While it may read like a typo, I grew up in and around the Barnegat Bay in New Jersey. Most anyone brought up in this particular region pre-21st century – anybody with any salt in his socks as my friend Zach would say – has likely spent more than few tides half-submerged in Barnegat Bay, toes poking through the muck feeling around for hard clams to deposit into a basket kept afloat in an old inner tube. At roughly 10 cents a clam in the 80s, a good four- to five-hour shift could net upwards of a thousand clams, not a bad day’s pay for a teenager.
Truth be told, I didn’t have many 1,000 clam days. While my father, Hutch, Sr., was one of the hardest working, most reliable treaders out there every summer, being my own boss of sorts led to quite a few blow off days to go fishing or surfing. I always knew when dad was really mad after one of my three-day surf benders when he’d ask, “so what’s it going to be, you getting a job or are you clamming?”
The local back waters were both a workplace and an entertainment complex in my family. Dad’s garvey would launch in March or April as winter flounder and then bluefish arrived; it would be out on the flats six days a week through September for clamming, and on the seventh day god willing it was used in search of fluke, weakfish or blue crabs. While many recreational boats would haul out by October, that’s when dad would break out the broadbill decoys and set to painting pond boxes marsh brown for the coastal duck season.
I use “Jr.” in my byline today because of dad; a longtime high school teacher and football/baseball coach when not clamming or penning his local hunting and fishing column, everyone in the area seems to know my father. After our last high school football game of the season on Thanksgiving Day followed by the family feast at night, the meat of that holiday weekend would commence Friday morning with the Sr. and Jr. hunts out of that garvey filled with duck hunting gear.
In the morning twilight, dad would deploy the decoys, leaving me to the shoreside duty of packing eel grass around the boxes. By the time the sun was just above the horizon, we’d be settled into our camouflaged blinds, shotguns loaded, and waiting for fly-ins. I don’t know that it’s climate change or the technological improvements to apparel, but gunning on the marshes in January in those days was bitter cold; after a couple of hours sitting motionless, the pain in my toes would become unbearable and I’d often slip out for walks along the sedges hoping to jump a black duck or mallard.
On one of those warming winter sojourns along the marshes, I made what I thought was an incredible find after kicking at a corked bottle with my boot. Lifting it from the mud for a closer look, I saw a tattered note inside the old sealed whiskey bottle. Deciding to uncork it back at the pond box, I shuffled back to where my father was sitting quietly in front of the spread and excitedly handed him the bottle. “Maybe it’s someone stranded on an island somewhere,” I stammered. Dad just smiled and surveyed my find.
The message in the bottle was clearly from a child, or a drunk, though I can’t recall now what it said. It had an East Coast return address, and I remember mailing back a response soon after. Thinking back to Sr.’s smile, I’m sure it was just some summer vacationers who tossed it off their back dock around the corner from the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) where we hunted. I checked the mailbox every day for weeks, but never did receive a reply.
I got to thinking about that old bottle again after Election Day when I got a phone call from Gray FishTag Research with word that the MiniPSAT device from a striper called Independence was feeding the Argos satellite from somewhere along the Delaware Bay marshes. Independence is the name given to the 46-inch striped bass tagged off Montauk, NY on July 3. Four months to the day of her catch, tag and release out east, the MiniPSAT was uploading data to the satellite off Fortescue, NJ. I was there along that remote stretch of marsh 24 hours later, kicking back jetsam along the tide line in hopes of making another great find.
After putting out word on social media, we had a band of treasure hunters armed with metal detectors and shallow draft boats scouring the Egg Island WMA creeks and sedges for that device. By November 13, the final bits of information had been uplinked to Argos before the battery went silent. In the weeks that followed, Gray researchers began combing through the satellite data, which we plan to share in the February edition of The Fisherman with a comprehensive analysis of Independence’s travels between July 3 and November 3.
It would still be great to get that MiniPSAT device to uncork all of that priceless information inside. And I’m still holding out hope that sometime this winter, a father and son enjoying some of those finer winter moments together along the Egg Island marshes might just stumble upon that high tech ‘message in a bottle’ and return to sender.