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SALT­WA­TER FISH­ING IS A PHYS­I­CAL SPORT COM­PLETE WITH BACWRENCHING CON­SE­QUENCES

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By Gary Caputi

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.

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