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Duxbury Bay/Jones River (long)

Adam Bolonsky

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First thing Dave Hasselhoff and I did after we landed was put his fish on ice and thoroughly rinse our legs with vinegar, big slapping handfuls of it, from a plastic jug I keep in the car. For most, large swaths of Duxbury Bay’s mud- and sand-flats require a vinegar rinse-down post-trip. Then we unzipped our radios from their drybags, packed the cars, and left for Boston. This was the boat ramp at Kingston’s Jones River. We drove through Tinkertown, past Halls Corner, then past west Duxbury’s cranberry bogs before the highway ramped in and we could head north.

Curse of this place is, sightfishing a moot point, is its mud parasites. They thrive there and at low tide you can't help but kick them up. We’d spent several hours walking the shallow flats looking for fish, towing our kayaks behind us on bow painters tied around our hips, and our footsteps had stirred up the mud, silting the water around our knees and shins with parasite-ridden water. You can't see the parasites: they're microscopic. The stirring action never fails to release the parasites from the mud and send them into suspension.

So: say you have your legs in the water here. The microscopic parasites slough from the water and onto your skin: onto your ankles, calves, shins. You can’t see the things. They’re dynaflagellites with drills. They bore into your --- the flats-walker’s --- skin. There they set up shop, forming an excellent and most efficient little histamine-activating operation. Twenty-four hours later you break out in a bumpy skin infection: tiny welts the size of pencil tips which itch, ooze, and harden. The acidity of the vinegar kills the parasites before they have time to drill in. God knows: as mudflat creatures they are well-equipped to survive long periods of time out of water when the tide is down. The only thing that kills them on-skin is vinegar. I keep a jug of it in the car.

The alternative is to abrade a couple layers of skin off by scraping the parasites down with salt on your palm, but that method tends to open up the possibility of other, more serious infections. Next best is cream antibiotic, prescripted. But both solutions are after-the-fact paste-ons that work only after you've begun to suffer. Some people are not allergic. Obviously I’m not one who isn't. So not everyone has to to rinse off with vinegar

Windsurfing this bay ten years back I had to stand in the shallows of a mudflat for an hour in order to repari a broken piece of equipment, a snapped downhaul or something, maybe a broken ladder lock in my waist harness. The mud swirled underfoot. The parasites occluded the water. They latched in on me and drilled in. I didn't feel anything. Two days later I had to visit my doc for what seemed my lower legs having been sandblasted with a mump virus. My shins and calves are still scarred: hundreds of white flecks, destroyed pigment.

“Come on.You’re kidding,” Hasselhoff said when I handed him the jug of vinegar and told him what to do with it.

“Nope, I aint.,” I said. “Slap it on. Thick. Even if you’re not allergic to them you’ll smell better.”

His booties were thick with stinky muck. So was his hair.

“Leave it on til tomorrow a.m. The acid has to stay on a while to work.”

“Uh-huh,” he said. "And snake venom should be sucked out by mouth."

“Look, it's one of the definite hazards of foot-fishing these flats if you're not wearing a wetsuit.....”

“What the hell do they call this infection?”

“Clammers itch, which is wrong, because that's caused by some byproduct of a parasite in migratory bird sh**, which this stuff isn’t.”

“What’s the genus?”


“Its zoological classification ---- ”

Hasselhoff is a good guy, an ardent fisherman, an awesome kayaker, but he is also very much a nerd.

“Windsurfer who taught me the vinegar trick called them mud bugs.”

“Scientific. Give me that jug.”

I gave it back to him and he went back to work, really slapping on that vinegar with big, broad splashes. Hasselhoff is also a fussbudget. You should see how clean he keeps his car and gear.

“Come on,Hasselhoff. It’s supposed to be a rinse, not a bath.”

He slapped it on even thicker.

“ ---- For what I paid for your services?"

He slapped it on again.

Hasselhoff had landed twenty stripers. Strapped across his foredeck lay a keeper about the size of a small Buick. In his aft hatch lay three gutted and bled bluefish, which I had had to unhook for him.

“Right,” I said. “And then you woke up last time you caught a keeper that big.”

Hasselhoff had caught the keeper, a 36-incher, in about five feet of water two feet off my stern, casting a shad at a mushroom swirl in the water which bloomed, or rather exploded, in the water after a tail slap so loud I thought Hasselhoff had capsized his boat and begun to wet exit. A guide wants his payers to land big keeper fish, but still I was jealous. I’ve been fishing Duxbury’s flats since I was a kid, and never have I landed a keeper there that big.

Anyhow. We’d been on the flats with the kayaks since 5:00 a.m. The fall run was on (still is) and the surface-feeding fish were everywhere. We waded the guzzles and channels and creeks on foot, towing the boats behind us. When the schools surged forward up into the flats, we followed them. They folded up into thick bubbling layers the heavy sheets of menhaden and sand eels they had cornered, trapping them in the drained embayments. There had been baitspray. Lots of it. We’d caught a lot of fish.

The muddy embayments which form in the bay’s flats’ depressions when the tide drops are, to me, the South Shore’s most absorbing fishery and thrilling fishing spots. Yet they are the one area most seakayakers are unaware of when they dismiss Duxbury as just another dull and lame tidewater beginners area. Dull and lame: far from it. We fished the flats of the lower Jones River at Kingston, Captains Flat off Standish, the tidal streams of Cordage’s weed beds. When the tide dropped to full ebb we entered the Cow Yard where it drops off into the deepwater channels at the Bug, the mid-channel lighthouse which marks Plymouth and Duxbury harbors’ entrances. The tide was in constant movement and crawling with fish.

The fishing had been good: about ten separate schools of stripers under 28”; a half dozen schools of snapper bluefish, then a ferocious, hammering school of offshore bluefish, with heads as big as half-gallon milk cartons, that tore through past Splitting Knife channel, jumped into the air, and disappeared. This school knocked down our shad rigs, broke off our steel leaders, destroyed two of my $9 surface plugs.

All told then, Dave landed twenty stripers, shorts, then the keeper and the three bluefish; I caught ten shorts and lost four bluefish. Not a bad day, this. The water was warm: upwards of 66 F. And with the sun lower in the western sky than it is mid-summer, the bay had glittered like a swath of diamonds when we paddled west.

“Thanks for the day, guy,” Hasselhoff said. “I had fun. Too bad I got the biggest fish.” He gave me back my jug, folded himself back into his van, and drove off. I had his cash in my wallet, so it all balanced.

If there is any emotion other than thrill to be had when catching so many fish in shallow water, for me it’s this: when the striped bass feed here with their delicate and then anxious assiduousness, and in these shallow weedbeds, they are at a point rendered helpless, and you can feel shame, if that counts as an emotion.

The weeds hampers the fishe's ability to swim; they get lost in the drainages, the weedbeds; they become frantic; they become disoriented. And when their protective schooling formations finally scatter and their schools disperse, the fish become both vulnerable and defenseless. Hasselhoff had taken a keeper that was of the sort, due to its mass, that is by nature a loner, the one giant in the forest ignoring the gremlins, so there wasn’t much emotion to be had there but the smugger's, the top-dogger’s.

But the schools of smaller fish. They nose in and out of the oddly slick texture of this weed-thickened water, rolling over when the water depth becomes single inches. Then they become addled with confusion: the sand and mud swirls around them and the bottom scrapes at their caudal fins. They cannot thrash, they cannot turn on that heart-stopping aggressiveness which splits deep water in to pieces. Likewise their prey cannot jet into the air. The scene lacks the violence which otherwise justifies hooks. The weeds and the eel-grass are traps. You think of live flies stuck in amber, of animals that have fallen in quicksand. You feel a sort of morbid compassion, a queasy sense of shamefulness.

What Dave and I saw at the end of the day then, and especially east of Clarks Island, and so too in the throat of the Jones River, was desperation. The stripers continued to try to feed in the eel grass. They were feeding in anticipation of their long trip back to the mid-Atlantic before the New England kill-off, come mid-December, which they would not be able to overwinter. They cut soupy wakes into the water’s surface. They got stuck, as if in syrup. Dave and I didn’t talk much. Fishing would have seemed vicious.

I have fished lots of loose water both solo and with others, also on commercial striped bass trips off Gloucester where we landed half a ton of 40"-plus inch fish in a single trip. Yet it is only here, in these weed and grass flats, that have I ever felt my excitement or my exhaustion over hooking dozens of fish give way to a feeling of trespass.

In the bay’s eel grass behind Clarks Island and in the throat of the Jones River is where I usually mouth my canned little preamble to clammers itch and mud mites and vinegar, if only to keep the hooks sheathed in the foam blocks on the foredeck. Whether I distract depends upon whether I feel prepared to witness such helplessness without a sense of feeling that we don’t belong there.

Sometimes it’s embarrassing, with other anglers, to witness what is an essential nakedness. On the weed and the grass flats, you see most clearly how vulnerable a feeding fish is. You see too how overmatched a fish is when it's stalked in shallow waters by a kayak angler whose instincts cann turn no less base, focused, remorseless, and quick, and do so in an instant. Or so the moral equation suggests when you take the time so suss it.##

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  • 1 month later...

That was cool. But it brought up my "those poor, poor fish" feelings. A stranded fish. A wounded animal. Poor, poor bambi...

Still, that was a great story. And I can't wait to catch some fish in one of those frenzies.


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