By Dave Anderson
Jerry showed up at my house around 8 p.m. and we headed to a shallow bar that has a long history of late-season stripers. The fishing was decent, but far from spectacular, Jerry had the hotter hand, we topped out around 16 pounds, I don’t think we landed more than six fish. The night was quiet and calm, and as the tide receded, we inched out until we were more than 150 yards from dry land. We had camera gear set up on the shore, out of sight and mind, we never used it. We were getting cold.
This bar is a high confidence spot for me and it’s hard to leave, even when it’s been slow. I was trying to will one more fish out of the flat, black ocean when an unsteady whistle snaked through the periphery of my hearing like a faint whiff of smoke, the dark eye of my mind focused on a point along the blackened shore. “Dude,” I half whispered to Jerry, “did you hear that whistle?”
“No,” he said quietly.
Then the wavering call pierced the darkness again, I looked over at Jerry, “Listen,” I said, “Did you hear it that time?”
Jerry was silent, his silhouette bent slightly at the hip, leaning in toward shore, as if trying to hear it. And the whistle meandered again through the same spooky melody, uneven, seemingly blown through dry lips.
“I heard it that time, could it be a bird?” Jerry wondered out loud.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “I’ve never heard a bird like that in my life.”
We laughed and then I whistled back, doing my best to mimic the haunting song. The shadowy shoreline whistled back and I responded again—after two or three volleys, the whistling ceased, but I could swear I heard clumsy feet on the bank. I squinted at the two-dimensional ribbon of stubborn blackness, sandwiched between the pewter water and the deep glow of the new moon sky—I got nothing. I blamed it on the waves.
The fish had been fickle all night, taking a needlefish, then a large glidebait, then a few on a Danny—then nothing on the Danny, nothing on the needle, nothing on a Red Fin, nothing on an Atom Junior, then they were back on the Danny again. It had been close to an hour since our last hit. The whistle was still haunting me, I was worried about the gear. I just knew it wasn’t animal. We stuck it out for a while longer, but the cold was taking its toll, the inconsistent bite removing any hope for an adrenalin-fueled warmup. We made our final casts and made the long, cold wade back to shore.
The gear was still there, but the large flashlight I left on top of my camera case was now beside it; my senses told me that someone had messed with it, but I tried to brush it off as a coincidence. We gathered our gear and headed up the shore. I was trying to keep the pace pretty brisk, get some blood flowing. Jerry, a long distance runner, was unfazed.
Then a voice came seemingly from nowhere. “Were you guys SWIMMING?” It asked.
We stopped dead in our tracks, our eyes scanning the scene for the source of the sound. “Yeah,” I said with a chuckle, “we just swam back from Block Island!”
“COOL!” the voice called back; clearly this guy wasn’t getting the joke.
“Nah man,” I said, “We were just fishing, Block Island is like 15 miles from here!”
In that moment, I saw him. It was a long-haired dude, slightly overweight, kind of lounging against a driftwood log—not exactly a common sight at 1 a.m. on a Thursday in November. For the next five minutes the man on the log lead us on a dodgy ride through a wide array of subjects. He just kept switching gears. He talked about fishing, then spear fishing, then some shop in New Bedford. On a dime he changed to tautog and the fact that he didn’t believe the fish ever migrated—he figured people just stopped fishing when it got too cold and proclaimed that he was going to be fishing through the winter. (Good luck with that!) It was weird enough that he was even out there at that hour, but the fact that this guy seemed to have some general knowledge about several local fisheries seemed even weirder.
He didn’t have a rod with him and he seemed a little nervous, fidgety, and taken by surprise, as if he really wasn’t prepared to have to hold a conversation. Maybe a little messed up, a lot like people I’ve known or met by chance that were having a hard time staying within the lines after a dose of LSD. Think of it like being on a rollercoaster that you wish you weren’t on, using some Zen technique to keep from freaking out—holding onto reality, but only through intense effort. And, let’s be honest, some solo dude, sitting on a log in the middle of the November night looking at the stars and blabbering on about anything that comes to mind? He was clearly uncomfortable inside his own skin and miles from the nearest road. He very well may have been pulling back from the deafening drone of reality, channeling his inner Timothy Leary and running to the ocean to remove the weight of real life from the pressure points of his chemically-altered mind. I suppose it’s just as likely that he was a social outcast, who was really only 100% comfortable when he was alone. I didn’t ask and I’ll never know but, his tone rang with the shape of a constant smile, tainted with wonder and a general overtone of giddiness, spelled with varying hues of twisted happiness and sudden nervousness.
Then he asked, “Hey, was that your stuff over there?”
We both replied in unison, “Yup.”
“Oh man,” he said, “I saw that stuff and was like, ‘oh my god, what did I just find?’ At first I thought someone had forgotten it, but then I could tell it was, like, legitimately set up for something, you know? Don’t worry, I didn’t touch it… well, I did touch it, but I didn’t, you know, mess it up. It really looked like some badass equipment! Was that thing in the box, night vision?”
I laughed flatly, “Yup,” I said—now knowing that he had more than touched it, he would have had to actually open the box and take the camera out of the case to even have an idea that it was a night vision camera.
“WOW!!” he was gushing almost at the top of his lungs, “That’s SOOO COOOL! Night vision, man? Man, I knew it! That’s just too cool man! I knew I couldn’t just take that stuff, I knew it was set up, I knew you… someone, would be coming back for it!”
Jerry laughed in a tone that made it clear he was rolling his eyes, “Well, hey man, thanks for not stealing our stuff!” (We were more than a little lucky that he didn’t!)
“Was that you whistling?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “I was just trying to, you know, see if anyone was around.”
The guy went on for a few more minutes, he almost seemed proud of himself for knowing not to steal someone else’s shit! I really think he wanted us to acknowledge this good deed he had done by… doing what any normal person would do if they found $2500 in camera equipment on the shoreline—leaving it there.
We were finally able to bust free from the conversation and head back toward the cars. But his repeated and enthusiastic interest in the equipment made me feel just a little uneasy. He certainly seemed like a nice enough guy and seemed to be channeling some seriously positive vibes (man). But there was just this little sense in the back of my head that made me check behind us now and then until we were off the beach. He didn’t follow.
As surf fishermen, we run during the hours of misfits, lowlifes, lovers and coyotes. And these encounters, however rare on a remote beach, are always memorable. We see the edge of the land and sea as the place where our passion plays out, but in the darkness many others see it as their only shot at escaping to a world untainted. The night ocean is mysterious, it’s the edge of the last great wilderness, it’s unknown to nearly 100% of the Earth’s population. It has that special ability to erase civilization and remind us how small we are, and how individual we are and how insignificant our problems are—shore, ocean, horizon and sky. We are alive either way, but, at times, it takes something bigger than what our eyes can see or our minds can comprehend to actually believe it.