Hope Springs Autumnal
Life still swims in the Algonquian Great Shellfish Bay
by Mark McCaig
Edges attract life. It’s a rule of thumb for naturalists about transition zones, whether it’s meadow into forest or open ocean into reef. Despite hurricanes and tsunamis, we move to the coasts, drawn by their splendor but also by teeming biodiversity. Each fall my edge where the sand and clay of home meet the mighty Chesapeake teems with migrants, from waterfowl to monarchs to feeding fish. We also collect people at our local bridge, hungry folks hunting for rock.
The small bridge spans a tidal creek that fills and drains our brackish lake four times a day, an umbilical cord connecting the salty Bay to the spring-fed streams feeding the lake. When the water and air temperatures cool and the kids return to school, the microhabitat of our little creek draws the Bay’s sport fish king, the striped bass.
First our local fishermen come to ply the water with their bucktails and their worms, their spoons and their balls of bread. They come by foot. Soon cars turn up on the shoulders of our state road as the land’s edge lures foreign anglers. They spend hours casting and waiting, some manning numerous rods like flagpoles in tribute to the majestic stripers. Entire families come, awaiting the telltale jangle of signal bells that herald a strike. Fly fishing, bottom fishing, or modified trolling? There’s time for debate.
Rumors and reports spread through the neighborhood like stripers chasing menhaden. They got eight keepers last night. Gary got two. Some gripe about the pilgrims, the messes they leave and the nerve to take our fish. One night they even built a bonfire. Others revel in the glorious feats of our local boys. We all partake in the wildness of the hunt.
One evening I walked to the bridge in a drizzle. Three or four bodies awaited me. I visited with a young man I knew as he worked his poles under a buzzing streetlight. Fishermen love to tinker as they try to entice the fish. His buddy cast repeatedly under the bridge, a tactic I’d seen over the years. Any bites tonight? Not yet, but he’d heard about Gary’s exploits the night before. The rain thickened alongside their resolve.
First light blushed the sky as I peered into the creek the next morning, fishing with my eyes to see what all the fuss is about. There they were, idling in the gentle outflow, a dozen dark fish of various sizes, one or two keepers. I sat on the cool slab of the bridge, marveling at the rockfish waiting for prey where the creek meets the Bay. The sun’s roseate disc cleared the Eastern Shore. I wondered how much life yet swims the sweep of the Algonquian Great Shellfish Bay. Dead zones? Pfisteria? For this morning, the Chesapeake flowed crystalline and primal, proof of her bounty lolling below me.
Sometimes, hope springs autumnal.
Newly returned from a summer at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, McCaig reflects from Fairhaven. He’s written for Bay Weekly since 1993, most recently reflecting on bioluminescence in Recapturing the Magic (Vol. xiv, No. 23: June).