Monday, May 17, 2004

Where Predator Becomes Prey: The first time I saw my father fishing was on Nobadeer beach in Nantucket. Nobadeer is a difficult to reach spot south of the airport, at the end of a long, unpaved sandy road. It was about twelve miles from the cottage my family rented just outside of the village of Siasconset. We formed a sort of camp with the families who spent the summer in neighboring cottages. On fishing nights the entire camp would drive out to Nobadeer for a bonfire. We’d cook, roast marshmallows, the adults would drink, the younger children would play on the dunes as the sun went down and gather around the fire when the long grasses became to seem menancing in the dark, and the older children would flirt with each other in the darkness. But most importantly, the men would fish.

To my mind, there was no greater fisherman in Nantucket than my father. With bright blue eyes and dark, wavy hair, my father was an athletic man who played football in college and had become a runner, golfer and tennis-player later. He fished calf-deep in the surf with a long, thick rod armed with a heavy silvery lure. His cast was a big, powerful thing. He held the rod with both hands, one near the base for leverage, the other just about the reel. He’d throw the rod behind him and then loop it forward. On a good cast—and most of his casts were good casts—the lure would hit the Atlantic just beyond the wave break, where the bluefish lurked for food. It looked to me like one swift motion but I know now it was really a series—the bail flipped, the thumb on the line to hold it in place during the backstroke, the pull of the rod backwards, the pause as the line reached its full extension behind him, and then the pull forward with the lower-hand and the release of the line. Finally, as the lure struck the sea, a turn of the crank to flip back the lure and lock the line.

He fished for blues on the Nobadeer. In July these ranged from two to seven pounds, but as the summer went on, the fish gained weight and power, some weighing up to twenty pounds. When a blue took the line, his reel would let out a spray of whirls and clicks as the fish pulled against the drag. The sound was unmistakable and would bring everything else at the bonfire to a halt while he began his contest with the fish. Beaching a bluefish in late summer involved not just skill-—keeping the line tense enough so that the fish couldn’t shake loose but not so tense that it risked breaking in the crashing surf—-but power. The reels and cranks were sturdy mechanicals but didn’t offer that much in leverage for bringing in a blue. The technique involved pulling the rod backwards, literally yanking the unwilling fish shoreward, then releasing the rod forward and reeling in the slack of the line. The bluefish were predators and did not willing submit to this conversion into prey.

As he reeled in the fish, my father would back up onto the beach. The bluefish were known to attack their captors as they were brought in, so he didn’t want to be standing in the surf when his fish was brought close. Dragged out of the water, the fish would performs fantastic flips and bends, its blue-green and silver scales flashing moonlight in what I sometimes imagine to be a protest against this early demise. Other times I thought it was a tribute to my father's fishing.