Our Nation's Treasures

My Photo
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Inspecting New Species on the Georgia Coast

My dad and step-mom retired to the Georgia coast in 1999. They live on a salt-water creek that leads to a river that leads to the ocean.

Mark and I trek down once or twice a year, and each trip introduces us to a species we’ve never seen before, or at least never seen before in the wild. By our first trip this year, we had tired of the porpoise breaching in pairs, the blue heron, the wood storks.

However, last May when we were up a creek, a six-foot gator crept through the tall grass of the marsh and slipped silently into the water. That was the first for us though Dad said he sees them frequently.

Shrimping season is from September through December, and the most interesting creatures come up in the shrimping net. The net is seven feet in diameter with lead weights around the circumference. To cast the net, Dad stands on the front, flat part of his 18-foot Shoal Cat, a simple fishing boat with an Evinrude. He holds the net by rope pulls in its center in his left hand, places one of the weights between his lips with his right, and then grabs the edge of the net a semicircle away from the weight in his mouth. With a twist of his body, a fling of his right arm, and a rightly timed release of the weight from his mouth, the net flies out and lands in a nearly perfect seven-foot diameter. Shrimping is prime in three or four feet of water, and after about 10 seconds the weights reach bottom.
Then Dad gathers the net by the pulls. Most often we get shrimp. One out of five casts yields a bonus.

We’ve gotten toad fish, which looks just what it sounds like and is small enough to hold in your hand. We often get crab, and getting them to let loose the net is a challenge. Our biggest take was a black gar, which was a first for Dad even; they’re usually green. A gar is about a foot and a half long and thin, almost cylindrical, with a snout and a tail.

Some of the shrimp we net we eat, but more often we shrimp for bait.

One afternoon last October Mark and Dad were catching little yellow tail along the bank of a creek, but I was having no luck. And it was hot, so I jumped in and floated around.

The men ran low on bait and asked me to take them to the other side of the creek to net some shrimp, rather than start the motor up. I gladly pushed and pulled and maneuvered the boat over to the other side. Dad started casting the net, and I floated away.

Dad’s fifth or sixth throw landed a baby puffer fish. Having never seen one, I swam over, careful to avoid his casting. A little larger than a 25-cent gum ball, it had spines, but Dad said they’re just bumps of skin. I brought it into the water with me so that I could see it deflate, but the men had enough shrimp and wanted to go to the other side of the creek where the fish hid among the limbs of the fallen trees.

Puffed up, the fish floated, so I just threw the baby puffer fish, then tugged the boat to it, then threw the fish and tugged the boat to it again until the four of us were at the other bank.

The current carried the boat, and I divided my time between pulling it to avoid a scrape with fallen trees and playing with the baby puffer fish.

I did stop molesting it long enough that, after about 20 minutes, tiny bubbles came slowly, one at a time at first out of its protruding fish lips. After about 15 seconds and a final, bubbly, underwater exhale, it deflated to about the size of my thumbnail and began to swim down. I wanted to see it inflate so touched it just before it was out of sight. In no time at all, it was big as a gum ball again.

I continued to play with it, tossing it and swimming to it, but eventually leaving it undisturbed so that it would deflate again.

I think the baby puffer fish knew I wasn’t a threat because it deflated in only five or 10 minutes this time. I fought the urge to grab it again—I’m sure it was tired of me. But once it was Chiclet-size, I could no longer resist. I reached after it but too late; it swam too deep in the sea to see.