by Charlie Dennis
For many years, my good friend Gabriel, or Kaplie’l in Mi’kmaq, fished oysters in Malagawatch Pond. I met Kaplie’l back in the late 1950s. My grandparents and dad used to go to Malagawatch for a visit or get supplies of white maple and poplar for basket making.
Kaplie’l and his brother Sa’n Denny had been fishing oysters in Malagawatch for a number of years. I still remember their small tarpaper camp. It barely fit two people and you had to bend over so you wouldn’t bump your head on the ceiling or door. There were two little beds on either side of the cabin and a small table. There was a spittoon can in one corner of the shack, which they seldom missed when they spit their tobacco, because there weren’t any stains on the walls. For heat they had a miniature stove almost the size of a computer. I believe it was called “Little Cod,” which was engraved on the front of the stove.
In those days, oysters were plentiful and buyers from New Brunswick and other places would come down and buy oysters from those who wanted to sell. Local buyers were also paying good money for this bountiful shellfish. These activities went on for a number of years until the numbers of oysters started declining since everybody was harvesting and the prices of oysters were increasing. Back in the 1970s, I got involved in the buying and selling trade and it was good to know all the fishermen and their secrets of fishing oysters Kaplie’l was a good advisor. He fished for so many years; he knew every trick in the book. So and so would do this, avoid them as much as possible the way they packed their boxes, watch out for bridges, watch for old shells, rock, mussels, and dead oysters. He taught me everything, including telling me the areas where oysters were excellent and where to avoid buying oysters.
Kaplie’l always fished oysters in Malagawatch Pond and he seldom fished anywhere else. I used to be fascinated with oysters in the fishery. I would say he always had the best oysters in River Denys Basin. Buyers would approach Kaplie’l at the first chance they got because they wanted his oysters. He would always save good oysters for me and sell the poor ones to other buyers.
At times, when he was fishing in the pond, I would watch him fish here and there. One moment he would be at one part of the pond and in another instance he would be in another. For years, I would study his moves and couldn’t figure out what he was doing. Some days, I would take my boat out and go for a quick run out to his boat. His boat was always clean, no mud or dust of any kind. He would always wear his Sunday best. He would wear a belt hat, if that is what it was called, or dress hat. On the floor of the boat was a neat pile of oysters of different sizes and other piles, which are what we called “choice” oysters. We would talk for a while, then he would say “you’re losing money for me, move on.” I got the hint but, before I moved on, I took a quick glance of the tools he had in the boat. One was a small rake (I later found out why he needed it), the other tool was a scoop net made of a bicycle rim with copper weave webbing, nicely sewn together. The scoop was attached to a 12-foot pole. The scoop was about 10 to 12 inches in diameter and about one foot deep. Those were his basic tools. Oh yes, he always had oil or corn oil in his boat. I would later find out why the scoop was so important to him.
One evening while spying on Kaplie’l, it came to me how he fished oyster in the pond. Of course, I went to visit him that night, which was common practice among fishermen; telling stories, jokes, and sharing a cup of tea.
Well anyway, I confronted him and told him I figured out how he was so lucky with getting oysters. Basically I explained to him that he treated the pond like it was his garden. He was managing this pond and he knew every inch of it and knew exactly where he planted oysters, what size, what grade, and when it would be ready for harvesting. He would take small oysters from one section of the pond where they grew too slow to where it was shallow and, in turn, they would grow faster. He also figured if the wind was too strong he knew where to go where it was sheltered from prevailing winds. When I finished with my spying report, Kaplie’l looked at me, gave a chuckle with his mouth full of chewing tobacco and commented, “it took you long enough to figure it out.”
A few months later, I found out through Louise, Kaplie’lâ’s wife and partner for a long time, that Kaplie’ls eyesight wasn’t very good. He would use the scoop net to feel his way on the bottom. He would feel the oysters on the bottom and fill the scoop til he couldn’t fit any more oysters in it. If his eyes were good, he wouldn’t be able to see the bottom because of the black mud that was stirred up when it was disturbed. Before he lifted the scoop onto the boat, he would swoosh it until the mud came off and then he would sort the oysters by size and grade.
Of course, you have to keep the seaweeds in control or they will multiply. It’s just like the garden in Malagawatch Pond; seaweed has to be controlled and that was the reason he had the oyster rake in his boat. When Kaplie’l was well and fishing, seaweed was always controlled. But if you go to Malagawatch Pond nowadays, you can barely operate an outboard motor before it clogs up.
When I travel to Malagawatch for a visit, I always stop at the causeway and look toward the channel. It makes me unhappy to see the pond in such a terrible state. At one time, all the fishing camps were full of fishermen of all ages who came to fish for oysters, trying to make some extra money for Christmas. Because of the MSX, I am not sure what the oyster population is in the pond at the moment. If we had a person like Kaplie’l taking care of the Garden, it might be in better condition, but sadly Kaplie’l has moved on to the big Garden above.