Angler's Notebook: Passing the torch is what fishing’s all about

Back at the dock, the fish is cleaned and we bring the fillets home to be cooked and eaten that night. Then it is gone and we go fishing the next day to catch more, to clean and eat. And that is not fishing, that is simply the action. Some days we catch nothing and still we go again and again because catching is only a formality and is not the essence of fishing.

Old teach young, that is the essence. It begins with a respect for and appreciation of the water and its bounty. The young boy is first familiarized with the boat, its lines that will be cast off. He is told to push the vessel from the dock, the pilot throttles up and man and boy leave that last connection to the land as their eyes turn to water ahead of the bow.

Then there is rigging and bait to learn about and how to drop the line and feel the sinker hit the bay bottom, bouncing along as the tide carries the boat in the drift. It is all feel and intuition now. The man tells the boy, “Hold the line between your thumb and forefinger” to detect the nibble. And be patient, he is told. Don’t jerk the rod when you first feel the fish. Let it take the bait, give it some line but carefully, otherwise you’ll end up spooling the reel and be left with a rat’s nest. All of this and more runs through the boy’s head, fueling anxious anticipation, every nerve tingling, every sense on point. The boat rocks, waves slap the gunnel, the sinker skips across the unseen ground 30 feet below the surface through a landscape mysterious and unknowable to the boy, inhabited by storybook monsters.

Then something different is felt in the line, traveling from that deep darkness up to the little finger and thumb. It is thrilling and unmistakable. It is a fish accepting the offering. “Let it take the bait,” he is told, “Nice and easy. Now when you set the hook, don’t jerk it too hard. Go ahead, set it.” The boy lifts the rod tip as he’d been instructed, not too quickly else he’ll pull the hook because these are weakfish and their jaws are frail.

He lifts the rod and the fish cooperates, the hook is set. The boy reels, struggling to keep the rod tip up, as the man coaches him and readies the net. A cutting, darting figure rises into view and turns to let the sun filtering through the water reflect a silvery, speckled flank. The fish is boated and the boy is shown how to remove the hook and hold the fish by its gill. He looks up to the man, who is smiling broadly, as if he’d just shared a beautiful secret he’d been keeping a very long time.

I received a letter in the mail from the man who took me fishing on a boat the second time in my life (the first time was in Brooklyn and I managed a snapper with the help of my grandpa). Jim McMillen is something of a fishing legend in these parts. It was sheer circumstance that brought us together. I was an eight-year-old only child being raised by my mom. Jim had hired her to care for his aunt, Caroline Webber, at her estate on Nostrand Parkway. Jim had promised his aunt she would reside at her beloved Alturas until she’d passed and he kept it, visiting often.

His boat, Jiggin’ Jim, was kept at the large L-shaped dock at the foot of the Greenlawns overlooking Southold Bay. I remember Jim being a gentleman who treated everyone with respect. He had a brilliant, engaging smile and an easy way about him that invited conversation. And he truly was a fishing fanatic who preferred using jigs to catch his fish and so he was referred to locally as “Jiggin” Jim McMillen.

Jim sold his home on Nostrand Parkway to the man who bought the estate after Ms. Webber died. He now lives in Delray Beach and sees his good friend, Jeff Simes, who fished commercially and is a past Shelter Island town supervisor, at least once a month.

He writes, “…ironically, neither of us fish anymore but we do go to the fishing pier near the restaurant … and often watch the fishermen casting in the ocean, mostly catching nothing because of the time of day.”

After reminiscing some about the good old days we spent together at the Webber house, Jim reflected on his fishing experiences and offered some pointers, which I would like to share here verbatim. I hope he doesn’t mind. It’s just that I would ruin it by trying to paraphrase the content.

“I read with interest your column of May 17. May-June, September-October were my favorite months to fish. July-August too hot but the blues usually showed in the Gut by that third week in August.

“Your mention of bass at Plum Gut at the ‘top of the incoming tide’ brought back memories. I used to fish the last three hours of the ‘flood’ there but the best time was the last hour. Being a ‘jigger’ as opposed to bucktailing (not my forte) I found that ‘slow reeling and stopping’ often produced bass, especially the last half hour of the flood tide. Also big blues.

“I look back at Shelter Island and have to confess ‘my home away from home’ was Buoy 17 at Jessups. It was a short run for me from the dock and the spring and fall fishing there was terrific. My favorite location was the end of the rip especially on the flood tide, bigger fish because of the slower drift and bass just a few yards north of the blues. My last trip there was in late October 2010 and produced seven huge blues and one big bass (11 pounds). It was very rough and I had to quit after that though the fish were still biting. Couldn’t stand up!”

Thank you, Jim, for being a great guy and taking me on my first real fishing trip. I will never forget catching my first weakfish with you and all the fun we had during our time in that magical place.