By John P. Lee
During this last coastal storm, while the rest of us were worrying about power outages and downed trees, John was out on the Sound earning a buck...
By John P. Lee
We’ve had some weather lately in the Northeast, a run of gales. I work on a pilot boat out of Point Judith, Rhode Island. The boat is 64-feet long, but even so in a gale it becomes tiny. Here’s a short video I made last night before we headed out. A gale at sea at night is not a calming experience, not a yoga class. Back when I was a commercial fisherman, fishing offshore in the winter—one would think I would’ve gotten used to winter weather. Not the case. A nighttime gale still makes me restless, eyes peering into the darkness waiting for the next set.
By John P. Lee
I’ve had codfish on the brain lately—I hear the bite has gotten good around Block Island, maybe I’ll make a trip soon and put some fresh fish in the fridge. With my thoughts steady on cod (am I ready to go? Do I have my gear in order?) I re-read a post I wrote a number of years ago about a winter cod trip off Block Island. Even years later, I think it's still worthy of a read. I hope to see you out there. Enjoy.
I’ve had time to review the moment and I still don’t know what it is I’ve learned. Something lost.
A fishing rod, the best I’ve ever owned.
I broke it Christmas Eve morning, 2011. A day cold enough that without gloves on you would’ve lost your hands.
We were codfishing east of Block Island. I wish I could say it happened dramatically, the boat taking a heavy roll in a breaking sea, spilling bodies, water blowing through scuppers, and me—or someone—landing heavily across the spine of the rod, snapping it.
It broke almost by itself. The rod was leaning against the rail of the boat. The cod bite was on, a fish on every drop. Terry, the captain of the Tiger Jo, was steaming back to the north’ard so we could make the same drift again. When he throttled back down and the boat slowed, I reached for my rod, and the second my fingers touched it, it split in half—a clean break as if it were cut by a diamond saw.
I looked down at my busted rod. I was calm without trying to be. That was the odd part: calm without trying to be. There was no impulsive, staccato swearing, no grandiose announcement to those onboard that the day was now officially “completely shot, a total fucking waste of time.”
Pure temperance. Every parent knows the feeling. No school can teach it, no book. The important thing is that it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes we cave in and tip the scale wildly the other direction. Bless the moment when the scale hangs dead even. It’s rare.
It’s a rod, John, not a son.
Even so: I’ve seen grown men act badly when loved machines and fond objects go bust.
The rod was 20 years old. A West Coast salmon rod made by G.Loomis. I forget the model number—if I ever knew it. BBR, something like that. I bought it when I was a student at the University of Rhode Island, figuring it’d be good for striped bass. It had the right length, just over 8 feet, for both surf and boat fishing, and, more importantly, the power to handle the trophies I pictured myself catching.
I liked the cork handle, the trigger reel seat, the lightness of the blank, and how balanced it felt with a small conventional reel on it.
Then, three years after the purchase, the electric seatbelts in my 1988 Ford Escort lopped 8 inches off the tip. I was furious at the seatbelts, cursed the engineer who designed them—clearly not a fisherman, for a fisherman would never design a device so foolish. I sold the car shortly thereafter.
That break was the real birth of this rod, my ownership of it. I don’t think I could’ve planned exactly where the seatbelts broke the rod. The break was in the perfect spot and made it a supreme boat rod, perfect for drifting with heavy bank sinkers and large baits; perfect for deep water and strong tides.
Years went by. Seasons, fish migrations, salt spray, hard falls, sun, rain and snow, six roommates, six different rentals, a bought boat, a divorce, a sold boat, home ownership, the passing of my father in a car accident, and finally a lovely pregnant wife.
The rod surely didn’t give a shit about any of this, this history. The rod leaned, inert as a stone, in the garage awaiting spring, like Paddington Bear waiting for the little girl to come and buy him, and when she did the bear came to life and brought her joy.
It became my favorite rod, indispensable. I loved when people held it and said, “Nice stick.” I loved how faded and gouged the cork handle had become; loved all the scratches, the patches of rust around the guides.
The rod had become so far removed from the G.Loomis catalog, the high-gloss photography of beautiful rods and grinning faces, archetypal bends.
After I broke it I threw the two pieces overboard. If the birth was when the seatbelts shortened it, then the death was this, the slow-sink to the bottom off Clay Head, Block Island.
The codfish came to us as if summoned. Clam bellies on dropper-looped hooks, ten-ounce bank sinkers. My hands on the cork, pressing, waiting for the tap tap of a cod on the bait. Banter was high, a stolen day from chores at the house-- Christmas Eve, in fact--our wives at home wondering what the hell we were doing out there in the freezing cold and “Really—Christmas Eve?”
I didn’t sulk when the rod broke. I rigged up another man’s rod—the horror—and dropped a bait down. My concentration, though, was shot. I don’t think I put another fish in the boat. Every cod bite I missed.
When the rod hit the water, I watched its cork handle bob once on the surface, then sound. I’m not the most sentimental person. I threw it over, an act fueled partly by annoyance, partly by the need for a mystical sacrifice.
I could’ve sent the broken rod back to Loomis and they would’ve sent me a brand-new one. A friend—who knew the rod—told me this on the phone after the fact: “Loomis has a return policy like L.L. Bean’s.”
When the rod sank, I heard Jason, my friend and shipmate, say over and over, “That’s gotta hurt. That’s gotta hurt.”
As the rod kept sinking, now well out of sight, I mumbled words of remembrance and hope—a wish for a good future, for health. I gave thanks. I do things like this from time to time. It helps. Crazy as that seems.