Old School

Exploring a language all our own
By William Sisson ,

Two old school Staten Island striped bass sharpies from the 1940s – Capt. Bub Kohn, left, and mate Charlie Assencio.

I live in a world of moving water, line squalls, secret spots and gruff charter skippers who aren’t afraid to holler and curse, occasionally at paying customers.

This is a world of southwest winds, new moons, shoestring eels, silver eels, alewives, porgies and live menhaden. It is a landscape dotted with lighthouses and foghorns, double-humps and tide rips, sandbars, mussel bars, deep ruts and bright, windy flats where handsome, light-colored fish grub and gorge on sand eels, silversides and crabs.

Worm hatches in the salt ponds in spring, wet-wading under meteor showers in summer, drifting the passage reef on harvest moons, and wool socks and watch caps in the rips of late November, when all the fish are bright, voracious travelers, racing the season and the stars to who knows where. It is the chaotic serenade of a gull rookery and those scrubby little islands smelling of nesting cormorants. Fireflies, heat lightning, June bugs, cold beer.

The southeast gales drive big fish in tight if you know the right beaches, and on still nights in the back bay the mosquitoes and no-see-ums eat you alive, right through your damp shirt, DEET be damned, as fish powder a green and white streamer.

Some days it’s boat talk and fish talk from sunrise to sunset. “You know how you buy a lobster boat?” asks a guy on the fish docks. “You wait until you hear someone say, I think I’m just going to plant petunias in her. That’s when I buy.”

Give me black deceivers, metal-lipped swimmers, needle fish, bucktails, soft baits and a silver popper worked across big swaths of whitewater covering an island boulder field on a soupy morning, water still in the low 60s, three or four good pops and they’re on it good.

The boy and I troll an ancient lure called a Sparky along the edge of a sandy shelf as slowly as the old 2-stroke will allow — in gear, out of gear, the momentum of boat causing the curved, lightweight slice of aluminum tipped with a sandworm to wobble ever so slowly. “Dad!” he shouts. “Dad!”

Blue and white, through-wired with no bucktail, Pete’s rough homemade poppers raise fish as lethargic as Lazarus. “Make ’em dance,” the old gaffer hollers at me from the helm, when he was well into his 70s. “Make ’em talk. Like a young girl shaking her bottom.”

Stormy weather and the fishboats are stuck in the harbor. Mario takes out his pocket knife and scrapes an old block tin jig, flakes of shiny metal flying as he puts a good shine on it, all the while discussing the importance of changing up lures. “Fish are like women with a hat,” he says. “Sometimes they just want something new.” The lifelong bachelor was never known for his prowess with women, but he was hell on fish.

This is an old school world with its own language, clues and signs, spoken and unspoken. Lies and boasts, vulgarity, poetry and whispers. A tip, a look, a nod, a brushoff, two men speaking code about a night’s catch, and the search, always the search, for truth.

We fish a blue wind, a gray wind, a black wind, a darkening wind, a sad wind, an ancient wind, a freshening wind. One more busted forecast, one more jarring ride home, knocking your fillings loose.

Coming back to the dock, a skipper yells: “Get me the biggest eels you can find!” Christ, that’s what you want to shout coming in.

And always the stories. Most are bluntly told, mixed with profanity and humor. Rare are the ones that are lyrical, infused with the wisdom and cadence of olden days.

Narragansett, Rhode Island, trap seine fisherman W.E. Whalley, long gone now to his reward, explained how his fishing was guided by the appearance of certain flowers.

“When I see the first dandelion, scup come in. I watch the buds, and when the buds are swelled full, then our traps go in,” explained Whalley in the summer of 1871. “When the dandelion goes out of bloom and goes to seed, the scup are gone. That is true one year with another, though they vary with the season. I am guided by the blossoms of other kinds of plants for other fish. When high blackberries are in bloom, we catch striped bass that weigh from twelve to twenty pounds. When the blue violets are in blossom — they come early — you can catch the small scoot-bass. That has always been my rule, that has been handed down by my forefathers.”

I could listen to those old-timers go on all day.  

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