Almost 54 years ago to the day, three young men stood casting beside a tidal river, where they caught five school-sized stripers. “What a day,” my log reads.
Today, the three of us are back along the same stretch of water for an overdue reunion of sorts. I was 14 then, and I haven’t seen Joe Manette or Larry Maderia in almost two decades.
“The last time I saw you we were fly-fishing in the bay, and you complained you didn’t want to turn 50,” says Manette, who lives in Westerly, Rhode Island. He and I just turned 67.
It’s been about 20 years since I bumped into Maderia at this same spot on a foggy spring evening long ago. Larry played a pivotal role in my baptism into the Tao of striped bass, bluefish, pollack, smelt, night fishing and much more.
I was a budding striper fanatic in eighth grade with far more enthusiasm than knowledge of the ways of the fish. Larry was a senior in high school and five years older than I was. He came from a family of Stonington, Connecticut, dragger men, and he was “fishy.”
We lived about a half-mile from one another in the same river village, and I’d hear him talk about striped bass on the bus. In those days, high school seniors sat in the back seats and there was a hierarchy about who could sit where and with whom.
I remember biding my time, and when a spot on the bench seat next to Larry opened one afternoon, I swung in and started talking fish. He looked at the young interloper with surprise, but he knew my older brother, and fish talk is a language that quickly bridges differences in age and experience, even in the funny chasms of high school.
I asked questions and listened intently to the fish stories he told. In hindsight, I’m certain that Larry, who was 18 and had lost his father that year, was happy to have a new fishing friend who was living in the moment and didn’t ask questions about life and loss. I was just a kid who drew striped bass and surfboards in the margins of my school notebooks, and I was a sponge for anything to do with tides, bait, lure color, retrieves, knots and so on. Larry was dealing with real loss, while the biggest mysteries in my life at the time were striped bass and girls.
“He died too young — 49,” says Larry, who is 72. “We used to do a lot together.”
Larry and I made a good team for several years. Larry had a license and a car and a small boat, which opened lots of water to us. We fished plugs and tins, and dunked fresh squid on the bottom after dark for bass. We caught smelt in a small tidal stream during the fall, and big Boston mackerel and pollack in November.
I brought two old snapshots from a day in which Larry and I caught a pile of fish in heavy fog off the Watch Hill reefs from his 15-½-foot aluminum Starcraft and 20-hp Merc. We were under-gunned, but neither of us cared and I didn’t know any better.
Larry takes a close look at the photo. “That’s my ’58 Chevy,” he says. “Look how skinny I was.”
I’m wearing a funny green hat, my pants are way too short and I still have the build of a boy. “You lost all your plugs that day,” Larry remembers.
I often saw my classmate Joe Manette and his father, Lawrence, surfcasting from the lighthouse in Watch Hill. I looked up to his father, who often fished a block tin jig shaped like a butterfish among the thickest boulder fields at the point. He didn’t hang it up, and he pulled a lot of fish from that heavy cover on rods he built himself, fastening the guides and reel with electrical tape.
I studied how he held his rod vertically and guided those 2-plus-ounce jigs over, around and between the jumble of rocks covered with wrack weed. He fished deliberatively, with focus and concentration. That was the lesson to learn.
When I met his son, Joe, last week, he gave me one of those shiny block tin jigs I’d watched his father fish so effectively. “That’s 100 percent block tin,” Joe says. “There’s no lead in it.” There is a photo of the tin squid above. I’ll catch a striper on it this fall and think of Joe’s father, who kept an eye on me when I was an unsupervised kid trying to earn my fish and my place on the rocks beside the adults.
“I can’t believe this meeting is taking place,” says Joe, who enjoys catching false albacore on the fly. “You were in one of my ninth-grade classes, sitting right in front of me. I remember you used to bring your Penn Reel catalogs to school.”
We were a couple of fish nerds trying to make sense of a fast-changing world in which the body counts from Vietnam showed up on our televisions each evening, and race riots and war protests lit up our country.
My boyhood was racing to a close in high school, and soon even fishing could not inoculate me from the larger currents buffeting our society. I was soon pinballing back and forth across the country from Rhode Island to California, Mexico, Maui and Oregon, looking for what I’m still not sure. But we three still find our way back to this river in the spring.
Joe and I will fish the salt ponds and ocean beaches this year. Larry says he has hung up his rod, although Joe and I are trying to lure him back into the flow. “I just don’t have it in me anymore,” says Larry, who used to teach saltwater fly-fishing. “I’ve been through a lot of things. It takes it out of you.” He looks back fondly, so we might get him back in the fold yet. “We used to eat, sleep and dream fishing,” says Larry, wistfully.
Before we parted last week, Larry asked me what I remembered from the years we chased fish together as if our lives depended on them.
The question surprised me, and I babbled about the old spots we fished and the techniques I learned from him, but my answer was too myopic. What I remember most is Larry’s generosity with his time and knowledge and the patience he showed a 14- or 15-year-old kid who just wanted to learn to catch more and larger striped bass. He was a mentor in the best sense of the word and set a good example for how I should pay it forward. For that, I will always be grateful.