An excerpt from Ocean Fishes
As a boy not prone to seasickness, age 11, perhaps 12, in the late 1930s, I was lugged along on my father's boat on deep-sea fishing expeditions out of sight of land south of Montauk Point, Long Island, trolling artificial lures for yellow-fin tuna, with strip baits of fresh squid or mackerel for possible swordfish or white marlin fresh and ready in the ice chest behind. Since even one school tuna, diving deep, wore out my twiggy arms, I would leave the rod to my father's guests and climb to the cabin roof with the boat's binoculars, and as broad swells lifted the boat on the calm sun-misted sea, scan that ocean emptiness -- that imminence -- for sign of marine life, in particular the black dorsal of the swordfish, which in those days was often very large, up to 700 pounds or more, and relatively common. Those stiff dorsals were readily distinguished from the floppy fins of sharks (so abundant then that, keeping careful track, we once counted eighty in a single day). Now and then, the surface would be parted by the squarish heads and shining carapaces of big sea turtles or the unearthly disc of the ocean sunfish, and all the while the shearwaters and storm petrels, replacing the noisy terns and gulls along the coast, came and went, as silent as all else on the silent ocean. And one great day, the mists of whales appeared off to the south.
Another day, well past Montauk Light on the way back to Fishers Island, we had stopped for a cool swim when an alarmed yell from the boat --
At the end of WW II, as an enlisted man stationed at Pearl Harbor, I sometimes fished on liberty days inside the reef off Punaluu on the north coast of Oahu for the silver jacks known as
That year I married, moved to Paris, and for the next two years -- the one period in my life I ever lived far from the sea. In the spring of 1953, I returned from two years in Europe with my young wife and infant son, I rented a small cottage in a lovely Long Island South Fork village called The Springs and brought my first boat, a primitive 19-foot double-ender acquired in Quebec in 1950 (the yellow pine bulkheads in the codfish hatches still had bark) across the Race to Three Mile Harbor, where with the advent of the scallop season in September, my friend and fellow writer John N. Cole and I found some old dredges (pronounced "drudges") and began our careers as baymen. With a daily limit of ten bushels each, we made good money, and my humble cod boat, (rechristened
The following spring, we joined the five-man crew of Capt. Ted Lester in Amagansett, which except on days of heavy wind and longshore current, used a large Nova Scotia dory and two big beach trucks with winches on the beds to set and manage a long ocean seine and bring it ashore through the surf. On our very first haul -- as the new crewmen, Cole and I in chest-high waders served as the two oarsmen in the dory -- each crew share came to about $200, we knew right then that this surfman's life was the one we needed to support our writing habit, though we never made another nickel in the next two weeks. It was also an indelible experience of surf and nets and beautiful hard gleaming ocean fishes. In three years of seining, keeping careful record, and even though our big three-inch mesh let all smaller fish escape, I would list 33 species, including big Atlantic sturgeon and big stingrays, even sharks -- not many but no doubt a few more than our friends who swam in summer off this beach might have cared to hear about.
Since haul seining is limited to six-odd weeks in spring and six in fall when the great bass schools are migrating east and west along the coast, and since this fishery is impossible in heavy weather, when the surf is too high to launch (or beach) the dory and the longshore set or current is too strong, skewing the net, there was plenty of time left for our other uncertain livelihood. And outdoor work on the salt water nicely complemented the sedentary toiling of the writer, who was quite content to be indoors and warm in winter and foul weather.
In June of 1954, on a mooring in Rockport harbor near Gloucester, Massachusetts, rode the prettiest fishing boat I'd ever seen -- a tuna boat with a full canvas canopy, a long low cockpit like a Maine lobsterman, a harpoon stand, rigged harpoon and all, and a
At 32', the
In the autumn of 1955, John Cole moved away to Maine, where he started a new life as an environmental journalist and co-editor of
In 1969, I joined an expedition seeking the first underwater film of the great white shark. In the deep Indian Ocean off the coast of Durban, where the sperm whales killed by the harpoon guns of small pursuit ships could be expected to attract great whites among the large oceanic sharks drawn to the bleeding carcasses. In the next days, from an aluminum cage suspended underneath a buoyed whale, we would watch hundreds of pelagic white-tips, tigers, blues, and hammerheads among them, swim up singly into the red cave they were excavating in the carcass to seize and roll, wrench free and gulp down great gobbets of meat with that awful shuddering -- no " shark frenzy" at all despite the clouds of blood but on the contrary, orderly feeding, awaiting their turn in wide circling procession. But, alas, the great whites never came in out of the blue mists of the deep until the expedition reached the seal colony at Dangerous Reef off Spencer Bay in south Australia where drawn by the dead horse hung from the ship's side, the "white deaths", as Australians call them, banged us around in those light cages in the frigid Antarctic water in what at that time must certainly have been the wildest film footage of huge ocean fishes ever recorded.
In the 1970s, I sold the
Some years before, saddened by the long decline of the wild ducks and upland game birds, I had quit bird hunting for good and except for occasional surf-casting from the ocean beach, had gradually lost interest in so-called "recreational" fishing with conventional spinning reel equipment and heavy lures. Then one summer in the 80's?, the artist Jack Zajac on the Snake River in Wyoming, then writer Jim Harrison on the Yellowstone in Montana would introduce me to fresh water fly-fishing, which I tried in salt water as soon as I got home.
John Cole, former mate on the
Cardenas and I were to become good friends and sometime fishing partners despite the huge discrepancy in our abilities. Having suspended his career as a fish guide and sold his prosperous fly shop on the Key West docks, Jeffrey would acquire a beautiful Cessna aircraft, and when John Cole died in Maine in 2003, he flew north that summer and we helped John's family scatter his ashes on the sea "under the Light"at Montauk Point as our friend had wished. The following year, we split expenses on a reconnaissance of Great Inagua, farthest south and most remote of the Bahamas, where we were astonished by shining white mountains of harvested salt and the vivid red of the flamingos of the brackish lagoons where I would catch my first tarpon on a fly.
Preferring unspoiled coasts to fishing lodges, our general plan in the years that followed, always adapted to local circumstances, was to load camping gear, rods, grub, and rum into the Cessna at Key West and take off across the Gulf Stream, headed for some small cay with an air strip. Hunting up an old outboard skiff in the bony settlement, we would follow the coast to some remote beach set off by those promising emerald flats that we'd reconnoitered from the air on the way in. In recent years, we have visited Crooked Island, Mayaguena, and other remote cays, and pursued big permit in the mangrove cays called the Marquesas, some twenty miles south of Key West, where James Prosek would accompany us after that Chile trip two years ago. Despite Jeffrey's heroic skills on the poling platform, neither James nor I have ever hooked a big permit on a fly, which remains a lovely daydream and vague ambition.
On certain autumn days at Montauk, the gathering companies of migratory bass churn through copper-tinted underwater clouds of sand eels and bay anchovies in terrific "blitzes", chopping the water white with the loud snap and slapping of their feeding -- a pattering applause that may continue for ten minutes or more in the same spot. One November morning a few weeks ago, aboard biologist author Carl Safina's boat under the Light, my host and I already had two good big fish to take home, more than sufficient; we cut the motor, set our rods down, and let the boat drift soundlessly downwind into the tumult. In these urgent conditions,
Feeding on the edges of the blitz that morning were big bluefish and false albacore. A little earlier, the strongest " albie" I have ever hooked shot towards the bottom, then veered back under the boat, doubling my 9-weight rod into a U so tight that I could scarcely slack off on the line. Right in my hands, the rod seemed to relinquish tensile strength, feeling strangely brittle, and I swore aloud that this metallic blue-black little tuna would damn well break it. And so it did, eventually, just as it came up to the surface and the net was slid beneath it. Since that good rod was the first I've ever broken, its loss might have been perceived as an evil omen or at least a sign that the time has come for the old man to quit. However, I don't think I will -- or not at least while there 's still a chance I might die happily of a heart attack while fighting that big permit to the -- my own? -- finish.
-- Peter Matthiessen