Seafood Foraging on Sapelo Island

The author tells the story of a four-day seafood harvesting and feasting expedition on an unspoiled island off the Georgia coast. Plus, recipes for seafood gumbo, steamed mussels, simple oyster stew, and clam spaghetti.


| September/October 1989



Casting Shrimp Net

Wilderness Southeast's Ted Wesemann makes casting a shrimp net look easier than it actually is.


GRANT COMPTON

Like almost half of the American population, I grew up within an hour's drive of the seacoast. Weekends and summer holidays often found me on one of Georgia's tidal rivers, dangling my sunburned legs off an old wooden dock while fishing for chan­nel bass, mullet and bony catfish—or crab­bing with a piece of twine tied to a chicken neck. Even as a small child, I was an expert at casting a heavily weighted net into those briny waters to proudly provide family and friends with the makings for a huge shrimp dinner.

Much of my adult life, however, was spent in Manhattan, where my sea-born meals came from the Fulton Fish Market, and in San Francisco, where seafood cravings were usually satisfied by a cable-car ride to Fisher­man's Wharf. Then, over a decade ago, I moved to the lush mountains of western North Carolina with a bass-filled lake front­ing my house and a trout-rich branch of the French Broad River just across the road. Since I prefer my piscatory dishes straight from the water, I gradually learned to sub­stitute freshwater fish for the seafood fare of my youth.

Then I discovered Wilderness South­east, a nonprofit educa­tional corporation that specializes in taking people on nature outings in such unspoiled environments as the Great Smoky Moun­tains, the Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp and even as far afield as Belize and Costa Rica. This group conducts a four-day "Incredible Edible Seafood-Foraging Feast" on Georgia's Sapelo Island, and I jumped at the chance to revisit this coastline of my childhood and brush up on my almost-­forgotten seafood-foraging skills.

Sapelo Island History

Unlike its neighbors, South Carolina to the north and Florida to the south, Georgia has managed to preserve a large portion of its coast from development. This has been pos­sible, in part, because the majority of the state's 15 largest and most beautiful barrier islands were (four still are) private preserves owned by wealthy families or small groups of people. Today, thanks to the efforts of conservationists, only four of the 15—Tybee, Sea Island, St. Simons and Jekyll—have been developed, and one of these, Jekyll, is a state park. The federal government owns four undeveloped islands (Wassaw, Blackbeard, Wolf and Cumberland), and the state owns the other three (Williamson, Ossabaw and Sapelo).

Sapelo Island, reached by a 30-minute fer­ry ride, is located northeast of the historic town of Darien—on U.S. Highway l7—about halfway between Brunswick and Savannah. The island has a particularly rich history, thanks in large part to its abundance of easy-to-harvest seafood. Nearly 4,000 years ago, Sapelo's aboriginal inhabitants evi­dently ignored the seashore to occupy sites with easy access to fresh water, tidal streams and salt marshes. A large shell ring on the island shows that their diet consisted main­ly of oysters and of fish, like mullet and cat­fish, that were easily caught in traps. They also ate clams and whelks, as well as deer, rac­coons, dogs and opossums. Around a thousand years ago, the island boasted a 150-acre village with a large burial mound.

In the 1500s, Spanish missionaries estab­lished the convent of San José de Zapala (the name that was to become Sapelo), but Indi­an resistance forced the Spanish to abandon this section of the coast in 1686.

catherine arnold
10/6/2012 10:44:52 PM

Loved hearing about foraging seafood, and enjoyed the writing in this piece too. Thanks! Catherine at Cold-Water Swimmers: A Blog about Nature, Food -- And Food from Nature http://coldwaterswimmers.blogspot.com/






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