Crawfish season is here. I can already hear the sound of boat engines roaring to life as everyone stretches out their slings to test their elastic, look for holes in their mesh bags and retrace the steps they took when they laid their last trap. Crawfish season is for many Bahamians and Abaconians a more exciting holiday than any other.
It’s Christmas in July, except that it’s in August.
With August’s arrival we are in the fever pitch of summer. Many Bahamians have had their fill of conch salad, the yards are overgrown thanks to the rolling showers and white boys like me have developed a decent tan thanks to the overbearing sun. But the summer has yet to reveal its last, delicious prize: the sweet spiny lobster. Crawfish.
Most of us who grew up here have fond memories of our first time crawfishing. Our first time was likely with our close family and friends while we were still learning how to keep our goggles from fogging up. I remember my first trip with my father. Looking back we didn’t go very far, but to a young boy we were Captain Ahab and Queequeg in the middle of the ocean pursuing our great white whale.
The boat slowed eventually and I was encouraged overboard. I had my sling and spear in a tight grip and my mask on tight. My flippers were already starting to give me a rash on my ankles since they were a wrong size, but I didn’t care about that. Holding my breath I dove under. It was no more than eight or nine feet but it still felt like 20,000 leagues.
Surveying the trap I say the spindly whips jerking up and down and side to side. A smile hurts when you’re wearing a tight pair of goggles. I learned that lesson that day after seeing our prize. I made my way back to the surface with the spear pointing downwards like I had been taught. At the surface again I saw my father had slipped overboard to join me. I couldn’t flip the trap by myself.
At the surface, my grinning mouth cemented around my poor snorkel, I watched my father drift down, dig his ankles into the ground and overturn the crafted plywood at least a dozen or so crawfish had, until that moment, called home.
It was like watching a flower bloom. Its orange, spiny seeds drifting away in a thousand directions with the tide.
The dozen crawfish scurried across the sandy bottom. Panic and instinct guided their skinny legs and contracted their meaty tails. Surprisingly graceful for such an ugly creature. They were getting away and unless I acted fast I would let my family down. I couldn’t let them all get away: I had to get one.
I dove down. The 20,000 leagues had suddenly become 40,000. In my surprise at their escape I had forgotten to take that extra breath necessary. It was now a battle to the death between myself –lungs empty and refusing to return to the surface empty handed- and the crawfish I had zeroed in on –beady eyed, alien and destined for the cooking pot.
I pursued my prey across the bottom. I watched him settle into a patch of sea grass then, when he saw his pursuer close in, kick off again with a flip of its tail. My vision narrowed. Partly from focus and partly from the lack of oxygen. Then I saw my chance. My prey was confused about its surroundings and the situation it had suddenly found itself in. One shouldn’t feel as excited as I did for outsmarting an animal with a brain smaller than a pea, but I could feel victory was close at hand and the time was now.
I extended the glistening spear in front of me. I pulled back on the sling just like I had been practicing all summer. I made a last second adjustment in my aim even as every oxygen-starved fiber in my body was wrenching in agony.
And I let go.
The spear flew either a thousand yards or two feet. I don’t know because at that point it did not matter. What mattered was that it had found its mark. The stainless steel had buried itself right between the protruding eyes of my unlucky quarry. I do not profess this was skill since I have never replicated such a shot. But what I do say it was one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. My young mind had no other experience to compare this joy with, the exception perhaps being Christmas Morning. But this was Christmas in July. Except it was in August.
Returning to the surface I ripped off my mask. My eyes adjusted to the now strange, long-forgotten surface world. Eleven or so other crawfish found mercy that day. I did not care. I had speared my great white whale and there would be no more joy in hunting another. I saw my dad smiling and quietly laughing. I did not understand until later. But that great beast I had so epically pursued was, in fact, much smaller than what is considered “legal size.”
To this day I argue that its small stature made my shot all the more impressive.
I tell this story to remind everyone going into this season to appreciate it for what it is. Enjoy your family. Enjoy your friends. Make memories and cherish this living, Bahamian tradition of crawfishing. Forgive me, for I knew not what I did, but stay your hand from the little ones so your grandchildren can make memories for themselves. And take time to appreciate what you have. Appreciate what we have and what we as a people share in Abaco: whether its crawfish, conch or pristine beaches.
And be sure to share it with your family and those you care about. Merry Christmas in August.