SALTWATER FISHING IS A PHYSICAL SPORT COMPLETE WITH BACWRENCHING CONSEQUENCES
If you’re a hardcore saltwater angler who takes the sport to the extreme, you may eventually pay a price for the abuse you’ve put your body through. By GARY CAPUTI
It happened in January 2008, a day after the Buccaneer Cup Sailfish Release Tournament off Palm Beach, Florida. I was aboard a new Viking 60 Convertible with fellow scribe Vince Daniello for a day of chasing sailfish and testing the boat for magazine reviews. The wind was howling, the seas were big, and the fishing was spectacular.
Sails crashed the kite baits as fast as we could get them out. Capt. Ryan Higgins worked his magic, maneuvering the big boat over and around the comers as we fought fish after fish. Spray drenched us as we danced around the pitching cockpit. I was in seventh heaven, as any angler would have been, until I felt a twinge in the middle of my back. I’d lived with back problems for years, but this was new.
The hammer fell the next day. I awoke with excruciating pain in my groin and upper thigh on my left side, as well as where I had felt the twinge in my back. It took my breath away. I had no feeling at all in a large area just above my groin. I was in a world of hurt and very worried.
The next day, back home in New Jersey, I saw
a possible fusing of the disk in my middle back, transferring more stress to my already weakened lower back. Drapkin would monitor my recovery with office visits every two weeks.
Then he asked the $64,000 question: “Rupturing a disk that high up is unusual. What is it you do that could have weakened it so much?”
I’m a writer and photographer by trade, but I’ve had a passion for fishing since I was 8 years old. I had abused my body in highspeed bass boats, then migrated to salt water and banged myself up jumping Jersey jetties and fishing aboard friends’ boats. The coup de grâce was 25 years of pounding my spine, knees and ankles standing at the helm of my center console in all kinds of sea conditions. “I see,” Drapkin said. “That explains a lot.”
The operation went well, and after a night in the recovery room I was released with a stern warning: “You can start walking immediately. Walk all you want, but only walking. No jogging, no running, no impact. Do not bend over to pick things up. Do not lift anything even modestly heavy. You cannot put any pressure on the healing disk for a couple of months.”
He promised that if I followed his directions, I would live to fight tuna another day.
The Damage We Do
my friend and chiropractor Mark Guariglia of Point Chiropractic Center. “Oh, my God,” he said. “What did you do to yourself?” He ordered an MRI. “You really screwed your back up this time.”
The initial results suggested that I had either a tumor on my spine or a ruptured disk between the L1 and L2 vertebrae, with disk material pushed inside the spinal column. Either way, something was pressing on the nerve bundle in a most unkind way. I imagined myself confined to a lawn chair on the banks of a local pond, fishing for carp for the rest of my life or, at the very least, being unable to stand-up fish for tuna — one of my favorite forms of recreation.
The next few days were a whirlwind of pain and medical consultations. A ray of light came from an assignment nurse at my health insurance provider, who faxed me a list of specialists, which included Dr. Allan Drapkin, who was with the Jersey Shore University Medical Center. Drapkin ordered a second MRI with contrast to see what we were up against.
It turned out to be a ruptured disk. The remedy: drill a “window” in the L1 vertebra and perform microsurgery to remove the disk material impinging on the nerves. The operation would take five hours and recovery 20 weeks without complications, or as long as six months if the tissue-paper-thin fascia around the spinal cord were to tear during the procedure. Drapkin assured me he had performed this procedure more than a thousand times and had yet to slip up. He said that because of my overall physical condition the prognosis was good for a full recovery and getting back on the water.
I would keep about 60 percent of the disk — enough for it to function — but would have to adhere to a strict protocol to allow it to heal. Inflicting any more damage during recovery could mean additional surgeries and During my recovery I realized something about those of us who fish with unbridled passion. Saltwater fishing is a contact sport when taken to the extreme — when you’re hardcore and have to be out there no matter what. And like any contact sport, sooner or later you’re going to pay a price for the abuse you’ve heaped on your body.
As I racked up the miles walking the boardwalk the first few weeks after surgery, I thought about some of the crazy stuff I’d done for the sake of going fishing. I recalled getting up when most people were going to bed to drive 60 miles and fish a late-night tide because there had been a good weakfish bite on the jetty fronts in Sea Bright. I skinned both knees when the laces on my Korkers broke and I lost my footing on slick rocks. My knees were bleeding inside my waders when I dragged myself back to the car with a stringer full of weakies just after sunrise.
I remembered a flirtation with surf-launching tin boats — often in the dark — running the beaches in a 14-foot Duranautic with an Evinrude kicker and jury-rigged tiller handle. That stopped after a wave crashed over the transom
one morning while we tried to regain the beach. The boat swamped, and we were nearly dragged out to sea.
I thought about the nights I’d fish from sundown to sunup in the surf, wading out to the bars at low tide, hoping I could get back as the water rose. There were a few nights when I turned around to face the beach and saw bass in the trough behind me. I have no idea how many times the waves body-slammed me.
I’d made the 15-mile run out of Manasquan Inlet to Shrewsbury Rocks at night aboard my 23-foot Mako so many times that I swore if I fell asleep the boat would drive itself back to the slip and beep the horn when we arrived. On one of those nights I had maneuvered too close to a jetty so my buddy could cast an eel into a pocket for a striper. Something told me to look over my shoulder. God-awful waves
bore down on us, each powerful enough to smash the boat on the rocks. I spun us around in time to take the first one head-on. The bow — my buddy on it — rose so high it seemed the boat was teetering on its transom. We cleared the wave top and dropped into the first trough, leaving my buddy suspended in the air. When he hit the deck, water flooding over the bow washed him to the stern with me. I damn near soiled my pants as we ascended the second wave, but the Mako got us out of there — bruised and with a new appreciation for the power of the sea.
There was also the cold December night when three of us made a 25-mile run to the tip of Sandy Hook to troll plugs on wire for bass in the rips. We made it, but about 2 a.m. the wind picked up to gale force from the northeast, and snow began to fall — hard. Freezing and trapped in building seas, we anchored in a cove and huddled under the canvas dodger at the bow. At sunrise we brushed the snow out of the boat and made for home, beam-to in 10- to 12-foot waves that rolled under us like freight trains.
As my back continued to recover, I shook my head thinking of the things I did with that boat. I ran it to far-off places such as the Glory Hole and Chicken Canyon to fish for sharks and bluefin tuna. One time a friend and I were trolling a spread of Green Machines without another boat in sight when all five 50Ws went off with 100-plus-pound tunas. It was a fire drill, the two of us fighting fish, steering the boat, straining, pulling, sweating, backs bent like pretzels, laughing as if we belonged in an asylum. We hauled in three of the five and considered ourselves heroes.
There were even a few trips to Hudson Canyon, and 23 feet of Mako is mighty small when you’re 90 miles out. Coming home from offshore trips, summer afternoon winds would turn and make the last 30 miles a ride into a washboard head sea. The hull slapped so much that the bottoms of my feet would go numb.
The Obsession Remains
Twenty weeks of taking it easy was only the beginning of my recovery. A regimen of gym time with an emphasis on strengthening my core — back and abdominal muscles — followed. A personal trainer devised exercises to tighten my abs and the deep-core psoas muscles that support and protect the five lumbar vertebrae.
The gym owner took an interest in the mechanics of stand-up fishing and helped me develop a workout that not only trains the muscles needed to use tackle efficiently, but also improves balance when harnessed to a rod and reel on a pitching deck with a big fish on the line. The focus is on using leg strength and body weight to offset the strain on my back when a tuna is running against the drag and when I pump the fish up once it stops. This takes most of the pressure off the back and makes handling even the biggest fish far less fatiguing.
I was back in the canyons off New Jersey the summer after my surgery, hauling in yellowfin, bigeye and marlin. By 2012 I was ready to challenge myself with the most physically demanding fishing I’d ever done: giant bluefin on stand-up tackle. I made a trip to Prince Edward Island with friends Tim and Brett Surgent. My body was strong, my back was 100 percent, and I had the right gear.
On the second day out I caught a bluefin in the 800- to 900-pound class in 44 minutes, and I caught a bigger one the third day. I smiled like a kid as I fought those fish and never thought about the ruptured disk or the surgery and recovery. When I turned 62 a couple of weeks later, that bucket-list trip was the best present imaginable.
As I write this I am recovering from a full knee replacement precipitated by joint damage first suffered 32 years ago and exacerbated by years of boat-related abuse. The simple reflex action of shifting my weight from leg to leg to keep my balance on a rocking boat had been grinding down what was left of the cartilage in that knee for years. Osteoarthritis compounded the problem.
I’d been given all sorts of injections to alleviate the pain and put off the inevitable surgery so I could keep fishing. Now I have a titanium and nylon implant — and more intensive physical therapy to get me back on the water. I’m almost there. I can almost taste the salt on my lips and feel the wheel in my hand. I planned the surgery for winter so it would least interrupt my fishing time, and I found a surgeon who is a passionate saltwater angler.
It’s all part of the price we pay when we live by the motto, “So many fish, so little time.”
This Gulf wahoo went 98 pounds, “and boy did it pull line.” An MRI (left) of the writer’s spine showed a ruptured disk.
A pair of stripers in the mid-40s caught 25 years ago from the author’s 23-foot Mako.
Post back surgery, the author was again able to do what he enjoys most: stand-up fishing for large tuna.
Feeling the strain: The author leans back against 78 pounds of drag on 200-pound braid as a 1,000-pound bluefin takes off on its third run off PEI.