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.
By Dave Anderson
This little false hint of a January thaw has awakened that need to drive to the ocean and just… see it. Any spot will do, it’s that inherent energy that the ocean holds that makes these short trips therapeutic. Today, after I dropped my daughter at preschool, I found myself following a familiar road, heading out of my way to a place that holds many memories. Following the footprints of a much younger and greener me, into a place that would become a major part of my story.
I first walked these beaches in the winter of 2005 when I found my way into a very exclusive neighborhood; as I skipped out onto the exposed ledges, I found a spot that screamed big stripers. It had everything; deep water, drastic depth changes, changes in bottom composition… The first time I fished it that spring the fishing was amazing with fish from 28 to almost 40 pounds. The next night was even better.
Needless to say, I became a regular at this spot. But as spring gave way to summer, I learned very quickly that a security guard was stationed in the neighborhood so that the ‘summer people’ could enjoy their high-priced paradise without worrying about any of the ‘underprivileged’ population sneaking in to enjoy a quick peek of the breathtaking view or—worse—marring it by leaving footprints in the sand that weren’t left by a fellow millionaire. It’s funny how money cultivates feelings of entitlement, but I’m jumping the tracks here.
After a few years of being asked to leave in the summer, I finally found a way in that only required that I keep the use of my light to a minimum. I was parking in a hayfield about a mile from the gate and walking in. By that time I knew exactly where the guard parked his vehicle and that he spent almost the entire night sitting in there listening to the radio. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he had a job to do and he could not be persuaded to look the other way. The only tenuous part of walking in was that I had to pass within 200 feet of his vehicle, but if I ducked into a driveway and walked a short distance behind a stone wall and some shrubs, he could not see me unless he was really focusing on that one area—he never saw me, not even once.
There were a few times though that his intuition seemed like it told him that someone had avoided detection and was out there exploiting the land and water he was there to ‘protect’. His downfall was that he seemed to be afraid of the dark; he NEVER shut his ginormous flashlight off. The jittering beam would precede his arrival by as much as five minutes, like a freight train rounding a bend on a moonless night. It never occurred to him to look on any of the rocks out in the water, and I’m sure training his eyes on that glowing beam killed his night vision anyway, so he never made me—again, not even once.
One summer night I was in there, hitting all of my usual spots, slinging eels—near perfect conditions, I’d only have wished for more wave action. I was on a short boulder that jutted out from the gravel beach when I saw the beam, waving like a lightsaber, 20 feet over my head on the bluff. I wasn’t worried, but I moved to a lower spot to make the most of the height of the boulder behind me. He walked down from the bluff and looked around for 10 minutes, I kept casting while he stumbled and searched just 25 yards behind me. He climbed back up and disappeared. I moved down the beach, further from where his car was parked and resumed my nightly ritual.
The fishing was just not coming together, and Mr. Rent-A-Cop was really testing his training. He showed up again, right behind me… it was a dark—no moon—he didn’t see me. The lack of fish was bothering me, half of me wanted to leave but the other half wanted to take on the challenge of salvaging the night. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t risk walking back down the road because Chief Wiggam was on the prowl, so I decided to fish my way down the mile of shoreline that lead back to the field where I had parked.
It should come as no surprise that my decision yielded zero fish and zero hits. As I stood at the shore, making my final casts, I hoped that I had lined myself up in a way that would offer a direct route to the car. I climbed the steep embankment and saw that I was roughly in the right spot, but that a thick patch of bramble and briars separated the shoreline from the field. Looking left, I saw that there was a long section of mowed grass leading from the water to a large house up near the road.
I thought about the hour, it was very late. I thought about the walk back and having to ninja my way through the neighborhood to avoid the guard. I decided I would walk through the yard and hope for the best.
When I do something like this I often find myself locked into a cyclical inner monologue. I imagine what might happen if someone caught me and then I think about the best story I could tell that would diffuse the situation and disarm my accuser. I always settle on having lost my way and selling the desperation of being ‘lost’ and ‘in a panic’… worried wife… work the next day… you get the idea. The reason for repeating it over and over, I think, is to get the tone and inflection right, make myself believe it before I have to say it out loud.
So I was walking up this million dollar lawn, sometime after 1 a.m., muttering and refining my excuse as I went. The house was white, standing out stark against the shadowy darkness of the trees around it. As I approached, I noticed that the property line was pitching in, forcing me to walk closer and closer to this modest vacation home—it was summer with a light sea breeze, windows would most definitely be open. My stride modulated to half speed as I concentrated on placing each step. My main concern switched to being exposed by a motion-activated flood light, luckily they didn’t have one. As I tip-toed past the east wing of the sprawling estate, I was passing a set of tall windows when a light flicked on inside, my body went cold with dread as my eyes instinctively fixed on the figure inside. My synapses were firing at record speed, processing worry, readying an excuse, fighting the urge to run… but the rush of emotions fell dead in the height of the moment. My brain was short-circuited by the amount of flesh I was seeing. Here was a man, probably late-60’s. Bald on top with wild bed head gray hair wrapping the sides. His face wore the grimace of trying to stay mostly asleep—he was the opposite of alert. He was short and portly and moving slowly. He was also bare-ass! And I saw it all. Everything from his alarmingly dangly testicles to his scruffy—steel wool—chest hair. He turned and I instantly felt bad for his proctologist. “Should’a been a podiatrist..”
All of the drama leading up fell flat in a whispered, yet exasperated, muffled huff, “Jesus-fucking-Christ!” My new challenge was trying to get out of there before bursting out laughing. As I rounded the pillars at the top of the driveway, I knew I had made it. The cold chill of alertness was replaced by the seeping warmth of fatigue. I felt like I didn’t know what to do with that mental image; all I could do was laugh. I don’t remember what year that was, but we all have memories that never leave us; the birth of a child, big fish caught or lost, little league home runs, falling in love… and unfortunately, this man’s… everything, seems be stored on that same kind of encrypted memory. So thanks mystery millionaire, you don’t know it, but I own a part of you and I cannot—for the life of me—get rid of it.
By John P. Lee
Ice fishing is good for the soul. There is something about it. The starkness of winter, the long afternoon shadows, the sound of expanding ice cracking from cove to cove. I think it’s good for the mind to stand above the fish and drill holes and set tilts. It’s more trapping than fishing, more like setting lobster pots than casting plugs. This mindset is not for everyone, spreading out your tilts over a wide area, covering ground. But it is not passive, the drilling and moving, the thought about where the fish could be, takes energy. And then when the fish bites and the flag pops, there is that moment as you walk over to the hole and see the spool spinning and kneel before it, your fingers on the line, feeling, feeling, then setting with your wrists. The battle is fought with your hands. How old is that tradition? Then the fish’s head is at the hole and it comes through and flops onto the ice. The colors of the fish seem to bloom in defined contrast to the monochrome ice. The perch are vibrant, the bass, the trout. I also love how affordable it is, for all people, the opposite of trying to catch a grander marlin off the Great Barrier Reef or Kona. The fish are right there somewhere in the lake or pond, right there below our feet. Enjoy these photos. I took them early in the season this year, right when the black ice set up, ice so transparent you could see bottom. Clear and bitter cold, my blood felt both frozen and fully alive.
By Dave Anderson
My parents used to tell me all the time that you can’t understand, fathom, quantify the love you have for your children until you have one of your own. These moments made me squirm in much the same way that catching my parents kissing made me squirm. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to hear… but I didn’t need to hear it three times a week! Looking back, I was lucky to have parents that made it clear—all the time—that they loved and supported me, my brothers and each other.
Christmas was always a phenomenal time of year, we weren’t rich by anyone’s standard, but my parents put a lot of emphasis on making sure they always maintained that Christmas magic. And my mom was obsessive about making sure that they spent the same amount on each of us—I’m talking down to the penny—AND that each of our piles of presents was roughly the same size. It was almost as if she thought we’d be going through catalogs after opening all our presents, tallying totals, billing for discrepancies.
This went on for much longer than it should have, but my parents didn’t want to let the magic go either. I remember Christmas 2002, I was already out of the house living with my girlfriend 80 miles from home on the shores of Buzzards Bay. That year marked my first real fall run. My gear was not intended for someone that put in the kind of time that I did that fall. I’d like to tell you that I had it all figured out, I did not, but I learned a hell of a lot. I had two surf setups; a schoolie outfit that consisted of a low-end Penn reel and an 8-foot Shimano Blue Runner rod and I had another of the same Penn reels in a larger size clamped onto a 10-foot Ugly Stik. By the time I made my lasts casts in November, my reels were in rough shape. This was about 50% due to the fact that I didn’t do much to preserve them and 50% that they weren’t intended to be fished four times a week and submerged 30 times per trip. Corrosion was visible on many parts of both reels, the anti-reverse only worked when I didn’t need it to and they sounded like those old crank egg beaters.
I had a long list of things I wanted that year, most of it was more important than a fishing reel. I needed tools and clothes and other things to make my first year out of the house go as smoothly as it could. My parents did the right thing and got me all of that stuff I needed; tools and a toolbox, some decent winter clothes, a pair of boots, I can’t remember all the details. But as I sat there surrounded by crumpled wrapping paper and dodging more being thrown at me by both of my brothers, I did feel a little disappointed that I didn’t get the reel. It seemed like just as much of a need as any of that other stuff to me.
Then my mom handed me one more present. I knew the size of the box was right and I could see the sparkle in her eye, she was excited to give this to me. My dad chimed in, “Open it!” I reasoned for a minute, maybe it was something else that came in a reel-sized box. For the first time in my life, I looked around myself and added up a rough tally of what they had spent on me. That’s when I knew there was no way it was going to be the reel, the one I wanted would have cost more than all of the other stuff combined!
I looked at my mom and said, “This better not be what I think it is!” I didn’t mean a single word of that sentence. I opened the package slowly, I knew exactly what the damned box looked like, I’d seen it on the shelves of every tackle shop I’d been in since I knew I wanted it. I saw the cream-colored cardboard and the maroon printing on the side. It was the reel. A Shimano Stradic 6000, at the time, it was a $220 reel. I was ecstatic inside, but also feeling a little guilty. I knew my parents didn’t have gobs of extra money floating around. For a minute I acted a little angry, “You guys! You shouldn’t have spent all this extra money, you already gave me what I needed!”
“You will never be able to understand the love you have for your children until you have one of your own…” My dad quipped with a wide smile. I gave in to the moment, I could not have asked for a better Christmas. It was a time when I was just finding my footing in the world; I wouldn’t have been able to buy that reel before spring. Odds were that my un-rinsed reels would have seized up by May and then I’d be really stuck. My mom and dad made that happen because they wanted to keep that Christmas magic alive, my happiness and surprise in that moment was worth every extra penny.
Now it’s my turn to crank up the magic and keep it alive for as long as I can. My daughter is three this Christmas and her excitement has brought all of the electricity of the holiday season back into my life. Every house with crazy Christmas lights brings out gasps of astonishment from the car seat behind me, we have to spend at least 20 minutes absorbing the wonder that is the Christmas section at Target… every time we go there. Everything must be related to the Holiday… from cookies, to drawings, to anything else you can think of. And if I am up in the morning before she is and she comes down to find that I have not lit the tree… you wanna talk about a dirty look?
I get it now. It’s not just one day, it’s at least a month of enchantment for a little kid and as an adult, you suddenly find yourself thrust back in time, living each second again through a different set of eyes. And when Christmas morning arrives, the pinnacle of their existence—at least as far as they’re concerned—you want that day to feel like a 24 hour fireworks display. Did we spend way too much on her? There is no doubt. But I don’t feel a stich of remorse, these years will go quick and the magic means more to me now than it ever did. I think that’s what it’s really all about.
By John P. Lee
When I was in fifth grade, we moved back to the States from Hong Kong. Everyone in my new school thought I was going to be Chinese—I don’t blame them, look at my last name. I think I disappointed many: Bruce Lee, the master, was the action hero of that era. When my neighbor, a boy my age, came over to greet us, forced by his father to do so, what he saw wasn’t a Chinese martial arts master but a dorky, American kid with a Red Sox cap pulled tightly down over his head making his ears Dumbo out like palm leaves.
Only three years, that’s how long we lived in Hong Kong. My dad got a job with a small investment company that wanted footing in Southeast Asia, so we moved halfway around the world from Newport, Rhode Island. I was already a watery kid. But what Hong Kong did was combine water with a huge city and this, I am certain, shaped who I have become. Not that it made me wildly interesting, a scholar of Chinese history or culture; but my time there did give me the strange blend, almost verging on the impossible, of loving both fish and nature as well as the industries that seem to exploit them.
Hong Kong Harbor and the ships and the fishing junks—they got deep into my little head and stayed there. The seaport, back then as well as now, centers around the harbor. The whole city seems to face it. When you walk downhill you always end up there. Water was a draw for me: it was so alive and crazy and busy, so full of color and sounds. And the thing is, I didn’t even know it, didn’t understand how charged-up it made me. Kids don’t really know what gets under their skin. Rumination, to a kid, is like breathing. It’s constant. Or it was with me.
But there was no intellect. Just feelings and energy, a kind of rawness and presence, which, unfortunately, is easily lost when we grow up and act like grownups. My fuel was visual that’s how I made sense of the world (still do) and Hong Kong Harbor was as visual as any place can get. Ships from all over the world, tugs, junks, sampans of a hundred different styles. It was also loaded with things adrift. Every kind of flotsam was in Hong Kong harbor in the 1970s and I stared at it, hoping to see something, I’m not even sure what.
In the 1970s everything on the planet was made in Hong Kong and even today, it ranks as one of the world’s busiest seaports. I never knew what I might see. One day I saw a cow’s head, another I saw the entrails of some animal trailing off like a massive jellyfish. I saw plastic toys and a dead dog. I saw all kinds of wood and bamboo. Crates and baskets and buckets. Styrofoam that formed in drifts along the bulkheads. I saw little fish along the ferry docks and watched the Chinese fish for them with handlines. All this may sound a bit off-putting: a kid into garbage, and I’m sure even I thought that, but it also held some mystery to me. To this day I am unable to walk by water without staring into it. What I’m looking for, I still don’t know…
The other thing that I think I carried back to the States was a fascination with fishing boats and life at sea. Again, it was completely opposite of reason and intellect, and had to do with the unknown. There was a part of Hong Kong called Aberdeen and this is where the fishing fleet tied up. This fleet made New Bedford look artisanal, like a cute New England painting. The boats went on for what I perceived as miles, one tied to the next in a long chain of wooden junks. These junks were homes. The owners, after a fishing trip into the South China Sea, did not head back to their apartments for some rest and family time. The boats were it, all-inclusive. The whole family—generations deep—lived aboard in floating villages. This was sensory overload for me. And it was more than fascination it was something I felt, as if I swallowed it whole. And the fish they caught, many of them alive in tanks in open-air markets held a strong pull for me. I had to peer in. These markets were the very opposite of a Whole Food experience in Manhattan or Boston, where everything is clear, bright, smoke-free and no one is yelling. Again, now years later, I am still more at home in a fishing port with fish being handled and trucks and ice and pallets, shouting people, than I am at the beach, mall, or fancy marina.
One of my favorite memories is from that time and it’s the kind of memory that I wouldn’t mind revisiting when I’m laying down to die. We would often go off into the hills after school and hike around. Hong Kong had both temperate forest and also this savanna-type grass that would grow on wind-swept faces. The funny thing is, even though Hong Kong was incredibly dense with people, there were also large sections where no one lived; so we’d hike around, go exploring.
I can still picture this one particular day, sunny and clear, dry. I was with my brother and maybe another friend. My brother being in charge, as the big fifth-grader. I recall standing on a big rock watching the wind blow the grass, and on three sides of us stretched the South China Sea, beyond that, the land of China. Seeing the hills of China way off in the distance—China was an enigma, a hard nut to crack. Hong Kong was under British control when we were there but China had closed borders and was under communist rule, the era of Mao Zedong had just ended—and to my little head, a third grader, China was as bad-ass as any place could possibly be. So there we were, on the edge of nowhere, on a map that didn’t exist to us, following trails that few people ever walked—parent-free and wild.
Photos taken by my mom or dad.
By Dave Anderson
Nighttime is my time. I love fishing at any time, but I feel the most at home in darkness. When color is removed from your field of view you perceive the landscape using different senses; on one hand your eyes begin to hone in on nuance, picking up the subtle color changes of a gentle rise on the surface or the dark stain of a recent break. The black expanse of a grove of pines is given depth when your hearing fills in the blanks. Hollows gape and echo in a light wind, pine needles soften while leaves hiss – almost ring – in the breeze. When you really tune in and your subconscious takes over you may find that your mind is practically on fire, processing sound, using sight only on an ‘as needed’ basis. It’s these times when your mind takes the wheel that it is easiest to believe that we only use a tiny fraction of our brain’s potential.
Winter is a tough season for the night angler—unless you target holdover striped bass exclusively or maybe, walleye. For those of us that hunt trout and freshwater bass, the hits become fewer and the chances of blowing that opportunity become much more likely—complacency comes easy in the third hitless hour with your fingers frozen in the positions of holding a rod and reel.
I covered a lot more ground than usual last night, more than I ever had in this particular pond and I only had one solid hit and two nudges to show for it. Maybe it was the fact that it was a Sunday night, after a weekend of increased fishing pressure, or maybe it was the cooling waters and threatening stare of the super moon foreshadowing the whiteness of the coming winter. A light wind rose from the west, I wished I had worn one more layer.
I turned around after covering, what Google Earth tells me was, almost exactly one mile of prime shoreline (it felt like twice that!) and began walking back toward the car. As I rounded a shallow bend in the shore I heard the low calls of a pair of owls in the trees. When you spend a lot of time outside in the quiet darkness you learn that owls all have a unique call, not to the species but to the individual. These two were keeping a good rhythm going one of them was low and somber, with drawn out annunciations, Hooo-Hooo-H-Hoo-Hoo, the other was playing for style points with a much faster and complex call, Hoo-H-H-H-Hooo-H-Hoo-Hoo. Each one replicated to a tee during each round, each one sung in a “woe-is-me” minor key.
My mind snapped to a conversation I had with my friend Keith’s wife, Lauren. She works for the Audubon Society and conducts regular owl walks for groups of bird enthusiasts. I could hear her voice in my head telling me that owls can be brought in by playing—or in some cases—vocally imitating their calls. She uses an iPod and speakers to broadcast actual recordings of owl calls and they come to investigate—almost—without exception. Since I had a captive audience that was, clearly, feeling the night vibe and comforting each other with the dialogue of mated pair. I cupped a hand to my mouth and did my best to throw my own vocal stylings into the mix.
The pair went silent. The light wind seemed to bend with their confusion as a deafening silence crossed the pond like a sudden gust of wind. Their calls cautiously resumed as I did my best to move quietly along the gravelly bank. I called again, they called back—in sequence. I called again and the first owl rushed to fill the space at the end of my phrase, the other followed. I took a few more steps and called out, again the space right at the end of my phrase was filled. It was starting to feel like a competition. For a split second I felt a flutter of nervous excitement blooming in my chest—an osprey once tried to attack me… in the dark I might never see them coming! I weighed the risks and called again—they called back quickly and, once again, in sequence.
This continued with intermittent steps until I could tell I was right below the second caller. Hidden by the blackness of a tall, gangly pine I heard the call. I don’t know why, but I assumed that this owl was the female—low and somber, not as brash and braggadocios as Mr. Style Points. She called, I called back and she took to the air, crossing the clouded corridor of the full moon as she flew, I watched the black dart, soar across the pond and settle into the treeline. I pulled my camera, knowing (hoping) that he would follow her—he didn’t. I called again. I heard the snap and rustle of the foliage as he dropped into an iron cross and glided slowly through the same lane, I snapped the best shot I could. His slow movement sent a message of warning as he surveyed the area before crossing the water to join his mate.
I could hear them consoling each other for the rest of the night, the rhythm and phrasing unchanged. Even after taking several casts on the way back, in some of the most productive spots in the pond, there was not a fish to be had. The owl encounter made my night. It’s the incidentals that make fishing what it is to me. I have already shared this story with my wife and daughter and I will tell it many more times in my life. If I had caught a fish, I would most likely forget that fish within a few years, but this owl encounter will stick with me forever.
By Dave Anderson
Darkness falls so fast in October. I almost had to skip dinner to catch my tide. When I arrived at the beach, the wind had come up hard, forcing a change of plans. My phone buzzed impatiently, it was my buddy Keith—he was mowing pasta and giving me a report. He said that the whole area had been hot for bass—schoolies to the mid 30-inch class and a single 28-pounder. In addition there had been large albies and some bluefish mixed in. I drive by that beach every day after I drop my daughter off at school, but on this day I kept the blinders on so I could tend to things at home. While the fish blitzed, I was at home picking up around the house, doing the dishes and working on writing and editing deadlines. Being responsible sucks.
I told him I was sitting on the corner of the beach in my wetsuit at that very moment—I heard the rhythm of his chewing increase as he spoke—I pictured a wig of spaghetti hanging from his mouth as he choked out his words, “I can be there in 30 minutes,” he gulped punctuated with a hard swallow.
I agreed to wait for him.
The beach was deserted. Just one month prior there would be cars lining this little strip of prime public real estate—couples enjoying wine on a blanket, fogged windows of college kids ditching their roomates for a quickie. The ocean breathes life into anyone that stops to receive it—many stop without realizing why. This night felt cold and blue. I stepped out of the car and listened to the wind playing an eerie tune through my braid and leader—the rod racked on my roof. I looked into the last vestiges of sunset, the trees, the beach houses, the telephone poles all in silhouette—black, brown, blue—the occasional steady eyes of a passing car. I snuck a quick leak before zipping up my wetsuit. As much as I grit my teeth over navigating the grocery store when the ‘summer people’ are in town, the loneliness of the nights after Columbus Day do bring on feelings of melancholy—not because I miss seeing 40- and 50-something women who think a mesh shirt over a bikini that begs for youth is suitable attire for the deli counter, it’s because I know what comes after this.
My fall striper season has been dismal. Before hurricane Jose barreled past it had been good and the Canal had been hot enough to keep everyone else glued to the easy fishing. Since then, there had been repeated skunkings, slow nights and (probably too much) worrying about the season passing me by.
Keith arrived and we walked to our spot—he was rattling through the blow-by-blow of the daytime fishing, a mix of sea herring and peanut bunker fueling the fire, supposedly bigger splashes out of reach. As we toed the edge of waves, Keith laughed and said, “Welp, ready for another skunking!?”
To make a long story short, we did pull a skunk in one of the highest-probability spots that I know. Mid-October on the night of the new moon… ouch. On the way out I said, “Man, I used think I was pretty good at this!” Where did all those fish from the daytime go?
It was early enough that I felt like I could hit another spot and still be present as a father and all around person the next day. My mind began working through the reports from Keith’s daytime exploits. The fish had moved steadily west throughout the day—staying with the bait. There were several logical stopping points to the west; I picked the one that seemed like the approximate middle.
And after a short walk, there were fish, from the first cast through the fourth hour of the tide. Needlefish crawled through the shallow break drawing strikes. None of the fish were impressive, but a few in the mid-teens came out of what seemed like a sea of shorts. Other times I might have moved after a half-dozen schoolies, but I was hoping that the building sea would draw in a few bigger fish, it didn’t. My meager success still served to ballast my listing confidence and instinct; I had been right about their movements. Hopefully the next push will bring something bigger.
By Dave Anderson
Most striper fishermen have heard of Danny Pichney, it’s his name that is attached to the timeless wooden swimmer known as the Danny Plug. Metal lip swimmers had been popular with striper fishermen since Creek Chub introduced their Pikie swimmer in 1921; several manufacturers followed suit through the 1940s and 50s, many striper anglers would argue that Danny perfected the surface swimmer with his line of Danny Plugs sometime during the 1970s. Danny passed away in 1988 at the age of 66.
Back when I was working as the editor of The Fisherman Magazine (New England Edition) I received an email that said it came from Dan Pichney. Knowing the Danny was no longer with us, my immediate reaction was that one of my ‘friends’ was trying to dupe me with a bogus email account and when I clicked on it I was ready for a laugh. But when the text popped up on the screen there was no elaborate hoax, no silly photo or ‘gotcha,’ instead I was drawn in by a thank you note of sorts from Danny Pichney’s son, Dan. To this day, it stands among the most thoughtful notes I have ever received, and I will never forget it. Dan said that someone had given him a copy of one of my articles detailing how to build a replica Danny swimmer along with some of the history behind the plug. He said he wanted to thank me for helping to keep his father’s legacy alive. After trading emails for a few days, Dan invited me to his home on Long Island to see some of the plugs his dad left behind. As a student of the plug making trade, an avid surfcaster and devoted follower of surfcasting history, I jumped at the chance.
I arrived on a still and overcast day in early May at a small house that looked like the idyllic 1960’s home. The exterior was immaculate, fresh paint, a manicured lawn, flowers bursting from the perimeter… it felt like family, like home. Dan greeted me in the yard and brought me inside where we sat at the dining room table. Dan disappeared into the basement and emerged with two boxes of history. When he set them on the table I found myself looking into the mind of one of the most respected plug makers in the history of striped bass fishing. There was a small armload of packaged plugs, a few projects in progress, some papers with plans and notes scrawled on them and lots of unfinished plugs. But the things that really grabbed my attention were what appeared to be some of Danny’s master copies, plugs made to spec for duplication and gauging the placement of hardware, lip angles, length of line tie. I held those old plus in my hands as my mind descended through the past to a time before my birth. I have always felt an intrinsic connection to history when I can hold it in my hand, touch it—it’s a rush, something that blossoms from an otherwise inaccessible corner of my brain. It feels like all the atoms in the universe align for a split second and my mind can see through time. Holding these plugs, that were essentially tools for duplication, lit that same fire. Danny Pichney had long been a bit of hero of mine, and these were made for a purpose, written on by his hand, used to replicate thousands of others made and sold.
Dan had never gotten into plug making like his father and he wasn’t sure what a lot of the plugs were or what they did in the water. Our conversation transformed into an equal passage of knowledge—Dan was giving me unknown history and I was filling in the blanks on the names of the plugs, their approximate value and how they swam, etc. It was a very enjoyable day to say the least. I think I was there for more than three hours—and I could have sat for three more—but I had a ferry to catch and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I thanked Dan for his time and hospitality and told him that I had a boat reservation.
As we stood to shake hands, Dan was not putting things back into their boxes he was just standing there, looking over the legacy of his father sprawled out across the table. He looked up and asked if there was anything on the table that I’d like to have. Talk about fighting with the Devil on your shoulder! Of course there were things on that table that I’d like to have! But the Angel won and I told him that I didn’t feel comfortable taking anything from the small collection of things left behind from his father’s passion.
Dan was adamant that I pick not one, but a few lures to take home, saying something like, “I wouldn’t even know what these things are.” I chose a 2-ounce Darter in herring color because it exemplified what a Pichney plug should look like and I chose a green mackerel Diving Danny because I thought the color was really cool. He urged me to pick one more.
There was a small plastic tub containing these very small lures that I had never seen anywhere before. I asked Dan if he knew anything about them and he said that he believed his father had made them for himself. “He used them from the piers in the city to catch small stripers in the springtime,” Dan told me. He said he didn’t think his father had ever sold them. There were less than a dozen of them in the tub painted in two color patterns—one was silver with black stripes drawn onto it and the others were the classic Pichney green/silver. There were only two of the silver ones so I asked if it was okay if I took one of the green ones, he nodded. Dan then picked up a few unfinished bodies and handed them to me—I think he thought I would finish them and fish them, but I still have them.
I have never gotten the pier plug wet, but I think it might be one of the earliest attempts at creating a paddle-tail shad. The body is heavily weighted and, as you can see in the pic, the line tie is on top of the head. A small aluminum blade is attached to the tail with a split ring and a single #1 treble hangs from the belly. My guess is that the plug sinks and the tail flaps side-to-side on the retrieve. One of these days I might have to make one just to see what it does.
This little ‘no name’ Pichney plug stands as one of my most prized possessions. Several ‘high-line’ plug collectors have tried to get me to give them Dan’s email or phone number, I refused. Those boxes of striper fishing history will come out when Dan and his family are ready. I just couldn’t let the wolves in.
This was a truly special day for me and one that I would never have experienced if I hadn’t taken the chances to work as a writer and editor. I don’t love writing about myself in this way, but hearing that my little article on the Danny swimmer reached the Pichney Family and that they were happy with it, made all of the research and agonizing over sentence rhythm and comma placement worth it. And I have never forgotten that. Thank you Dan.
By Dave Anderson
When I think of the fall run, I think of panic. It’s hard to describe the feeling—in some ways, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this. Unlike the summer, when I’m content to miss a few nights or mornings, even several in a row if the conditions suck—the fall rushes in with a sudden sense of urgency and the constant nag of being late. Late for something that may not even be happening. And I don’t do much to help the situation… in my mind I feel certain that at least five locations are going off—and inevitably, I find out that I was right about at least one, the fact that I was “right” only serves to compound the urgency. My everyday responsibilities begin to feel like royal pains in the ass, writing deadlines and other work-related promises live in the pit of my stomach, while my fishing brain fights to turn my head away from what has to be done in favor of doing what it knows I want to do.
This battle is easily won. I have become a master at rationalizing fishing trips. I am also a master at making myself believe that I can complete an impossible amount of work—tomorrow. I know this about myself and yet, I still do it.
I was out just last night and the fishing was good. Too good. I know these fish were at least in migration mode—they very well may have migrated already. I probably could have had them for a week. But I held my fire. I don’t like big surf, and the surf was big last week—I fished freshwater. I know a lot of people love a good heave, but punishing waves have rarely been good to me and nearly all of my big fish have come from calm to moderate seas. But in this case, I know I missed out. (Or at least I believe I did.)
These fish were on a pile of bait. I know because of the way they were taking the plug—many of the fish were choking on it. I also know because of the speed they were relating to, they wanted it fast and wild. Rapid retrieves with a lot of tip action were swimming my glidebait in a wild, jittery to-and-fro; the hits were thunderous and final.
Even in this early stage of the fall run, more than one third of September is already behind us. To some it might seem like we have all the time in the world, but I feel like I’m trying to suck spilled water out of desert sand. Yes, I know there are many pushes of bass to come. Moons and winds and rains and tides will trigger movements of baitfish as the many migrations ebb, flow and collide. But the fall is not a hopeful season. It’s not like the spring when the fish are welcomed like a long parade. The days of the fall run peel off the calendar like the minutes leading up to a root canal. The end of the fall run is the end of the year. The end of daylight savings, the end of flip-flops and the end of manageable heating bills.
Some might think I’m being melodramatic for effect. But the romance of the fall run cannot exist with complacency. The fish are moving constantly, bites flare up like forest fires but move like the same. The urgency is just as much about having a constant pulse of what’s happening as it is about slowing the race. The urgency needs to be real. Mine physically hurts, while taxing my heart with unnecessary—and totally invented—stress. But it drives me to fish and removes none of the joy. I actually like these feelings… how sick is that?
By John P. Lee
I found two sinkers in a valley between some cobble stones. I was swimming back to shore, after spearing some blackfish, around this time last year, maybe a bit later, the water cooling down, the migratory runs already well in swing. Two sinkers—who gives a shit? You can buy them anywhere. Why have these two globs of lead been awarded a spot on the sill above my kitchen sink? For one, they are from a different time, how long, I’m not sure, years, decades, many tides and winters. And two, they were found randomly, as if dropped from the sky. There was no active search, no forethought.
When I’m coming in from deeper water and I’m getting ready to haul out and the water gets shallow, my view of the ocean floor becomes more focused. There is no real space between the surface and the bottom. I pull myself along with my hands and let my fins go limp. It can be a very relaxing part of the dive, the work of spearing is done, and the work of getting out of the water, dragging myself across the rocks and humping my gear to the car is yet to begin. So I slow right down and enjoy the easy glide.
I was looking down and then there they were, two sinkers. I grabbed them and looked at them. The lead had been worn to a smooth polish, like sea glass, like moonstones. The other thing that struck me—two sinkers side-by-side near where the surf line breaks on a cobble beach—no way those sinkers were lost on the same day, in the same spot. They had rolled across the bottom on very different courses, and ended almost touching. That kind of randomness is what I love—more so if it involves a found object tied to the sea. I came home and put them on the sill. I told the story to my wife, my son, and stepson. As I expected: none of them game two shits. A clump of lead. “Keep it away from the kids,” my wife said. Some things in life are never meant to be understood by our own families.
Here we are once again coming into blackfish season. I’ll go back to that spot and make the long swim out to the reef, the good bottom, close to where the blackfish boats anchor and fish. Fish will be killed, sinkers will be lost. And who knows maybe 50 years from now another man or woman will find two sinkers, worn to polish, washed up together in the cobble.