Fishing for Beginners
Every Montauk marina has a leader board showing the current standing of the largest fish of each kind caught by their tenant boat owners that season. Wanna see your name up there? Okay, here’s how you do it.
First, get a boat.
Next, you need a rod and reel. Go to the store. Whatever you get will probably be fine. Truth is, the fish don’t see that gear until it’s too late for them anyway.
Now you need tackle. This is fisherman-speak for a hook and a lead weight to keep the hook lower in the water column where the fish are hanging out that day. The presence of fish in your neighborhood is revealed by the Garmin electronics people. They actually show you a live picture of what is happening under your boat. In color, yet. Of course, the picture usually shows there are no fish down there while guys on boats all around you are struggling with bent rods. Hmmm. Probably Russians hacking your machine. Then again, sometimes the machine does show fish — but that is only when they are not hungry, i.e., when “the bite is off.” Why does “the bite” turn on and off, and when does it do that? Sorry, I am not allowed to tell you that.
Let’s go back to tackle. The most important element is a fish hook. The manufacturers of hooks, in an effort to justify charging a dollar apiece for something that costs three cents to manufacture, make hook selection as complicated as possible. They assign numbers to the hooks, and, of course, the smaller the number, the larger the hook. You knew that, right? Then they put zeros adjacent to the numbers to confuse the size issue further, so that 6/0 is different from 6. Aside from size, you would think a hook is a hook, right? Hah, there is a plethora of different shape hooks, and every fisherman I know is absolutely certain that the shape he uses is better than the one you use. Long shaft, short shaft, offset, straight, circle, octopus, treble hook, single hook, it goes on and on.
All fish hooks have two things in common: i) a sharp point, and ii) a barb just below the point. The function of the sharp point is to facilitate the easy entry of the hook into the fish’s lip or the fisherman’s thumb, and the function of the barb is to keep it there. I have painfully employed both of those characteristics, but that’s another story.
To encourage the fish to eat the hook, ya gotta give em some sort of incentive. There are lots of methods. Some fishermen tie feathers to the hook and jig it back and forth. Feathers? For fish? You kidding me? Fish mistake the hook for a chicken? They like chicken? Then there are things called bucktails — a hook with deer hair attached. I am not kidding. When have fish encountered deer? And why would they eat hair from their tails? There’s more: some guys put a two-inch-long strip of pork rind on the hook. Pork! Yup, a guy named Uncle Josh has created a whole catalog of different colored pork strips to put on bass hooks! Hey, everybody loves bacon, right? But fish? All I know is, it works. And then there are fishermen who hide the hook in a piece of rubber tubing. Surgical tubing. Different colors yet. Why do fish wanna eat surgical tubing? Are fish really that stupid? Yeah, they are, and that’s why it’s our job and kill em and eat em.
My preference is none of the above. I bait my hooks with eels — without doubt the single most repulsive creature in the sea.
Okay, so you buy a mess of eels, put them in a bucket with small drain holes in the bottom, then ice them down to freeze their tiny brains a bit, lest they commit eelcide by literally tying themselves into knots. Seriously.
Eels have several other attractive characteristics. When they are distressed they emit a whitish slime along the length of their bodies that makes them totally unmanageable. Ugh. So, when the time comes to grab an eel, you use a washcloth you have stolen from home (the ones with the purple flowers from the guest bathroom seem to work best, and you can blame the guests when your wife remarks upon their gradual disappearance from the linen closet) and then try to hold the small snake steady enough to put the hook in under its chin and out the top of its head — out of the eye is best. This is really a fun part of the day on the water, especially when the eel has recovered from the temporary brain freeze, wraps its tail around your wrist, then puts out enough slime so that your washcloth has the coefficient of friction of a wet Kleenex.
I once heard a charter boat captain telling his buddy on the VHF radio that he fishes with eels once every year so he can be reminded of how disgusting they are.
When the eel escapes your grasp (the eels bat over 300), you get to chase it (they are fast!). Picking up a slimed wriggling eel from the deck of a small pitching boat is a hoot. I am surprised Parker Brothers or somebody hasn’t made a parlor game of it. I guess nobody really wants eels in their parlor, but it is a barrel of laughs, believe me. Right up there with a hook in your lip.
The rest is easy. After hooking the eel, you tie that hook to one end of a piece of nylon line, and a lead weight to the other end.. (I am skipping over more secret information I cannot reveal — what shape lead, what weight, what kind of attachment, there is no end of choices, and the fish really cares.) Now clip that nylon leader to your fishing line and simply drop the tackle overboard. Let the reel unwind slowly, and when the sinker hits bottom, crank up a few turns, and voila, you are fishing!
Okay, while drifting with the tide, you put the butt of your rod into the holder on the gunnel, wipe off some of the eel slime on your hands onto your Father’s Day shirt, find a place to sit, take out your lunch sandwich (hey, it’s 9 A.M. already!), and as soon as you take that first bite, the reel starts to sing, the rod bends and shakes, you drop your sandwich into the eel bucket, grab the rod and for the next fifteen minutes it’s a contest to see whether you or the fish has more stamina. Mind you, it’s not exactly an even fight. You have a distinct advantage: a pole that bends and supplies leverage, and a reel that lets the fish pull against a drag that tires the fish but doesn’t tire the reel. If your arm muscles hold out and you maintain pressure on the beast, you will gradually win the to and fro, the exhausted fish comes to boat-side. If you are careful, you avoid de-hooking the beast with the frame of your too-small net and hoist him aboard. The net is the key: no self-respecting fisherman would use a gaff on a striped bass. That is just not done.
The cow is enormous. It’s the biggest bass you have ever seen. T.J’s dock guys at the Gone Fishing Marina help hoist the slob onto the hook hanging from the dock-side scale. You are the local hero — standing very tall in your rubber boots. For about 60 seconds. Then you learn you missed the leader by a pound and half. There is no second place. Your name either goes up on the board, or not. Period.
Okay, you gulp down some Advil for back pain, wheel the beast over to the filet tables, cut it up, take it home, vacuum bag and freeze what you can’t eat for the rest of the week, and then you check tomorrow’s tide chart. Bummer, you were so excited you didn’t mark the spot. Never mind, you remember the neighborhood. That’ll do. You then call your boss with a feigned hoarse throat, and tell him you can’t come into work tomorrow because you’re sick. You do not tell him the real nature of your illness: the certain conviction that every striped bass in the sea has a bigger sibling, and one of them is pining for your eel.
Note: derived from the author’s recently published memoir, “The Client Decides: A Litigators Life: Jackie Onassis, Spiro Agnew, Donald Trump, Roy Cohn, and more.”