SECRETS OF MOBILE BAY
This ancient mystery from Mobile Bay does not go bump in the night. The darkness of predawn that is part and potion of this strange event is ghostly silent. Standing barefoot in the water, pants rolled up, ankle -deep and a little bit deeper, you might feel your heartbeat and hear nothing more than a whispering wind growing out of the east, only just teasing the magnolias and pines and live oaks behind you.
You look down at the bay’s still surface, your flounder light in one hand and an oak-handled six-foot-long gig in the other. You shine the light and see the sandy bottom at your feet. The shrimp are coming in, moving past you toward the beach. You wait for the flat fish, a bigger one than the three or four small ones you let go by. And now you know your hunch was right, that this near-daylight will see ten thousand shrimp and crabs and flounder swim ashore for the harvest, that there’ll be a jubilee on the bay.
You sent out word it would happen, honoring a decades-old tradition of alerting neighbors and friends, that this was a night for a jubilee, even as you pulled your lucky t-shirt over your head (Bite Me, it says, from a bait and tackle shop in Louisiana).
There on the bottom, moving into the pool of light, a big flounder, perfect for your frying pan, and in the same second you spear the fish you hear the first voices of the friends you called up. Hear them running to get in on the catch of thousands of fish for easy taking. Behind you and beside you they wade into shallow water to net some of the tens of thousands of shrimp, the hundreds and hundreds of crabs for their freezers. Some of this bounty will feed their families tonight at supper. All around you slip eels and stingrays that no one scoops up.
A Fated Festival
In the old days there were huge brass bells to proclaim this miracle that seems straight from the Bible itself. But in these modern times speed dialing lights up cell phones on the nightstands in bayfront bedrooms as sleepy people get the good news of a jubilee. By whatever means of notice, all who learn are grateful. Maybe they believe it’s a holy thing to be fed by a fish that swam into your net only hours before.
And those on your call list showed up because they know you know these things—or, rather you have called it right often enough that they trust your forecast and don’t grumble when they toss back the covers and head out into the wee hours.
It’s worth it, even if you are wrong now and then. Because if you’re right and there is a jubilee, then they won’t have to swing by the store to pick up something for supper for a long time.
Unless they get tired of seafood. But nobody who enjoys our prime location-location (as the realtors say), living near the bay and on the coast, would dare profane the gift of God’s delicious fresh bounty with such sacrilege.
Skip Jones, decades-long resident of the eastern shore, says on a morning some ten years ago his jubilee tip-off came not from a call or a bell down the beach but from the sound of voices out toward the bay in front of his home in Point Clear. Awakened by the din of something like a party on his lawn, he snuck a peek through the curtain to learn that he was late to the full-swing celebration of free seafood. He grabbed his shorts and a cooler and headed out to collect a whole summer’s worth of flounder for sunset frying and grilling, shrimp for his grits, crabs for the boil.
“Well, among the growing crowd of people along the beach and in the water with their coolers and five-gallon buckets came another family across my yard sharing the communal disregard for metes-and-bounds property rights but who didn’t even know what they were running toward, only just following the flow,” Skip says.
He lays it out that the coconut telegraph had sung the news and motorists were stopping out front on scenic Highway 98 where it wends along the bayfront south of the Grand Hotel at Point Clear. They were parking on the shoulder of the road and jumping from their cars, grabbing up whatever containers they had in the trunk, and heading for the shoreline where sometimes the jubilee is along a short section of beach, sometimes for a mile or more.
“This one family didn’t have even a small bucket. No net nor a gig. Nothing. But they got caught up in the spirit and waded into the water all the same,” he says, laughing. “Pretty soon they had more fish in their pockets than they could walk with,” Skip says. “Shirttails were out and ballooning with flounder, a ball cap held by the bill was overflowing. They didn’t stop until every possible place to stash a fish or crab was put to use.”
The Luck of the Bay
Why does the jubilee happen? We can’t answer that one.
Why on the whole of our blue planet, this crazy chance to harvest seafood by the baskets and five-gallon buckets and wheelbarrows and coolers—and even pockets and shirttails—only happens regularly on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, well, that’s a secret known only to Neptune and his inner circle.
Local knowledge allows there’s a chance, and mind you it’s just hearsay, that someplace in Japan enjoys a similar seafood surprise on a few dark still mornings. Some would say, however, “Until I see it, I won’t believe it.”
And if you take up a similar position against urban legends, maybe you won’t get in trouble for trespassing before daylight across someone’s bayfront yard. But Tony Lowery’s knowledge is not of the hearsay variety and is, instead, grounded in the hard science of a PhD in marine sciences. Tony lives in Fairhope and works for NOAA and his master’s thesis was on the jubilee phenomenon.
“Jubilee” comes from the Latin verb iūbilō and means a shout for joy. That most appropriate term was first used by a newspaper reporter a hundred years ago to opportunistically describe the desperate doings of the participating fish, shrimp, crabs, eels, and stingrays. Way farther back, one can only wonder what word some ancient Mayan or Aztec shaman might have spoken to the folks back home about this weird thing he’d witnessed on his canoe trip up north. Whatever the language, the persuasion was compelling, and there’s proof that pilgrimages brought bands of South American tribes to the shores of Mobile Bay. No one’s saying they came for a bucket of flounder, but it’s as good a reason as any to go out for dinner.
Tony says the fish go toward the beach for the very good reason of a breath of air. They swim and crawl and undulate ahead of an advancing wall of thick salty water that’s starved of oxygen. Without speaking oceanic administration jargon or technical language, he says the conditions of this oxygen depletion occur usually before dawn or in the very early morning when the sun’s light isn’t available to stir the plants into production. He says there’s usually a gentle east wind that pushes the nearly fresh oxygenated top layer of water farther out into the bay and the deeper, denser saline layer slides toward the beach. Think of plate tectonics.
“And the fish that don’t have a swim bladder, those lacking that source of buoyancy, they just stay low and move away from the threat and toward the beach,” he says.
Because even the escape route’s oxygen content has also been diminished, the creatures arrive in shallow water quite lethargic. And that makes them easy candidates for “repurposing,” as local architect Mac Walcott likes to say, at the hands of the higher-ups on the food chain. Some residents only take what they will soon eat. It’s not unusual to find the morning’s catch in a late-afternoon fish fry or shrimp boiling in a big pot with spicy new potatoes and corn on the cob.
Tony says a ship’s wave sometimes stirs the water enough to end a jubilee.
A tidal shift always stops the fragile event.
The turning of the world toward the morning sun also ends a jubilee.
But while it’s going on, there seems no end in sight. And so what about the feeding frenzy, so to speak, that has folks filling up the beds of their pickups, for instance, with things good to eat?
“Well,” says Skip, “if you’re holding down a day job, you know your haul of fresh seafood will pretty soon be a pile of smelly dead fish.” You have to clean and dress now what you hope to bread and fry later. And our sense of conservation,” he says, “really has become more acute than in the past.”
Plus, nowadays, if your greed wheel spins out of control during a jubilee, you might get a ticket. Either the Alabama Marine Police or an officer with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has jurisdiction to monitor imposed catch limits. It seems only fair that if somebody fishes “hard” —if that is not an oxymoron—and can only have ten flounder for all that work that another somebody should then have the same restrictions. Especially when the fish at a jubilee swim up waving a white flag. And, if you cheat, the damage to your wallet for the ensuing fine could seriously quiet down your mouth-watering shouts of jubilation.
But if you are an enterprising soul, say the chef at a seafood restaurant, you might buy a commercial fishing license and legally fill up your washtub with enough crabs to keep chilled lump crabmeat on hand for days. And if you have ever enjoyed a meal with West Indies salad on the side, you know that Bayley’s Seafood Restaurant discovered gold in 1947. That’s the year when its owner Bill Bayley first created this dish that’s reason enough alone to gather all the crabs you can.
Blessed by the Fisher King
The boys down at the barbershop have also been known to shell out the higher price of a commercial license so their own kitchens can keep a seafood feast on the stove for as long as possible.
But just why are we so especially blessed on the Alabama coast, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, from up about Daphne through Fairhope and down to around Point Clear and Mullet Point? Folks who live at the water’s edge in Florida, over in Louisiana, or on the Mississippi coast, they, too, like a good spider sandwich, that spicy deep-fried soft shell crab on bread. A good eye knows how to spot these crabs called “busters” that are about to molt out of their hard blue shells, and some people are careful to select only busters in a jubilee outing.
Somebody else, somewhere else, may have that good eye for busters, but none of our coastal neighbors have the jubilee experience we have here. Not even on the western shore of our own Mobile Bay, except very rarely when we on this side of the bay have been known to get, oh, as many as three dozen in a summer season between June and September.
The jubilee’s nowhere on the Chesapeake. Never in a backwater bay up around Portland. Corpus Christi is a beautiful spot, but they don’t have the jubilee.
So why has the Fisher King chosen us, here, for the place His mystery to perform?
Maybe some have seen the cartoon of the man crawling across the desert, looking up toward the burning sun. The caption asks, “Why me, Lord?” And in the upper right-hand corner written into a little bubble, the answer comes back: “Why not?”
And that’s sometimes the way of mysteries of the sea. Remember, the jubilee stops in the bright light of the morning sun. So let’s leave it in the dark for now.