Ruskin — Gus Muench wakes before dawn. Then he goes out in his boat and catches crabs. When the world is hot and buggy, when the lightning is flashing, he hauls heavy traps in Tampa Bay. When the north wind is blowing and his eyes tear up from the cold, crabs are his only companions.
In the best of times, he makes a little money, but never enough to worry about what is happening on Wall Street. When the crabbing is lousy and fuel costs are up, he has to scramble to pay his bills. Crabs occasionally pinch him hard enough to break skin and bruise bone. Once or twice, after accidental stingray encounters, he has headed for the doctor.
Sometimes, as he hauls crab traps, he notices the Sunshine Skyway bridge in the distance. He imagines the drivers heading for work, wearing neckties or panty hose, chewing antacids and answering cell phones as they prepare for another tension-filled day at the office.
Now some of those people — probably many of them — make more money than he ever will. They own fancier cars and more expensive things.
The crabman feels nothing but pity for them. Their lives are complicated. He is a free soul answerable only to himself.
Gus Muench is 72, though he comes across as younger in a Tom Sawyer kind of way. He makes manual labor sound enticing. Want to be a crabber for a day?
Come out with him. Wake early, pull crab traps, bait them with something foul and smelly, get wet, get hot, get cold, maybe get pinched by a claw or christened by pelican dung.
He will charge you $300 for a half-day of helping him do his job. At the very least he will feed you the freshest crab you have ever eaten.
• • •
Write a check for the privilege of doing some back-breaking labor? For somebody else?
It's a strange world. Or maybe it's just a saner world than we think. Clients who board Muench's odoriferous vessel include women and men who wear white collars in frustrating, run-on-the-treadmill lives. His clients are well-heeled doctors and lawyers and giggling tourists looking for a lark. For a few hours their time is regulated by current and tide, a grizzled crabber's hard-earned knowledge and a few ounces of humility.
"Now I want you to wear some clothes you can get dirty,'' he tells them over the phone. "Do you mind getting here a little early? I like to be out there by sunup. That awright with y'all?''
His last name may sound like a big city in Germany, but Muench talks Florida Cracker. When he needs a mullet for supper, he doesn't throw his net, he "thows" it. Speaking of mullet, he has eaten so many that his stomach juices ebb and flow like a full-moon tide. Cholesterol and blood pressure be damned, he fries just about everything in bread crumbs with a heap of salt. Ahh, Florida.
If you grow up here and if you are lucky, one day your dad or favorite uncle asks, "Want to go fishing?'' Three score and five years ago, the boy Gus said yes. His mentors had real jobs, but they supplemented their income by commercial fishing.
Boy Gus was quiet. He'd fish with his mentors all day without uttering a word. He'd wade Papys Bayou near Weedon Island in St. Petersburg and hide silently in the mangroves. The sand flies bit, the mosquitoes swarmed and he wouldn't cry out. He'd wait for the mullet to swim close to his hiding spot and thow the net. Later he would sell the mullet in Tampa for a dime or two and feel like a millionaire.
He grew up, finished high school, got married, had a family, got a real job working for the phone company. But like his daddy and his uncle before him, he made extra cash as a waterman. For decades, he has done the work full time out of Ruskin, a commercial-fishing-based community on the east shore of the bay. A good year on the water? About $50,000. He's overjoyed with $25,000.
He is tall, about 6 feet, and slender from daily physical labor. He wears white rubber boots and a rubber slicker held by suspenders. He wears a long-sleeve shirt to hide his skin from cancer. He wears a hat mummified over the decades by sweat, crab juice and Tampa Bay. "My wife says to thow it away,'' he says. "But I can't.''
Clients eye the hat with fright.
"If you're going to fish with me, I think you should kiss my hat,'' he says.
Nobody puckers up.
• • •
A silent boy became a talkative man. Over there, he says, heading down the river into the bay, you got your yellow-crowned night heron. Hear that? That's a dolphin.
"I like mangroves. The red mangroves have them spider roots. You got to get up in the mangroves with the sand gnats and the skeeters if you're going to thow a net on a mullet.
"One time a waterspout destroyed a boat a little down the bay from here and the boat, it sunk, and I seen it down there on the bottom. Toilet was down there on the bottom and the current lifted and dropped the toilet seat lid again and again. Strangest thing I ever seen.
"Stingrays? Don't step on them. They'll get you with the barb. Cownose rays? They won't hurt you, usually. They'll swim right by you. One time, though, back when I was net fishing, I pulled a cownose from the net and it got me real good through my boot, right above the ankle. I had a hole in my leg. My, oh, my. It hurt real bad. I had to go home. Dipped a towel in turpentine and cleaned the hole. Whoa.
"There's a better way to treat a stingray wound. Heat you up some water. Stick your hurt part in water as hot as you can stand it. Wham! Pain is gone! Just like that! But listen to me, now: Put a wet dressing on the hurt part, not a dry bandage, and not stitches. A puncture has got to heal from the inside out or it'll get infected.''
• • •
He lives on the Little Manatee River next to Cockroach Bay, named not after the bugs that terrify tourists at bad motels but the horseshoe crabs that have crawled across the bay bottom from the beginning of time.
Years ago, he netted in Cockroach Bay. After a while he felt guilty, fearing that his long gill nets were ensnaring too many roe-filled mullet. He also noticed every time his boat propeller touched bottom it scalped the sea grass like a mower with blades set too low.
In the 1980s, he nagged Hillsborough County into doing a better job of protecting Cockroach Bay. In the 1990s, he stopped gill netting long before the state made it illegal. In the 21st century he has stopped fishing in Cockroach Bay completely because "I was part of the problem — my propeller was hurting the sea grass.''
If he has reason to visit Cockroach Bay he poles or paddles. In Tampa Bay proper, where he fishes, he feels comfortable about using an outboard engine on his 21-foot boat. He catches crabs in 300 wire-mesh traps scattered here and there. He catches blue crabs for fish markets, stone crabs — at least their claws — for his own table.
Commercial fishermen can legally remove both stone crab claws before returning the wounded animal to the water. "But I read a study,'' he says, ''that said only half the crabs that have lost their claws survive long enough to grow them back.''
He harvests only one claw.
"They need at least one claw to protect themselves.''
Sometimes, after a morning on the water, he drives to the hardware store on U.S. 41 and buys fencing material. He rolls the mesh into tight bundles and drops the bundles into the water next to the seawalls in his neighborhood. Within hours, small fish, shrimp and crabs hide in the fencing. In a matter of months, oysters and barnacles take possession of the fence. Then mangrove trees take root.
Decaying mangrove leaves are the base of the food chain. The leaves are eaten by the shrimp eaten by pinfish eaten by snapper eaten by him.
Gus likes food chains.
• • •
He slows the boat, lunges with a fiberglass pole, hooks a rope tied to the trap. Even with the winch, he has to use his back muscles to haul the trap. He swings it aboard. Blue crabs snap their pincers like punks with switchblades. The bulky stone crabs face him warily like heavyweight boxers ready to slug it out.
He shakes the crabs into a bin and goes to work. As he sometimes tells guests, "I ain't skeered.'' The sharp blue crab claws can cut like a knife. The heavy stone crab claws crush like an industrial vise. He's got bruises and the scars to prove it; they have damaged his hands despite those heavy gloves.
Left hand holds the crab firmly, right hand grips the claw from behind, twists, pop — drop the claw into a bucket and drop the crab back into the bay.
Blue crab. A keeper. Drops it into the bucket. Small ones go back into the bay.
Oyster toadfish in a trap. Ugly. Poisonous spines. Throw it back. Throw back the puffers and the cowfish. Keep the catfish and spadefish for bait.
An hour later he hauls a bucket off the boat and into a shed. He pours the stone crab claws into a boiling water and the blue crab meat into a frying pan.
Lunch is served on the dock. Eat with your fingers. Wipe them on your flannel shirt if you must.
Crab meat, fresh from Tampa Bay, tastes sweeter than the kisses of Esmeralda.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.