The stages of a fishing life as prophesized by a wise, old captain. By WILLIAM SISSON
In hindsight, it was as much a prophecy as it was a casual observation. Any good young skipper worth his salt, the retired captain told me years ago, should be able to out-fish an older captain and leave him in his wake. If he can’t, something’s wrong. The graybeard, who’d had a successful career, made the case that younger fishermen are more willing to adopt new technology, tackle and techniques. They’re hungrier. Bolder. The comment was but a small part of a long interview on his life, but it’s the only remark that I can recall from that conversation today. It stuck in my craw.
I was in my early 30s — neither young nor old, but with enough energy and experience fishing the surf and from boats to begin to connect the dots. In my bones I was certain I was only going to get sharper, wiser and fishier as I got older. I wasn’t worried about being overtaken by a school of whippersnappers.
Back then, I worked as a reporter during the day, and lived the life of a fish bum at night. That’s when I felt most alive. So did my band of misfit friends. We didn’t give a damn about money or sleep. We just wanted to catch stripers.
We gave no quarter to the fish, ourselves or to anyone who couldn’t keep up. We fished as if our lives depended on it.
From March through November, we lived for the tides. We eavesdropped on conversations in breakfast joints, boatyards and tackle shops, anywhere someone might have intel on fish. We’d try anything that might give us an edge, experimenting with tactics, techniques, lures and baits. I followed the fish from Nova Scotia to Virginia. We even worried about who was on “our” rock or drifting over “our” reef when we weren’t there.
In those days, you didn’t give away information except to the guys you fished with — and even they could be suspect. Brothers kept secrets from brothers. And if anyone was foolish or brash enough to actually ask where you’d caught your fish, you’d veil the truth to mislead them — a polite way of saying you’d lie. My fishing buddy and I could even talk in a shorthand language of hand signals and abbreviated sentences when we were around other people.
“You guys are like Freemasons,” said a coworker, shaking his head after witnessing an exchange. “Secret hand signals, secret words …” Seems silly now. Just a couple of knuckleheads thinking they had something to hide.
Even in the midst of it, I knew it couldn’t last. Fishing friends burned out, died or moved on to more age-appropriate pursuits. No más, they whispered. That level of mania strained marriages, friendships and careers. The pace wasn’t sustainable with age. The good captain was right.
I still fish hard in spurts, just not with any sustained fury. It’s not numbers I’m after but something more sublime, or so I tell myself. But the old obsession is always lurking around the edges, nibbling, teasing, promising more than it can deliver.
It is early April, and 6 inches of heavy, wet snow has fallen. Late afternoon is raw. I follow the railroad tracks to a steep path leading to the marsh and a small tidal river. The cord grass is a patchwork of snow and brown. I cross the soggy world to a secluded wintering hole for stripers, which a young fisherman in his 20s showed me.
I am alone. The temperature is in the low 30s. I’m wearing waders, a winter coat and a watch cap. My hands are cold, but they don’t burn.
It’s very still. Bare trees and clouds reflect off the mirrored surface. The cove is full of fish that have wintered over, but they are closemouthed, probably due to the drop in temperature. I catch a few and stay until dusk. I thread my way back along a narrow, wooded path and over the remnants of a barbed wire fence and climb the steep bank to the tracks.
I navigate a goat trail that roughly parallels the rails. Five minutes in, I spot the headlight of the 150-mph Acela Express. It has found me at a spot where the bank is so steep that all one can do is take a couple of steps away from the tracks and sit on the gravel slope. The angle of repose. I turn my back to the tracks and at the last moment cock my head to glance at the maelstrom whistling past, so close I could touch it with my rod tip.
Fish, darkness, snow, solitude. And now this. The blast is like a great gust from a powerful storm. The world shakes and for a moment you remember how it feels to be alive.