As summer slips into the heavy heat, afternoons on the Bay turn rough and windy. By one o’clock, magazine pages are aflutter. Glasses of sweet tea are iceless and rolling with sweat beads. Flags ting-ting on their poles and pelicans ride the air currents just over pine trees.
For adults, it feels like nap time. The children’s mouths are stained with Popsicle juice and they want to keep swimming. But there’s a thunderstorm crossing the Bay from Mobile. You can hear the rumble of it and see the gray curtain of rain approaching. It’s much faster than it looks. Within 10 minutes everyone is running up the wharf with raindrops spotting the boards at their heels.
After the storm passes, frogs cheep from the wet lawn and the waves beyond are left beaten into smooth swells, lapping against the beach. Cicadas thrum at the onset of evening. The air is so still you can hear the throbbing of a ship’s diesel engine in the channel. A screen door slams 10 houses away. Voices on the wharves again. Lightning bugs … Jubilee!
Combine a late afternoon squall, calm evening and incoming tide, and you’ll have the perfect setup for a jubilee. These conditions create oxygen-depleted water in the Bay which drive flounder, shrimp, crabs and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures to shore. There can be anywhere from three to 15 jubilees in a given year, most of them falling between July and September.
The fish start to the beach in the early morning hours when it’s still dark. Like D-Day, they come in waves. I remember standing halfway out the wharf, watching flounder the size of large skillets gliding below me. I tried to throw the gig at them like a spear, but it never worked.
Schools of baby catfish swarm by the thousands. I threw my cast net over them once. I spent the rest of the morning trying to pick them out until Dad shook his head and told me the net was ruined. Another time, I thought it would be interesting to jump in the midst of them. They stuck to my heels like sand spurs. My feet were sore and swollen for days.
As a child I always thought the trout fishing would be good during a jubilee. I reasoned that if there were so many compliant fish near the beach, surely our fishing holes were full of eager trophies. I decided to be clever and take my skiff to Zundel’s pilings while everyone else was on the beach. I never had a bite. There’s only one practical, painless way to get in on the action: Go to the beach with everyone else.
Sea creatures crowd the shoreline and appear to be drugged and sluggish. There is little challenge to gigging the flounder or scooping the shrimp and crabs. They usually stay for an hour or two, then leave at daylight when ship waves come crashing in from the channel and stir the water, as if they’ve been shaken to their senses again.
The people who check for jubilees regularly get up several times a night and walk out to the beach and inspect the water with a propane lantern; the soft gaslight penetrates better than a normal flashlight. They look for crabs swimming on the surface, eels, fish with red bellies and a general unrest of small Bay creatures. If they see a jubilee developing, they’ll usually go inside and call one or two of their neighbors. These neighbors come out with their lanterns and check for themselves. Once they’re convinced a jubilee is moving in, they’ll notify the people on their list. A chain reaction occurs until the waterfront is full of heavy footfalls on wharves. Shadowy figures wander the beach in their pajamas, the glow and hiss of propane lights floating up and down the shoreline.
When I was 16, my brother and I filled a rowboat with flounder and sold them to the Blue Marlin restaurant. It was the easiest money we’d ever made. These days I’m more responsible about how much seafood I take. Besides, I’m more interested in watching the kids enjoy themselves. I remember the fun of collecting samples of all the different types of fish that come in. We made exotic aquariums and tried to keep them as pets. It wasn’t until we were a little older that we figured out why our fish never lived more than an hour or two; we’d made their aquariums out of jubilee water, just the thing that they were trying to escape. We’d jubilee’d them to death.
When I describe a jubilee to my out-of-town friends, they usually look at me with a skeptical smirk. I try to offer proof, but the pictures I have are blurry night shots. And due to their rare and unpredictable nature, they aren’t the sort of events I can simply take them to. I have to accept that jubilees will likely remain a phenomenon that only people living on the Eastern Shore are able to truly appreciate.
Though I’ve probably experienced a hundred jubilees by now, I still find them fascinating. And it’s certainly something that you have to see to fully appreciate. Unfortunately, unless you live on Mobile Bay, you probably won’t see one. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
text by watt key • photo by major adam colbert