With a new September light behind him, Wayne Kenyon walked the path from Moonstone Beach, carrying a bucket and pole. Since he was a boy of five and first walked to fish the Beaver River, he has been a fisherman. He fished through his years working at the Kenyon Mill, his marriage, raising three children and later, the loss of his beloved wife Carol. Together for fifty-two years, they were married for forty-eight and three quarters and he smiled before adding, “She was as pretty as a movie star”. He has a sneaky laugh with a big smile; mischievous, genuine, infectious. Like most mornings, Wayne had been there since sunrise, but caught no fish this day.
Raised in a family of twelve on the edge of The Great Swamp, there were just three houses on his Biscuit City Road back then. For a young boy, South County was a whole world of fishing and hunting adventures. “When I was a little kid I used to walk to fish. I used to raccoon hunt that swamp at night”. Years later, he would take his two boys camping there. “I couldn’t afford a tent. I knew where the island was; I took all kinds of sticks and branches and made a lean to. We had blankets and pillows. We ate fish for breakfast and dinner. Mostly perch.” For many, this is a catalog age, where a myriad of overnight providers offer us fishoflages, oils, and space age materials for our wader’s shirts and shoes, but fancy wading boots don’t make you a fisherman. Knowing your way in the woods and swamps, fishing the beaches from Watch Hill to Tiverton, rising before sunrise to cast for bass when you are seventy-eight, well that certainly does.
As a young boy, some of the first advice given him was to use squid to catch tautog. When we are younger, whether through indifference or humor, older folks often give us minimal information at critical times. They don’t necessarily tell you everything and real locals don’t show their cards so easily. Squid is good bait, better if you know when and where to use it. After enough time catching nothing, Wayne noticed an “old guy” fishing with crabs and a hand line, who had 55 blackfish in his brace. With a big smile, he said, “I didn’t know what I was doing at that time.” So Wayne never stopped fishing. To catch stripers back in the day, he stood on Art Carpenter’s porch, watching the bait fish when they came in close. When there were menhaden, he would snag one then throw it back. “That’s how I caught the big fish”, he smiled. His brother Ray made a habit of finding fish during the day when Wayne was a work and so when got home just after three, the house phone would be ringing with a report. Some days Ray would have spent whatever money he had on gas to drive around; Wayne would have to pick him up so they could fish together.
Wayne talks of family and friends in present terms, because those he has lost still hold a presence in his everyday thoughts. When asked how long ago it was that Ray used to drive around looking for those fish, he paused, working his timeline to how old Ray would be now. “Ninety-two. He died when he was sixty-six.” That gave us both some pause; Wayne knows life is a positive event. Still swinging eleven and twelve foot surf rods, he said, “My older brother used to say, ‘if they had a telephone pole with eyes on it, I’d have it for a fishing pole’”, a memory which brought back that laugh again. Striper plugs like the Cotton Cordell or a big Adam Popper for the breachway, remain his favorites.
As he grew, he fished at night for conger eels because his mother loved to eat them, skinned and fried. There were days and nights walking local beaches, as well as the flats of Tiverton, for blues and stripers, landing a fifty one and half pounder from his boat and a few forties from the beach. He would hike into Thirty Acre Pond after working second shift, throwing a black jitterbug with green spots to catch late night largemouth. His wife fished with him a few times and that was enough for her. Often, he would shoot woodchucks for the farmers then bring the noses to town hall, exchanging them for fifteen cents each. Fox were worth three dollars back then, but then you had to cut the tongue out, which reduced the chances of the town clerk seeing the same fox many times.
Several years back, Wayne tore a muscle in his arm which swelled up like a golf ball, making casting quite painful. Later, with the injury unattended still, he fished for October bluefish off Narragansett Beach. The limit back then was ten fish per day, so he worked to land ten, fourteen pound fish, all retrieved with a busted arm. That is the drive that makes a fisherman. Right along, he has caught crabs for tautog bait in the salt ponds. “Got as many as a bushel basket, all by hand, no bait”, he laughed, then told about a guy and his wife recently fishing for blue crabs at the entrance to moonstone beach. “I said you ain’t gonna catch any and they said why not? I said they all got washed out with the breach! And they didn’t get one.”
At thirty-eight, he quit smoking and even at just five dollars a carton it didn’t take long to save enough money to buy a 22’ Sea Hawk. At thirty-nine he quit drinking. “When my little girl came along, I said, if I want to do things right, I better start doing things right myself”. He alternated between first and second shift over the years to ensure the kids always had family in the home and since 1976, has served as a Shannock Baptist Church deacon.
His family home is gone now. “The state condemned it so they could own on both sides of the swamp”. His children are grown and he is busy with 10 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren. He still works his garden and makes his pies from scratch. Although much has changed here over his years shooting squirrels, doves, rabbits and those woodchucks, he still hunts turkeys and deer, adding that there are lots around but with so many houses, its hard now to find a place to shoot. “Matunuck has probably changed the most. Where 5 Cottages was, there was about a hundred feet of wild roses in front of that and I used to go rabbit hunting there years ago. Then they moved them back. Now it costs a hundred bucks to (drive) on the beach”. He has survived a heart attack, had a toe cut off and suffered the interminable loss of his beloved wife.
Carol was everything to him; they built a family, raised pigs and cows, canned their vegetables, always working well together. When friends would chide him about how such a pretty girl married a guy like him, he would say, “She knew a good thing when she saw it!” Carol would have been 66 in December, but she was lost to cancer six years ago September. Wayne said she “Past September seventh, buried the eleventh. She rolled a seven eleven and went to heaven.” With a smile, he added, “This year, I haven’t fished a lot but when I did, I done good. Got lucky when Cards Pond breached, we were catchin’ one striper after another. I fish whenever I feel like it now. You get that privilege when you’re retired but the only bad thing about retirement is that you don’t get any time off.” Wayne’s deep loss is balanced by good, loving memories. What else is there, really? The birth of our children, fishing the beach through so many tides and winds, the passing of our loved ones. It’s the days between that Wayne Kenyon still celebrates, even as he wishes dearly his wife was with him. And that’s why he gets to wear that big genuine smile.
On October 3, Adam Perry Sr. was lost when fishing off Little Compton. Three fishermen were sent into the sea without notice, two were returned. It is a pity family should suffer such loss without benefit of closure. T.S. Elliot gave us:
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth and not returning
Figlia del tuo figlio
Queen of Heaven.
My prayers to the Perry’s, to those who survived and to They who go down to the sea in ships.
Todd Corayer is a life-long fisherman who lives not far from the Saugatucket with his wife, who supports his fishing mainly to get him out of the house and a young son who regularly catches more fish than him.