Between Fish: A Long Way Around

I grew up in a tribe of Swamp Yankees and, without realizing it, came to embody some of their ways and salty language, outlooks, perspectives and mannerisms
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As an adolescent, I fished beside men whose main idiom was vulgarity. They were blue-collar stalwarts — mill rats, carpenters, plumbers, landscapers, masons and carpet layers, along with a contingent who built submarines in Groton, Connecticut. They were a hard-working, lunch-pail crowd who knew how to toss back a boilermaker. Some fished well. Others couldn’t catch a cold.

Back then, when the fish were blitzing, you earned your spot in the tight picket line that formed on the lighthouse rocks by having paid your dues: learning to cast straight, showing respect to the elders and by not being a smart-ass or a pushover. When it was your time, you grabbed a spot, held your ground, swung an 11-foot rod like a grownup and took the fish you’d earned. That’s how a young teen gained respect in the company of men.

My great-grandfather, William Sisson, lost a leg in the Civil War. A Swamp Yankee, he ran a seine-net crew and lobstered.

My great-grandfather, William Sisson, lost a leg in the Civil War. A Swamp Yankee, he ran a seine-net crew and lobstered.

When I was a boy in the early 1960s, my fishing world revolved around a town dock where I hand-lined cunners and flounder, and later caught tinker mackerel and snapper blues with a rod and reel. Three charter skippers and their old wooden boats were based out of that dock. They were Swamp Yankees — distinctive, independent, idiosyncratic. Captains Prent, Manny and Louie.

These three old Yankees and others scoured the sounds, bays, salt ponds, coastal waters and tidal rivers. They were adept at making traps, mending nets, fixing engines and patching boats, as well as harvesting oysters, bay scallops, river herring, eels, lobsters and fish. They were experts at getting by. Old Prent used to tickle a blow fish’s belly, and once it expanded, he’d bounce the fish on the dock like a ball to attract tourists. He was known as “Old Smoothy.”

Through a child’s eyes, they were larger than life. I wanted to be just like them, and I pestered them with questions when they returned from a charter.

My great-uncle, Capt. Ed Sisson, a Rhode Island seine net fisherman, died at age 76 hauling his heavy seine through the surf, literally with his boots on, according to his obituary. My great-grandfather and namesake had a leg amputated after a battlefield wound in the Civil War. With one pant leg pinned up, he walked with two canes and made a living as a commercial fisherman.

“Good wood,” my father would say.

I grew up in this tribe of Swamp Yankees and, without realizing it, came to embody some of their ways and salty language, outlooks, perspectives and mannerisms. How they stood and moved and talked. The way they sized someone up. The narrow way they looked at the world. In time, some of their Swamper ways just seeped into me.

My grandfather, W. Bernard Sisson (standing, center) was a “surfman” in the U.S. Life-Saving Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard) and a commercial fisherman.

My grandfather, W. Bernard Sisson (standing, center) was a “surfman” in the U.S. Life-Saving Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard) and a commercial fisherman.

I also gave myself over to the world of fish and waves and tide rips. To the beaches, flats and headlands. Over the years, I filled hundreds of notebooks and journals with impressions of those characters, their stories and the southern New England seascape, writing on scraps of paper and envelopes and whatever else was within reach if I ran out of paper.

I feel at home in this little corner of the world. In my element. The sound of the surf and the smell of the salt gets a hold on you and doesn’t let go.

We used to fish with Capt. Louie once a summer on my oldest brother’s birthday, Aug. 21 — that was 60 years ago. I looked forward to the trip all summer. We’d fish the Middle Grounds off Stonington, Connecticut, for flounder and scup. It was thrilling to be outside the harbor, dropping a line into the deep — probably all of 25 feet.

Louie lived aboard his small charter boat in spring, summer and fall, and retreated to an ice-locked houseboat in a cove on the Pawcatuck River in winter. I remember driving through town in late fall with my mother when I was 11 or 12. I spotted the captain leaning against a light post by the road, a bag of groceries in his arms.

The writer as a young fisherman with his first striper.

The writer as a young fisherman with his first striper.

He wore a heavy Mackinaw wool jacket, the collar turned up, and his broad-brim fishing cap. It was starting to rain. My mother pulled over, and Louie climbed in. He didn’t have his thumb out — my mother told me he was too proud to ask. We dropped him off at the head of his cove, where a footpath led down to the houseboat. Unshaven, he looked tired and worn, not the rugged skipper of summer. I’ve never forgotten that small encounter, when one of my heroes suddenly seemed all too human.

In reviewing the movie Hillbilly Elegy, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott said that success in America today means “growing up to be less interesting than your parents or grandparents.” I was raised surrounded by characters without ever being aware of it. Not only did they influence me, my siblings and my children, but they left their mark on the magazine you are reading today.  

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