Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS -

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.

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