Waltz­ing Matilda

MAGIC SOME­TIMES HAP­PENS WHEN AN UN­EX­PECTED FISH SWIMS ONTO THE STAGE

Anglers Journal - - FIRST LIGHT - By Reed Austin Paint­ing by Katey Mor­rill

The bruised sky over Mishaum is drained of color, storm clouds roiled white over black like an old-style photo neg­a­tive — Hur­ri­cane Her­mine’s slap on New Eng­land’s ass as she hur­ries past Dart­mouth, Mas­sachusetts.

East wind means no stripers, but no mat­ter. It’s false al­ba­core time. On cue, blood-warm Septem­ber wa­ter erupts — a wolf pack of al­bies strafe the outer bar, pul­ver­iz­ing peanut bunker into pro­tein. And like that, they’re gone, the cove now show­ing no sign of hav­ing ever har­bored a fish. Had I been look­ing down to change flies, I’d have missed the whole thing.

A quar­ter-mile of casts later, my arm starts to com­plain. I reel in and won­der where the 20-year-old me is hid­ing — the one who would have cast to the end of the bar with­out a break, then turned around and worked all the way back. I’m be­gin­ning to worry that my plan to live for­ever may be flawed.

Then it hap­pens: Three saucer-sized ob­jects swim by, each the color of boiled lob­ster shell, bob­bing like or­ange bal­loons with their strings tan­gled. This jum­ble is a foot long and a foot wide un­til an out­line forms and the pieces come to­gether. It’s a sea robin.

I’ve caught sea robins in our lob­ster pots, and oc­ca­sion­ally bot­tom fish­ing. If there is a place for strange crea­tures in beauty con­tests, sea robins win hands down. Their non-ath­letic form fea­tures a bul­bous pear-shaped head, enor­mous scal­lop-like pec­toral fins and a tail the size of your thumb. They are as slow as al­bies are fast. Out of wa­ter they’re the color of ma­nure and emit strange grunt­ing noises. Who­ever named them had a warped sense of hu­mor.

The fish swims up to the Surf Candy dan­gling from my rod tip. I sweep it right, and the sea robin fol­lows a few inches be­hind, not yet sold. The bit of eel­grass trail­ing from the hook is off-putting, but clearly the fish thinks this thing is ed­i­ble. It opens its mouth, fleshy white lips curl­ing back against or­ange skin in black wa­ter — an­other photo neg­a­tive, this time in color.

I slowly pirou­ette (in waders), draw­ing fig­ure eights with the fly like yarn in front of a kit­ten. It lights up, hot­ter, pec­torals flar­ing and tripling in size. From above it takes on the ap­pear­ance of a brightly painted geisha with para­sols over each shoul­der. She (I’ve de­cided it’s a girl) flut­ters and dips, steps del­i­cately ahead, stops and spins, then floats up on her fins to fol­low the fly. We twirl to­gether in per­fect uni­son. She’s 1/100th my size and only feet away, clearly aware of my pres­ence and un­afraid. She is one of the most mes­mer­iz­ing and beau­ti­ful liv­ing crea­tures I have ever seen — and I’m dancing with her.

I pause to strip the eel­grass off the fly, flick it back in, and it’s al­most game on — time to eat. But I can’t do that to her. I flip the fly over my shoul­der and watch as she wan­ders off, her lu­mi­nes­cent glow fad­ing into the back­ground rus­sets as she shuf­fles into darker wa­ter.

Fish­er­men go down to the sea in the be­lief that each day is new and that any­thing is pos­si­ble. Some­times magic hap­pens. To­day I waltzed with a sea robin.

When the al­bies went miss­ing, a sea robin turned up and stole the show.

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