Bounty of the sea

I wake up early here, still on Minnesota time. Four AM. That’s when my Dad would shake us awake summers at the shore, and we’d blearily make our way to the harbor and, first stop, a dark restaurant full of shaggy-bearded men in flannel and wool hats and dark green oilskins. A tall stack of buckwheat pancakes sloppy with butter and syrup, and we’d start to come alert with bellies full of hot starches and sugar. Then off to the docks and rows of charter fishing boats, and then the whole fleet would charge off to sea in a cloud of diesel fumes and salty spume.
It was cold. The boats were small and rolling fiercely. After an hour or so of sitting on benches, hanging on when they’d suddenly drop beneath us and rise up again, we’d arrive at some heaving patch of ocean just like every other, and we’d start baiting hooks and dropping lines, watching our poles bend and straighten until there’d be a sudden arrhythmic jerk, and it was time to reel in some angry 20lb salmon. Occasionally there’d be a series of squawks from the boat radio, and we’d stop and go chugging off to some other spot in the ocean, where the fleet had found a hungry school.
My Dad was extraordinarily competent at all this. The boat boy would have an easy morning of it, because Dad would bait our hooks and untangle our lines and whisper to us how deep we should go. We’d almost always catch our limit early, and then we’d drop our lines especially deep to catch halibut and cod, and then we’d head back to the docks by early afternoon. The boat boy would sit at the back, gutting fish and throwing offal overboard, with clouds of frantic seagulls following along behind.
It wasn’t unusual that we’d go home with a hundred pounds of fish in our ice chests. Dad would whip out his long filleting knife — sharp as a straight razor, with a wicked needle point — and cut flawless fillets, shaving the meat off the bones, leaving cartoon fish skeletons with at best a thin membrane of flesh between the ribs. Then he’d chunk them into tidy squares of rich red salmon.
I grew up thinking the crisper compartment of refrigerators, the deep shelf, was for brining salmon, nothing more. Ours was always full of water so salty it was thick, and further made viscous with pounds of brown sugar. The fish would soak in that for days before being stacked in the smokehouse with smoldering chips of apple- or cherry-wood.
While we waited, if we got a good low tide, we’d spend a daycc be at a favored beach on the Sound. It may not have been the kind of beach most people imagine. It was rocky. The sand was black and silty. Seaweed was draped over everything. We’d hike way out on the arms of a bay, carrying buckets and shovels as we clambered over boulders and driftwood. Then we’d hunker down and start digging.
Well, to be honest, Dad would do most of the digging. We kids were easily distracted, but our main purpose I think was to provide a number of legal limits. Dad, Mom, and 6 kids meant Dad could shovel up 8 legal limits worth of butter clams and horse clams, and he would. I’d help. A bit, but this beach was so rich with life that I’d end up exploring instead. Digging through rocks was fine, but I’d keep turning up amazing marine annelids like slimy ropes, and the waters of the bay were shingled with furry purple sand dollars with spider crabs stalking among them and jellies floating transparently in the surf. Dad was a clam-digging machine.
Eventually we’d have to hike back carrying big buckets heavy with clams. That was less fun.
The next day would be something different, though. After washing all those clams overnight, Dad would put on big pots of water and start steaming clams. Clams are easy — a little boiling water in a 10 gallon pot, throw in lots of clams, put a lid on, and let them steam for a few minutes until their shells open, and then snatch out hot clams, trying not to burn your fingers. Easiest recipe ever.
The important part was calling all his friends and our relatives to come on over. Old family friends, neighbors, aunts and uncles would show up at our door and Dad would invite them all in, while he’d be telling jokes and stories the whole time. The spirit of the potlatch was upon him.
I understand that part of the culture of the Pacific Northwest Indians. Seafood was plentiful; you had to break your back harvesting it, but when you did, you’d have so much that you had to share, and with that sharing you were swapping more than just calories, you were exchanging culture and building community.
Today I engage in a pale shadow of that tradition. My sister bought a half salmon — a large one — and told me that I get the job of cooking it this afternoon (I think I’ll bake it — it’s another seafood that’s easy to prepare), and then this evening a few nephews and nieces and kids and grandkids will be stopping by. Tomorrow we go to the ocean for an even bigger family get-together, a celebration of life.
We really need my Dad here to do it right, but this generation is diminished, and we’ll just try our best.


  1. crocswsocks says

    PZ, I don’t suppose you would ever consider compiling all these sorts of autobiographical posts in some form? Maybe it seems egotistical, but there are some of us who love you enough to be interested.

  2. wajim says

    Beautifully written, PZ. There’s a memoir in you, says I. My childhood at sea was around and out to sea around Monterey Bay, CA. Grandpa owned a Tavern/Fish market in Seaside, and a sixty-some foot commercial fishing boat. While the Cap’ was well-lit on the keg of PBR he kept chilled in the galley, my brother and I would fish for salmon, cod and flounder, then pull Gramp’s crab and lobster pots to keep the fish market going. Some days we’d just cruise and watch whales breach and blow all around us and a cloud of gulls stormed overhead. On slow days, my brother, who was a Sea Scout, would row us in a very leaky 12′ wooden boat (I was there to bail) out to various USN warships visiting the bays the sailors would toss five gallon buckets of half-melted chocolate and vanilla ice-cream into the water and we’d fetch a few before they sank. Later, we’d refreeze them in Gramp’s walk-in and chow down. Yar, thim war the days . . .

  3. larrylyons says

    Boy that brings back memories of growing up in BC We’d basically do the same. And you basically nailed it. That was part of living in the Pacific Northwest, it is building a community.

    Later however we moved to Manitoba – think Minnesota just colder in the winter. But there too was community, just a bit different. Going to the cabin – doing maintenance and repair on the place in the early spring with some snow and ice all around. Fishing and swimming at the lake during the summer, and prepping the cabin for winter in the fall. Then finally we’d go ice fishing in the winter. Speaking of which, does Baudette Mn still have that betting pool for when an old wreck would melt through the ice?

    But great story many thanks for it.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    In the old days, the rivers of north Sweden were so full of salmon that the farmboys had an upper limit for the number of days salmon was on the menue written into the contracts.
    Then the hydroelectric companies arrived…
    Celebration of life: Iceland has had no covid cases for five days in a row. If you are a globetrotter (and have some paperwork confirming vaccine status) you might check out the volcano – from a safe distance.
    And eat tons of seafood , but NOT håkarl meat. Greenland shark has to be prepared by storing in a pit in the ground to get rid of the neurotoxins [true ].

  5. brightmoon says

    Glad you’re doing this . The previous 4 years has been hell. Every one needs to back away from the outrage, fear and chronic anger . Reminds me of family picnics and cookouts as a child . Eating too many burgers , fried chicken, salads, soda and franks

  6. weylguy says

    I can only wonder what deep sea fishing in the Pleistocene would have been like. The oceans would have been alive with fish, long before 7.7 billion humans showed up to over-fish everything.

  7. Thomas Scott says

    For my family, it was razor clams. On of the first sentences I can remember being taught is,
    “I have eight clams and I dug them myself !” (as per the game regs)

  8. says

    We’d get razor clams on the sea coast, not the Sound. Cruise the beach with a clam gun, bring them home an dredge them in flour, then fry them up.

    Now hungry.

  9. bodach says

    On the coast, it was razor clams, gather old driftwood and some seaweed. Drooling now. Inland waters, we used to go up north to BC and fish and dig clams at a friend’s cabin. We would paddle out to passing shrimpers and trade salmon or ling cod for shrimp. (hard to have extra ling cod)
    We were just there for fun but the shrimpers, long liners and gill netters worked very hard indeed.
    That’s why it’s fished out now.

  10. wzrd1 says

    Dad and I had a simpler recipe for our clams. Shucked and eaten.
    Mussels, those we’d do a batch the size of one’s head in pasta sauce, they’d be gone in a single sitting.
    Crabs were either steamed and eaten or steamed and in pasta sauce.

    Yeah, we used a lot of pasta sauce. Even today, I’ll make a small batch of two gallons and can it in quart Mason jars.

  11. lumipuna says

    Iceland has had no covid cases for five days in a row. If you are a globetrotter (and have some paperwork confirming vaccine status) you might check out the volcano – from a safe distance.

    Might be a nice nostalgia trip for all the hipsters who liked visiting Iceland before the country was cool.

  12. says

    A-yup – same story here. We spent our summers on the Tulalip Indian reservation and also harvested oysters and dungeness crab in abundance.

  13. birgerjohansson says

    Slimey invertebrate creatures at the seashore?
    OT: It turns out Joe Manchin got a big donation from the Chamber of Commerce just before he decided to block legislation. Now back to the thread.

  14. PaulBC says

    leerudolph@17 I know I don’t have one involving that much work, though I guess PZ’s father was doing most of it. I wonder what PZ’s father’s childhood was like and how he learned all this.

  15. Rich Woods says

    Despite growing up on the North Sea coast I never went out in a boat until I was twenty. My dad and a couple of his mates had hired a fishing boat for the morning (the town’s professional fleet was run down to near nothing by then, making more of a living from hiring out than from regular fishing) but one of his friends was ill on the day, so he asked me if I wanted to go — at 5am! I was so bleary I can’t remember why I said yes, especially since I’d been out on the town the night before and had only had about four hours of sleep. I was so hungover I skipped breakfast and in half an hour found myself on the docks clambering into a thirty-footer just as the sun was coming up.

    At first the cold breeze helped clear my head, though not banishing all the queasiness. Initially the sea swell wasn’t too bad, but by the time we were seven or eight miles out amongst the cross-currents over the sand banks, it started getting to me. Then it subsided and I thought I’d got away with it. But all of a sudden I started puking, one very, very long series of retches that felt like I was being turned inside out. When it finally stopped I was so weak I just lay down on the deck and waited for my muscles to stop quivering. We were out there for another six hours. I never did do any fishing but at least I wasn’t feeling sick any more.

    And I’ve never been seasick since. I’ve been in some situations that have made other people sick, like a hydrofoil’s passenger compartment (with no view outside, filled with the smell of warm plastic and the previous trip’s collective puke), or a couple of hours sailing through the tail end of a hurricane, but I think I was inoculated against seasickness by that first trip. I certainly wouldn’t wish to repeat that experience.

  16. Silentbob says

    “Fish! And plankton! And sea greens! And protein form the sea!”

    (Gold star to anyone old enough and nerdy enough to get that reference. :-))

  17. microraptor says

    This brings back memories of my dad and grandpa taking me and my sister fishing for salmon when we were younger. We didn’t go out in the ocean, instead we’d go to the mouth of the Rogue, Coos, or Umpqua River and ride on a little boat hoping that a sea lion wouldn’t snatch a fish off the line before we could reel it in (never happened to us, but more than once we saw someone else lose a fish that way).

  18. PaulBC says

    Silentbob@20 Box from Logan’s Run. Old enough and nerdy enough to remember, though I concede I double checked with Google first.

  19. PaulBC says

    @26 Well, I’m not a writer and my tastes may be idiosyncratic, but I really liked the sentence

    I grew up thinking the crisper compartment of refrigerators, the deep shelf, was for brining salmon, nothing more.

    It could stand alone as the first line of a memoir, setting up a premise that demands further explanation.

  20. Ridana says

    The closest I ever got to fishing as a midwestern farm kid was dropping a quart Mason jar tied to baling twine off the bridge over the creek. Then I’d wait until a minnow who couldn’t see the glass in the water would swim in, and then try to yank it up before it could turn around and swim out. If I could catch one bigger than 2 or 3 inches long, it felt like a victory. Then I’d dump it back into the creek and try again.

    I could entertain myself pretty easily as a child.

  21. birgerjohansson says

    That robot in Logan’s run was just too B-film-looking to be credible.

    If you are in a mood to fish sharks I assume you need a large bait. Something roughly antivaxxer- or Mitch McConnell-sized (yes, I have been reading American news sites).
    But if you enjoy the company of deadly box jellyfish you will need a more southerly location. Australia will provide an “interesting” combination of land- and sea fauna.

  22. PaulBC says


    That robot in Logan’s run was just too B-film-looking to be credible.

    Well, I found him creepy and terrifying. I was 11 at the time, so maybe I can be forgiven. Production values mattered very little to me. Doctor X (1932) was one of the scariest things I remember (“synthetic flesh”), though it looks ridiculous now.

  23. unclefrogy says

    the suspension of disbelief is an interesting phenomena. Mine has become strangely inconsistent I can not predict when or to what degree it happens.
    I got nothing comparable in childhood memories though I can find somethings that were positive things were what they were and I am still here just the same and feel positive about all those who were there then even those who did not earn it.

  24. birgerjohansson says

    Water creatures… if you recall the bipedal humanoid fish from the 50’s horror film we are today so spoiled by good production values/ good FX that we laugh at the man in the rubber suit. But as a child, I was definitely scared.
    I wonder how the inuits and indians in Alaska deal with the periods of pacific salmon influx.
    Do they dry or smoke the fish? If they worked out how to preserve salmon, they would have been secure against starvation.

  25. Rob Grigjanis says

    birgerjohansson @33:

    we are today so spoiled by good production values/ good FX that we laugh at the man in the rubber suit

    Actually, I laugh at the crappy ‘stories’ that seem to inevitably go with the fantastic CGI.