I had my first clue about what my life as a fisherman’s wife would be when I found myself chest deep in a stretch of Alaskan whitewater pushing an inflatable raft upstream. This was before Bill (the editor of this magazine) and I were married, when I was spending the summer in Alaska, backpacking in my usual quest for magnificent alpine scenery.
Bill was up for a few weeks and had popped the question several days earlier, fresh off a hike over Resurrection Pass on the Kenai Peninsula. I’d said yes, and now that he had me hooked, he had yanked me off the mountain. We were traveling by raft in the shrubby riparian lowlands and sleeping on gravel bars while he cast for king salmon.
Searching for a campsite one evening, we rounded a bend to find an unusually large number of beavers slapping their tails. My backpacker’s internal “beaver fever” alarm rang while, simultaneously, Bill’s fisherman’s radar pinged: This stretch of water had fish potential. Maybe he said something, maybe he didn’t. I know I did — something in the vein of, “Let’s get out of here.” We’d been filtering our drinking water from the river, but Giardia is no joke. On the force of my reaction, we floated around the next bend and debarked to a different gravel bar.
I was unrolling the tent when Bill started pacing up and down at the edge of the river. His upper lip tightened. He was rubbing his fingers together. Now, 30 years later, I know the signs, but back then I was flummoxed. My first lesson in frustrated fisherman began right there on the gravel when we pushed the boat back into the current, wrestled the bow around in the direction it didn’t want to go and began our absurd slog back to the fishy beaver pool.
My next fishwife lesson came perhaps a year later, much closer to home. My good friend Gail is married to Bill’s fishing buddy Bruce, and we’d all shoved off aboard Bruce’s center console. Gail and I, both hardy nature lovers, happily watched osprey wheeling overhead and herons in the salt marsh. We were game when the lures (and eels) went hurtling overhead. Bill and Bruce had been pulling some mega-stripers out of these waters during the previous few weeks, and we were eager to see those, too. Gail and I even made a few casts.
Somehow the action was elusive that afternoon. The guys motored to various promising locations along the rocky shore, but it seemed so obvious to Gail and me as the sun dropped lower and lower in the sky: There were no fish today. It was time to head back to the launch ramp, pull the boat, and take in a nice meal and a beer or two at the local lobster joint.
It didn’t happen that way. Bruce and Bill had recently felt the sweet bulk of large stripers and were desperate to feel it again. Each new location offered promise. They motored, cut the engine, cast; motored again, cut the engine, cast. It was getting dark. Gail and I exchanged worried looks. They motored, cut the engine, cast. We were hungry. The fog rolled in. We were cold. Still, they motored, cut the engine, cast.
This story has been oft repeated for years, and I swear it is unembellished. It always ends at this point: at 2 o’clock in the morning. It always ends with Gail and me huddled and shivering at the bow, issuing our last desperate pleas through lips blue with cold. Can we go back now? Please? Their response was no response. Instead, we got: “Bruce, what about that point over there? That looks good.”
Several years later and eight months pregnant with our first child, I found myself digging my toes into the sand from my seat in an aluminum beach chair. It was planted at the water’s edge on Monomoy, a sandy uninhabited island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that fascinated Bill for a few years early in our marriage. I had gone there with him once before and enjoyed a day of wading through crystal-clear tide pools teeming with life while he was off on the flats casting for stripers.
So positive were my memories of that day that I didn’t hesitate to say yes the next time he invited me along. At that point, however, my tide-pooling was of limited duration. Heavy with child, I was most comfortable off my feet. The location couldn’t be beat: The breeze was cool, the sun warm. I had an engrossing book, a hat and a bottle of water. No cellphone, of course, as they hadn’t yet become standard equipment. The hours flew by.
At some point, I looked up from my book and realized that the light was changing, and the breeze was getting cold. Bill was nowhere to be seen. I calmly considered this for a while. Then I got nervous. There I was, alone with the lapping waves, a few birds calling in the distance. The light drained from the sky, and as if to repeat a familiar refrain, the fog rolled in. I suppose I could have given birth right there on the sand. Instead, when he finally returned, I initiated his own education.
A month later I experienced a similar solitude, this time during the wee hours as I rocked back and forth on a naugahyde ottoman to ease the contractions that were coming fast and furious. Bill had fished through the previous night, and when the first pains woke me, he told me he needed his sleep to be ready for the impending delivery. I still have the paper on which, during my lonely vigil, I wrote the precise time of each contraction. Eventually, the baby arrived just fine. Born not on a beach, but in a hospital. Whatever happened during the night was forgotten, washed away by hormones and new-mother love.
Which perhaps is why, a few weeks later, I felt so lovingly appreciated when Bill rescued the sleep-deprived new mother from house confinement and took me for a drive to the beach in Rhode Island. We were in the car at Watch Hill Lighthouse, overlooking East Beach, with the baby nursing contentedly. It was a lovely fall day, and we were having the kind of newfound family moment I had long dreamed about. I almost wanted to shed tears of joy.
Then the fish started breaking.
This story, too, is often retold, and again, I swear it’s without embellishment. Reprising the scene from the Alaskan river, Bill rubbed his fingers together while his upper lip tightened across his teeth. He exclaimed: “Look at that! Those guys are getting fish, and I’m up here in the car pulling my pud.”
I realize that to a certain type of woman all of the above smacks of man misbehavior. Fair fodder for male-bashing. Divorce-worthy. But I knew what I was getting into from the moment we first shouldered that rubber raft upstream against a substantial rapid. Reason counts for nothing when the fish are calling. Coddling attention will be in short supply. And there is certainly no room for sappy sentimentality when you’re married to a fisherman.
Bill’s antics also let me indulge a few of my own. I kept pulling the line in my direction. Two years after our wedding, I had another Alaska adventure. He charmed me when I came back, then tightened the drag and continued his obsessive fishing. I ran the line out again when I left him behind with our tiny kids and went backpacking in Montana one July.
The back and forth tension on the rod has kept our marriage interesting. Who wants to marry a milque-toast who acts all nice, then sneaks out to the bar to blow off steam? Bill appreciates me for my free spirit. And I appreciate that when he’s missing in action, I always know where to look: My bad-boy is out on a rip somewhere, sending his line arcing across the sky while terns dive and bait riffles the surface.
I wouldn’t want it any other way.