A few lights were poking through a black velvet morning at Orient Point marina. Then, creamy light slowly gained in the east. Five of us stepped aboard Fishy Business, with soft greetings from Captain Phil and Derek, the mate.
Going out with me that morning were high school pals, Mark Viragh, known as “Mad Dog” (you’d know why if you’d met him when he was 17), the Bick brothers, Tom and John, and my comrade-in-arms from newspapers, Greg Zeller.
Those high school friends — how did we survive? How did Mad Dog become an accountant with his own business, or wild boy Tom a D.C. lawyer, and even wilder John a successful businessman? At least Greg and I didn’t go straight.
We’ve stayed in touch. I go to St. Louis and the guys, along with a couple of others who didn’t make this trip, come east.
What is it that makes you lower your voice to just above a whisper, and slows you down, as the sun slowly fills an eastern horizon? Something like going into a church, maybe, even if you’re not a believer. Your demeanor changes. Respect, I suppose, for the dawn, for life-long friendships, for the day ahead. Melville said “meditation and water are wedded forever.”
Call me Ambrose.
With the sun shining on a warm August morning and the first bluefish swung over the gunwales and dancing on the deck, that reverential quiet suited to contemplative monks was replaced by the noise of happily profane fishermen.
We were drift fishing through Plum Gut and the Sound, meaning the captain would cut the engine and Fishy Business would drift with the current, while we let our lures and hooks glide just above the bottom, 150 feet down.
When you feel a slight tug, it means you’ve scraped bottom or a fish is interested. You then yank the rod back as hard as you can over your shoulder to set the hook in the curious fish. If nothing, then you’re off the bottom. If the rod bends double, a bluefish is fighting you.
Blues are know for many things, but one of their most apparent characteristics is that once hooked, their aim is to pull you into the water with them. We caught them on every drift, with shouts and laughter ringing out over the water. Tom was designated The Great Slayer of Bluefish for the number he landed. John caught the best eating fish of the lot, a sea bass.
I’d feel the day that night in my arms from cranking reels and bending rods, and in my legs from steadying feet while fighting fish on a rolling deck. Not a bad feeling at all.
I got the pull toward wetting lines early. After my family moved to the Midwest when I was little, my parents would come back every other summer and rent small houses on the North Fork. My grandfather, who grew up fishing out east, would take me and my brothers and cousins out.
He’d rent a boat and motor from a fishing station in New Suffolk and we’d spend all day on the water, catching porgies, blackfish, kings and weaks. Often we’d come back with 100 fish (yes), which is why we always joked when someone had a bad day it was because Grandpa and his crew got them all.
He’d scale, gut and filet the fish on a picnic table in the backyard and my mother and grandmother and aunts would prepare feasts. What they didn’t cook or refrigerate, we’d give to the neighbors. Being the youngest, it was my job to go door-to-door. But it was pleasant duty, because women at back doors were happy to take freshly caught and cleaned fish.
Grandpa came off as a stern master of the boat, but it was a pose. My brother Bill sometimes would try to catch a gull by casting up at them with a hook baited with squid, and my grandfather wouldn’t castigate him, but mention to us that it was wrong to criticize the feeble-minded.
Sometimes, with an unforgiving sun directly above us, we’d strip to our underwear and jump overboard. He’d act like he didn’t see us. Fishing was serious, and if you wanted to play the fool, he wouldn’t acknowledge it.
With a cigar always stuck in his teeth, one day he put a stogie down on a bait board while he was cutting long rolled strips of squid. You know where this is going.
I hooked a dog fish and my cousin Anthony was yelling at me to land it. When my grandfather was ready to come help, he stuck the rolled squid in his mouth and chomped down. The best part was after he spit it overboard he calmly picked up his cigar and stuck it around his smile. Permission to laugh, was his silent order. I still do, right now, remembering.
Meditation and water, and we can add memories.
Back at Orient Point, with pounds of cleaned bluefish on ice, we went looking for an early lunch. In Greenport several places had long waits, so we found a barbecue joint just opening up. The whole place smelled of last night’s beer and smoky sauce. We were the only customers and, of course, began to turn our morning trip into legend.
It was perfect.