Snapper

There is a turtle in the hoopnet, I can see right away, a snapper, almost always, lured by the fish through the narrowing hoops, one after the other, its claws now gripping the netting.  We aren’t supposed to kill them, and prying them out of the net is impossible, so we will have to cut the net, take the turtle out, mend the hole before resetting the trap.  My uncle would have been impatient, but he isn’t with us today, just my grandfather and I, pulling the nets for pike.

We lift the front end first, funneling any straggling fish through the hoops, deeper into the net, but I don’t see any fish yet, just the broad round hoops bound one to the other by a sheath of netting, like old-fashioned dresses sewn in a line, or like a sea-serpent with its ribs showing.  The netting is covered with silt and algae, tangled with waterweeds, slippery and cumbersome and heavy with wet.  The smell is of fish and shallow waters and mud and rot, but somehow wholesome, the sort of smell that promises growing things, not cultivated, but fecund and burgeoning and profligate.  It settles over the boat, tangibly fertile, as if shoots might sprout from it in the warmth the of the sun, cover the boat with vegetation, make an island of it in the shallow bay.

The last hoop, square, larger than the others, lies just below the surface, the turtle clinging to the top of it, and below, in the mote-filled water, the fish hover, slim, quavering, mottled.  Their broad tails are like fletching on loosed and darting arrows, and they are most beautiful now, in mid flight, before they are surfaced, to lie flapping and and breathless.

The nets lift from the water, suddenly lighter, and fall into the boat.  I untie the closure, dump the fish onto the deck, no longer quavering, just slithering.  There are only three, and the snapper has been at the smallest of them, almost severing its head and eating away most of its belly.  The larger two, still struggling, are tossed into the totes.

I take my knife and cut the net around the snapper’s claws, pull the turtle, with the patch of net it has claimed, from the the hoop and toss it into the prow.  It’s no good putting it back into the water here to catch again next time, so we’ll take it with us when we leave, drop it far from the nets somewhere.  It’s a male, I think, because the tail is so wide, but it’s harder to tell with snappers.  Their tails are longer than other turtles, tougher to gauge.  He pulls himself along the deck, his claws rasping the metal, his shell knocking the sides of the boat.

My grandfather is looking at the hole I have made in the net, seeing if it can be repaired now or if it will need to come back with us.  He has tipped his hat back on his head to see better, the rounded brim tilted skyward, the mesh back almost slipping off the baldness of his head.  He pulls from his pocket a yellow plastic mending needle, the same colour as his slicker, threads it with twine, and makes the attempt, though the hole looks quite large.  This might take him some time, and we are drifting toward the shore, in among the reeds, so I toss out the anchor, watching it descend out of sight into the shallow murk.

I sit myself on the tote, put my feet up on the spare nets, then remember my coffee set beside the helm, but I decide to leave it, pulling my cap down over my eyes against the water’s glare.  I am well enough caffeinated by now, and warm too, though it was cold this morning when we untied from the jetty, early enough that the sun was only an orange dye tinging the black-blue of the water.  It had been still this morning too, the water barely stirring the dock, twisting it gently with the irregular rhythm that only waves can keep, and the thermos had been hot in my hand, while the rest of me was morning-cold, waking-cold, waiting bodily for the sun to warm the world beyond the power of the thin cool breezes.

It is well warm now though, my hat ringed with sweat around the brim, and the corners of my mouth tasting salt, and it is bright, the sun striking obliquely on the faces of the low swells, on the aluminium of the boat, on the whiteness of the rocks.  It is a brightness that comes from everywhere, that leaves no true shadow, only infinite numbers of tenuous, quivering shadows, like the spots on the sides of pike as they hover, refracted, just beneath the membrane of the water, like schools of minnows swarming the shallows with their shadow doubles, like whirligig beetles running the stillness of the water to riot.

The snapper is in the front of the boat, trying to climb the aluminium sides, but the metal is too slick, and its legs are too short to reach even the tie bar, never mind the gunwale, so its claws rasp futilely, merely polishing the metal to shine more brightly in the sun, to cast brighter gleams, to make more vibrating shadow.  It never pauses in its labour though, scratching a steady counter rhythm to the irregular slapping of waves on the hull and to the gurgling wash of still other waves against the shore.

The shore is rocky here, long and rock strewn, flooded in spring but dry now.  The trees, back a hundred yards or so from the water, are stunted and tortured, as though they now regret having put down roots here, clutching at the rock through the thin soil just to survive the winter storms and the spring floods and the summer droughts.  Their lower branches are all dead.  It is only their uppermost limbs that have any life in them, springing green and surprising from the desolation below them.

We stopped to eat here once, making a fire from the dead wood in among the dry, pebbling stones further up the beach, where the trees begin, gutting the unsaleable fish, the carp and the catfish and the suckers, then frying them quickly in butter, our only condiment.  They taste good, the garbage fish, as long as they are eaten like this, immediately after they are killed, before they have time to grow fishy, even better if I can find wild leeks around, as I sometimes can.

We threw the guts in the lake, and the crayfish were soon clambering over it.  I sat on a shelf of rock to watch the lake as the fish cooked, smelling the woodsmoke and the butter, and then I saw a northern water snake come out from under the rocks away to my left, nosing about for the fish guts too.  Most snakes won’t eat carrion, but northern water snakes will, or they’ll eat dead fish anyway, and they’ll sometimes eat their food tail first too, which I’ve never seen another snake do.  The bands on this one were still very red, though it was an adult length, red and deep brown, alternating, like a row of saddles for miniature riders.  It reared its head a little and circled past the discarded fish, then slipped wholly into the water, making the water ripple convulsively as it gulped its meal, little splashes disturbing the pattern of the lapping waves.

The snapper’s churning claws return me to the boat.  My grandfather is bent patiently over the net.  He has cut a patch from a piece of spare netting kept for just this purpose, and he is sewing it in place, firmly, methodically, which is his way.  There is never any fuss about him, never any hurry.  Now and again he wipes the perspiration from his head with the sleeve of his plaid cotton shirt, but he never looks up, sewing steadily in big looping stitches, until he is tying the line off, testing it, holding it up for my inspection.

“Let’s get this set then,'” he says as he stands, and I am about to stand as well, when I hear the sound of the snapper’s claws suddenly stop.

Standing in the front of the boat, the turtle is stretching its neck toward the tie bar, stretching to a remarkable length, looking more like a snake slipping out of a crevice than a turtle at all.  It closes its jaws around the bar and begins to pull itself upward, incrementally, by the strength of its neck alone, drawing its body after it, dangling by its jaws.  Its feet hover above the deck like a prophet ascending into heaven, until its shell is almost level with is beak, high enough that it can reach the tie bar with its claws.  Then, with remarkable ease, even grace, it pulls itself the last few inches over the rail and slaps into the water, disappears into the reeds and mud.

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