Soundings - - Contents - By Wil­liam Sis­son

The voices of old-timers pro­vide good com­pan­ion­ship and plenty of salty ad­vice in the wa­ters Bill Sis­son likes to fish.

Ilive in a world of mov­ing wa­ter, line squalls, se­cret spots and gruff char­ter skip­pers who aren’t afraid to holler and curse, oc­ca­sion­ally at pay­ing cus­tomers. This is a world of south­west winds, new moons, shoe­string eels, sil­ver eels, alewives, por­gies and live men­haden. It is a land­scape dot­ted with light­houses and foghorns, dou­ble-humps and tide rips, sand­bars, mus­sel bars, deep ruts and bright, windy flats where hand­some, light-col­ored fish grub and gorge on sand eels, sil­ver­sides and crabs.

Worm hatches in the salt ponds in spring, wet-wad­ing un­der me­teor show­ers in sum­mer, drift­ing the pas­sage reef on har­vest moons, and wool socks and watch caps in the rips of late Novem­ber, when all the fish are bright, vo­ra­cious trav­el­ers, rac­ing the sea­son and the stars to who knows where. It is the chaotic ser­e­nade of a gull rook­ery and those scrubby lit­tle is­lands smelling of nesting cor­morants. Fire­flies, heat light­ning, June bugs, cold beer.

The south­east gales drive big fish in tight if you know the right beaches, and on still nights in the back bay the mos­qui­toes and no-see-ums eat you alive, right through your damp shirt, DEET be damned, as fish pow­der a green and white streamer.

Some days it’s boat talk and fish talk from sun­rise to sun­set. “You know how you buy a lob­ster boat?” asks a guy on the fish docks. “You wait un­til you hear some­one say, I think I’m just go­ing to plant petu­nias in her. That’s when I buy.”

Give me black de­ceivers, metal-lipped swim­mers, nee­dle fish, buck­tails, soft baits and a sil­ver pop­per worked across big swaths of white­wa­ter cov­er­ing an is­land boul­der field on a soupy morn­ing, wa­ter still in the low 60s, three or four good pops and they’re on it good.

The boy and I troll an an­cient lure called a Sparky along the edge of a sandy shelf as slowly as the old 2-stroke will al­low — in gear, out of gear, the mo­men­tum of the boat caus­ing the curved, light­weight slice of alu­minum tipped with a sand­worm to wob­ble ever so slowly. “Dad!” he shouts. “Dad!”

Blue and white, through-wired with no buck­tail, Pete’s rough home­made pop­pers raise fish as lethar­gic as Lazarus. “Make ’em dance,” the old gaffer hollers at me from the helm. “Make ’em talk. Like a young girl shak­ing her bot­tom.”

Stormy weather and the fish­boats are stuck in the har­bor. Mario takes out his pocket knife and scrapes an old block tin jig, flakes of shiny metal fly­ing as he puts a good shine on it, all the while dis­cussing the im­por­tance of chang­ing up lures. “Fish are like women with a hat,” he says. “Some­times they just want some­thing new.” The life­long bach­e­lor was never known for his prow­ess with women, but he was hell on fish.

This is an old-school world with its own lan­guage, clues and signs, spo­ken and un­spo­ken. Lies and boasts, vul­gar­ity, po­etry and whis­pers. A tip, a look, a nod, a brushoff, two men speak­ing code about a night’s catch, and the search, al­ways the search, for truth.

We fish a blue wind, a gray wind, a black wind, a dark­en­ing wind, a sad wind, an an­cient wind, a fresh­en­ing wind. One more busted fore­cast, one more jar­ring ride home, knock­ing your fill­ings loose.

Com­ing back to the dock, a skip­per yells: “Get me the big­gest eels you can find!” Christ, that’s what you want to shout com­ing in.

And al­ways the sto­ries. Most are bluntly told, mixed with pro­fan­ity and hu­mor. Rare are the ones that are lyri­cal, in­fused with the wis­dom and cadence of olden days.

Nar­ra­gansett, Rhode Is­land, trap seine fish­er­man W.E. Whal­ley, now long gone to his re­ward, ex­plained how his fish­ing was guided by the ap­pear­ance of cer­tain flow­ers.

“When I see the first dan­de­lion, scup come in. I watch the buds, and when the buds are swelled full, then our traps go in,” ex­plained Whal­ley in the sum­mer of 1871. “When the dan­de­lion goes out of bloom and goes to seed, the scup are gone. That is true one year with an­other, though they vary with the sea­son. I am guided by the blossoms of other kinds of plants for other fish. When high black­ber­ries are in bloom, we catch striped bass that weigh from twelve to twenty pounds. When the blue vi­o­lets are in blos­som — they come early — you can catch the small scoot-bass. That has al­ways been my rule, that has been handed down by my fore­fa­thers.”

I could lis­ten to those old-timers go on all day.

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