Another season was winding down, and a west wind found me at the top of the dunes, bathed in a chilly golden light. Winter mooring stakes dotted the harbor, and every last boat had been pulled. Nighty-night.
I had come for the light and for the clear, sharp sky and the possibility of a fish — that was enough at this late stage of the season. My plan was to fish a handmade wooden plug until dark, maybe later if there were fish around. The one-of-a-kind lure was carved from a Norway maple that grew behind our family house, which we had owned for 70 years. For reasons I can’t recall, the tree was named after me, the way families sometimes give pet names to rocks, streams and boats. It was Billy’s Tree, and my two brothers and I spent hours climbing it as boys.
We sold the house seven years ago, and the tree was cut down. My brother Chris saved one of the limbs and fashioned a surface plug out of it for me — the lure is 8 inches, weighs 2-plus ounces and is through-wired. It floats and has a nice darting action. I was certain it would catch. I was hoping to run into a pack of large late-season bluefish this afternoon, and hook one large enough to leave tooth marks in the wood. It was a long shot.
After walking about 10 minutes, I spotted a ribbon of bait hugging the drop-off just a rod’s length from shore. Small menhaden maybe 2 inches long flitted from the water — a sure sign — but it was obvious that my maple bomber didn’t begin to match the hatch. I snipped it off and replaced it with a small epoxy minnow to better approximate the forage.
A single loon rose just off the shore to my left, and the falling sun reflected like a spotlight off its large, white breast. It spyglassed down the beach, and I followed. And then, as if I were dreaming my best dream, fish erupted and thrashed the surface for a few seconds. I cast the olive jig and on the second toss hooked a small striper the color of pale beach sand. I released the flapping autumn leaf back into the sea wind, and it tumbled away.
With the fish just a couple of steps off the beach, I tied on an even smaller, lighter jig. I pulled the knot and trimmed it and slipped my pack again onto my back. Looking west and into the low sun, I spotted a scrum of gulls dipping and flapping wildly as if they’d been dosed with angel dust.
Fish were feeding 60 yards down the beach, and I broke into the run of a 12-year-old. Peanut bunker sailed through the evening light — silver dollars pouring out of a slot machine. I stopped half a cast short of the hoedown, hollered at the gulls and flicked a low cast into the frenzy. The rod bent with a fish. For a few minutes, it was fish after fish.
An old timer walking a Brittany stopped as I finished a retrieve. We smiled and said hello, and he asked how long the rod was.
“Twelve feet,” I said, “but it’s light. Here, hold it.”
“How far can you cast?” he asked.
I took a couple of steps seaward and uncorked one. The fish had moved down the beach, but I stayed and talked for another minute. I was in no rush; the fish were small and weren’t going anywhere too quickly. The man said he was 76 and thinking about taking up fishing, but I doubt he’ll ever buy an outfit. I think he was just lonely. I wished him well and trotted toward the gulls.
I was back into breaking fish when, in the middle of a retrieve, my phone buzzed. I was expecting a call from my son, who was away at college and talking about changing his major to physics. I fished the phone out of my breast pocket, stopped reeling and said hello. I lifted the rod so that the reel was almost level with my face and continued a slow, awkward retrieve with the phone on speaker mode and the reel handle in my left hand. The best fish of the day hammered the jig, the drag sang out, and I started laughing.
“Hear that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” my son said.
“I’ll get back to you.”
It was 5:15 and nearly dark, but the western horizon still glowed red. There was little humidity, and the Prussian blue clouds were sharply outlined. They were as lovely as they were surreal, a Rorschach ink blot test.
What did I see in them? In the low light, I made out a boy who some 50-odd years ago would have been elated by all these fish. He would have recorded each one in his log along with some details — the sound of the gulls, the bright waxing moon, the color and weight of each lure. Perhaps even the two young women who approached him arm-in-arm to ask what kind of fish he was releasing.
They gazed and smiled at one another in that magical light, their eyes alive, and it was clear to the man that they were in love.
The boy of yore could already read the water, but the emotions displayed by the women would for a while longer remain as confounding to him as the string theory his son tried to explain over the phone as he walked off the beach in the dark.