Dear friends of Switchback,
Over Memorial Day weekend I met up with John and Dave, my two best friends from grade school and high school. The one thing we shared through those years of growing up was a passion for fishing.
Fishing, technically, should be where one casts a lure from a fishing pole into the water (or you can use natural bait, like worms) and thus “lure” a fish onto that lure. A hook generally secures the fish (well, should) and one reels the fish into a boat or onto a pier or shoreline.
For us, fishing was more than catching fish. Primarily because we were never that great at it. OK, maybe I was never that great at it. My two friends call me “Snagmaster” because it seemed that I would lose all the lures in any tree. And once I lost my lures, I would borrow Dave and John’s lures. And lose them, too.
The old pond on Dave’s grandparents' property in Richmond, Illinois, were ringed with trees that glittered in the sunlight festooned from all those lures. Commercial planes could probably see their glints of light from 30,000 feet or more. Almost a work of art, it could be argued. Well, at least I argued that point.
John was not the best at casting. He once took a cast and I caught his line in the nick of time as he had successfully hooked my ear. He once caught his cast in a tree over the creek in early April. Shimmying out over the stream on that branch, he managed to break the branch and landed in the icy water.
Dave seemed to be the most adept at getting his lures, his line and act together. However, even he would sometimes end up losing a big catch just shy of the boat. Or drop a net in the water. It was always “You should see what I almost caught,” with Dave. The fish would get bigger and bigger with each re-telling of the story.
It seems we talked more about catching fish than actually catching fish. We once fished the Nippersink Creek in high school. It is a nice, wide country creek that meanders through north-east McHenry County. Being summer and warm, we waded in our underwear into the middle of the creek to avoid getting our lines snagged in the overhanging tree branches. We headed along, the three of us concentrating on fishing for bass. All of a sudden around the bend, came the girls' bible study class from the Richmond Methodist church paddling in the opposite direction with barely enough room to pass us. We caught a lot of strange looks, but no fish.
No, fishing was more a metaphor about being together. We were three friends who used the idea of fishing as a catalyst to connect and reaffirm our being friends. So after a decade or more of not being together fishing, we decided this was going to be the year. We chartered a boat out for the Long Island Sound, close to Dave’s home in Norwalk, Connecticut. The boat’s captain was a professional guide whose job was to get us to the big fish.
Our first guide promptly sent us to another guide as he couldn’t get out on the water that day. Perhaps our reputation preceded us. I shook off the thought that perhaps this was some sort of bad luck, a sign that we wouldn’t catch fish. A jinx. You see, fishing is part praying, part superstition. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no atheists when it comes to fishing. Any change in the weather, any small correction, getting bumped from one boat to another, could jinx the day.
And once out fishing, it comes down to talking to God about letting one little fish get on the hook. The apostles had Jesus guide them to cast on the other side of the boat. He was the ultimate fishing guide and so a prayer to Jesus with every cast is not uncommon. Whether or not Jesus is listening is another question.
Morning came early for the big day. We were up at 2:30 a.m. to meet our guide and his mate out on the Sound. We got into Dave’s car to head to the docks. Dave, the best prepared of the three of us, had a plethora of snacks, beer and even a jacket or two for the adventure. The only thing he forgot were the directions to where to meet the boat. So we drove around the docks of Norwalk, looking for what would be the most likely place to find a boat at 3:45 in the morning.
Finally, Dave got a text off to the captain. He was out in the Sound, picking up bait fish for the day. A sort of fish they call "bunker fish. " These are inedible to humans, but larger than any fish we caught when we were kids. The captain told us where to wait for the boat. And we waited, and waited. Finally, around 4:30 a.m., the boat came into sight. And we were greeted by the mate in his underwear. We didn’t take as a sign of bad luck as everyone knows that fishing in one’s underwear is a perfectly legitimate practice, even if it is 52 degrees outside. Turns out that the boat got snarled in a rope that some yeehaw left dangling in water outside the Norwalk Yacht club. The mate had to dive into the frigid water and cut the rope in order to free the propellers. He quickly excused himself and ran to his car, passing a cop who was sitting in his cruiser. The fact that the officer didn’t question a man running at 4:30 in the morning in wet underwear is a testament to Norwalk still being sort of a fishing town.
Once the mate returned, dressed and somewhat warm again, we commenced out before sunrise in search of the big striped bass. Dave said, “Now that the boat is free of rope and we’re actually on the boat, we are sure to have exhausted any jinxes” and thus jinxed us catching any striped bass.
We started fishing for the bass. They were on the fish finder. A fish finder is sort of a highly technical sonar, created by someone to help torture fisherman. Because on the sonar, the blips and blobs indicate big schools of fish passing by large lunkers of striped bass. They are down there in large populations, swimming slowly as if they know they are on camera. Taunting us to try to catch them.
We furiously dropped our jigs baited with freshly cut up bunker.
And we got….nothing.
The cold of the early morning, just before the sunrise was aided by a nip of the creature (that's whiskey for you uninitiated) and a cup of coffee. We chatted a bit and watched the sun slowly come up as our bait hung 100 feet below, in front of striped bass who had other plans. And even though we were not catching any fish, we were having the time of our lives. Reunited friends, having an adventure.
Finally, the captain decided that enough was enough and the mate reeled in the bait. We changed plans and went to catch porgies. Porgies, according to Wikipedia, belong family Sparidae. They are also called bream. Porgies live in shallow temperate marine waters and are bottom-dwelling carnivores. Most species possess grinding, molar-like teeth. They are often good eating fish, particularly the gilt-head bream and the dentex.
And sure enough we started catching some of them on strips of clam. We had a set up with two hooks off of one line and they would gently nibble at the bait until the pole would shudder with the fish taking the hook. We’d reel in fast and occasionally two would be on at the same time.
Dave, being Dave, had to catch something different and so caught a sea robin or two. It was my first time seeing such a fish. According to Wikipedia, Triglidae, commonly known as sea robins or gurnard, are a family of bottom-feeding scorpaeniform fish. They get their name (sea robin) from the orange ventral surface of the species in the Western Atlantic (Prionotus carolinus) and from large pectoral fins, which, when swimming, open and close like a bird's wings in flight. The mate told us how good sea robin is to eat. I looked at the prehistoric creature and shrugged my shoulders. In it went along with the others and soon we had 35 good sized fish sitting in the hold.
Being Snagmaster, I managed to get my rod and line snarled in the only net on the boat, which was 15 feet from anyone and almost beyond the laws of physics for one to snag. The captain and mate, having been told earlier by Dave and John about “Snagmaster” laughed at me along with John and Dave as I tried to cast the entire boat into the sea. Thus, secure in my humiliating title, I allowed them to cut me free and eventually resumed fishing.
We went after the sea bass again, but they eluded us. The mate showed us a picture taken from Wednesday prior on the same boat. A grinning guy holding up a 45 lb. striped bass. We looked at it, but not for long. Nothing hurts as much as the one you never caught. Not even “the one that got away.”
Eventually, our time ran out and we slunk into the harbor. Not skunked of any fish, but certainly not overwhelmed by catching the big one.
But what we did catch was another chance to be together. In that odd male way, not saying much, sipping coffee, looking at the tip of the pole for any wiggle, testing the pressure of the line and staring out over a beautiful wide open water. Older yes, but not too old to pass up a chance to get out on the water. You see, fishing is never about catching fish, but about catching up with my friends and making sure they are not “the ones that got away.”
American Roots & Celtic Soul