There are few undersea creatures along the Massachusetts coastline more vulnerable than a lobster that has shed its carapace. Having grown within its shell by a few millimeters, the lobster peels off its too-tight suit of armor in about an hour, wriggling and struggling, until newly-freed and sporting a new shirt and underpants, it scuttles along the bottom in a fresh shell soft as a water balloon.
They’re called shedders, and in the hand that lifts them from the plate at the local dine-in-rough they are as pliable as the foam we’re number one! hands that get tossed into the stadium parking lot pond after the playoffs. Shedders are so bendy you could fold one into a mason jar, wait a week, then unfold it like a love letter.
The gullet and stomach of striped bass in the lobster waters of Gloucester, Rockport, Salem and Cape Cod, on the other hand, are tube-like, rubbery affairs so tough to they can hold all manner of sharp-edged objects such as crabs, spiny fish, crustaceans. Once any of the former take the forced elevator ride into the striper’s stomach, they hang around wondering what the hell next? all without ill effect to the fish, who eventually digests them with powerful enzymes in the gut.
Because the striper’s throat is essentially a hose attached to a vacuum, stripers suck in their prey feed whole, like a seagull. Imagine a hot-water bottle full of kewpie dolls – that’s a striper’s mealtime gullet.
My cousin and I are kayak fishing Salem Sound, southeast of Manchester and Marblehead, Massachusetts, about the midway point between Gloucester and outer Boston Harbor.
We’ve tied off to one of the dozens of lobster buoys that ring the southwestern shore of Bakers Island taking shelter from the swell while we stillfish calm water with herring chunks on bare hooks in hopes of taking a couple of keepers 28″-long and longer.
We’ve bridled our kayaks together with a piece of rescue gear known as a contact tow simply a two-foot length of mountaineer’s webbing, with a carabiner on each end, which one can use to create a stable catamaran of two boats. We’re flicking clots of herring chum into the water, followed by baited hooks. Within a few minutes, as luck and location would have it, Paul hooks what looks to me, from the bond in his rod, like a take-home keeper.
He reels it up and measures it: 32″. He pins the striper to his sprayskirt, throats the fish and bleeds it. After he’s done I slide the fish into his aft hatch.
At slack tide we begin the 12-mile trip to Thachers Island, off Rockport, where we land, pitch the tents, and get down to the business of dealing with Paul’s catch.
First he opens the fish’s stomach by sliding his fillet knife along the belly trought the anal vent into the gill notch. First piece of anatomy to spill out causes us distress: two heavy egg sacks pink as lungs. The sacks are cross-hatched with thin veins that supplied the eggs with nutrients.
Oh well. One less female that could spawn next winter.
Next we remove the stomach integument. The sock-shaped grey sack is as lumpy as a sock full of marbles. We peel the integument open. Enfolded within lies the distinct form of a lobster, the variations in color, from rust and red, evidence of the power of enzymes of the striper’s digestive tract.
“Jeez,” Paul says, turning the tattered thing over in his hands. “This fish just swallowed this lobster and cooked it.”
The body is folded in half. The crusher claw is livid red, the feet and pincer gone.
We discuss the regrets of an angler who takes an egg-bearing fish. As boys we harvested herring in a skiff off Plymouth and never thought twice about the population we diminished by squeezing out the fishes’ roe for breakfast.
Paul unpacks the frying pan and puts the water on. I make a dipping sauce of garlic, lime juice, salt and pepper. We poach the fish and eat about half of it.
Fishing from a sea kayak provides thrills for sure. Herring chunks and chum are one of the simpler ways to ensure success on both pelagics and groundfish. Kayak fishing gets the kayaker on the water more often, in more varied conditions, oftentimes in worse weather. Yet the ease of fishing from a sea kayak can fool an angler into trying to expiate regret by way of conscientiousness.
After we eat, I get a little buzzed on the whisky we pass back and forth, and I clumsily wrap the last fillet in a freezer bag which, in turn, I enclose within a drybag I fill with seawater and which I submerge off the island’s back cliff, tying the bag to a mooring bolt in the granite. Come morning, I reason, I’ll retrieve the bag, reasoning that the thermocline holds water cold enough to keep the fillet fresh.
Dumb and ridiculous. Come morning the freezer bag is filled with seawater, the fillet in the plastic bag a soggy mess. I chuck fillet into the water where a herring gull, swooping down, gullets it, taking my redemption of a wasted fish with it.