Knocking on the Door - Anglers Journal - A Fishing Life

Photos by Grant Monahan

The storm woke me sometime after midnight as the gusts shot rain rat-a-tat-tat against Daunt’s Albatross Motel. I cracked the door and looked out on a wet street. For a moment, the blast of damp air out of the northeast took the edge off the dry electric heat in the room.

With each new peppering on the siding, I could hear the season winding down. Winter was knocking on the door of room 26.

I love these little beach towns after the tourists have hightailed it home. Tired, boarded-up, forlorn — and lovely in all their windy, lonely emptiness. The hipsters with their small hearts have fled like gilded butterflies for wherever the next party is raging. Good riddance. Just locals and fishermen are left.

An angler loads up one of the few casts left in the season among surf and structure.

An angler loads up one of the few casts left in the season among surf and structure.

It’s a morning for wool caps and neoprene balaclavas. There is a bite to the wind, and the sky is starting to spit. Feels like sleet. Finality hangs in the air. You breathe it in through your nostrils. And you feel its sting and burn on your stiff fingers and ears and around your neck. Temperature is in the 30s, and there will be ice on the edge of the ponds tomorrow morning.

Rafts of sea ducks roll with the swells a few hundred yards offshore. Whitecaps stretch to Block Island and beyond. As darkness gives way to gray dawn, I spot the first gannets beating to weather, flying fast and low to the water, bits of white on a gloomy morning.

Where are the fish?

You feel the end of the season most acutely on the outer islands and headlands and beneath the bluffs — out on the terminal and recessional moraines, those eroding spines left behind when the Laurentide Ice Sheet ground to a halt some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago and started its slow retreat. Montauk, Block Island, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and dozens of obscure or decidedly local rocks, points, islands and reefs whose names have heft when you roll them around in your mouth and say them aloud. Wicopesset, a low, little hard spot just east of never-never land, where we have found some lovely fish.

Finding fish at the end of the season requires focus and faith. 

Finding fish at the end of the season requires focus and faith. 

The end is near, and yours is the last car in the parking lot. The last boat in the marina. The last house in the neighborhood with all its leaves still on the ground. There is a skim of windowpane ice on the deck of the boat, the batteries are flat, and the ramp is starting to ice up on the coldest mornings. Always a clusterflop when you wait this long, but you stay a little longer than all signs suggest you should, just to make sure there’s not one more little pulse of fish pushing through.

Everything is fleeing. Winging southwest, heading for deeper water, burrowing into the mud. The Germans have a word for it: Zugunruhe. It’s the migratory restlessness shown by animals that are prevented from migrating, especially birds. Think of a raptor in a cage. I feel it in my bones. The beach and waters are empty. Too much wind, too many shadows, too little connection with anything living and breathing.

The end is the whistle from a night train across the bay near Wequetequock, the smell of damp wool socks, the weird cacophony of yips and howls from a pack of coyotes calling up the moon from somewhere behind the salt marsh. It is a peregrine falcon hanging in the updrafts off the Aquinnah cliffs and suddenly dropping at astonishing speed to pluck a westbound warbler out of the sky and eat it on the wing. You never see the one that gets you.

As Bukowski opined: We keep slaying our small dragons, as the big one waits.

A shot into the suds below a stoic set of bluffs. 

A shot into the suds below a stoic set of bluffs. 

I remember a freshly caught fish from long ago laid flat on the seawall at a lighthouse, its big white belly facing the surf. The kid took it on a tin squid with snow falling in big wet flakes, the wind right in his kisser and him trying to blink the water out of his eyes, the foghorn bellowing. It was the end of it, and there wasn’t a boat in the rips, not another soul on the point, just the kid and his fish.

Old Norse sailors might have called it “witch-wrought weather.” He continued casting, and every so often he’d look back at the hefty snow-coated striper. He stuck his tongue out to catch a few flakes. And he glanced over his left shoulder to see if anyone was coming around the corner of the light. Part of him hoped that another fisherman would join him and admire his catch; another part hoped he’d have it all to himself.

One last time. 

One last time. 

He dragged the fish up the hill alone at dusk on a length of clothesline he carried in his bag. The shingles were starting to lift on the corners of the old white house at the top of the road. A stop sign wobbled in the gale.

It’s the end of another season, and I wonder where the boy has gone.

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