Duxbury Bay has lots of put-ins and destinations if you enjoy offshore shoals and sandbars. Their the names are varied and numerous: Captains, Browns, Grannies, Splitting Knife, each emerging from the bay as the tides drain nearly eighty billion gallons of seawater from the area every twelve hours. The bay is thus best viewed as subtle, refined even. Fertile oyster beds,shellfish grants, littleneck, razor clam and steamer flats. Come drain spring tides, local watermen salt the flats to drive razor clams out onto the sand. The clammers deliver them to processors who grind them up into the clam fritters you might eat at a local fast food restaurant like the 99 or Howard Johnson’s.
You don’t paddle here, though, unless you enjoy calm warm water and wide sand flats or are prone to bringing along in season hunting a shotgun or fishing rod. Local fishing guide Dave calls Duxbury Bay striped bass capital of the world. Maybe. You can catch dozens of striped bass in this Bay in under an hour or so, but mostly they’re schoolies in the low 20’s, unlike the fish taken from Stellwaggen Bank off Cape Cod, where there’s also the chance you’ll hook with kayak a bluefin tuna energetic enough keep you busy for upwards of an hour.
So this guy I used to fish with calls me at some ungodly hour one morning.
“Your stupid friends,” my girlfriend grumbles as I reach for the phone across the bed. “Just because they have kids doesn’t mean everybody else is up at the crack of dawn.”
This guy and I hatch a plan, using the following to warm the egg: low tide is early afternoon. A recent bloom of peanut bunker has filled the bay with bait again, and stripers are supposed to be feeding heavily on them. As for our put-in: easy. Howlands doesn’t offer immediate flats access. Elder Brewster, on the other hand, will yield parking tickets this time of year. As for Powder Point, beachgoers will be vying aggressively there for parking access on a day like this.
Harden Hill, then, behind St. Mary’s rectory off Washington Street. Room for three cars, a few yards’ walk to the water, then over the mudflats and into the bay proper. This will be good enough: onto the flats and that’s enough. Because on the Bay most days, unless you want to fish or are into lounging around on a sand bar in the summer sun, there isn’t much in the way of excitement here.
“Just so you know” my buddy adds, “There’s thunderstorms forecast.”
Everything in the world, none other than a Richard E. Brown, a janitor once said has both a point and a balance center. The key, he told me and this other kid in the schoolyard, is to find the one or the other.
To demonstrate he held a broom up. Opening his palm, he put the top of the broom handle into his hand, put the broom vertical, and one-handed it. The broom wobbled. He shifted his palm this way and that until the broom stood balanced.
“See?” he said. “Everything can be balanced. The key is to look until you can manage.”
So about halfway through our trip down the bay, fishing gear stowed as we glide southeast and crosschannel towards Saquish, we see a flock of terns hovering over an eddyline on the outgoing tideline where the waters are dropping off the bay’s middle bar and joining in with the current hurrying seaward toward the Bug Light and the Cowyard. Beneath the flock of birds, in the chalkline, we can see the dorsal fins of striped bass hobbyhorsing in pursuit of bunker.
Next we hear the noises. Tap a folded newspaper with a pencil tip fast and without rhythm and that is what surface-feeding striped snapping up bunker sound like. Foggy days that is how you look for feeding stripers: you listen for that noise and you paddle towards it. We accelerate. This is what passes for excitement in the Bay here. I guess you have to be a fisherman. As for our friends Leslie, Karen and Yvonne, none of whom fish, they could care less about what we’ve heard.
Mark and I sprint. For Karen, Leslie, Yvonne, this proves the day’s pivot: compare watching grass grow or paint dry with two guys fishing form kayaks and you have no difficulty deciding which is the more thrilling.
“Oh brother,” says Yvonne. “Here we go.”
“Meet us at Saquish Point!” I yell. “Paddle down Clarks’ until you see the channel moorings. We’ll meet you in, ummm, an hour”
Looseness is one of the pleasures of paddling in a small group lead by little more than local knowledge and everybody’s willingness to take what comes in stride. So at the put-in the mud is knee deep and sucking? And the mud flats that stretch out between you and the water are a hundred yards wide and ridden with bugs? No problem. Now we’re all up to our knees in mud. And so you laugh, even if your day started out, as usual this summer, on whatever sour note it has played since the summer before.
So it’s a few hours later, and the forecast has turned the western sky into that prototypical film strip of monsters-on-the-horizon hear-we-come. We haven’t caught a damned fish, and now we’re all huddled beneath the eaves of the Saquish Point gunhouse. We hauled the kayaks high off the shoreline, parked them in the lee of the dune, all bows pointed northwest, toward the wind on the way in, so when the thunderstorm smashes down we won’t lose the kayaks across the beach like trash across a golf course. We hear yet another Coast Guard VHF 16 pan-pan importune all mariners to seek immediate shelter. Well, we have, and it wouldn’t be August in New England, if, by late afternoon a thunderstorm wasn’t due in to light up the horizon.
Yvonne scopes out the gunhouse’s sand basement should the lightning start to create glass from the beach’s sand and we think it better to be lower than everything around us.
The thunderstorm that has flooded the lowlands of Braintree and knocked down trees in Weymouth and shorted out power to 40,000 homes to the west finally reaches a pivot point about three miles north, and turns toward us. You had to see this: Saquish where we squatted became the pivot between competing fronts: the one front to the southeast, the other the northwest. Each began to pinwheel. From the southeast, a heavy and sinister fog crept in over the water, pushed in by the backing cold front. A hundred yards down the beach, however, it was still a clear and hellhot day, a summering family’s children scampering at waters edge with the family dog and the pail and shovel. But around the corner, to the southeast, it was cold, and now the dunes start getting chewed at by gusts of wind from the north, now the northeast, now the north again. Finally the two wobbling fronts collide and at Kingston, inland, the shafts of sunlight bisected by the sheets of rain plunge into the darkening sky’s weird cleavage.
We decide to we’ll clear out the moment all those cleavages widen to blue sky. Within a few minutes after we launch, however, lightning whacks the bay, and we veer off the bay towards Clarks Island to take cover. Taylor Smith, a local homeowner, is at that moment coasting into the island’s notch at her house after tearing out over there in her whaler from the mainland. We land in her cove in front of her house, watch as she ropes the whaler back out to its mooring.
Taylor calls us into her house. We meet the cat. We explore her backyard and walk her woods as the hits. Pivot. Within an hour, the air dries and cools, then the sun spanks in from the northwest. Over. We put on the dry tops and in the cold front hustling in from the north, paddle back to the put-in on a day that began in summer and is ending on the cool dry note of fall. My fishing buddy manages to pluck from the rustled fabric of the water a striper bass and a bluefish, two fish that prove a turning point in his marriage. His wife eats a smidgen of his catch, enjoys what she tastes, forks in some more, and in a few minutes the fish is gone. Previously he’d had to sneak bluefish into his house with the furtiveness of a teenager smuggling beer. Like too many, his wife had once been traumatized by sour bluefish. His catch alters the weather in his kitchen; dramatic thunderstorm storm aside, this is one of the day’s pivots, at least for him, because at least one of us returns home to a change in the domestic front.
As for my girlfriend: I think I will never manage to convince her that fishing from a kayak is worth a shot, or that the surest way to enjoy bluefish is to learn to bleed and fillet them on your own, a skill that precludes the cooking of them. Our pivot point as a couple will come the day I convince her I’m not the only one in the house who can catch fish. And as for Leslie who paddled with us, well, she’s a vegetarian, so no pivot there, at least as far as fish are concerned.