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June 11, 2013
Angler’s Notebook: On missing fishing and sense of wonder
I’m just a little astonished it’s July 4th already. Did I miss spring? And why does Memorial Day weekend feel like a dream? Time is running past me more quickly than I ever remember it could move and I’m afraid the summer will slip by and soon I’ll awake to a foot of snow and 20-degree days. There’s just so much to do and so little time to fit everything in, including fishing, which is a luxury that unfortunately takes a backseat to the compulsory chores of everyday life.
As I get older, I remember more of my childhood, and I yearn for that sentiment of unadulterated connectedness to the natural world. It was all awe and wonder, eyes wide, mouth agape and every nerve tingling. Patience and silence, two practices lost in today’s world, often resulted in a living miracle at the end of the line or in the net — evidence to a boy like myself that there was a universal intelligence at work.
These days I tend to revisit my childhood with the help of kids who are just like me when I was their age. Specifically, they are “obsessed” with fishing, as 10-year-old Luke Lowell-Liszanckie put it when I spoke with the Shelter Island native Monday. Want proof this kid’s a real fanatic? When I asked him about snapper fishing, he said, “I want to get first place this year,” after coming in fifth two years in a row, in the annual Snapper Derby. “So I’m getting up at 12 o’clock at night with my mom” Nell, who confirmed the plan, “and going to start fishing right away.”
And Luke will likely be using fresh bait he’ll catch himself the day before. He is an avid seine netter, catching and releasing many species of finfish, and keeping just enough minnows to use as bait for bigger fish. “I use minnows to catch snappers, fluke and flounder,” he said. “I catch anything that bites them. Live bait’s the best.”
He did admit having a few bunker in the freezer for striped bass fishing. He had to buy those but I bet it’s just a matter of time before he starts snagging his own menhaden for bait. Luke is still looking for his first keeper bass — he’s caught a short — and should reach that goal with the help of his mom, who takes him fishing when they visit Montauk, or his dad, Dave, who fishes with him around South Ferry.
Luke’s caught some interesting fish in his seine, including blowfish, or puffers as he calls them. During the school’s fourth-grade beach day in June, Luke and friend, Henry Binder, made a haul off Wades Beach on the south side of the Island. In the net were an adult blowfish and a juvenile blowfish about half the size of a dime. Luke has caught many blowfish but this was the largest.
These fish were common to Island waters for many years. My aunts tell stories about catching them for dinner off the dock in Coecles Harbor. I don’t remember ever seeing a puffer when I was a kid and only heard about them coming back in the early part of this decade after fish were released into the Peconic estuary.
After omnipresent local photographer Eleanor Labrozzi snapped photos of the blowfish, Luke released them, as he does with all the fish he won’t keep for bait. As much as he enjoys hook and line fishing, Luke is equally passionate for seining, which requires at least two people. “I like having fun with my friends,” he said. “And you never know what you’re going to catch in it.” It’s the elements of mystery and surprise, the principles of discovery, I remember from the parts of my childhood spent on the water.
When I was Luke’s age, we as a society were in the dawn of the technological age. The private sector was beginning to capitalize on the consumer’s thirst for convenience and instant gratification. Video games were gaining a foothold in living rooms across the country — electronic pacifiers and babysitters. But even today’s senses-jarring, computer-generated fantasies can’t evoke genuine awe. I didn’t ask him but I bet given a choice between virtual fishing where, say, he’s guaranteed landing a 75-pound striped bass and fishing off a rock jetty with his dad, knowing he may catch squat, Luke would pick the latter.
Luke is not into video games. He’s into the thrill of live action. And he enjoys learning about fishing and the fish he catches. “I like catching fluke and flounder; they put up a good fight,” he told me. “And I really like catching skates — they’re members of the ray family. They give a really good fight because they’re like suction cups that stick to the bottom.”
I don’t know that skates are any good to eat but those other flat fish Luke’s caught ended up on his family’s dinner plates. Luke has an appreciation for the ability to catch a meal. He also takes his responsibility for releasing the fish he catches seriously and told me about one haul in which he “overfished” (his words) and struggled to get the fish back into the water. Many of the minnows were small and “barely have any brains,” he said, so they wouldn’t swim from the net when he tried to release them en masse.
So Luke’s got a conscience to go with his appreciation for fish (I guess the combination of those two qualities equal respect). I asked him how he knew skates were rays (I didn’t) and he told me he learns “by catching fish and from talking to people I know who have caught them before me.” Well, of course. I remember now how eager I was to learn and how willing the adults around me were to teach. It takes a level-headed, old-school kid like Luke to remind me of that relationship.
Thirty years ago, I had nothing but time on my hands and a whole corner of an ocean as my playground. My father was just a bigger version of me — curious, spirited, adventurous and perhaps a little neglectful of his obligatory duties when there were fish to catch. And so I learned quickly that I would be absolved of allowing the lawn to go to seed if the fishing was just too good pass up.
These days I’m always finding excuses to not fish and that’s simply not healthy. Without some degree of balance between work and play, existence is reduced to drudgery, and letting that happen in a setting so conducive to this particular form of spiritual nourishment basically amounts to sin.
So if you’re like me and feel anchored by the weight of the world, rise up, grab your rod and revolt! Get out on that beautiful blue bay, feel the salt spray on your face and the sun on your shoulders, revel in the strike and the happy pain of cranking up a big old bass or ‘gator blue, and refresh your library of fishing memories and stories. And take a kid like Luke with you — you may be surprised by what you learn.