Throwback Thursday – Men’s Lives

Rick Whalen, Stuart Vorpahl at Napeague Harbor, 1981 | Photo by Dan Budnik | Montauk Library Archives

In the spring of 1981, Rick Whalen was a couple of years out of college, “knocking around East Hampton trying to find work.” Somehow he hooked up with Stuart Vorpahl for a few months fishing pound traps in Napeague Harbor, and he recalls a good run of weakfish. In this photo Rick is flinging a bunch into the back of Stuart’s truck while Stuart wets them down.
The late Dan Budnik took the photograph. Doug Kuntz, a fisherman and photographer, thought the Baymen’s way of life should be captured before it evaporated, leading the photographer and philanthropist Adelaide de Menil to ask eight photographers – including Dan Budnik — to do so. Four years later, many of the pictures appeared in Peter Matthiessen’s Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork.
Rick said Stuart was a master welder and that his “pride and glory” was a trap whose steel stakes allowed him to fish in water too deep for the traditional ones made of wood. “We installed those traps early that spring, and I remember some REALLY long days, motoring back into Napeague Harbor after it was full dark.”
They lifted the traps from Stuart’s steel boat, which he’d built himself and at certain times would row instead of using the engine (a Dan Budnik photo of him doing so appears in Matthiessen’s book). Even the bed of the truck that transported the fish to Stuart’s Seafood Market for packing out was all steel – Rick said it still exists.
In Men’s Lives Stuart recalled that in 1952 the summer weakfish were so thick that their schools ran from Promised Land on the bay around Montauk Point and then all the way west in the ocean to Fire Island. Such ebbs and flows of the fish population, he said, were an indication that a higher power, rather than government regulation, was calling the shots.
Stuart ran unsuccessfully for East Hampton Town councilman the same year Rick worked for him. Rick went on to become active in land preservation, also serving for many years as an attorney for the town before founding his own land use company. Stuart served as an East Hampton Town trustee and as a champion of Baymen’s rights as well as a historian and one of the few remaining speakers of the vanishing Bonac dialect. He died in 2016 at the age of 76.

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