End of the Line

Fish Food

Getting to the bottom of bait and crackers

Photo: Barry Blitt

One thing about fishing, it simplifies breakfast. Just lurch into the gas station where you’re meeting your guide at six in the morning and say, “Where’re yer Nabs at?”

Or, if you’re wider awake, “Where do y’all keep your Nabs?”

Fishing is the only time I refer to packaged peanut-butter crackers by the generic (obsolete, strictly speaking) term Nabs. That may be because it’s the only time I eat packaged peanut-butter crackers anymore, come to think of it. 

By “fishing” I mean the first full week of June, when I get together with friends to fish off the Florida Panhandle. We have done it for thirty-nine years in a row. I doubt there are any fish now living among those we took out after in 1980.

Not because we caught them all. But we have hauled in a lot of sea trout and reds and Spanish and rock bass (a consensus favorite, for the eating) and grouper and snapper and grunts and the occasional cobia, sheepshead, or drum. And, regrettably, fish we don’t eat: sharks, catfish, and ladyfish. I’ve never known anyone to have a theory about how ladyfish got their name. Seems odd, especially since their alternative name, skipjack, evokes the way they frisk around, in and out of the water, when hooked.

Well, frisk is the wrong word. The ladyfish is not playing. The ladyfish is freaking out. No, that’s not right, either, the ladyfish is doing exactly what anybody would, who was able to, when hooked. Trying to shake that thing.

You know the Eudora Welty story “The Wide Net”? A man gets the notion that his wife has drowned herself, so he calls for a dragging of the river, which involves an ominously leaping and hollering local family, the Malones. “The Malones,” somebody says at one point, “are in it for the fish.”

My friends and I are in it for the fish, but also for the fellowship. And the communing with nature, which means trying to see things from the fish’s point of view. We have speculated that when a trout grows to fifteen inches, older fish give it the traditional talk:

“You got to realize, you are a keeper now. From now on, when people pull you in, you’ll hear, ‘That’s a nice fish,’ which sounds friendly, but the next thing you know, they’ve tossed you into a box.” Most of them don’t listen, though, which is good, but also reminiscent, for us.

When a ladyfish gets on, we ritually curse, because—no fault of its own—it has too many bones, from our point of view, and its flesh is mushy. That doesn’t say “lady” to me. Maybe the name dates back to some sexist notion that a boat is no place for a lady. When I say “fellowship,” I don’t mean anything exclusive. I mean getting down to commonly accepted basics.

For instance, Gulp. Gulp is the brand of soft artificial lure that has been our primary bait for a number of years now. It is famous for its stink. Essence of Gulp gets out into the water as soon as you cast your pearl-white-with-chartreuse-tail shrimp, or any other Gulp variation, out there. Gulps are catnip to fish, but lots of people feel, not only off the Florida Panhandle but also on the Internet, that Gulps are getting too soft. They don’t survive being bit on as they used to.

A kayak fisherman named Josh McCall posts that the last time he used Gulps, “the trout and red…tore them apart.” Whereas he also caught fish with a D.O.A.-brand shrimp, and it “came back in in tacked [sic]. I can also say the juice [that Gulp comes packed in] is awful…it accidentally got poured into my coconut water while rigging up.” McCall “took a gulp of it and literally threw up all over my kayak and in the water. Five minutes later mullets was everywhere. It always works as chum with whatever you ate.”

You can catch mullet on a hook, says our longtime guide, Doc King, if you bait it with little balls of fatback soaked in vanilla. What Doc was using for mullet bait before he discovered vanilla-soaked fatback was even less appetizing, to a person. So I won’t go into it. But it was pretty basic. Mullet themselves are basic, and good eating.

So are Nabs, especially to a basic fisherperson, out in the open air smelling like fish attractant. Nabs is what Nabisco used to call them. Today, Nabs are officially branded as Lance ToastChee.

“Where do y’all keep your ToastChees?”

“Say what?”