Many decades ago, during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, I made my living as a clammer, enjoying for 13 years a radical alternative to regular employment. Though I enrolled at several colleges, I felt I didn’t need to finish a 4-year degree, despite spending a total of four semesters away from home base on Long Beach Island at the Jersey Shore.
I clammed on breaks and over the summer. All said, it suited me fine to trade an ordinary career for an unconventional life, because nothing could beat how deep I got into the outdoors by treading clams in the bays year-round.
I kept a 17-1/2-foot fiberglass boat moored near a bulkhead. A storm drove waves against that bulkhead, which created a commotion that swamped my boat, submerging its 50-horse Evinrude. I replaced it with a 75-horse Mercury. On a September 1984 morning, I rode at half throttle—going easy on the brand-new engine—to Little Egg Inlet. I wanted to jig some fluke.
The preserved beach extending some 3 miles south of Holgate existed then, although I don’t remember if its name was Holgate Nature Preserve. It is now. At the end of the beach, a hook forms, curving out and upward on the harbor side. I rode past the hook and bore left into the inlet, seeing only light wave action. I didn’t hesitate to ride out beyond the beach, killing the motor after I positioned the boat abreast the little swells, the beach in front of me at a 45-degree angle. I was in the Atlantic, the water plenty deep. The way I wanted it for jigging.
It was a beautiful morning. The sun was bright and had risen a couple hours over the water. I felt deeply relaxed. I hadn’t gotten up in the dark to get out there at first light. I knew that any fluke present wouldn’t mind the sun at low angle. The inlet emptied Little Egg Harbor and Great Bay, so I cast westward and worked my jig as the water flowed, my back to the ocean expanse.
The beach came to a point where the sand cut a right angle towards that hook. It lay in front of me and to the right by about 150 yards. Another boat bigger than mine, maybe 23 feet, supported a man fishing about 75 yards from that point. On a weekday morning in September, I wouldn’t have expected the inlet to be crowded. I saw no other boats. No one on the beach, either. The quiet allowed me sink into myself and take my time. I had the impression a couple of long hours awaited.
Recently, I had moved from a house in Ship Bottom in mid-island shared with a brother and his friends, to a place at the south end in Beach Haven a friend of mine rented. In a couple of weeks, I would move into a house I signed the lease for, in Surf City, living with yet another friend. Being alone on the water gave me a more direct familiarity with the sun’s reflection than I could relate to a window. And it was easier to let that reflection be than the action of treading clams allows. Just as often as I clammed with friends, I worked alone. I like solitude.
Ignoring the other boat, I cast with a medium-power spinning rod, watching the half-ounce jig curve out over the water and plunk through. I kept contact with the bottom, feeling expectant. The light swells rocked my boat slightly.
Familiar with a sound like paper ripping, I felt suddenly alarmed. I knew, before I swung around to see it, that a wave bore down. A 10-foot wall of water was about to fall on my boat. The floor lifted and with both hands, I grabbed the starboard gunwale rail and hung on, suspended in the air, the boat waffling back and forth from bow to stern, seeming to swim while balancing on the port side instead of capsizing. The wave carried it 75 feet before, once again, it floated on a calm sea.
The battery caught my attention first. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t fallen out. I reached for the key in the ignition. The Merc turned over. I looked to the other boat and saw it floated there just the same. The man occupying it stared at me, aghast.
“That’s enough for me today!” I called out. I sat down, comfortably. Then I pressed the throttle and turned the wheel towards home.