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Dana’s View: Cape Cod caviar 5-5-17

Dana's View: Cape Cod caviar

Wicked Local Eastham

By Dana Eldridge

Back when, back in my youth, this time of year was when we could wake our taste buds to something very seasonal and very good. And not only was it very good but it was very easy to acquire. It was fishing but there was not much sport in the acquisition. I am, of course, referring to the springtime arrival of the herring.

Herring are one of those unusual species that live in one medium (saltwater) and procreate in another (freshwater). And I don't know, or at least I've never read about, why they do this, but do it they do. And in the doing, they expose themselves to great danger, from the anonymity of deep water, to the journey up the small rivers to the origins of the natal beginnings. Easy prey for the aptly named herring gulls.

At one run I saw an apparently satiated gull too full to lift off. A feed or fly scenario. I have no idea how many herring that would take. I would guess it would take at least four herring, maybe five, to ground such a strong flyer as these ubiquitous gulls.

There were two or three runs within biking distance of our home. It was not at all unusual, in season, upon arriving home from school to be told, "why don't you grab a net and a burlap bag and go down to the run and bring us back some red roes."

I loved the idea that I, a child, could put food on our table, not only food, but delicious food so it was no chore to do as I was bid. Then it was time to take the dip nets from the rafters in the garage, root around in the basement for a burlap bag, lash them to the bike and head off for the run.

South down Pleasant Street then a right down a dirt road about a mile to the cranberry bogs main stream, a stream that flowed out of Uncle Venie's Pond in South Harwich. This pond had been the goal of the multitudes of mature herring, striving, thrusting and jostling their mindless way to their origins, two or three years before.

The reason we were able to so easily net these fish was the fact that the bogs were producing cranberries and these bogs had to be flooded by dikeing. The dikes were, to the herring, an obstacle to their frenzied drive to the pond. So the herring had to mill around and figure out how to surmount this obstacle. While they were doing this milling around, they were easy to net by the score.

We would dump the net full of fish on the ground then check them for roe (red/female, white/male). The males were tossed back in the run, the females went in the bag. When the adequate amount of fish were gathered it was time to tie off the bag, lash it to the bike, tie on the dip net and head for home.

Out in back of the garage was a sorry looking table, our fish cleaning table, scarred from years of use but serviceable.

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The herring were dumped on this work surface, a slim sharp knife procured and the process began. The belly was slit open and two finger-sized red sacks of eggs exposed. It took a minimum amount of skill to not rupture these sacks so we had to be a little careful in the opening. It didn't take long to do this project and none of it was onerous. Indeed it was pretty much a fun project. The roes were put in a bowl and carried into the kitchen - from there on, it was mother's job. The carcasses were used to fertilise our corn hills.

Of course all of this was done with no thought that these untold millions of fish would ever be less than abundant. I do remember thinking that as we so joyfully ate these delicacies it seemed a bit wasteful for us to eat so many thousands of eggs just for our gustatory pleasure. That perhaps, we were a bit extravagant in the doing or perhaps more than a bit extravagant.

But every year the herring came back, in seemingly undiminished numbers. Thoughts of extravagance faded. Every spring we went for the herring and were always rewarded with all the roe we could eat. Cape Cod caviar.

From what I read, such is not the case anymore. Apparently, offshore draggers are making inroads, major inroads, into these seemingly endless numbers of fish. This leaves fewer fish coming up the runs and consequently more restrictions on the taking, lessons mankind has learned slowly, over and over.

There aren't many herring left. So few, that we now have volunteers counting them as they come up the runs -- impossible back when. There were just too many clogging the small creeks. But the memories of the plentitudes still resonate in this head - the screams of the gulls, the excitement in seeing them once again.

All good stuff.

Dana's View appears every other week.

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