Captain Ahab at the Shinnecock Inlet
Captain Ahab at the
Many summers ago, my wife and I rented a small cottage in Hampton Bays, and I decided to take up a new hobby: surfcasting.
I went to the old Altenkirch tackle shop near the Shinnecock Canal and bought a surf rod and reel, chest-high wading boots, an assortment of lures, and (in a fit of naïve optimism) even a chain stringer to carry home the fish I caught.
Every morning, noon, and night, from Memorial Day on, I drove over the rickety old wooden Ponquogue Bridge to the Shinnecock Inlet. I cast my lures from the rock jetty lining the Inlet and from the sandy beach facing the ocean
By the end of July, I had caught nothing but huge clumps of Fighting Long Island Sea Weed and an unlucky Starfish. I saw other men catching fish now and then, which only increased my determination to hook a striper or blue. Or anything that had fins and swam in the ocean.
Week after week, I bought more lures and even tried different kinds of bait including worms, clams, squid, and shiners. Nothing worked. My amused wife took to calling me Captain Ahab, likening me to the obsessive stalker of the legendary white whale Moby Dick.
I shrugged off the laughter of my wife and friends and promised that one day I would treat them to a dinner featuring fish that I had caught myself.
Over the course of my trips to the Inlet, I began to make something of a ritual out of putting on my fishing togs. Stepping into my waders always made me think of knights buckling on their armor before going into battle. Of course, I couldn’t compare myself to Sir Galahad, but, to me, setting out to catch fish seemed like something far beyond hunting a white whale; it was almost like the Quest for the Holy Grail.
Charley Altenkirch must have rubbed his hands with glee every time I entered his tackle shop. I probably forked out a small fortune for new and hopefully more effective lures. My wife estimated that the money I spent in Charley’s tackle shop could have paid for a dinner for two at the costliest seafood restaurant in New York or Montauk.
At one point, my wife complained about the many hours I left her alone while I roamed the beach. I responded that at least I was chasing after fish, not other women. Her answer surprised me. “I would rather you chased other women,” she said. “I can’t compete with fish.”
I decided that if I did not catch something — anything — by Labor Day, I would give up surfcasting forever. I wondered if the Salvation Army would accept a donation of used fishing tackle.
Then, one morning in August, I caught a small flounder.
When I say small, I mean a tiny flatfish barely as big as the palm of my hand. Of course, I had to put the baby flounder back in the ocean, but I took this initial catch as a sign that I would make bigger ones in the future.
I told the news about this omen to my wife. She raised an ominous question: “What if this is the biggest fish you will catch this summer?” I didn’t know how to answer her. She answered for me. “Size does matter,” she said.
I still had a little more than three weeks before the self-imposed deadline that could put an end to my fishing career. I bought more lures and practically lived at the beach. In fact, one night, I slept in my car at the Inlet so I could take advantage of an early morning high tide. My strategy didn’t pay off. I just caught more seaweed.
One glorious Sunday morning soon after, I went down to the beach and saw an unusually large number of anglers lined up along the shore. Evidently, they knew something I didn’t. However, over the hour or two that followed, no one caught anything.
As I scanned the water, I saw some terns circle and dive into the surf about fifty yards down the beach from where I stood. I recognized this as a sure sign of big fish feeding on smaller prey. Within minutes, a flock of seagulls joined the terns over the waves. The sun had come up well over the horizon, burning off the mist of early morning. More gulls and terns came squawking into view. I thought I saw a big fish cartwheel out of the water, and my heart began to pound. The birds started diving into the water out in front of me. “It’s a blitz!” someone shouted. “Blitz” is a fisherman’s term for a feeding frenzy close to shore, and every surfcaster wants to be on hand when it happens because predatory fish will snap at anything that resembles their prey. The men lined up on the beach began casting their lures into the bubbling water. Excited beyond description, I joined them. I was so fired up that I jerked my rod up and down like a lunatic. This made my lure wiggle erratically as I reeled it in. A big striped bass found the movement irresistible and attacked the lure. My rod arched under the weight of the fish I had hooked. My hands shook as I reeled it in through the crashing waves and brought it onto the beach, the first living striped bass I had ever seen.
I unhooked the fish and tossed it onto the sand behind me. When I went down to the water again, I noticed that none of the other men had caught anything. Getting back to business, I repeated my rod-jerking technique and hooked another big striper. And another. And another.
When I caught my fifth striper, I felt that I had to do something akin to tithing in order to show my gratitude to Poseidon or whatever god ruled the sea. As I slid the striper back into the ocean, another surfcaster ran over to me and asked for the fish. “Don’t throw it away,” he pleaded.
“I have to do it,” I said, without explaining why. He called me an unpleasant name and stomped away in anger. As it turned out, only one of the other fishermen caught anything that morning. All the others went home empty-handed.
I threaded my four stripers onto my stringer and took them home to show my wife. That evening, we shared a wonderful fish dinner with some friends. I had kept my promise and redeemed myself in the eyes of my wife.
The next morning, I went back to the beach. As I pulled on my waders, another fisherman walked over to me. “You should have been here yesterday,” he said. “Nobody caught anything, but some Old Pro really knocked them dead. He caught five stripers one after the other!”
So that’s how I transformed from Captain Ahab to Old Pro —an living legend of the Shinnecock Inlet.