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The Mobile Bay Jubilee

by Cheryl Metzger on 14/08/07 at 10:07 am

There is a Gulf Coast phenomenon called a Jubilee that sends hundreds of bay creatures to shore all in a single night. It is a sight to behold, and one you will never forget.

Sitting far from the coast at my dorm room in Fort Worth, Texas, all I have to do is

close my eyes and into my mind rushes a cascade of memories from past summers spent

at my grandmother’s on Mobile Bay.

The sound of the surf, the raucous squabbling of

seagulls, the sunrises and sunsets… watching squalls come in across the water, feeling

the sun beat down on me… With no trouble at all I remember the slimy feel of a

flounder flipping in my hand, the unnerving sensation of a school of fish brushing past

my legs underwater, the coolness of the calm water on my sun-baked skin when I waded

in to swim. I can bring to mind the smells that drifted through the air, a dead fish lying

on the beach, a salty northeast wind as opposed to a dry southerly one, a heavy rain on

the way, the coconut smell of Coppertone 8.

The best times at the beach though, the ones

everyone hoped for and talked about excitedly, were the evenings between early June and

late August. Then, if we were lucky, the wind started to blow from the northeast and the

night air got a little cooler than the average hot, sultry summer one. The water would get

unusually low as the tide was swept out to meet the horizon. Most importantly, the

normally brackish bay water turned as salty as the gulf.

All these signs pointed towards a

possible jubilee, a natural phenomenon in which the bay denizens, some of which

normally live hundreds of feet from the beach, travel to the shallow waters at the shore to

escape a suffocating death by the salty, oxygen-depleted water. Most succeed in making

it to shore, but many of them don’t escape death.

For me, the best jubilees are the ones that start at one or two in the morning and last

until midday. By that time the sun has risen high and the process of photosynthesis in the

shallow waters has provided enough oxygen to allow the creatures to move back into

deeper water. I remember trying to go to sleep during the nights when I had recognized

the signs of a potential jubilee, but it was hard because I was anxiously waiting to find

out if anything would come of it. If I did manage to fall asleep and woke up to the sound

of the telephone ringing when it was still dark, I knew what it was.

My sister and I would

jump out of bed, throwing on our bathing suits that we’d left out the night before, just in

case, grab some clothes, and race to the car. It takes twenty minutes to get from our

house to our grandmother’s on the bay, and the drive down the dark, almost deserted

roads was torture. I always thought to myself that if we’d been allowed to spend the

night we’d already be there.

As soon as the car stopped I would leap out and make a mad

dash for the “tilly room,” where I would snatch up a crab net, and fight my sister for

rights to a gig. Racing back upstairs, I always waited impatiently for someone to get a

floundering light. We had to screw on the propane tank first, then tie on the mantles.

Then the gas valve would be opened. The gas would rush out with a sibilant

shhhhhhhhh, and the smell of it filled the air until someone held a match to the

mantles. Once lit, the mantles cast a large arc of blinding light. Thus equipped, I flew

down the front steps and over the path to the beach.

My feet passed over soft pine

needles and were pricked by the spiny edges of spent pine cones. Once I finally got to

the wet sand at the tide line I bent down and tasted the water to see how salty it was,

being careful to avoid any crab claws. Yes, this was IT! I could look out over the calm,

clear water to see how the jubilee was progressing. If a jubilee had just started there

would be fish and crabs and flounders and stingrays and every other kind of bay animal

swimming to shore. It takes skill to deduce what kind of animal is “coming in,

particularly in the dark of night.”

Of course I liked to think that I was a pro at it. The

flounder swimming in are fairly easy to spot. They leave wakes of telltale v’s as they

swim on top of the water. The crabs are a little harder to detect. The greenish-blue color

of their shells blends in perfectly with the bay water. It was fun to watch the crabs swim

because rather than swimming face forward they swim sideways, using their backmost

legs, or “swimmers” as they’re called colloquially, as paddles to propel themselves.

After I observed the feast swimming to shore I would head slowly towards the creek,

walking through the water softly so I wouldn’t spook any flounder. Wading into the cool

water always brought a shiver, but I completely forgot my discomfort when I saw all the

crabs clinging to the pylons and the seawalls that jutted into the water. It was hard to

decide which crab to net first when there were so many, so I typically just ran my net

along the bulkheads and raked everything in, big and small. Culling was a task saved for

later. My net was full after several scoops.

I slid carefully back to the beach to empty

my catch into one of numerous buckets we’d brought with us. I say “slid” because along

with the bay inhabitants that were mostly harmless there were also many that could inflict

a surprisingly stupendous amount of pain. One of these was the stingray, which was

usually present in large numbers at jubilees. The stingrays weren’t all small either.

Some had a wing span as large as a foot and a half. Rays this big, even when buried,

could easily be sidestepped , but people would slide into the smaller ones because there

were so many and they were harder to see.

Stingrays and flounders have the defensive

behavior of burying themselves until only their two eyes are visible, and this makes them

difficult to see. A stingray barb entering the foot feels at first like an unusually large

thorn piercing the skin. A few minutes later the injured part swells a little and actually

starts to hurt. The pain can be alleviated somewhat by baking soda or tobacco, which we

always kept handy.

Crabs were generally easy to catch, and very good eating, but my favorite thing to do

on a jubilee was gig flounder. Gigging a large flounder gained me an immense amount

of respect from the jubilee crowds on the beach. It was a sign that I was a seasoned

jubilee goer, that I knew the difference between pan-sized and “the big ones.” Everyone

would point and stare at me in awe as I walked down the beach with my trophy held high.

I managed to bring in the biggest flounder of the jubilee on a couple of occasions and

enjoyed bragging about it for the day. During jubilees the flounder usually congregated

down at the creek, where the water is fresh and shallow.

I’d catch all the crabs I wanted

at the beginning of the jubilee, then start the half mile walk to the creek for floundering.

The water at the creek is filled with thousands of tiny fish: catfish, ground mullet,

croaker, pinfish, flounder, sole, minnow, angelfish, needlefish, pufferfish, sheepshead

and even the occasional speckled trout. It looks like something out of a television show

with all the shiny bodies jumping in the air and churning the water into soft, silky foam.

Hundreds of baby flounder and sole sit underneath all the torpedo-shaped fish.

I

had fun running my hands through all the little fish, then staked out an area at the creek

and walked around it looking for flounder, being sure to hold the floundering light in

front of me so I wouldn’t cast a shadow and scare my prey. Once I spotted one I walked

quietly through the water to stand over it and slowly lifted my gig. Gigging flounder is

tricky because the refraction of light in the water makes the flounder appear to be where

he isn’t.

I gigged with a steady hand to secure my thrashing prize to the sandy bottom,

then squatted down to slide my hand under the flounder, being careful to avoid the razor
sharp teeth. Holding the flounder firmly to the gig, I lifted my impaled victim out of the

water. Generally I stayed at the creek floundering for the rest of the early morning,

securing a legacy for myself. I had to run back to my grandmother’s periodically for

more buckets to hold the catch.

As the suns’ rays begin to pierce the early morning darkness the fish in the creek

start dwindling in number. At that point the group catch was usually about fifty pounds

of crab and flounder that needed to be hauled back to my grandmother’s, so I

relinquished my gig to one of the younger cousins and lugged one of the buckets into the

water so I could float it home.

I always kept my eye out for softshell crabs as I walked. I

knew they’d be hiding in the patches of seaweed that lay close to shore. Many times as I

walked back, I passed neighbors who were just waking up and realizing what they’d slept

through. I could count on the older people to offer me a drink, and I always accepted a

coke from one lady who my cousins and I dubbed “the coke lady.” A spirit of

camaraderie usually reserved for the Christmas season pervades the beach on a jubilee.

Back at the house the buckets were left on the beach for some unlucky soul to cart

upstairs and I would grab a hold of my cast net. Shrimp could be caught all day.

Throwing off the pier is where I usually cast, but on a jubilee I seemed to pull in more if I

threw in waist high water, so that’s what I did. I could see the delicate, telltale flicks on

top of the water that indicated shrimp were in the vicinity. I felt the satisfying weight of

the cast net in my hands, not too heavy, not too light. I cast my net and the shrimp started

jumping wildly. I loved pulling in the net and seeing what I had caught each time. I had

to be careful taking the shrimp out. Shrimp are crustaceans, and though small they have

body armor, a short spear coming from their forehead and a spine at the end of their tail.

They use these defenses by spearing any predator that comes too close or, more often,

flicking their tail spastically. I always picked the shrimp up by their heads and squeezed

to avoid this. I always imagined that I was squashing their oxygen supply to the brain so

they couldn’t think straight. Picked up right or not, I always ended up getting stuck by at

least one shrimp. I would haul in my seven-foot cast net until my arms ached, and then it

was time to go seining with my sister.

Our seine net is twenty feet long and there’s always a mummified aquatic corpse and

dried seaweed stuck in the mesh. The battered buoys floated on top of the water and the

lead weights dragged on the sand as my sister and I pulled the net towards the shore. I

tried not to concentrate on the feel of the gooey mud oozing through my toes as I pivoted,

turning the net slowly and at the same time keeping my end down so the bottom wouldn’t

be lifted. We pulled the net to the beach, never knowing what we were going to find.

What I liked catching best were the puffer fish. The puffer fish takes in water and distends

himself to about 3 times normal size to scare away predators. When it’s picked up the

puffer fish, aka the blowfish, will spit all the water out and deflate like a tiny balloon.

Watching this spectacle was a thrill every time.

At the end of the hard day’s work on the beach I helped clean and cook the catch.

This lasted until supper time. Everyone took turns swapping jubilee stories as we worked.

Fish scales flew and crab juice squirted everywhere. The boiling pots overflowed

numerous times, sending my grandmother scurrying around the kitchen. Finally, it was

time to eat! I can almost taste the fresh fried flounder, cooked in cornmeal and then

doused in lemon juice; the creamy white grits, not too grainy or runny, that were

drenched in butter; fried soft shell crabs that were eaten shell and all, stuffed crabs, baked

crabs, crab cakes, and crab claws that were boiled to a lustrous red-orange; hundreds of

shrimp, boiled, broiled, fried, some used for alfredo, others for gumbo. Then there’s the

gumbo itself, filled with shrimp, crab, okra, tomatoes, bay leaves and plenty of seasoning

and spices. It’s a taste of heaven on earth!

After thoroughly enjoying my feast, I would amble down to the beach just as the sun

was setting. The sun’s rays reflected off the water, turning the bay different shades of

red, orange, yellow, and silver. The early morning low tide had risen to engulf another

four feet of beach. Walking along the water’s edge, I could see that most traces of the

jubilee were gone. The only evidence of the aquatic event was the discarded shells of

crabs and shrimp, swirling at the tide line. As the first stars began to appear, tranquility

reigned again after the excitement of the day.

I headed back to the house to stretch out on

one of my grandmother’s many couches. With a bone-weary exhaustion settling on my

body and a surfeit of seafood resting in my stomach, I settled into the soft cushions,

snapshots from the day still running through my head. I was completely worn out and

smelled like a fish yet there was a complete inner contentment in my soul. God had

smiled on me and all was right with the world.

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4 Comments

Mimosette

Jun 13th, 2009

Amazing, charming, nostalgic stories like this don’t come along often. You are a very descriptive writer, I could virtually see, smell, feel, and taste your words!
This would make the basis of a wonderful novel.
My sincere compliments,

Mimosette, who longs to witness a Jubilee

Zebs

Jun 14th, 2009

I grew up at Point Clear, Alabama. The Jubilee experience is exactly as you so eloquently describe it. It brings back wonderful memories. We would use the pump up white gas Coleman Floundering lights and galvanized wash tubs to collect our catch. I think I will dig out the pictures from those days.

Phyllis

May 17th, 2010

I live in Louisville, KY but learned of the Alabama Jubilee from a NPR radio program. I long to experience one for myself. I would love to see personal photos of the event. My husband and I have long thought it would be great in a movie about Alabama and family/friend relationships in that area of the Bay. Although we envisioned Shirley McClaine as a crotchety old grandma in baby doll pajamas gigging for flounder during a Jubilee, we realize she is probably too old, at this point, to play that role. I also would encourage you to write a novel/movie around this theme. I believe you are exceptionally talented.

Phyllis

Jean

May 29th, 2010

I have either read a book or poem or have seen a movie that includes the Mobile Bay Jubilee, but cannot track back to it. Today’s New York Times has an article about the possible impact of the oil spill on the Jubilee.

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