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A magic carpet ride on the Great South Bay

On a late summer day in 2019, bayman

On a late summer day in 2019, bayman Michael Stanions takes a rare break from working on the Great South Bay and heads to the Fire Island National Seashore at Watch Hill to relax. Credit: Geri Olson

It’s late in the summer and another workday on the Great South Bay is coming to a close. As I enter my seventh decade of existence, I’m grateful to God to be able to perform the physically taxing work of a bayman.

As I begin to clean up the boat in the middle of the bay, I spot a school of bunker pinwheeling in my direction; the slapping, clapping noise reaches a crescendo, then wanes in a few moments as the group drifts away. I fire up the motor and start to head west toward the dock. It’s about a 5-mile ride back to Swan River and a mile up to reach my dock space in Patchogue.

The sky is a bright blue this day with abundant sunshine filtering through puffy white cumulus clouds. A light north wind is blowing, producing a slight chop on the water that in turn seems to give this 20-foot boat an undulating feel while it’s gliding. I imagine a "magic carpet ride" would feel this way. It’s one of those days I could cruise for hours without end on this commute.

We baymen are becoming an extinct breed, like the dinosaurs. It doesn’t pay enough anymore. There were hundreds of us. Every year, you see fewer. On a good day, maybe a dozen. After five decades of going out about four times a week, I still work year-round, including winter. This isn’t for the fainthearted, especially when it’s windy. I might see three comrades like me.

As I approach the mouth of the river, there’s literally hundreds of snappers energetically popping in and out of the water. It looks as if somebody threw a thousand silver dollars across the outlet to the bay. Several fishermen are on the long Brookhaven Town dock, but nobody seems to be catching anything. Two teenagers are standing there, immersed looking at whatever is on their electronic device. Pathetic!

As I idle north on the placid river, a couple of Monarch butterflies float by, their red-orange colors accentuated against the backdrop of a pure white cloud. Farther along, I spot a small turtle sunning itself on a protruding log, looking indifferent as my vessel cruises by. "Live free or die," I think to myself.

Another half-mile down the river, the bulrushes and trees become more numerous as do the number and species of waterfowl. I call this area "the wild." Sometimes in passing through here, I get a fleeting feeling of being "one," connected with this small segment of the universe. This phenomenon seems to occur only when there’s a lack of activity around.

The area is a veritable Audubon member’s delight. I observe the different ducks and sandpipers, geese, swans, egrets, gulls, crows and hawks. Occasionally, I’ll spot an eagle chased by three ospreys. Around dusk, thousands of red-winged blackbirds gather in small, disparate flocks and then seemingly disappear into the cattails.

I slowly guide the stealth-gray boat into my dock space, secure the weathered lines and pile the day’s catch -- about half of the four bags I’d haul in during the heyday of the ’70s and ’80s -- onto the dock. Tired after my usual early start to a five- or six-hour run, I struggle to load my pickup truck. And a friend yells, "Hey, Mike, when are you going to retire?" "I can’t," I shout back. "I would miss the commute too much!"

Reader Michael Stanions lives in Brookhaven.

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