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An excerpt from Ocean Fishes


Text reprinted with permission from Ocean Fishes, Rizzoli, 2012.

James Prosek and I first met in southern Chile as guest speakers on a yacht expedition that offered clients fly casting for introduced trout on pristine Andes streams. We were fishing partners that first morning in sparkling snow rapids high on the mountain, and in the afternoon, with two of the clients, we were coptered down the mountain to the lower river to haul in "steelhead"-type rainbow -- hatchery fish, to judge from their obliging nature and uncolorful tattered appearance. And after a while, feeling we'd already caught too many, we quit. To the bewilderment of our corporate companions, we lay down on the sunny bank and swapped fishing stories and discussed books, including a planned book of portraits of the beautiful salt water fishes already being planned by this gifted artist-author. Since I, too, much admired the great ocean fishes based on long experience -- surf-caster, ocean haul-seiner, charter boat captain, shark expedition diver, and lifelong naturalist -- James suggested that some sort of informal recollections of so many fine days on the salt water might serve to introduce this book.


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 -- Big shark! --got us back aboard her in a hurry. Half a bloody tuna, tossed out on a shark hook, swiftly attracted an enormous mako which took over an hour for three men to subdue and only then by towing it behind the boat to deprive its gills of oxygen in a belated attempt to drown it. When finally it was hauled up close under the stern, my father leaned down and fired a full clip of .38 bullets point-blank at the general whereabouts of its small brain. Said to be swiftest and most agile of all sharks (and the most beautiful, in the enchanted eyes of its admirer James Prosek), the mako fights like hell and jumps clear of the water like a tarpon and has now won recognition as a game fish. That mako steaks were often marketed as swordfish, being all but identical raw as well as cooked, was less well known, and I'm sorry to say that this beautiful gray-blue creature we towed back to Fishers Island -- where it measured out at close to thirteen feet -- went shamefully to waste, all but the jaws of razor teeth I treasured for years afterwards.


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 papio, and on one occasion, the rough Molokai Channel between islands, where under a blue sky carved by turning frigate birds -- the so-called mahi-mahi birds -- my lure was tracked across the wake by a bolt of brilliant green -blue lightning, the swift mahi-mahi or dorado (after the resplendent gold that transmutes it for a little while when it is first removed from the salt water, soon after which, in dying, it turns gray; it is these fleeting color shifts in ocean fish that James has captured wonderfully in these pages.


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 Vop-Vop in honor of the loud pop-pop of her one-cylinder engine) served us faithfully and well.

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 For Sale sign. Even in those days, the non-negotiable price -- five thousand dollars -- was an unholy bargain. Though scarcely in the market for another boat, I had to make this work. Two days later I was on my way south, stopping over at Block Island for the night and going on next day to Long Island, and within the week the Merlin (named for the magician and the falcon), was a charter boat berthed at the Town Dock at Montauk.

At 32', the Merlin was smaller than most charter boats and lacked a flying bridge, which made her look smaller still, but because John Cole and I loved fishing and busted our butts to find fish for our passengers, she did well enough to build a list of return clients for the following year. That first season effectively came to an end on the last day of August when the notorious Hurricane Carol obliged us to keep the Merlin's engine running at half-speed forward in her slip, hoping her fuel tank would outlast the storm. A few days later, with storm warnings, I took her back to the sheltered inner boat basin at the head of Three-Mile Harbor, one jump ahead of a second bad storm, Hurricane Edna, in the course of which, unable to tend both, we sank the trusty Vop on purpose to keep her from being lifted by a surge and battered to pieces at the boatyard bulkhead. (A few days later, we floated her and snaked out her small engine, submerging it at once in fresh water and spraying its interior with oil, and Vop-Vop emerged from her undersea experience as good as new.)

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 The Maine Times; the following spring of 1956 was my last season in the dory. Lacking a mate when summer came, I avoided the crowd of boats at Montauk and ran a few charters out of Three Mile Harbor, but in August, my career as a charterboat captain came to an end. I donated the Vop to a charity boys' camp and had the Merlin hauled and stored until further notice


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 Merlin to my brother, replacing her over the years since with a series of small boats that never could replace her. In the early 1980s, in a vain effort to help defend the haul-seiners and baymen and their way of life from the erosion and destruction that development has brought to most of the old fisheries and fishing communities in the United States, I went back to the haul seiners and baymen to listen to their voices for a book of text and photos in which an account of ocean haul-seining, already under siege back in the Fifties, is contrasted with its slow paper death thirty years later. [Men's Lives, Random House, 1986]

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 Merlin (and author in 1978 of Striper, a fine book on the striped bass), was spending his winters running a fishing lodge in Key West. In the 1980's, in fresh water and salt, I had become an obsessed albeit inexpert fly fisherman who probably started a bit late but has been fortunate enough right from the first to have had expert, generous veterans as fishing partners, and one spring day when I passed through on a research trip, he introduced me to Jeffrey Cardenas, a renowned fish guide, champion fly caster, sports fishing columnist, and author of two very fine books on salt water fishes and fishing (Sea Level and Marquesa), who took us out to the vast flats near the Northwest Channel to give us poor old plug-casters some tips on the presentation of small flies to spooky bonefish in clear shallow water.

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, Moronesaxatilis pays no heed to Homo whatsoever, and Dr. Safina leaned way over the side down toward the water to photograph at point -- blank range the gaping mouths and greenish backs of thousands upon thousands of big striped silver fish thumping softly on the hull crowding so close that we could have gaffed one. A truly amazing biomass, we agreed, and a stirring manifestation, a celebration, even, of the vitality of these salt water fishes. Yet we knew that what we were seeing here must never be taken for granted, for even this hardy and highly adaptable species, thirty years ago, was thought to be declining to the point of disappearance due mostly to pollution of its main breeding grounds in the Hudson River and the Chesapeake, and other valuable marine fishes -- the codfish and the swordfish and the bluefin tuna, for example -- have never fully recovered from their own severe declines.

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
Sagaponack, New York
Early winter, 2012