Jetties

IMG_0126There is a theory that America was discovered by Europeans long before Columbus. Apparently, by 1492 Basque fishermen had already cruised up and down the coast of New England for centuries, loading their ships with dried cod to trade back in Europe. The theory goes that they didn’t tell anyone about it because the fishing was so good: cod is a sluggish and gullible ground fish, and it was so plentiful back then that it must have been exceedingly easy to catch. If the theory is true, the Basques deserve a great deal of credit, first for braving the transatlantic crossing in their tiny boats, and then, even more impressive, for keeping their secret so long.

There is a certain string of ballast rocks – a jetty – some where on the same coast, where I too can usually count on fishing alone. It is a forbidding spot, and it would seem an unlikely place to catch a fish, especially with a fly-rod. The ocean is so vast, and the surrounding water is usually rough; you would think a little bucktail fly would get lost out there. Yet the big, beautiful predators of this part of the Atlantic – stripers, bluefish, the occasional false albacore or bonito – like to patrol the edges of the jetty for baitfish on the incoming tide, and they can definitely be taken on a fly. Landing one of these game fish while standing on a pile of rocks jutting out into the ocean is no ordinary experience. There is something miraculous about it, something altogether beyond explanation.

Getting out across the rocks is treacherous. There is an edginess to it: just enough danger to keep you sharp, but not so much that it seems foolhardy. On a cool mid-September day a walk along the jetty is a foray into the marine wilderness, a stark natural playing field with its own rules and its own rewards. When the northwesterly wind kicks off the fall striper season the water starts to swell and heave in a kind of ferocious, joyful dance. There is a pervasive feeling of freshness and renewal in the hours leading up to high tide: the shifting pressure of the wind on your waders, the crash and spray of white water against the blasted stone, and, as the flood gains momentum, the seawater beginning to pour over the jetty, from high side to low side. There is a short period, maybe twenty minutes, when it is still possible to spring from rock to rock even in the lower-lying parts. Then the jetty becomes fully submerged, marked only by a string of churning rips. Often I keep fishing until the very last minute, taking advantage of this narrow window of opportunity to scramble back, heart pounding, to the safety of dry land.

Today, casting into the wind as high tide approaches, I find myself wondering what would happen if I got stuck out here. Say I slipped, and in the struggle to regain my footing my ankle got jammed between two rocks, and the inexorable tide came in, immersing my head little by little, wave by wave. There would be time to think.

I decide to hold myself to three more casts. There’s always another day, and the half-formed images of my own slow drowning are ruining my concentration. The lower-lying rocks are already under water.

And then there is a tug on the line. Two tugs. A sensation of tremendous force; a fast run through my reel and down to the backing; then the line goes limp and the fly-rod springs back in my hand. That was quick: either a very big fish or a faulty knot, or maybe my leader was frayed from scraping over barnacles. I pick another fly out of the box in my chest pack and tie it on. With the next cast I spot a small boil on the surface near where the fly landed, a few deceptively light tugs, then – wizzzz – right down to the backing again. I press the bottom of my reel with my palm to slow the powerful run, but it’s not enough. Almost to the end of the backing, then a final tug and the line goes limp.

This time the disappointment is almost crushing, but on its heels there rises a flush of triumphant expectation, the soaring joyous rage of battle joined. That had to be an albie, part of a patrolling school, or maybe a very large striper. If I’m quick about it, I still have time. Hands shaking, I tie on another Clouser.

The ballast rocks are already nearly submerged. The water rushing in from the ocean side forms increasingly defined rips; the dull roar of flooding water is a steady background noise to the high-pitched screech of the wind. To move along the line of boulders now I have to wade in places, aiming my feet as I step for the bone-colored patches of barnacle visible through the seaweed. The baitfish glow green as they dash across the jetty; sometimes they bump against my shins like a tattoo of soft bullets. As the water deepens it blurs the shape and incline of the rocks; every step is like a leap of faith. I know that the ocean is a force not to be trifled with, and I’m wearing waders. If I miss my footing, I may not have time to kick them off before they fill up and drag me under.

Why am I still out here? It’s not only the possibility of catching a big fish. There’s something sublime about it, a terrible beauty in the moment. The greens of the water, the yellows and rusty browns of the seaweed, the luminescence of light and shadow playing on the swells and curling rips. And – inescapably – I’m part of it now, immersed in it, playing an active role, probing for the living pulsating heart of the ocean. Almost without thinking about the meaning of what I’m doing, I unhook the straps of my chest pack to make it easier to release my suspenders should it become necessary.

The wind picks up and spray peels off the tops of the swells, forming whitecaps all around. The water is now so stirred up that to a long-time trout fisherman it would seem unlikely, verging on impossible, that I will catch anything else. But I have reason to believe the rules are different out here.

I find solid footing and start casting again, stripping the line in periodic bursts to imitate a fleeing minnow. A flock of terns scouting along the jetty wheels and forms up, congregating over a rip just out of casting distance. A few of the precise white birds rocket down and hit the surface, coming up with baitfish. Then they all start to dive, one after the other, plummeting like delicate origami kamikazes. My heart is pounding. The rocks are effectively underwater now, their jagged wet tips poking out only in the valleys of the swells. But I think I can still keep my balance and wade out the jetty, if I take it one submerged boulder at a time. If I could just get close enough to where the birds are feeding to make one cast . . .

I clip the fly to the base of the rod and start wading toward the plummeting birds. Every step feels risky, my purchase on the barnacles tentative in the strengthening current. I know I’m pushing the limits; I should be heading toward shore, not out to sea. But it’s not that much farther, and beneath the birds something big is breaking the surface. The splashing of game fish is distinct from whitecaps, though it’s hard to define how: more substantial, quicker to form and recede, more alive. Those are definitely fish, big ones, corralling and chasing down the bait in a frenzy of savage glee.

It’s a long cast, but I think I can reach the melee. I brace myself against the current and unclip the fly. It looks panicked, with its bugged-out eyes and its sweeping flume of chartreuse hair. I start to cast. The wind is strong and I have to double-haul. My first effort falls short. On the second cast there’s an explosion of spray as soon as the fly hits the water, and I’m on to a giant. Down to the backing again, almost all the way, then the run stops and I can spool some line. The fish is solidly on; if I can keep the leader from abrading over barnacles or getting tangled in a lobster trap, I know I can bring this one in.

The fight lasts a long time. It feels like twenty minutes, but it’s probably closer to five. Several times the fish runs and dives, and each time I worry that I’ll lose it. But finally I muscle it in close enough to see its outlines under the wind-tossed surface: a big striper, probably thirty-five or forty inches long, well above the legal minimum for a keeper. Even before bringing it to hand I begin considering what to do. It’s not every day that a striped bass fisherman lands a keeper. The buttery flesh takes exceedingly well to the grill, which is why local fish markets sell it so dear. Should I keep it or release it?

2012-06-25When I lift it gently out of the water the fish is trembling, exhausted from the fight. It looks surprised and annoyed, but resigned to its fate. It is a beautiful creature, strong and vital, golden against the green water, the black stripes for which it is named running down the length of its powerful body. It represents a direct and mystical connection to the wilderness, as noble as an elk, as ferocious, in its medium, as a grizzly. If I kill it, I realize, I’ll also be adding to my own survival risk, because it will weigh me down and upset my balance on the treacherous journey back over the submerged rocks. If I release it, I will have the satisfaction of knowing that such an admirable creature is still abroad in the ocean. Yet killing it somehow seems the more honest action. I’m not a catch-and-release purist, because it seems to me that keeping and eating the occasional catch is an essential acknowledgement of our place in the food chain; a ritual recognition that the act of fishing is more than just a “sport.” It’s a way to take responsibility for being alive.

A big wave crashes right in front of me, soaking me up to my hat and yanking me out of my spiritual reverie. With a sinking feeling, I realize I’ve stayed out too long. It’s high tide, and the way back to shore is marked only by rips and white water. I release my grip on the striper and watch it hesitate for a moment, then accelerate back into deep water as the unexpected fact of its freedom dawns.

The way back is terrifying. What had been a pleasantly thrilling excursion is now a gut-clenching, panicked retreat. I no longer feel like I belong out here. The current is strong, like a big western river in spring, and in places the water is chest deep, licking at the top of my waders. Several times I lose my balance and have to catch myself on a submerged ballast rock, cutting my hands on razor-sharp barnacles. But I hardly feel the pain. I’m taking short gulping breaths, bracing myself and keeping a low center of gravity to avoid being swept out to sea. The realization of what I’ve done weighs like a chunk of lead in my stomach.  I’ve laughed in the face of nature, and put myself at grave risk. I try to convince myself that a quid pro quo has taken place: the striper’s life for mine. But I can’t make myself believe it, because I know nature doesn’t work that way. Panic billows like smoke into the recesses of my brain, choking out any thoughts other than the raw, dull, reptilian urge to survive.

I can still see that striper clearly in my mind’s eye. He’s patrolling the rocks and rips at the edge of the Atlantic, chasing down minnows and sand eels with remorseless efficiency. Perhaps he’s seeking out a brackish inlet in which to spawn millions of little stripers, all of them destined for a violent death of one kind or another. I’ve learned a great deal from that fish. I’ve learned that I’m not invincible, and that the ocean is not a playground. And like a Basque sailor shipwrecked on a foreign shore, I think I know why my favorite spot is never crowded with other fishermen.

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This essay appeared in Yale Anglers’ Journal and Tight Lines: Ten Years of the Yale Anglers’ Journal.

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