When Sawyer Clark turned 16, he bought a boat and went into the family business: fishing. In the four years since, he has graduated from high school, given college a try and returned to the profession he was born for, despite having a pretty good idea of how dangerous and unpredictable the life of a bayman is.
“I tried to stay out, but I fell in love with it,” he said.
The Clark family has been fishing on the East End for so long, Clark’s great-great-grandfather took scallops in Peconic Bay with a sailboat before motors were used.
“I’ve always been fishing,” Clark said. “From the time I was very small, with my uncles, my father and my grandfather. When I was 12, I had my first gillnets.”
Making a living as an independent commercial fisherman requires diverse skills far beyond the ability to operate a boat and throw bait in the water. Knowledge of meteorology, fish biology and animal behavior, as well as brute strength and the ability to sew, are requirements; all skills that were on display during days of watching him work.
I arrived at the Clark family dock in early May at 5:15 a.m. to find Clark’s boat loaded, with the motor running and his 2-year-old retriever Daisy ready for her fish breakfast. Clark had warned me that he intended to be on the water by first light to check his nets.
As he guided his 27-foot Novi-type broad-hulled boat out of Congdon Creek, he filled me in on the fate of his first boat, a 21-footer he nearly sank trying to fish during a nor’easter. “I had nets that needed tending, and the wind seemed to have died down, but I took on enough water to almost swamp it.”
On this morning, the bay was placid as we passed Taylor’s Island and Reel Point to a spot just south of Split Rock, within sight of the South Ferry, and tied up at No. 93, the Clark family pound trap.
A pound trap, a device once used by Native Americans, is still one of the most effective ways to get high-quality fish with minimal bycatch. An enclosure of nets hangs from poles driven into the bay bottom just offshore. Fish enter through a maze-like opening and then swim inside the trap until the bayman shows up to cinch the nets, harvest the fish he wants and turn the rest loose.
A vigorous school of bunker fish swam inside the net, chased by a cormorant. As Clark circled the trap in a dinghy, gathering nets, the cormorant departed, leaving the trap teeming with upwards of 20,000 fish, mainly bunker but also sea robin, weakfish, porgies, butterfish, flounder, fluke, striped bass and spider crabs. Using a large landing net, he transferred about 8,500 pounds of bunker, plus a few porgies, butterfish and a couple of flounder, into his boat under the watchful eye of an osprey perched on the edge of the trap.
It was too early for striped bass, and Clark doesn’t have a fluke license, so he released them along with the spider crabs and sea robins. An hour later I stood on the deck of his boat, knee-deep in bunker, while Daisy feasted on menhaden she caught for herself.
Later in the season, when conditions change and the pound traps are less productive, Clark switches to gillnetting, a curtain-like net set perpendicular to shore. Fish swim into the net headfirst and are caught by the gills.
“The pound trap is more selective than gillnetting because with gillnets you catch whatever goes into them, and with pound traps you get to pick out what you want,” he said. “The fish are in better shape because they don’t die in the nets.”
At 9 a.m. Clark was back at the dock with a boatload of fish. Armed with a large shovel, he unloaded his catch into square plastic containers, each the size of a hot tub, transferred each container to his trailer with a forklift, packed the load with ice and headed for the North Ferry. This load of bunker was bound for a distributor in Riverhead, to be trucked from there to Maine or Virginia and used for bait or in the manufacture of omega-3 oil.
In the winter, he goes for scallops, hauling 12 dredges, six on each side of the boat. In the spring, he fishes for bunker until the bluefish run, usually in May. After the bluefish come porgies, dogfish and the start of the striped bass season. Because every type of fishing demands special equipment, the maintenance of scallop dredges, pound traps, gillnets, rod and reel, boats, trailer and truck consumes many of Clark’s waking hours. Repairing dredges and nets is where skills like soldering and sewing come in handy. “It’s good because you can fish for other things but it’s bad because you have to fish for other things.”
Clark said the best part of his working day is being on the water. “When I’m out there, I’m generally by myself, and I’m a very simple person. I’m just thinking about getting the fish in the boat and getting them iced down. All the stuff that needs to be fixed, that’s what I’m thinking about when I’m lying in bed.”
In the afternoon, Clark was back on the water, this time at his second job with the South Ferry. Fishing is his occupation, but when the fish aren’t running, or the weather won’t cooperate, he still works.
“I’ve put a lot of man-hours in fishing compared to anything else I do,” he said. “It’s an industry that you are married to. You can’t just leave, and not worry about it.”