The Accidental Fisherman
By Mike Dean
It was a pretty short and innocent text message I received this past April. They’re biting. The call to action seemed at the time to be more of an annual reminder than anything else. Swap out the shorts for sweaters in the storage bins, check the expiration dates on tubes of sun block, and try to remember where what gear was stored in nooks and crannies of friends, family, and my own. Being an urban angler as I’d be labeled by the end of the 2011 season, there’s much more to it than just dropping a line in the water. What started as a frantic process to get in a night of fishing became welcomed routine as the season progressed.
I split my fishing time between the waters around Port Washington, and the area known as NY Bight off the coast of Breezy Point and Sandy Hook. The fish were the same species in both places, fat stripers in the spring and fall, fluke in the dead of summer, blackfish and porgies as the water cooled down. The fishermen I faked my knowledge to and took most of theirs couldn’t have been more different in many ways other than one: that fascination, desire, and victory in finding, tricking, and catching an elusive trophy.
Aboard the Puffin’ on the North Shore of Long Island, local knowledge and beginner level stuff was intimidating and fascinating. First only trusted to pick up sandwiches at the deli, soon I was tying clinch knots and guessing right on the tide half the time. More than just fishing was going on. A lifetime of fishing on his home court, my brother in law opened my eyes to how the fish moved, when and why they ate, and how city hands would become fishing hands by the fall.
On nights when I couldn’t leave work a bit early to get to Long Island, (There’s only so many times the late afternoon dentist appointment story works.) I was off to Brooklyn. I jumped between a few of the party boats docked on Knapp Street when the season started. As the season got going, I slowly and humbly worked towards regular status on the Sea Queen VII. I announced, not yelled FISH ON at the first wiggle of the rod tip. An extra ten bucks for the mates when paying my fare on the way out got me a smile at my false alarm of a sea robin. With stripers coming over the rail to the left and right of me, I’d take the short drive back to Manhattan at the end of the night knowing mine was out there waiting.
I chased that waiting fish from Westhampton to Brooklyn, and the North Shore to Rockaway Beach and Montauk. A boat was easier to catch them on, but what some call an obsession grew and where there was water there were fish. On a popper, a worm, a spoon, a darter, an eel, a swimmer, a clam, or crab, I was slowly but surely starting to be a fisherman. I’d talk surfcasting at work with one of the rare few that understood and embraced an obsession in some eyes, and the glory of the hunt in our own.
Brilliant sunset skies over Coney Island in the summer months soon turned to dark ones as the night fishing trips would start. The bite on the North Shore turned from a night one to a day one, and the measuring tape for what came over the rail on the Sea Queen was called to duty less and less. Eels replaced worms, and beginner missteps became frustrating failings. I kept my mouth shut for the most part and fished. My summer spot, starboard side, midway between the bow and stern, crept little by little towards the real regulars at the bow. Just a short was soon a keeper, then a few nice fish. One night I overheard about “that guy from the city” that caught a nice one a few nights prior. Yes I did, but I knew the grand slam in the bottom of the ninth was still swimming somewhere off Brooklyn. A blessing enough to be on the water, a weeknight with the skyline in the backdrop I was grateful for, and the dare to be greater I took on.
Blackfish swarmed wrecks and rock piles littered on both sides of the channel of the Long Island Sound come October. Looking for some credit as I told of my first time with Korkers on at the Montauk Lighthouse weeks earlier wasn’t found aboard the Puffin’. I still brought chicken cutlet heroes and a case of beer, but calling out a short or bycatch as I reeled up was now heeded not ignored. The bright, shiny Shimano and Penn reel setup anniversary gift from my wife helped me limit out as many times as I hoped it would catch my son’s first fish. The size of an avocado at the time, my wife would smile and tear up a bit as gave him the play by play of the day’s fishing to her growing baby bump.
As word of our March arrival made the rounds, so did the realization by many that I went fishing an awful lot. Disguised as making the most of free nights that would disappear in the spring, it was more than that. A world of life I and many New Yorkers never knew existed a short distance from our shores had drawn me in to its mystery, complexity, and glory. A glance at a beautiful moon was suddenly a reason to put out the fishing clothes and make a late day dentist appointment for the next night.
On a Tuesday night in October, my routine that was insanity to anyone I shared it with, made sense to me. Weaving through Chinatown to avoid FDR traffic on the way to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, I just had that feeling. I had that feeling many nights. Maybe it would be tonight. The anxiety of brake lights lining the Belt Parkway was soothed as I looked out to the water. The traffic broke as it somehow always did, and the turkey sandwich tasted as good as any other night as the engines purred and lines were thrown. The speakers crackled during Marley’s No Woman No Cry. Cap was marking them, and rod tips bent. I had a keeper soon after, and nobody including myself was impressed. The bite slowed and the night stayed perfect aside from that. A few more drifts and I’d be driving home, at least with tomorrow night’s dinner. Lines went down at the next spot. I bounced my eel and texted my wife we’d be back in soon. One WTC rising in the distance amongst the rest of the skyline and a soft autumn breeze made it a night enough for me. The rewind of the season played through my head. I was nuts, I was awesome, I was in the wrong line of work, and I had a problem according to many. I was happy and lucky and part of something that would be more than a hobby for a lifetime to come according to me.
Then there was a tug, let him eat, then a harder tug, let him swim, then I set the hook and started to crank the reel. The only voice I could hear was in my own head. Don’t horse him, keep reeling, walk with him. The voices around me I’m sure were yelling the same words. For those moments it was only me and my fish. He took line back as our battle waged. He may have labeled me as the beginner I was or could have been, but I knew this was my bottom of the ninth. He saw the boat and tried to run. I let him, and then brought him back. The net grabbed more than a 48 inch fish that night. Pictures of my catch and I were snapped from just about every angle possible. One made him look bigger than the other, but every angle showed a smile full of victory and now what will be a passion for a lifetime.