I woke early on a Saturday morning in late 1984. As I walked quietly out of the bedroom to the living room, the light shining through the broad bay window was slowly rising, bringing color to the gray morning.
The view southwest across the dunes from the Amagansett beach house was so stunning that morning that I almost didn’t notice the men standing by the water’s edge. I knew who they were. I rushed to wake my sleeping children, Amanda, who was 7, and Matt, 4.
"Oh Dad, come on, let us sleep," they protested.
"But the haul seiners are back on the beach!" I exclaimed. "We have to hurry or we’ll miss them."
Haul seining is an age-old fishing technique that involves a team of fishermen using a long net attached to land to draw the fish ashore.
Leaving one end of a long net on the beach, the Amagansett fishermen push their dory off from the beach and out a couple of hundred yards into the ocean, where they begin laying the net. They move down the beach, stringing the net a great distance and then head back. On shore, the ends of the net are tied together and fed into an electric winch on their flatbed truck. Then the fishermen begin hauling in the net.
We arrived at the beach as the haul began. It’s a slow process that brings a big payoff when the end of the net or the bulb is pulled onshore. Mandy and Matt are transfixed by the sight. They stand motionless, mouths open gaping at the spectacle they are witnessing. Hundreds of fish are dragged up in the net.
Striped bass, bluefish and fluke are the prize catch. The fish are tossed into the back of another truck as part of the catch of the day. There is plenty of junk as well — garbage, plastics, seaweed and smaller fish, which are thrown back. Haul seining is an incredible display that fishermen have employed for hundreds of years.
The three of us stare at the men as they work the net separating the catch.
"Dad, there’s a baby shark!" Matt cries excitedly.
"No Matt, it’s a dogfish. It looks like a shark, but don’t worry, it’s harmless," I explain.
It occurs to me that we are witnessing a ritual that, like so many other things, may soon vanish — become a throwback to yesteryear. I reach for my camera and snap a few shots of the men and of my children, watching in stunned silence. Moments later we hike back up the beach to the house with vivid images implanted in our brains.
The metaphor is inescapable to me now. That day 37 years ago lives only in my mind and in the few photos that I snapped. Haul seining is long gone on the East End of Long Island as the practice has been outlawed in New York State.
That day has gone, taking my young children with it in a way. They’ve grown up and are gone, with families of their own. I see their innocent years now only in pictures captured when they weren’t looking — moments now frozen in my memory. I’m reminded of the Paul Simon lyric, "Long ago it must be / I have a photograph / Preserve your memories / They’re all that’s left you."
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