Mud Bay, are you kidding me? Who ever heard of Mud Bay? Well, for your information, Mud Bay is an approximately 200-acre bay on the north-eastern shore of Lake Ontario, south of the village of Cape Vincent in Jefferson County, New York. The bay opens into the Great Lake just to the west of the entrance to the St. Lawrence River and east of two beautiful islands, Grenadier and Fox.
For years, this area of Lake Ontario has been rated number four in the world for smallmouth bass. So much for the geography lesson. Now let’s get down to the real reason I am writing this story. For years, I have watched the sleepy little bay go from a few cottages on the two shores to an ideal access point into Lake Ontario. Today Martin’s Marina lies at the lower end of Kent Creek and is the sole provider of rental boats for the bay. They also provide outboard motor and boat sales and service plus tackle, snacks, and bait. Martins bought out Morris Humphrey several decades ago and established a nice marina down by the main road, just past the bridge on Highway 6. At Morris’s old site, they dredged out the mud pit, put in floating docks, and turned the point into a pleasant RV camp site, which includes real toilets and showers. Originally providing a dock with gas capability and a second building with additional bait and tackle, Martin’s has retrenched over the years to maintaining only the main marina.
I have felt for a long time that the history of this area would pass into obscurity, as most of the original home owners have either passed or moved on. So I thought I would write this article so a little of the past could be remembered from the eyes of a child who grew up there.
I was born in Watertown, in 1943, in the old Solar Building on Jefferson Street. Basically, ever since I can remember, my whole life centered on my summers at the lake. We always spent the season at Morris Humphrey’s campgrounds located at the end of Humphrey Road, just outside of Cape Vincent. Morris was a down to earth farmer who maintained a quaint little summer resort that had 6-8 little green shacks, stacked on the shore, and 4-8 green 14 ft. Barbour boats which he rented. Each year, in the early days, we would rent one of his cottages for the season and commute back and forth as often as we could.
My first recollections at Humphreys was as a scrawny little boy swimming off the flats at the northern edge or wading in the little back bay, which served as the watering hole for the cattle, searching for frogs and crabs. I probably was only 3 or 4 at the time, a time when innocence still prevailed. As I said, this was the first real memory I had of Morris’s, but, while rummaging through some old forgotten Kodak stills one day, I found some snapshots of me wrapped in a blanket lying on an old apple box on the engine box of our old double ender boat, “The Eagle,” dad’s first boat. The caption on the back certified I was three months old when the picture was snapped. So you see, I literally grew up with a fishing pole in my hands. Dad was a great friend of Morris and spent many hours helping him fix or repair the cabins; this helped immeasurably with us being able to afford the summer.
The season always started in the spring, just after the ice had thawed, and you could hold a pole without freezing your hands. Mom, dad, grandma and I would head for Kent’s Creek or Mud Creek, as it was known when I grew up, a muddy narrow backwater creek, which extended all the way to State Route 12E. Turning off on Huff Road, we would park the car on the side of the road and walk through the weeds and brambles down to the edge of the creek, to fish for bullheads. Clearing a spot on the bank, we would start a small fire in a futile attempt to keep somewhat warm, and hook up our 8 foot bamboo cane poles. No fancy gear here, not like today. In those days, you attached about 15 feet of heavy cord to each tip, with a hook and a cork for a bobber. Taking a sticky wad of dough from the can, you stuck it on the hook the best you could and cast as far out into the water as the line would permit. Almost as fast as we could drop in a line, we would snag a fish and toss it up on to the bank where we would gather them later. You never seemed to have to un-hook one, just snap the pole at the right moment, and off would come the bullhead, slick as could be. My job was to gather them from the ground and place them in a burlap bag, a task I immediately grew to respect after I was horned by one of these slimy little bast---ds. In those days, it was not uncommon to bring home a sack filled with 50-100. Dad was a member of the Watertown Sportsman Club, out of Black River, and would often provide the fish cooked at their Annual Bullhead Feed and Trap Shoot.
The wait for summer always seemed to take forever. April, May, and more often than not, June would be nothing but rain. Then, just before bass season started, the skies would clear and three months of gorgeous weather would dominate. I have mentioned previously what the area looks like today, but let me give you a glimpse of the past. In the 40s and 50s, the camping facility was a no frills outdoor adventure, where luxury accommodations meant you had a two-seater outhouse, instead of a single. There were no showers, no boat launching facilities, no gas, nothing that would beseech of modern. If you did bring your own boat, you had to back it through the mud and pray that you didn’t get stuck. Morris’s boats were also an experience. Each was equipped with two oars, which were usually splintered or broken, and a 20-30 ft. bow rope attached to a one gallon paint can filled with concrete, the anchor. Preparation for launching normally included 20 minutes of bailing, if it had recently rained; outside of that, you were on your own. To get into one of his boats was another one of those interesting challenges. First, you had to hand carry your motor and gas tank through the mud to the rear of the boat, throw in the tank and attach the motor to the transom; you couldn’t put the prop down into the water because of the mud. Next you loaded the gear, fetched some minnows, worms, and sometimes crabs from Morris, who maintained them in a bait tank next to his house. Crabs are a great bait, especially in the fall when the bass are breeding. Lastly, you would grab the anchor, throw it into the bow, and push off. Once far enough from shore, you could lower the motor, hook up the gas, and finally rinse the mud out of your shoes.
My fondest memories will always be the days when I went fishing with my dad. In the early days we didn’t have a pot to _____ in. Dad was a mechanic for the City of Watertown, and obviously I was in school. We had a little 10 horse Johnson that fit in the trunk of the car, and whenever we could go fishing, I would rush home on my Road Master bike, pack some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and pedal down to the public works garage where dad worked. At precisely 4:30, we would throw the bike into the back seat and drive the twenty miles to Humphreys. Dad would park the car beside the water, and we would load up. It didn’t seem to make any difference what the weather was doing, we were going fishing. Dad was an interesting seaman. He had no fear of the lake, as long as he had a boat under his feet; but let him wade out into the water to fix a dock, and you could sense the panic. Apparently, when he was young, he was thrown into the water and almost drowned; thus, the trepidation as the water reached his waist. Those days were great days, with shore dinners on the head of Grenadier, swimming in Wilson Bay, searching for crawdads in the creek, or lounging on the shore.
We had several spots that even today are great to catch your limit. The old barn is a rusty grey structure, which is still standing, located about halfway up the Dablon shore. Today, there is a nice home with a concrete breakwater, in front, that you can use as a reference if you get lost.
Depending on the weather, you can anchor about 200 feet off shore, directly opposite the barn, or drift down the shore. When they are biting, it will be hard to keep bait on your hook. Another great spot is just around the point of Dablon. Move to within about 100 feet from shore, and you will be over large boulders and shallow water; throw pugs and spinners across the rocks, and watch out. When they just aren’t biting (and yes, this does occur), I go out between the head of Fox and Grenadier Islands and drift across the flats towards Grenadier. You may not catch as many or as fast as you would like, but I guarantee the size will be larger. My last resort, weather permitting, is the long ride out to Charity Shoals. Yes, it is a long ride, especially if you don’t have a big boat with a big motor, but I have caught some really large bass and lake trout there. Here’s a note for you locals. Did you know that Charity Shoals is actually the rim of an extinct volcano?
My grandmother told me for years, as I was growing up, that I was one of a long string of Tidds that had fished this area as far back as the early nineteen hundreds. My great-great grandfather was the first, according to my grandmother, to conduct a guide service out of the bay. I remember being told how he would get up in the morning and prepare a basket of sandwiches, fruit, and beer (you had to have beer), and go down to his boat.
The first boat he had was a beautiful double ender that, if you didn’t know better, looked like an oversized canoe. Long and wide, it had a bench seat at the front and a bench-like seat at the rear. The rest was reserved for the tackle, gear, food basket, and a space in the middle where grandpa manned the oars. A point needs to be made here; we aren’t talking about the lightweight 6 ft. oars of today, but rather of 8ft. solid oak oars, which were the norm for the day. The boat was constructed in Cape Vincent by superior craftsmen, who fitted each board and plank so tightly that caulking was almost non-existent. They affectionately hand rubbed each piece of wood until it literally gleamed in the sunlight, before applying many coats of marine varnish. She was a beautiful craft gliding across the water and a cherished and prized possession. But again I digress! Grandpa would load up the boat, at what is now called Snug Harbor, and row up the bay where he would pick up anywhere from one to four fisherman from the Barrack’s Club dock. Back in the early 1900s, the site, prominently situated on the bluff looking straight-out at the heel of Grenadier Island, served as a gentlemen’s club which entertained the affluent from New York City and the surrounding communities for many years. Collecting five dollars from each person, grandpa would then row, for the next six to eight hours, to his favorite fishing holes between the islands, serve lunch, and, before returning to the cove, clean and package the daily catch. I tried to row a small aluminum boat with 8ft. oak oars when I was in my prime and was exhausted within 10 minutes; grandpa did it standing up for over 8 hours on any given trip. I guess that was a time when men were really men.
In the early 1960s, my dad finally bought a cabin of his own, for the whopping sum of $2000, just south of the old bay and moved the last remaining Morris green shed on to his property. The building served as a work shed and a cleaning facility, but I believe its true value was the memories it evoked. Over the years, my sons and grandchildren tried to visit at least a couple of weeks each year but as with all generations, time passed, and the visits grew less and less as we all tried to find our place in life. Dad stayed in his beloved home until his death is the 90s. My sons and I tried to keep the cabin in the family, but, after several winters, we knew that the upkeep and the time between visits just wouldn’t work. I sold the home in the early 2000s, and the heritage that had been there for over one hundred years was ended.
The memories of my life, fishing with my dad, children and grandchildren, will never fade; it is still a home that calls me to return every few years. I will be returning this fall for the first time in over six years with my lady, my son, and his wife. Hopefully together we will rekindle those memories that have been part of my life for over 70 years. Maybe we will have great weather and catch a ton of fish like the good old days; maybe we will get skunked. Maybe we will take a cruise down the St. Lawrence and visit Boldt Castle. Maybe we will visit the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton. Who knows? Whatever we choose to do will be one more wonderful memory of this great region.
By William Tidd
William Tidd was born in Watertown, NY and now lives on the west coast in Oregon. After graduating from Watertown Senior High School he joined the United States Air Force, servicing for 25 years, both as an enlisted and as an officer retiring from the service in 1986 as a Major. He has a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Missouri-Rolla, and an MBA from the University of Northern Colorado, working in the automotive, space sector and concluded his career as VP of Operations at Fastek. He married a local girl, Nancy Elaine Williams, from Adams Centre, NY. Today William volunteers with the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, the Air Force Association and the Military Officers Association of America. He is also an aspiring novelist, writing a pre-WWII novel which is presently being published.