One Fish

“Are the blues running? Or are you going for stripers?” “Too early in the season for stripers on the inside. Haven’t seen any bluefish,” he said, obviously near the tail end of his patience for casting and retrieving without hooking a thing. It was hot, with no screen from the sun, and physically demanding for a man of his years. I figured he was at least sixty-five. I told him something I had learned from a commercial fisherman the day before: there were so many striped bass offshore that they were calling them “nuisances of the sea.” I wanted this guy to see me as someone who knew about fishing, not just a casual bucket looker who happened to wander out onto the jetty. At this early point we had already said pretty much all we had to say about fishing, but clearly something else was brewing in his mind. After ten or fifteen minutes of fishing matter, casting and retrieving, he said he was going to tell me a true story. We were standing on the end of a long boulder fishing jetty, far from the beach and other people, and he glanced over his shoulder. Two fishermen were casually casting lures into the fast-moving waters of the Shinnecock Inlet, a well-known and productive surf fishing spot on Long Island’s South Shore. When the tide changes, the vast, chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean rush into shallow Peconic Bay, making the inlet waters turbulent and dangerous to navigate—especially for small craft—and generally very good for fishing. This is where we stood, the Atlantic in front of us, the bay behind, and the gushing inlet along side. “My father-in-law,” he said, “loved to fish, and clam, and crab these waters. He was a bay-man at heart. My wife and I raised two boys on the water here on the South Shore, but eventually I took a sales job in Massachusetts. My boys know these waters like the backs of their hands. In the old days, they could catch crabs with a chicken leg, or swim out into the bay, dive down and come up with a half-dozen cherry-stone clams,” he told me proudly. I still had black muck under my nails from a secret clamming hole I had come upon earlier in the week, with a bounty much like the legendary clam digs of yesteryear. I also knew what he was saying about crab bait, because in my youth I dangled chicken necks on a piece of string for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, waiting for a crab to latch on. With a careful retrieval, a critter would appear, munching away, unaware of its slow draw to steam-pot death. He told me his boys had both moved to Vermont. In the winters of 1992 and 1993, nor’easters swallowed up large chunks of Long Island. The Atlantic Ocean breached the beach and took a few hundred shore houses with it. It’s all patched up now, but at that moment I was quite aware of being closely surrounded by powerful waters, with not a lot of places to go. I didn’t know where his story was headed, but I was standing way out there on this jetty and he felt like talking, and I felt like listening. An abundance of noisy birdlife burst above our heads and one fisherman nearby pulled in a small catch, which distracted both of us momentarily from our conversation. He was maybe twenty-five feet away. “A small black sea bass?” I said. He said it looked more like a bargall: a bony, uneatable, trash fish. The fisherman quietly slipped the fish into a bag by his feet after removing it from the hook. “My father-in-law,” the guy said continuing with his story, “made me promise that when he died I would make sure he got cremated, and his ashes scattered into the ocean right here, his favorite place to fish.” He motioned over his shoulder and behind him to where his wife was sunning herself in a beach chair. Then the guy did that look-over-the-other-shoulder thing again. I looked around too. I was beginning to think he was about to lay a secret on me. “He died about ten years ago,” he said. “We came down from Massachusetts for the services. He was a big man—6 feet 4 inches. His ashes were heavy. You know, in the urn.” I tried to imagine such a thing. “When the funeral ended, I drove here to the beach with my wife and with, you know, his body. Even back then, I don’t think it was legal to put ashes in the water and into a swimming beach like this. But I made the promise.” I then realized what at least part of his paranoia seemed to involve. I didn’t say anything, and my ears got a little bigger. He was about to tell me about something he’d done ten years ago that was illegal—and it bothered him to this day. Nevertheless, he had a promise to keep. Like him, when I give my word, I like to keep it. “My father-in-law was a great fisherman. I was never even a good fisherman. I’m lucky if I catch one fish a year. He always came back with sacks full whenever he went out.” “Yea, I know the type. Some guys just have the knack,” I said. He nodded and smiled and took a look back toward the beach area, probably at the exact spot where he had performed the deed. “I emptied the ashes into the water and we said a few prayers. We had brought things along to eat and something to drink, and then my wife and I sat on our blanket to relax awhile. I always keep my fishing pole in my car because you just never know out here when you might see a feeding school breaking the surface.” I knew the indescribable natural phenomenon he was talking about, though it’s hard to put the feeling of such a thing into words. The sudden sight of wild fish chasing after food, water feverishly churning, is a fisherman’s dream. “No sooner did we sit on the blanket than the shore became alive with a huge school of bluefish. The water was boiling with blues right where I spread my father-in-law’s ashes just a few moments before. The bluefish were attacking a school of bunker, I think, trapped up against the beach, and it was a feeding frenzy.” The guy made a hook shape with his right index finger to demonstrate. “If you had a metal coat hanger and put it in the water at that time, you would have caught a blue, no kidding, that’s how thick they were.” He was speaking excitedly now. “I ran as fast as I could to the parking lot to get my pole. It was this same rod and reel I’m using today. My favorite. I had my best heavy-weighted Hopkins lure already tied on and I cast it out into the school and BANG, I got hit right away! I pulled in a nice-sized blue, just like that,” he said snapping his finger, “on the very first cast.” He told me they were so close to the beach some were actually jumping up and out of the shallows in hot pursuit of the “bunker bait.” I’ve heard other fisherman describe this. I assumed it could be true – fish jumping out of the water and onto the sand. I know killer whales do this to catch seals. “How big? Ten pounds?” I asked, hoping they were monstrous. “It wasn’t quite ten pounds, but it was a nice size, you know, cocktail size.” He spread his hands apart, stopping roughly at two-and-a-half feet. I estimated that length to be four or five pounds: a nice catch for a blue, and probably better tasting than a larger one. Definitely a good fight on light tackle like the gear he had with him on the jetty. “Amazing,” I said. “You must have caught a bunch. How many did you land?” “That was the strangest thing,” he said. “What was?” I asked. “Well,” he began. Then the guy seemed to go into a trance. Everything changed. He went from sounding like a regular person to sounding like someone transported. “Even though the feeding school stayed there for another ten minutes or so, I couldn’t land another fish. I kept casting and casting until my arms got so tired I had to stop.” “That was strange,” I agreed, waiting for him to say more. Blues stacked up like he described will usually attack lures again and again. “The way I figure it, he let me have one fish.” “Who?” I asked. “My father-in-law. After I threw him into the Atlantic Ocean.” “One fish.” “Yep. One, beautiful, fish.”