Of Scrumbly Bait Shops and Salty Marinas
Growing up near Jamaica Bay in Queens, my brother Chris and I haunted the streams and wetlands, some of which still surround the bay by Kennedy Airport.
There was a bait shop off Rockaway Blvd near a fishing community called Meadowmere. How we loved to go into that moody little town with its bay houses and high tide flooded streets. The shop was crammed and small but it had everything we needed to fish and crab. The owner knew where everything was and shared the best tips on where to catch. The area had the aroma of low tide, Creosote, fish and fuel. We loved it.
I moved out to south Merrick in 1971 and hung out at Nicks fishing station and marina. My memories and artistic sense were renewed here and all along the Nassau waterfront. Things seemed to be in a time warp. Nicks and all the marinas in that area had dirt parking lots with boats seemly strewn everywhere. Piles of dock wood, old and new, sat amongst old engines, staved wooden boats, aged anchors, lines, and chocks for winter hauling. The poles in these marinas were anything but straight. Many were old locust tree trunks.
Over in Freeport where today restaurants line the prissy Nautical Mile was a waterfront in a time warp. There always were popular seafood restaurants in that area and they added to the time-worn ambiance. Places like Otto’s, still operating, were mixed among boat yards like Maresca’s, Al Grovers, etc, and boat outfitters, canvas and sail makers, plus there was a sizeable commercial fishing fleet that sold their harvests from their decks or own shops. New and used boats were also on display for sale and one of the largest party boat fishing fleets on the East Coast competed on the streets to coax patrons to their boats. Yes! Freeport’s waterfront was as classically fish centric as anywhere. Today it is mostly a fine dining location with hints of its former life inbetween.
All of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, indeed all up and down the East Coast, had similar authentic environments. But alas everything must change. By the beginning of the 1980s waterfront property values, zoned for housing and commercial, began to heat up as pleasure boating became more and more popular. These new boaters began to purchase more luxurious, larger vessels and were more particular where they wanted to berth their boats. Owning a boat was now a family affair. More so than a bunch of guys holding a rod and a beer on a boat that rarely got a cleaning. These new captains didn’t drive into the gravel lot with an old beat up truck. No, they arrived in new shiny expensive cars. Sandy or pebble parking lots were no longer quaint. Not when your fancy auto got dusty and paint chipped. Black top with striped parking spaces replaced many of the sand lots from Manasquan Inlet to Montauk Point and beyond.
With the arrival of this new client base and fatter wallets, marinas saw it was time to appeal to this new market. Better finger slips and poles became the norm. The eighties saw electric, water and phone lines added to slips and in years going forward some marinas would add cable TV. Shacks and outbuildings in many of these new-age marinas were spruced up or torn down to make way for the new money-maker upscale waterfront dining. Why sell bait when your customers want fish on their plates or return from cruising to enjoy a drink overlooking a slick marina with well appointed boats and a beautiful sunset.
In Montauk, Greenport, Shinnecock, Patchoque, Port Jefferson indeed all along the coast new age boating had become the norm and the older scrumbled marina with its mood, smell and individualistic scenery became the exception. If you explore far enough, you can still find these dusty operations which I swear ooze more character than the paved up, brushed up commercialized marinas.
Meanwhile change was coming to the sport fishing industry. Slicker, faster and larger vessels replaced the old beat up row boats you could rent out to catch a few fluke or porgies. While there were always those guys who would run to the canyon in their early Bertrims and Pacemakers seeking the stuff of Hemingways dreams, easier money made it possible for the average fisherman to buy his own smaller version in a center console or express model.
The rank and file became more choosy where they bought their bait and the little shacks stuffed with a hundred years of old inventory began to be replaced by sport fishing stores where all the lures, reels, rods, nets, knives, boots, wind gear, and related merchandise for the fishing enthusiast were laid out like a chain pharmaceutical store. Everything is neatly packaged and dust free. The bait can be purchased precut and ready for the hook or your own tasty consumption. I remember when you brought your own pail to buy bait. Then they began putting it in measured plastic bags. Now, more often than not, it’s imported in a printed package from Peru, Chile or China. The creaky wood floors gave way to polished tile and the salty look subdued.
Of course many of these shops were forced to update due to the inroads of the chain stores made into what was traditionally a family business. But with every thing that changes there is a gain and a loss. I’ll take the dust, the creaky floors and the advice from those steeped in knowledge to the ‘big box’’ stores every time. Fortunately there are still a few of those older bait and tackle purveyors still around and I encourage you to give them a fair share of your business.
As you visit our waterfronts of today, try to view each location from two perspectives. Enjoy and support the new restaurants, the fancy marinas, the slick little nautical shops that line the bulkheads and tarred or bricked paths. They can be great fun. But I also ask that you look behind the slick. Get off that main road and seek out the remainder of the waterfronts as they were and fortunately, in some places, still are.
"article and illustrations C. 2016 Mark C. Nuccio. All rights reserved"