How often does life present intersections of meaning whereby we find ourselves immersed in a moment that we find vivid and real, only to find that it connects to other realities? Does that make sense? Have I told you that I majored in English and Religion? If not, perhaps you could tell, inasmuch the neural network has now been in place for some thirty years. I speak of course of fish, not some abstruse theologian.
This collection of moments occurred on a certain beach on a spit of land, known as Cape Cod, a vast glacial moraine, the terminus of an ice age glacier whose foot receded and dropped the ground down contents of mother earth's best and hardest rock, igneous and metamorphic (I presume), leaving a vast ecosystem based upon sand and scrub pine. I love this place as it is in my veins, for we now that saltwater is the same ph as our blood, and that many of us are destined to return to its gyre. I have to state here, for the record, that Larry Dahlberg and I have similar imaginations inasmuch as we both wish to be cremated and our ashes placed in a plug that can be easily broken off in the maw of our favorite gamefish. For Larry it will be a muskie and for me it will be a bluefish, preferably a surface take, splashy and messy and full of evil intent. But I digress.
After a hiatus of fifteen plus years, my law school friends and I re-acquainted as a group in Cape Cod to extract joy from its coastal waters. I had high hopes for them to be introduced to bluefish and stripers, in that order. Of course, as fate often does, we actually accomplished these goals, with some brief hesitations.
Our best event was striking bluefish from the beach on Vineyard Sound. Never having been party to their ravenous natures, my friends were spellbound. Hit upon hit upon hit, on the surface, slugging it out, eye's sclera flashing yellow and incensed, aiming toward hand, finger and throat, the mayhem continued unabated for at least two hours, although I did not keep actual track. I recall all four rods doubled over, yelling, laughing, and the unleashing of joy, as only the office bound can do when confronted with the best of all alternatives.
These were good fish, four to eight pounds, hot and agitated, and wanting only to slam the shit out of the next surface commoting popper, be it a pink Pili popper or a white pencil popper. We saw the same fish target, execute and miss, once, twice, and three times. This was classic excellent bluefish action. My friends received the finest treat.
Next were large stripers, a different personality. Bursts of sprinter speed, finicky yet positively charged, they held us captive in a rip until my friend Steve connecting on his first cast, brought a large bass to shore across a cobbly beach and I made a misstep. This was a good fish, hefting 18 lbs and with a tandem hook sluggo in its mouth. After subduing it, Steve asked quite reasonably for a picture. My boga grip being attached to my waist so I could not easily free it for him to hold, I released the fish and told him to grab it by the lips. Big Mistake. As he hefted it, the fish initiated a slow motion head shake that freed itself from his hand and pulled the free trailer hook downward into his left index finger, to the curve of the shank. I saw how bad it was. I saw the fish in the rip. I saw how bad it was. I saw the fish in the rip, just where they were supposed to be. " Fuck". "Fuck". For all the effort and sublime pleasure forgone. For my friend in need of immediate attention. For life whose balance while, not hanging by a thread, nonetheless felt worn and tortured. My first cast elicited a strike and a miss. What would fortune have held for me had I not had to go to Hyannis's ER? I will never know.
After doffing his Yankee's hat at 6am at the intake desk, Steve was asked what his level of pain was? The pictoral board showed happy to crying, from one to ten. Steve thought about it, I am sure he thought hard, and mustered a "2".
Hmmmmmm. A "2"? I left the beach for a "2"? My first thought was to tweak his finger to see what a "2" really felt like. My second thought was to leave him in good hands and return hours later after he had a chance to flirt with all the ER staff sufficiently. My last thought, as expressed to him, was that I had taken shits higher than 2 on the pain scale and that I left fish to bring him to this place of healing. Next time I will leave my friend on the beach until the moment is past.
But it is the stories, and not the fish, that end up being burned into our consciousness. Or so I rationalize! Ha!
Strange how, despite the passage of time and the accumulation of experience, a seasonal fever strikes with the same pulse quickening and mind captivating intensity. I know this feeling. It always happens at the beginning of the season, after a long winter and the imagination has run cold. It starts like a dry throat looking for water, as tackle fliers start to arrive in the mail. It starts when you have watched the same episode of Larry Dahlberg's "The Hunt for Big Fish" again and again, and though you can't stomach to hit the delete on the DVR, you still feel...unsatisfied. You find yourself poring over old tackle, sharpening old hooks, looking at the fly inventory, checking reels, reviewing tides and moon phases for the upcoming season in your mind. You check the same listservs again for recent information and fishing reports. Such an irresponsible use of time. There is guilt associated with this fever. It lingers after you have clicked the "Buy" button on a particular plug you have been meaning to try out. You reason that even if you never use it you can always save it and covet it in the future, perhaps even sell it, like the "Hab's Squid Popper" still in its original wrapper, its plugmaker notoriously meticulous and respected and now dead, the plug beginning to accrue appreciated value. You have the reverse Atom, in cider color, still in its package, acquired for a song from the Army Navy store in downtown Portland, Maine. That store in Monument Square is now closed. The plug remains. You even have an image of that plug being cast by spinning rod off a small skiff when you were in 7th grade, its bottle shape lolling on the surface, slowly filing with water, driving huge bluefish crazy. You wish you had saved the big jointed Pikie that you ran behind an umbrella rig, a plug that was brutalized and ultimately sacrificed in the teeth laden maw of those gator blues. When you lived in Maine, you used an old ceiling beam in the basement, above your tying bench, to hold retired lures and flies. They earned their place on that beam, bite by bite, and bit and bit. So when you look at those plugs and flies, a fish, a snapshot, a moment would be resurrected from the past, the ocean smell, the burn of salt in a finger cut by the line, the sunrising to reveal slashing fish and frenzied bait. The fever is not stemmed by being fed, it only grows more ravenous.
AARP- Not just a gastronomical sound! Well, it really is. But enough of the aging process.
I did actually hear this sound last weekend from my gut, after hiking back on mile 11 (notably between milepost 814 and 815 on the Tillamook R.R.) on the Salmonberry River, a coastal, rain fed, Oregon river, a tributary of the mighty Nehalem river, hosting one of the few untouched native runs of steelhead that top 20 pounds. This was an adventure I had savored in my imagination for more years than I care to admit.
I set out from home and arrived at the confluence by 8:00a and suited up. The river was renowned but had lately taken it on the chin by a tempest in December 2007. The flood cit out the bank beneath many turns of the railroad bed, leaving it literally hanging free in many places, testament to man's inability to envision the rigors of nature. The repair would be astronomical, into the tens of millions, far in excess of the value of using the route by the Tillamook lumber companies that used it. They now ship their wares by boat. What is left is decrepitating and will make the route impassable, even easily by foot, in a few years. So, my timing is good to enjoy a route that is relatively accessible, for the moment.
I elected to hike two hours before fishing because the sedimentation of the lower stretch of the mainstem renders the stretch broad and featureless. Hiking farther up the mainstem the river turns into classic steelhead water, deep pools, rapids, edges, cobble, the very thing that attracts fish and with them fishermen.
When I finally started to fish, I nymphed with a "lifter", a beadhead egg pattern. Finally, walking along the railroad bed, I saw holding water above a rapid with one large fish across the river, holding, dropping, then returning to position. The drop to the river is steep and the path must be selected carefully. I dropped down well below the fish's line of sight. Wading out I knew that I had few plausible shots before the fish would spook. Carefully, I made four casts and worked the drift out the the strike zone. Almost surreally the indicator stopped and I reacted. The fish boiled, its mass tight to the line. It was a good fish- I saw it and felt it. It shook its head, moved head down, thrashing hard, its tail momentarily breaking the surface as it worked against the pressure. Bright and heavy, it started to move upstream and at that moment it came unbuttoned. My sense of time when attached to a good fish is always sealed in the moment. I can't say that I was disappointed because it was unexpected, even though I had believed I would catch it. That is the paradox of fishing. Released, it moved upstream to safety, while I reeled in and watched my hands begin to shake.
My effort felt rewarded even though I will spend the rest of the day wondering why I hadn't sharpened the hook or been better able to anticipate the take. Six hours of walking for four seconds of thrill. How bizarre the calculus leading to satisfaction.
So, at the almost ripe middle age of fifty, I feel that time urges me to share some observations about my most favorite avocation.
This journey began when I was ten years old and was taken "deep sea fishing" on the Lynnway Marine in Lynn, Massachusetts. This was a small party or head boat that brought us barely outside the harbor's entrance, where we dropped our lines using Penn Senator reels and Christmas Tree rigs, which are small pieces of fluorescent tubes tied in sequence, pre-dating Sabiki rigs by over thirty years. Mackerel were the target and they obliged.. and obliged... to the tune of forty fish, brought home in a plastic bucket and cleaned in the backyard on a cement bench. I am certain many were not eaten as no one I know has ever asked me over for a mackerel feed, and for good reason.
Yet even with the slight heft of a mackerel, the moment of hook-up remained etched in my memory, a living connection between myself and the natural world that was tangible, mysterious and fun, all of which are components of any joyful experience.
And so began an odyssey of sorts, evolving over may years, and including summer days left by my mother at Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield, Massachusetts, learning how to catch panfish with worm and bobber, how to pull nightcrawlers from the suburban lawns of my neighborhood, watching mesmerized as an old-timer waded out and caught huge largemouth bass casting rebels along the edge of a patch of lilypads with spinning gear. He illustrated in stark relief the difference between pretending and knowing, faith and certainty.
I fished for stripers from shore during their crash, a cycle of desoluteness, in the mid-1970's and 80's. I recall snorkeling at the age of 13 off of Rockport's Cape Hedge beach and encountering a small school bass that took me a moment to identify... because I had never seen them before. They appeared and disappeared, striped apparitions hovering above the sandy bottom, perhaps 18 inches long. If they lived today they would be over thirty odd years old and far larger than the all time tackle specimen Al McReynolds caught. I spent many hours thereafter trying to figure out how to connect with these fish. I even fished hard in 1974 and 1975 off of Truro for a week with a friend who had a 14 foot dory and a 20hp outboard. We trolled christmas tree rigs with large jointed pikies, tony acetta spoons trimmed with pork rind, hoochie trolls, and large rebels. We cast reverse atoms that took on water and cut long sliding curves on the retrieve. Never did we see or catch a bass, always bluefish and the very largest kind, some topping fifteen pounds. As I look back it is astounding that we found no bass off of Horseshoe Shoal in Cape Cod Bay, only bluefish. I am, however, forever indebted to blues for having tenacity and incredible power, even on conventional gear with wire.
I am embarrassed to admit that I did not finally connect with bass until I was almost thirty, in part because I left fishing behind as I pursued school, livelihood and love. My first bass came while casting a surface popper off of Old Silver Beach in a summer evening, off a jetty. I cannot even recall the stage of the tide, except that there was decent depth. The fish hit almost immediately, as if I cast on top of it and it defended its space by a slashing strike. I looked at it with a mixture of relief and alarm. I saw a fish that had long eluded me and at the same time, since my in-laws lived up the street, I saw I would be plagued by impulses to find more. And that is what happened.
After pursuing trout out west, I came to that moment where I knew salt flowed through my veins and could not be dismissed. More later.