Dear Papa H:
When the alarm went off at 4:30 a.m., I was so groggy with sleep, and last night’s whiskey, I didn’t know for whom the buzzer tolled. Hell, I didn’t know if it was day or night. Then I remembered – fishing. I got dressed, and went down to the kitchen for a quick bite.
Six of us met at the dock with our coolers and cigars and high hopes for the day. The mate wore gut-spattered yellow waders, was opening clams for bait, and was throwing boxes of frozen bunker onto the deck. The sun was also rising. The captain was ready to cast off.
We churned out to a spot just off Sandy Hook Bay, where a lonely red buoy leaned with the current. The morning was turning gray, and the water was listless. The mate fixed us up with clam baits. We dropped our lines in.
Fishing is a hard thing. There are long stretches of boredom. If you’re lucky, and the fishing is good, sudden intense battles with an unseen opponent. For you, the stakes are bragging rights, and avoiding the embarrassment of losing a fish through clumsy handling. For the fish, it’s a fight to the death.
We waited, watching the water, jigging our baits – a movable feast. Someone lit a cigar. Someone farted. Everyone laughed.
Without warning, the fish slammed the bait like a fist to the face, then darted away. I counted off the seconds to give it time to swallow as it swam. Five. Six. Easy … Breathe …
At eight, I pulled the pole up hard, and the tip bent so far it pointed at the water. The fish was hooked.
It dove with authority, deep and long, ripping line off my spool in ten-yard gulps. It felt like a striped bass, but I couldn’t be sure until it got tired, and came up shallow. Until then, I had to pump the pole to maintain pressure, and take back line whenever I could – turning the reel handle in jerky circles in the hopes that the gear would hold.
I could hear arguing in the background. My son Bob was out of smokes, and blamed my brother.
“You’ve taken the last cigar, Jeff.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Yeah, you have.”
Two “haves” and “have-nots”: it was a standoff. I wasn’t listening anyway. I was locked in battle with the big fish.
When the fish finally surfaced near the boat, it wallowed on its side, flashing the distinctive lateral lines of a striper. It eyed me with a dark stare and then, after one pass, turned its massive head, and dove again. But not as deep this time; not as strong. I pulled and reeled, and the fish came up sooner, its reactions slower, like a heavyweight after ten hard rounds. At the top again, it turned flat and finally surrendered to the gaff. The mate stabbed the iron hook into its broad flank, jabbing up fast from below. It was a good gaff, near the gills, away from the meaty center of the fillet. He grunted as he heaved the bleeding fish onto the deck.
It was a cow bloated with roe. She had a wide face, rippled gillcovers, and terrified green-rimmed eyes. The adrenaline was wearing off, and I felt heaviness in my arms. I slid the butt of the rod into a pipe mounted near the rail, leaving the mate to unhook, and dump her into the dark hold.
The fish was strong. And clean. And true. The biggest of the day. She had shown courage in the fight, and dignity in the face of death. I high-fived the other fishermen, and went into the cabin for another beer.
Somehow it left a bad taste.