That old wisdom about regrets is dead on: In retrospect, it’s not what you’ve done that really hurts, but what you didn’t do. And summer is passing and I haven’t gone fishing.
When I was smarter, I used to go party boat fishing out of East End ports three or four times a summer with Delaney, my guru and mentor. Party boat fishing is not for those expecting to see the sailfish dance and having someone run you a piña colada every hour. It’s also not standing in a stream wearing waders, casting and dwelling on Life, Nature and Man.
Party boat fishing is smelly, messy and an opportunity to slice up your hands on hooks, knives and fish spines. It’s fun, for all that. It’s also fun, many maintain, to be in God’s own sunshine with a perfect excuse to drink beer at nine in the morning.
A few years back we saw a brochure for three-day codfish trips out of Montauk. There was some kind of bizarre appeal to this. After a day fishing I’ve had it and am ready for dry land and a shower. This would be Extreme Party Boat Fishing. Delaney, reading the brochure, said, “Three days. What kind of people would do this?” He looked up. “Except, I mean, people like us.”
Sometimes I wonder about Delaney. Soft-spoken, the most laid back of men onshore, there is more than a little Ahab in him when it comes to cod fishing. He has a large codfish refrigerator magnet. His rod is detailed with a cod skeleton and the legend: “Death From Above.”
When we decided to go extreme fishing, he pronounced, gloomily, “It’ll be great. Or awful.” It was both. We had perfect weather, saw three sunsets and two sunrises at sea, battled monsters, had a blast. I also crippled my guru and brought all fishing to a halt. Our extreme voyage ended in an emergency room.
O’Hara decided to ship out with us. It was apt we sailed on the Viking Starship, because O’Hara is a Viking. Tall, broad, with long blonde hair, he loves the water and playing the wild fool — sharing a beer with caught fish, apologizing that he will have to eat them, etc.
At Montauk harbor, on a velvety evening, we loaded our gear on board. The Viking Starship is a 140-foot boat with rails to fish from running bow to stern, a cabin of bare wooden theater seats forward and a galley aft. O’Hara was lashing down our coolers as we sailed past a sliver of beach catching the last of the sun. We passed the swinging beam of Montauk Light and were out in the open sea.
What kind of people would do this? A group of young guys who were fishing for a living. They all had buzz cuts, sunburns, ear studs. A separate tribe. A guy from Hong Kong who collected every fish head caught — “Good for soup.”
I met a chain-smoking 80-year-old man along the portside rail. When I said it was a beautiful evening, he let loose a stream of indecipherable vehemence. He seemed to be denouncing me, or the evening, or both. The only thing I could make out were obscenities. He spit on the deck to punctuate a thought as I moved away.
At the stern I asked two men in their 50s if they’d ever done this before. “Many times,” said Jake, a weather-beaten Norwegian holding a label-less bottle of clear liquid. His buddy was named Tony, Jake told me, “And he don’t talk much.” I noticed Tony fingering a fish billy, a short club used to brain the poor beasts. He would look solemnly at the billy, then the boat’s wake, and back to the billy.
“You got it here?” Jake poked me in the gut. Before I could answer he grabbed my shoulder, laughing, holding up his bottle, shouting either a blessing or a curse, it was hard to tell.
The mates were, like most men who work the boats, cheerful, patient, expert. The captain, like the master from “Moby Dick,” didn’t appear among us right away, making his appearance in the afternoon of the first day. But it wasn’t anything metaphysical with our captain. He had a DVD player in the wheelhouse and a collection of Goldie Hawn discs.
Ten p.m. up on the bow we stared at constellations riding directly overhead as a bottle was making the rounds along with extremely complicated dirty jokes. Dawn was pink and gray, seabirds working low along the soft swells and then the sun blazing up out of the horizon.
Fishing all day for tile fish, none of our crew had much luck. It was difficult fishing. The tile is a big-headed bruiser who lives at 600 feet. You need a 5-pound weight to keep your hook on the bottom and dragging that up through two football fields of water is no fun.
During an afternoon lull, the rolling ocean seemed to be breathing. Someone pulled in the inedible and seriously ugly sea robin and threw it back. O’Hara compared the fish to an alien-obsessed true believer on a podcast, telling the other fish when he gets to the bottom, “They captured me! Took me on their vehicle!”
There was commotion up the rail, shouts and curses as Jake and a mate tried to get Tony away from a huge tile fish flopping on deck. Tony was wild-eyed, yelling, scrambling in a crouch after the fish with his billy. They calmed him down, convincing him the fish was dead. “All right, Tony,” Jake said, giving his gasping friend a hit from the bottle. Tony clutched his bloody club, nodding. The mate said, “Once more and I’m gonna use the hose on him.”
The sun, banded like Jupiter, set quickly, leaving yellow stripes glittering in the blue waves. Dinner was not a success. O’Hara had been in charge of provisions and thought he’d done a good job, but all he’d brought was peanut butter and onion pitas. We all slept deeply, as the captain headed for a new fishery 60 miles off Nantucket, where the sun rose the way it had set, with purple stripes across the middle, powering up out of the sea.
We fished all morning and caught cod on every drop, many of them wanting to pull us in with them. Shouts all morning up and down the boat. Catching two and three cod on the same line. The mates were gaffing fish non-stop. The guy from Hong King rushed around collecting heads. Tony was a windmill.
Delaney stopped fishing for awhile. It was then, near noon, that I brought him, and the fishing, to a stop. He was standing behind me while I fought two cod. I swung the fish up over the rail as Delaney said, “Man, you hooked me.”
One of the 9-inch “whale cod” hooks was buried deep in his forearm. He was calm, but his eyes showed pain as the mate cut the jig and tackle off and worked on the hook. But it was too strong and in too deep.
Jake got a pair of rusty cutters from under an old bait box. Booze was poured over the crusted slime and rust of the cutters as Jake and Tony staggered up to Delaney. “No,” the mate, the voice of sanity, said. “We’ll take him home and get him to a hospital.”
Home was a 10-hour sail away. A crowd grew around Delaney, who stoically sat inside, bearing it. After the adrenaline rush wore off he was shivering, so O’Hara got a cushion and Delaney lay down on the deck, a blanket over him. The mate said to me, “First hour is crucial. If he doesn’t go into shock he’ll be all right. If he does, we’ll get a medevac helicopter.”
It was like a really bad toothache in his arm, he said. Since he was tough, we became tough. Guys would ask, “How’s your buddy?”
“Him? No sweat.”
Then the stories came. One guy took a hook in the back. Yeah, I know a guy took a hook in the eye. So? How about my buddy, took one here, he grabbed his crotch. Guy died on this boat once. We boxed him in ice and kept fishing.
An ambulance with a police escort was waiting at Montauk. At Southampton Hospital they shot Delaney’s arm full of lanacane and since the hook was so strong, had to call in the maintenance man and borrow his pullman line pliers to cut and push it through. Later, Delaney had a perfectly rendered whale cod hook tattooed over the scar. He lives for the moment when someone asks about it.
“Well,” he says, “there’s a story behind that.”
This column appeared in a slightly different form in 2013.