MAGIC PLUG

MY FISH­ING PART­NER AND HIS FA­VORITE PLUG ARE NOT WHAT THEY AP­PEAR ON THE SUR­FACE

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By Michael O. San­der­son

A veteran striper fish­er­man goes to great lengths to make ex­act repli­cas of an old plug that still ex­erts a cer­tain kind of magic on the fish. By MICHAEL O. SAN­DER­SON

The wave broke over the en­gine cowl­ings. We were crab­bing into the cur­rent, sternto to the white-frothed waves rolling over the reef. The tide was rip­ping out at 3 knots, the wind from the west was blow­ing 10 knots, and the sub­merged rock was 10 yards away on my star­board side. Wreathed in white foam, its hoary, green, slimy head poked out each time a big wave swirled around it. I was on the wheel, in a sweat, never mind the hu­mid sum­mer air, try­ing to hold the boat in po­si­tion.

Andy and Tom, both stand­ing in the bow, were non­plussed.

Their “watch the rock” com­ments would oc­ca­sion­ally sally forth as they whipped their lures out, teas­ing stripers into per­form­ing spec­tac­u­lar aerial hits. “Thanks, fel­las,” I mut­tered — as if I didn’t see the boat-eat­ing mon­ster lurk­ing.

Andy could eas­ily cast 50 yards with his light­weight rod. With his gym­nast’s wiry body and thick, mus­cu­lar hands, he would put a bend in the rod, plac­ing the lure ex­actly where the fish were break­ing. Tom, a tall, ath­letic man, was equally adept. Both were men of few words, com­fort­able on the wa­ter. They had fished the rips off Watch Hill, Rhode Island, for years. They knew the bait, the right stages of the tide to fish, the right lures to throw and so forth. Their dif­fer­ences at the mo­ment cen­tered on ex­actly where the rock was, rel­a­tive to our po­si­tion.

I held the wheel, lis­ten­ing to th­ese two griz­zled fish­er­men in their oil­skins debate how close we should get to the rock. My ama­teur-look­ing golf shirt and khaki shorts were soaked, my boat shoes full of wa­ter.

Other boats were ly­ing off our quar­ters, en­vi­ous of our suc­cess in catch­ing fish, slowly try­ing to slide into our primo po­si­tion, not that it would do them much good. We weren’t mov­ing. Be­sides, our suc­cess was based on more than our po­si­tion. Our se­cret was the lure, which Andy had dubbed the Magic Plug. And it was not one you could buy in a tackle shop or on­line. This batch came out of Andy’s base­ment. Andy and Tom cast the am­ber-col­ored plas­tic sur­face plugs at the fish. No sooner had the lures hit the wa­ter than, presto, we had a bent rod and an­other striper, thank you very much.

I don’t have the ex­pe­ri­ence of Tom or Andy. Look­ing at the plug for the first time, I won­dered why a fish would hit such an ugly piece of plas­tic. But Andy knew, as would any New Eng­land striper­man with a sense of his­tory (see com­pan­ion story).

Men­tor

I met Andy Ga­garin in Is­lam­orada, Florida. That’s why I flew there to fish, which is why Andy lives there in the win­ter. Our wives,

friends from Watch Hill, ar­ranged for a din­ner out for all of us at what passes for fine din­ing in the land of deep-fried conch frit­ters.

“Sep­a­rate checks,” Andy told the waitress at the restau­rant as she handed out the menus. Then, si­lence. He had al­ready ex­plained the rea­son for the de­cline in Florida’s fish pop­u­la­tion, leav­ing it to me to make any re­main­ing con­ver­sa­tion.

I’d spent years run­ning com­pa­nies, hir­ing and fir­ing more peo­ple than I can re­call, and had got­ten pretty good at sort­ing out the wheat from the chaff. One of my rules was al­ways to hire peo­ple who are smarter than you. I have found that works with mak­ing friends, as well, and it’s not a high bar for me since all my friends have skills that I don’t. Andy, I would learn, had more skills than most, and then some.

Andy, who is 74, was spe­cial. He didn’t show it. You had to peel the mod­esty back be­fore you could en­joy the in­tel­lect.

Three pel­i­cans cruised by the restau­rant’s sec­ond-floor ve­randa. They looked more in­ter­ested in me than Andy did. By the time the sec­ond squadron flew by I had re­signed my­self to look­ing in­ter­ested when our wives talked about where to shop.

“You like to fish?” Andy asked.

“Yup.”

A break­through, I thought.

He con­tin­ued to scan the dog-eared menu, which hadn’t changed in years. He sipped his drink. “When she comes back,” he said, point­ing over his shoul­der to­ward the waitress, “don’t order the sword­fish. It’s lousy.”

Got it, I thought. He speaks when he feels he has some­thing use­ful to say. Oth­er­wise, why bother?

The waitress re­turned, looked at him and asked, “The usual for you?”

“Yeah, but tell the chef medium rare or I’ll send it back.”

She smiled and looked at me and said, “I rec­om­mend our sword­fish. It comes with a salad and gar­lic bread.”

I wa­vered be­fore say­ing, “I’ll have what he’s hav­ing.”

Andy turned to face me.

“Live in Watch Hill?”

“Yes.”

“You fish there?”

“Yeah, or at least I used to.”

“Got a boat?”

“Sold it.”

He took a sip of his drink, care­fully ad­just­ing the coaster as beads of con­den­sa­tion formed on the glass. “I’m look­ing for a part­ner in my boat. In­ter­ested?”

“What kind of boat?”

“A 26-foot cen­ter con­sole.”

“That’s the same kind I had. I’m in.”

I hadn’t trav­eled 2,000 miles to the fish­ing cap­i­tal of the United States to eat a thin, gristly piece of meat, but I did rec­og­nize a man who not only liked to fish, but who also liked fish. What be­came ob­vi­ous dur­ing the meal was his pa­tience. When he spoke, you knew you were hear­ing some­thing mean­ing­ful, of­ten laced with wry hu­mor. As the evening wore on, he spoke to his pas­sion for per­suad­ing a fish to be­lieve that his lure was live bait, a ter­ri­fied squid. He had no in­ter­est in killing them. His hooks were bar­b­less.

He men­tioned that he had a spe­cial lure I would only see when we got back to Watch Hill. Sure, I thought, and didn’t think any more about it.

Watch Hill is one of those sto­ry­book old Yan­kee sum­mer re­sort vil­lages you find in ro­mance nov­els. Largely de­serted in the win­ter, it’s full of old, ram­bling, weath­ered, cedarsh­in­gle-sided homes that perch on bluffs and hol­lows over­look­ing Block Island Sound. The place doesn’t come alive un­til the for­sythia and daf­fodils bloom. The same fam­i­lies have sum­mered there for years, one gen­er­a­tion grace­fully slid­ing into the next. The village is old enough that houses are iden­ti­fied by the name of the orig­i­nal owner, cre­at­ing a sense of iden­tity that adds to the charm. Andy, I dis­cov­ered, had sum­mered in the same house since birth, and be­fore him, who knows how many gen­er­a­tions.

Mys­ter­ies

Back in Watch Hill with our boat safely launched, I know I sorely tested Andy’s pa­tience. Once I promised never to re­veal where and how we fished — a for­mal­ity he in­sisted upon — we both quickly re­al­ized that although I was adept at han­dling a boat, what he called fish­ing was com­pletely above my skill level. There is fish­ing, and then there is what Andy con­sid­ers fish­ing. Most peo­ple who sum­mer in Watch Hill have fished at least once. Friends’ boats are plen­ti­ful, and the reefs are a mere 20 min­utes from the har­bor. The typ­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence con­sists of weav­ing around lob­ster pots with a cou­ple of trolling rods out, a lan­guid sor­tie done only in per­fect weather. If there’s never a fish, so be it. Any foray on the wa­ter is good for cock­tail chat­ter, proof that you are a sea­soned mem­ber of the com­mu­nity.

Andy was aghast when he saw my gear. Not only were my rods inadequate, but also the reels were old, and the line needed chang­ing. Oh, and I couldn’t cast very well. He never wa­vered. We had a deal on the boat, and that was that, which is how I ended up buy­ing a whole new out­fit and stand­ing on the sea­wall of a light­house, prac­tic­ing cast­ing un­der his watch­ful eye. If he de­spaired at my lack of co­or­di­na­tion, he never showed it.

Short or long, my cast­ing didn’t re­ally bother me. I had ar­rived. On the way to the sea­wall I’d been in­vited into Andy’s in­ner sanc­tum: his work­shop in the base­ment of his home up the hill from the light­house. It was a glis­ten­ing par­adise of tools, drills, saws, milling ma­chines, fas­ten­ers, molds — you name it, shelf af­ter shelf. Stand­ing there trans­fixed, I failed to no­tice that he had bur­rowed into a mound of plas­tic boxes off in the far cor­ner.

He emerged tri­umphantly, hold­ing a plas­tic con­tainer. Sweep­ing aside the de­bris on the work­table, he opened the case and pre­sented me with a long, am­ber, tubu­lar, hol­low lure. It had a pair of tre­ble hooks hang­ing off it.

“This is it,” he said.

“What is it?”

“It’s what I men­tioned in Is­lam­orada, re­mem­ber?”

Andy looked at me, turn­ing the lure in his hands, rub­bing the seam that ran down its length.

“It’s the Magic Plug, the one lure the stripers can’t re­sist.”

He then be­came more talk­a­tive than I’d ever imag­ined he could be. Andy de­scribed the en­tire story be­hind the orig­i­nal lure and his ef­forts to copy the plug. How he’d met the older gen­tle­man who was man­u­fac­tur­ing the repli­cas, even­tu­ally buy­ing out his sup­ply of fin­ished plugs and half plugs, which he would as­sem­ble.

Now I be­came the man of few words. How this plug, which looked like noth­ing that swam in the ocean, would at­tract fish was a mys­tery to me. We had to fish it to re­veal its power, which is how I found my­self crab­bing into the tide, hold­ing a po­si­tion be­tween a buoy and the light­house, watch­ing Andy and Tom reel in stripers, one af­ter the next.

I did keep the boat off the rock. And Andy’s still talking to me. What­ever he might want to say next, I’m ready to lis­ten.

A close replica of a Re­verse Atom, the Magic Plug im­i­tates a flee­ing squid, driv­ing stripers into ac­ro­batic strikes.

Andy Ga­garin has an ad­vanced de­gree in ways of the striped bass.

When you find some­thing that works re­ally well, you go to great lengths to stay with it.

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