Bait & Tackle

It’s the end of July and time to start obsessing about bonito on the fly rod. Why I chase these tiny tuna is beyond me, other than the thrill of occasionally hooking one and the feeling like I’ve dipped my arms in electricity as the fish takes off like a nuclear torpedo and the fact that the sushi grade meat makes for great spicy tuna hand rolls. Other than that it’s an exercise in madness as the crazed schools erupt exactly where I’m not, and the other deranged fishermen fire up their outboards and fruitlessly chase the fish where they were, not where they’re going.

Dave’s Bait & Tackle

I had to clean up my collection of fishing rods a few weeks ago to get them ready for the visit of my two sons and son-in-law. That triggered a bout of obsessive compulsive washing, waxing, greasing, and repairs that in turn led to a long overdue sorting of lures, weights, and flies. All the lures I have scavenged from the flotsam of Dead Neck during my annual fall clean up needed to be cleaned up and get equipped with new hooks. Wire leaders needed to be untangled, fluke rigs needed to be tied, and before I knew it my boat shop had been turned into a bait and tackle store cluttered with boxes of fresh treble hooks, new bucktail jigs, split ring pliers, nail knot tools, stacks of Plano plastic boxes, my old surf bag, crimps, swivels, snap hooks, hook sharpeners, spools of flourocarbon leader material, and some massive wooden plugs the size of my feet.

I’m a big believer in giving my fishing tackle business to local shops. I invested in a new ultra-light spinning rod in June from my friend Peter Jenkins, waiting patiently for exactly the right reel to come back in stock (a Van Staal VR-50) before driving to Newport, RI to pick it up and catch up with Peter who’s an old friend from way back in the early Reel-Time.com days, and who bore witness to my one and only catch of a Spanish mackerel on the fly. I could have saved myself the trip and ordered the thing online from Peter’s shop — The Saltwater Edge — but it was far more satisfying to drive there on a beautiful June Saturday and actually watch him spool it up with some braided line.

But when it comes to the little stuff that I need a lot of — hooks in all their various sizes and configurations, tools and the hardware that a good fishing rigger needs — I have no problems turning to Amazon and getting precisely what I need rather than compromising in the aisles of my local bait shop. Compounding the problem is the lack of a decent bait and tackle in my neck of the woods here on the Cape. SportsPort used to be my second home back when Karen ran it, but a trip to Hyannis in the summer is a terrible thing and there simply isn’t enough room in any store — save the big box fishing places like Cabela’s — to stock everything I need.

What’s old is new again

Over the course of the past two weeks I’ve been sitting in my great-great-grandfather’s old captain’s chair on the threshold of the boat shop, looking out at the garden while the local family of ospreys screech and the hummingbirds have territorial dog fights around the feeder, sitting there popping off old rusty tetanus hooks and splitting over tiny stainless steel split rings, trying my best after a couple IPAs not to hook myself as I revive about $1000 worth of plugs.

Deadly Dicks, Swedish Pimples (which live in a box labelled “Pimple Dicks”) Kast-Masters, Ballistic Missiles, Atom Poppers, bucktails, circle hooks, Yozuri minnows, Hopkins spoons, Rapalas, Rattle-Traps ….. it’s been said that most fishing lures are designed to hook the buyer before the fish, and given the extent of my collection I won’t be buying any new ones any time soon. Funny, but the most effective and versatile thing is the probably the most traditional: the bucktail jig, a lead head with a hook, wrapped with a skirt of deer hair. Everything eventually eats a bucktail.

After the re-hooking and restoration of the lures, I turned to the fly rods. Lines needed to be replaced or cleaned. A dozen boxes of flies for everything from offshore fishing to bonefish on the Bahamian flats needed to be sorted or cleaned to rid them of the stink of chipmunk pee. I shook one flyrod case and a family of mice dropped out. Next time I’m wearing a respirator to spare myself some toxic hantavirus.

I tied my own leaders up by knotting together 30-lb, 20-lb, and 10-lb flourcarbon leaders. That forced me to relearn all the fishing knots I forget every year and so I sat with a YouTube demo running on my phone in my lap as my arthritic sausage fingers struggled with the nearly invisible pieces of expensive monofilament. Kreh’s Loop, Homer Rhodes, Palomar, Albright, improved cinch ….. rigging has always been my favorite job on a fishing expedition to the point where I rather be tying rigs and setting spreads than actually fishing. They say a good rigger is priceless in big game fishing tournaments, and I’ve watched some Florida pros rig live baits under kites and then threaten predacious seagulls with death-by-shotgun if they dare try to pick off a precious Goggle Eye.

It’s been said that most fish are caught the night before — meaning it pays to be prepared before actually wetting a line. Hooks have to be sharpened. Rigs specific to the fish one is likely to encounter need to be tied up with dropper loops for teasers, and bait hooks snelled onto hi-lo rigs. I guess that’s the part I like the most. The tying of flies, the inventory of materials, the boxes, the bins, the little tools and glues and tiny swivels……it’s all just a very OCD exercise that goes out the window when I actually get on the water make that first cast and holler “Fish On!” even when I’m fishing by myself.

So who knows what this coming late summer season will bring. I live on some of the best fishing water in the world, the northernmost point for tropical species like King Mackerel, Mahi-Mahi, Atlantic Bonito (and manatees), a peninsula named after the fish that made Massachusetts great once upon a time.

Squids

Cousin Pete and I hit the squid off of Osterville on Friday and brought in a bucket of the cephalopods. He was outcatching me two-to-one but hey, we got the skiff nice and stinky with a coating of angry ink and had the wonderful experience of listening to a guy on a nearby boat keep up a loud, unbroken soliloquy of f-bombs that was so utterly Masshole that it started to sound right, until the f-word was so worn out by overuse that it became like a meditative “Ommmm”

Back at the kitchen I cleaned half a dozen in the sink, cut em into rings and followed Jasper White’s recipe for “greasy and spicy Rhode Island calimari” which is basically exactly what it sounds like. Soak the rings and tentacles in a couple cups of buttermilk, roll them around in a flour-cornmeal-corn starch-cayenne mixture and deep fry until golden brown. Then toss that in a garlic butter/hot Italian cherry pepper bath and eat with a habanero remoulade. Take a Lipitor.

Hunter-gatherer season is underway. As the lilacs are out and as yours truly was born 56 years ago today, the bluefish must be back and cruising the flats around Submarine Rock. I see tautog in my future.

Tautogology

When I was a kid I saw some fishermen bring a mess of tautog (Tautoga onitis) into the Town Dock and lay them out on the planks for a hose-off. I’d never seen a fish like it before, and was really fascinated by the horrid red tumor-ish looking thing on their white underbellies. They are known as “blackfish,” “oysterfish” and the “poor-man’s lobster.” Yesterday I caught and ate my first one ever.

Tautog is a word from the Narragansett tribe, originally “tautatog”  and first noted by Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, in his 1648 lexicon of the Narragansett language. They are members of the wrasse family and are remarkable looking fish, with thick rubbery lips and snaggle-toothed mouths with blunt teeth for crushing and grinding shellfish and crustaceans, their preferred diet. They spawn inshore in the spring and move off a bit to rocks and wrecks during the summer, migrating to deeper water over the winter. The fish are renowned for being one of the better eating fish in New England, especially in fish chowders, and are said to be tricky to catch given their penchant for diving back into the rocks when hooked up.

With the fall fishing season being measured in weeks if not days, I feel a strange longing to get on the water as much as possible these autumn weekends and put my time in before I put the boats away and settle into another winter of my discontent. So yesterday, on a brisk Columbus Day weekend Sunday, I called around the local bait and tackles looking for crabs — the preferred fall bait of the tautog — found some in Falmouth, and off I went for two quarts of green crabs, some six ounce bank sinkers and four pre-tied rigs.

My son and I took the skiff out through Seapuit and the Osterville Cut and immediately questioned the wisdom of pounding through the three-foot seas to the best tautog spot in the area, a ledge of rocks a mile or so off of Centerville. I could only run the boat at slow ahead while trying to dodge the spray and I could feel the negative vibes radiating off of my passenger as one wave after another soaked us down, rendered my sunglasses useless, and foretold an expedition that would probably redefine “fool’s errand.” But we had $10 worth of crabs to use and I was determined not to throw away good bait just because of a healthy northeasterly breeze pushing a chop into our face. Real men fish when they can, not when it’s nice.

After twenty minutes of slow going I saw the surf crashing over the exposed pile of snaggle-toothed rocks — a bad sight that made me happy to have a VHF radio aboard should something catastrophic happen — and made a slow approach, looking for the best way to anchor in the building seas without crunching the lower unit of the outboard on the pile of glacial till. My son made ready with the anchor, I motored upwind to one side of the reef, told him to let it drop, and waited until it dug in and the boat pointed up into the wind.  We were too close on the first set as only  five feet lay between us and catastrophe. So I went back into gear, took the tension off the anchor line and had him pick it back up for another set about twenty feet off. The advice on fishing tautog was simple: find the obstruction and get close as the fish lurk right around the rocks picking off barnacles and crabs. Setting the baits too far away is useless because the tautog won’t venture very far from their shelter.

With the anchor set and no signs of dragging to our doom like the wreck of the Hesperus, I was confident enough to turn off the engine and make ready with the rods. We were using old fiberglas trolling rods owned by my grandfather — wooden handles, yellow and blue thread around the guides, with old Penn conventional reels filled with 50 lb. test monofilament. I tied on the rigs, clipped on the weights, and, seeing that the boat was pitching way too much to safely play with hooks, took a safe seat, opened up the chinese-food paper quart container, and took out the first victim — a little green crab.

Fishing with bait is a bit violent. Guaranteed to get an “eww” out of the audience, and working with crabs is a bit sadistic. I ripped off the claws and legs until I had a half-dollar sized circle of crab body. In goes the hook, one on top and another below in a classic hi-lo bottom rig

I slung-cast both sets of bait right beside the ledge, handed one rod to my son and kept one for myself.

The boat kept pitching and rolling like crazy. An open 18-foot skiff, in mid October on Nantucket Sound without a single other boat around to offer rescue should the worst occur and Cousin Pete out of town for the weekend and thus unable to answer any panicked cell phone calls to come out in his boat and save us (and I didn’t renew my BoatUS tow policy this summer).  But we had life jackets and a radio so I wasn’t too concerned, just vigilant as we were on the verge of pushing our luck as the white caps built and the wind blew harder off the land in the direction of Hyannisport and the Kennedy Compound.

“Whoa.” My son went from skeptical to interested. I turned and saw his short rod bent double.

“Caught in the rocks?” I asked skeptically.

“Hell no. This is a fish.”

The rod bounced the way they do when there are fish on the other end as he reeled, fighting the submerged surprise. I got ready to assist. Bracing myself against the rolling of the boat as the anchor line creaked and rubbed in the chock. And then, from the green depths, was a black shape. I leaned over, guided the line through my hand to the leader, and swung the catch inboard.

It was a tautog. A black, slippery, pugnacious tautog with the big red “vent”, its exaggerated anal opening all red and protruding due to the crushed shells that pass through it, sort of the fish equivalent of a diet of crushed glass and razor blades mixed with hemorrhoids and fissures. I got a hold of the very cool looking fish, let it calm down, grabbed the fishing pliers and worked the hook out, laid the fish along the ruler on the edge of the cooler seat, and finding it well over the 16″ minimum, tossed it in the bucket for dinner.

Then it was my turn. I landed a little one, about a foot long, and gave it the obligatory good luck kiss on the head and sent it back to grow up.

Thirty minutes, fifty unlucky crabs, and the bucket was loaded with the limit of six squirming fish (three each). I tossed the remaining crabs over the side to fend for themselves or appease the hungry Tautog God, then broke out two beers and a pair of chicken sandwiches slapped together from Saturday night’s leftovers. All was well with the world.  It doesn’t get much better for a guy than to catch fish with his eldest son on a sunny day (and then watch the Red Sox snatch an epic victory from the Tigers later than same day).

The “fun” part began when we got home. I banged a nail into a plank to keep the fish from sliding around while I filleted them and got very up close and intimate with my food. Which is how it should be. The tautogs’ stomachs were filled with crabs and shells (CSI Cotuit, Dave Churbuck fish coroner). I stripped out the guts and gills and set aside the heads and racks to make a fond de poisson (fish stock). While that bubbled away we hit the grocery story and bought the fixings for a Bahamian fish chowder. It was good. The tautog went to their maker in a very good and spicy stew and will see further duty tonight in Baja-styled fried fish tacos.

 

Sharpening the hooks

The lilacs are about to bloom, the lily-of-the-valley is coming up behind the kitchen and my birthday is only days away which can only mean one thing:

The fish are back.

Or should be back. They weren’t here  last weekend. I went out twice and was skunked both times, but that’s part of the fun of spring fishing. Fisher, Cousin Pete and I kept the local waters honest on Sunday with a brave slog out of the Wianno Cut to Lone Rock in the Good Ship Wet looking for squid. Pete saw the squid fleet arrive and depart a few days before, so either the squid run isn’t happening this year, or the squidders got out too early because the Cape is  experiencing a delayed spring with lower than usual water temps brought on by a thoroughly shitty winter. Who knows. Maybe this weekend.

On Sunday we cast our squid jigs down to the bottom, bounced them up and down —  little pink torpedos festooned with pins which supposedly tick off the squid who attack them in the belief they are fish after their eggs. These are good eating squid and the big fleet of commercial fishermen who line the horizon of Vineyard and Nantucket Sound the first week of most Mays are testament to their value. Pete, Fisher and I like to catch them for dinner and to put away some in the freeze for fluke and striper bait later in the season, but I hear these are really prized squid for the table and command a high price on the market. On a good day an angler with a single rod and a couple jigs can easily fill a 5 gallon bucket. I’ve learned that a half-dozen are all I need. They are a pain in the ass to clean and according to one local expert, rinsing them in fresh water ruins them — apparently  only saltwater should be used. I can’t cook them. Squid confound me. Always come out tougher than inner tubes. Like fish flavored rubber bands. Some say to either cook them for ten seconds or ten hours. And as for calimari? That was a disaster. My attempt to clone the awesome grilled squid from Inaho in Yarmouthport?  A cat wouldn’t consider it. (digressionary recommendation: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, fantastic documentary on the sushi master of Tokyo, the first to get three Michelin stars).

Squid are very fun to catch — they change colors like a hippie lightshow at the Fillmore, blast jets of black ink in protest, and, if handled correctly while being de-pinned from the jigs, can be aimed at one’s fellow squidders to coat them in the stinky stuff. The boat is always a disaster afterwards. My old friend Bob used to go out with a bunch of beer, dressed in a white painter’s pants and a white wife beater just to really get down and dirty in the ink.

Anyway, we rolled and staggered with our yet-to-be-learned sea legs, beam-to in a big Nantucket Sound swell coming out of the southeast (“Wind east, fish bite least”) and even though it was very nearly shorts and t-shirt weather back at the house, the ocean still feels downright March-like. I need to check the water temperatures, but we were bundled up in fleece and windbreakers and may stay that way until Memorial Day.

Ten minutes squidding and there was nary a sign of them at the rock, so we ran in with the seas to the Cotuit channel, switched the squid rigs for day-glo orange surface plugs  — Rangers and Ballistic Missiles — and made a half dozen big casts to see if we could induce an early bluefish scout to attack. Nothing happening. So we ran all the way up inside of the bay, beached the skiff at the west end of the Narrows, and threw little Rat-L-Traps and Sluggos into the channel looking for a spring schoolie striper. Nothing there either, so we cracked a beer, shrugged and decided we were a week early.

I’ve caught bluefish in late April. There were squid around, so that may explain the missing link. I used to catch tons of striped bass this time of year, tagging them for the American Littoral Society — but I’m not so into catch-and-release anym0re, not wanting to mess up a fish just for the sport of playing it on light tackle. The Cape Cod Times is reporting a keeper-sized bass taken in Cotuit (I need to check what the rules are now, in my mind a “keeper” will always be 36″), as well as a bluefish off of Popponesset, so I know where I will be tomorrow afternoon when I return to the Cape from NYC.

And, to kick off the piscine season, I even remembered that the Commonwealth now requires a saltwater fishing license, and like a good citizen I paid the state my $11 bucks for the slip of paper. The regulars at Reel-Time used to get all heated on the topic of licenses. Libertarian anglers are pretty common. Me, I favor licenses if the funds are earmarked for fishery protection and yes, I believe striped bass should be declared a gamefish and put off limits to the commercial guys.

My son wants to learn the maddening art of fly fishing this year, so I cleaned up an old Scott 1o-weight and will get him going on the lawn this weekend, elbow tucked into his side like he was holding a bottle of gin, casting with his forearm only, stiff wrist, making a long oval in the sky with the rod tip, double-hauling, feeding out more and more line until he turns into a regular Lefty Kreh.

As for the tackle shop that lives in my garage…. well, it’s also where I store the galvanized garbage cans full of bird seed — so the rodents have infested the drawers and cabinets with their balls of  fuzz and sunflower husks, peeing all over everything and probably exposing me to some ugly hantavirus. I found one fly rod case with the end chewed off and a family of field mice inside. Little $%^%^&&%$#’s …..I’m buying a lot of moth balls and will see if I can resort to chemical warfare to keep them away.

There are few OCD pleasures in the world that compare with fiddling around with fishing tackle. I’m an obsessive when it comes to the old saying that most fish are caught the night before. Bimini twists, wire leaders, split rings, new 4/0 trebles on the bluefish plugs, splicing 30 lb leaders onto the striper rods with Albright knows and a bead of Pliobond rubber cement to ease the knot through the rod tip; cleaning the fly lines, cataloguing the flies and putting together a box for early season bass, poppers for bluefish, a hookless plug so I can use a spinning rod to tease the blues up to the fly fisherman; leaky waders, wader belt, line basket……the list is staggering, but given the evil price of tackle these days, it pays to scrounge the high water wrack line on Dead Neck every fall for the plugs and lures that wash up there. For the price of a new hook and a little TLC I can resurrect a $10 lure and absorb some of my own losses due to bad knots, boneheaded casts, or overpowering fishies.

Found money — an old wooden popper found on the beach with the paint worn off

Karen Hill: 1940-2013

Karen Ann Hill passed away this week after suffering a fall. She was 73 years old and arguably the best known face of recreational fishing on Cape Cod.

For Karen owned Sportsport, the little tackle shop in Hyannis that she inherited from her father, a beloved institution marked by the familiar sight of the Old Salt fishing in the parking lot wearing yellow foul weather gear, rain or shine. I knew the Old Salt before I ever met and became friends with Karen. It was one of those icons I first saw as a kid and have carried with me ever since, despite how much the rest of the Cape changes around me. Some motorist took him out a couple years ago. Karen had sold the shop already and retired. But the new owners knew that Sportsport wasn’t Sportsport without the bearded man in the red boat, and he fishes on to this very day.

I didn’t get to know Karen until 1991 when I first moved to Cape Cod full time to raise my family. Churbucks weren’t a fishing family when I was a kid. My father prohibited fish (aside from frozen Gorton’s of Gloucester fish sticks served to his kids) from ever being served (some old dislike he probably picked up in the 40s when a bluefish was about it when it came to protein for the table) and he certainly didn’t fish but he sure loved to clam. My grandfather wasn’t a big fisherman as I recall.. So there weren’t a lot of the father-son-grandpa-bonding-over-fishing-scenes in my youth. When I did fish it was with my brother, a dropline and a cracked open quahog from the Town Dock for scup and eels, the latter species terrorizing me.

When I became a townie in 1991 I noticed the locals all driving around with fishing rods on their roof racks in the early spring and fall — something was going on that I didn’t know about and I decided I would take up fishing. Obsessive maniac that I become when I really get into something (fishing, Italian bicycles, watching complete archives of a TV series in one binge), I started to really get into fishing, developing a fishing jones I couldn’t appease. I read nothing but fishing books, bought nothing but fishing tackle, and coveted rods and reels like a sex fiend. I woke up at 3 in the morning to fish. I fished at 10 pm in January during a snowstorm on a beach in Sandwich  near the Cape Cod Canal on the stupid hunch that I might catch a tom cod. I didn’t but it was worth it for the story. I risked drowning night after night standing in the foaming surf on sandbars off the beach in Chatham fishing for a “keeper” (a striped bass over 3-feet long) and marveling at the wildness of the stars and the Atlantic all in front of me. I waved a fly rod so much in the wind that my shoulder fell apart and I had to stop for six months of physical therapy.  They say there are 365 fresh water ponds on Cape Cod? One for every day of the year. I tried to fish them all. Livelining, chumming, trolling, roll casting. You name it, I wanted to try it.

I even started “the Internet Journal of Salt Water Flyfishing” – Sportsport was the first advertiser.

And Karen Hill fed my habit. I basically moved her tackle store ten miles west into my garage over ten years, one sinker, one bobber, one hook at a time. I could have betrayed her and gone online, but that would have meant missing out on the unique retail experience that was Sportsport under Karen’s ownership.

First, there was no such thing as “ducking in real quick” for something at Sportsport. Karen never rushed. Ever. Stepping inside the door and getting out again in under 30 minutes was a miracle. The place could get very busy, and Karen would be winding new monofilament on somebody’s reel while a mob fidgeted to pay for their bait and get back to the fish. She had to hang up the phone to swipe a credit card. She totalled up all the little bits of fishing stuff — swivels, lures, buckets of writhing eels — on a scrap of paper, totalled it up on a calculator, and then put the total into the register. She usually swore at the register.

Second, she was the CIA of Cape Cod fish. If there were rumors of fish, Karen heard them first. And to get her to part with this intelligence meant buying something, even if it was a $0.30 lead sinker. eCommerce fishing tackle sites doesn’t whisper to you that “they’re murdering them at Dowses on purple Deadly Dicks” A photo of one’s self on the door of the bait refrigerator meant you were a made man. Cousin Pete and I schemed to freeze an October bluefish until February (they migrate to the Cape in May), thaw it out, drive it to Hyannis, and ask Karen to take a picture of us holding the earliest bluefish of the year for the fridge. I regret we never did it. She would have howled and called bullshit and then taken the picture anyway.

And then there was Karen’s School of Fishing. Feeling bored and beset with cabin fever on a sunny day in early April, weeks before the stripers and blues return? Karen would teach me the ins and outs of fishing for winter flounder and I’d walk out $50 poorer with flounder rigs, a chum pot, and the advice to fill it with crushed mussels and cans of cat food.

Her assistant Mark became a good friend and great fishing buddy. We sort of enabled each other’s addiction and would drive from one side of the Cape to the other just to catch the favorable tides at Menahaunt on the southside and Bone Hill on the north.

But most of all Karen was a friend, a good wise motherly lady in a business not known for a lot of ladies. She was blessed with a great sense of humor, a way of making you feel you were the most important customer she’d seen all day, a great laugher, and a true Cape Codder;  a veritable Old Salt herself.

One of the greats has passed. I’ll kiss my next fish on the head and let it go to swim another day just for Karen.

2013 Herring Counts

The annual herring census conducted at the Marstons Mills run at the intersection of Routes 149 and 28 will be discussed Saturday, March 16 at a meeting   at Liberty Hall in Marstons Mills from 3 to 5 pm. I can’t make it, but I hope to volunteer my time to the cause.

The herring project has a blog with more information and contact info.

The fish generally arrive in mid-April (I always associate them with school vacation and Tax Day) and continue into early May. The population has crashed in recent years (theories abound as to why) but the taking of herring has been banned by the state (as well as Rhode Island and Connecticut) for the past several years to the dismay of striper fishermen who love to live line for the first run of spring bass. The first scouts should be reported in a couple weeks at the Middleboro  and Aquinnah runs which seem to see them arrive first.

A good source of information about the alewive and blueback herring project (as well as the moratorium on their taking) can be found at the state Division of Marine Fisheries’ website.

On tuna and birds

A day of hooky east of Chatham looking for bluefin tuna aboard the tractor-of-the-sea, the good ship Laura J, dawned to find me in the company of some sixty-other boats trolling squid bars and rigged ballyhoo in aimless etchings across a calm October sea somewhere to the north and east of the wreck of the Regal Sword. Wreck sites are sinister places and entomb under their unknowing depths some vestige of the violence and fear that occurred there on that exact spot on the Cartesian grid some days and years before.  Some wreck sites, like that of the Andrea Doria south of Nantucket, are marked by buoys so divers can find them. Other are marked by little death symbols on the chart. Others are existentially unknown, but down there just the same. The Furuno depth plotter will sketch a pixellated silhouette of the tanker or trawler, but only the tuna and the blue sharks, the herring and the humpbacks can really know the truth of what lies on the sands 200 feet below shrouded in tattered fishing nets.

Fishing isn’t called “catching” for a reason. Ten hours of standing at the rail or atop of the flying bridge scanning the surface of the ocean for signs of the unknowable below can inspire reveries on the micro chaos of the water’s surface and the macro order of the implacably flat and even line of horizon between sky and sea. One’s complete insignificance as the only lonely thinking speck in the middle of all that nothing… the fear of drowning, of falling overboard, zipper dropped, into the foaming wake of the Duffy ’33, is compounded by the thoughts of the broken-backed tanker somewhere down below the skipping squid bars and the hydraulic breaching flukes of the whales.

The sight of the tuna fleet trolling around in a disorderly fleet of $6 million Merritts and tiny death-defying $100,000 center consoles, boats owned by beer distributors and contractors, real estate tycoons and dentists, all chasing the elusive 900-pound giant bluefin while bickering about run-over lines and cut off fish in amazing blue rants of obscenities and racial epithets unsquelched on channel 68, is enough to calm any anxieties about going over the side and drowning slowly in the nothingness with no one to come and care. There is a society east of Chatham. An improvised tribal structure of men in competition and cooperation, bound together by the anonymity of a VHF radio that has no Caller-ID, just the blind attempt to know each other by the color and type of their boats. Sample discourse:

Blue center console to my port. Blue center console to my port. What the fuck am I supposed to do if you do that under my bow? Get your shit out of my shit please. Over.”

Skippers give one another a “shout” and try to find some enlightenment as they ask each other “how’s it going over there?” and share veiled intelligence by trying to hide from the crowd on a different channel and speaking in extemporaneously composed code:

“I’m a-south of you, near the place with the initial of my last name where we found them last week….”

The radio chatter is heard by all, a common sound track for the afternoon. The fights, the squabbles, the hints of success ….the crew of the Laura J.  stops talking amongst themselves to listen like a Depression family in the days pre-TV of radio fireside chats and Fibber McGee.

There are no fish this morning, but hopes are pinned on the slack tide in two hours, the story of yesterday’s success that says the tuna will rise from the depths after 3 pm for the “late bite.” So the crews of the 60 boats stop staring at the skein of lines strung off their sterns and sit down for sandwiches and apples, Double-Stuffs and Ruffles, and tell each other yarns about condom-jammed cesspools, dockside fist fights, and the stupidity of wealthy boat owners.

The lunch break brings a change of topic to the discourse on Channel 68. Ornithology.

“Hey, we’ve got a bird aboard.”

“We’ve got two.”

“Ours likes ice cubes and SmartFood”

“Ours likes macadamia nuts and Poland Springs”

As the radio talks of birds one flies up to the starboard side of the Laura J and tries to perch on the splash rail.  The crew looks over the side to see it fall and land in the water. We cheer when the bird breaks free from the deadly surface and lifts itself up and over the rail, confusingly skittering among the three bodies in the cockpit, to dodge past us to safety inside of the cabin with the captain who is tucking into an Italian sub with no hots.

“Don’t tell Eddie there’s a bird in the cabin,” says one. “He’ll go nuts if he thinks it’s shitting in there.”

A second bird arrives a moment later. A different kind of bird. Like a chickadee, but different. It lands, exhausted, panting, feathers puffed out and disheveled on the floor of the cockpit among the flying gaffs and mono leaders, not caring at all about the boots and TopSiders so close by.

“Look, a sparrow.”

“Nah, that’s a warbler.”

“How do you know?”

A pedantic, semi-informed lesson in the fall warbler migration begins, with discourses into the annual phenomenon of the flocks that fill Provincetown’s Beech Forest, the deaths of tens of thousands of birds that strike illuminated sky scrapers in the cities of the East Coast, and disruptions in the earth’s magnetic field that mess with the Corolis effect and put these tiny little birds off-course and far out to sea where they will perch on a sportsfisherman out of sheer desperation.

The crew stops worrying about the possibility of defecation on the boat and decide to come to the aid of the dying birds. One puts his finger down and provides a safe perch for the little creature. The magic of that moment, of man and little bird, so close together, forced together by the bird’s desperate need for a moment’s rest, is about as poignant a scene as that of a lonely old man holding one of his grownup and departed daughter’s childhood dolls and feeling maudlin pangs of loss for her and their youth. The bird is a metaphor for something, and initial jokes about tossing it over the side to the sharks, the “blue dogs” is softened as the bird makes itself at home on its human finger perch.

It closes its eyes, puffs out its feathers, and breathes deeply, beaten down by the frantic flight that set it thirty miles off the beach into the void of the Atlantic. A bottle cap is filled with spring water and offered. The bird opens its eyes, dips its beak, and then nuzzles the thumb holding the cap. A Cheez-It is crumbled up,  offerred and ignored. A nut is crushed and ignored. The bird sips more water and continues to perch.

The second bird, still alone on the cockpit floor, rouses itself and flies in a tight circle, landing on my shirt. It hangs on, upside down, like a wren would. It is a bit perkier than the other bird, more curious, and hops down onto the crotch of my pants which elicits the coarse suggestion that it unzip them and perform an oral sex act. It hops onto my finger, looks up into my face, closes its eyes as it relaxes, and then poops a big squirt of dark brown juice that suddenly connects its fading life with my own by being warm and transmitting the fact that it too has a body temperature.

 

The birds stayed for an hour. The tuna never arrived. The wren left first. It spent a few minutes on the port rub rail psyching itself up then bravely lifted off and headed northwest towards P-town, skittering over the waves. The warbler stayed a while longer, standing in the sunshine inside of the cabin under the windshield until Captain Eddie scooped it up in his hands and tossed it out the window.

There was sadness as it flew to the west in little darting swoops. Was it strong enough to make it? Did it know where to go? Couldn’t it have stayed aboard until the Laura J. was steaming into the Cotuit channel and then flown ashore to the certain safety of the trees? Or could it have been tamed and adopted like Otis Barton’s tame tern and lived in a little bamboo bird cage from Chinatown ….

The birds were gone and there was no more talk of birds from the other boats on the radio. Lunch was over. Slack tide was near, and the breaching whales among the Rybovitches and Grady Whites meant the bite could still happen, but it didn’t, and the fleet dispersed in the late afternoon over still waters for their docks and moorings inside safe harbors.

Shark tagging off the Cape

Thanks to Marta for bringing this awesome shark expedition site to my attention. Ocearch is a serious tagging operation that catches Great Whites, hauls them onto a submersible sling, and then measures, tags, and samples these magnificent beasts before releasing them back to the sea.

They are currently having great success off of Cape Cod and have tagged two big sharks in the past week or so.

http://ocearch.org/expeditionblog/mary-lee-a-legendary-shark/

Once tagged, the sharks can be tracked online.

You can tune a piano but you can’t …..

… Tuna Fish. ten miles northeast of Chatham at Crab Ledge on a trolled Green Machine. There I was, stuffing my face with potato chips and watching the lines and squid bars bouncing in the wake of the Laura J (aka, “The Tractor of the Sea”) when one of the lines popped out of the outrigger clips. “Hmmm,” I thought. “I should fix that.”  I stood up, tried to horse the fluorescent yellow monofilament back into the clip when I realized there might be something on the other end of the line.

There was. A nice football-sized bluefin tuna which awaits me in the shop refrigerator.