneously by people who love to fish but don’t necessarily work together on a regular basis. There are few fish at this point but still tags to be filled.
“It looks like a lot of work,” I said to Mr. Havens.
“That’s not work,” he said, “I love it.”
Mr. Havens comes from a fishing family and laments the old haul seine as “the best net, shape-wise.” His dad, William Sr., was one of the best net menders back when 100,000 fish were caught in a season. “We’d mend and mend,” he said.
“I was involved in the first striped bass study. Worst thing I ever done.” Mr. Havens has done a lot of things in his lifetime but he always comes back to fishing, Bonac-style.
He owned a bar, Harry’s Hideaway, now Wolfie’s Tavern in Springs. He traveled to Seattle, Washington and Kodiak, Alaska, in an attempt to fish but always returned, only to repack and head somewhere new. He worked on an oil tanker, but at 40 years old and $50 a day, “it was the wrong time to start.”
Mr. Havens even did a seven-year stint in Hollywood as a grip on television sets. “How about we try California,” he asked his wife who worked in the entertainment industry at the time.
The first day on his hard-to-get, union job, his boss asked him to fetch a C-stand.
“What’s a C-stand?” he said. “I need to know what it looks like.” He “crammed” a book on the tools of his new trade. On his return to set, he stuck nervously close to the boss and worked hard. Until the other crew members told him to slow down.
“I didn’t want to get my guys mad at me,” he said, “I got so fat from eating craft services. It’s all junk food.”
Despite having to pinch himself from time to time: “Is this Billy Havens on the Paramount lot?”—he and his wife drifted apart.
“I still got Bonac in me,” he said. “If you got a job you love, it ain’t work. You make your own luck.”
Before I knew it, the trucks had all pulled away, seals frolicking in their wake.