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.
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
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.