Saturday, April 28, 2012

Jersey Shore Bluefish Rite to Remember: The Blues of an Eager Boyhood


There are many ways to talk about blues. Sometimes referring to bluefish as blues carries an undertone. No one seems to have done it with more subtlety than John Hersey in his book Blues, a personal account of fishing for bluefish written in a somber, reflective style. The book never is depressing; its weightiness is like blue water itself. He celebrates bluefish as flashes of electric current in a stable sea, and informs us about the fish. He makes me consider bluefish flanks as the color of lit sky produced by atmospheric chemistry and brilliant sunlight, the atmosphere itself a kind of shield absorbing the manic plethora of fire, as if the color symbolizes transformation of energy to a level suitable to life on earth. Getting the blues is not necessarily an undesirable state, and the energy behind them is far fiercer than may appear—just like that of these worthy fish.

          A fairly recent weekend trip to Sandy Hook with my son, then nine, narrowly escaped being a loss. The weather nearly ruined the weekend. But that first weekend in May four years ago, Matt had reason to become as eager as I had ever seen him, except in the grip of excited streams of fresh ideas in the comfort of home.   

          The outdoors limits intentions upon it because it is what it is. The mass of a beach, surf, and sky over sand is a weight and complexity that absorbs awareness itself, however detached and facile an individual may be otherwise. The surf, or any other body of water, tends to get the better of a fisherman’s pursuits, whether the fisherman is a young boy or a seasoned angler.

          This is partly why we fish. Fishing reminds of us of how resistant the world is to our wishes, teaches us universal lessons. Otherwise, there’s good reason for why there’s no place like home; within the familiar artificial environments we create for ourselves we may be free to launch our spirits like nowhere else. But the outdoors exercises our bodies and spirit, not to mention reason and reflection. Home might get boring all too quickly if we didn’t go out. Or if not boring, downright decadent and unhealthy. 

          That May weekend my son and I embarked upon one outing among many over the course of the year spent without quite knowing what to expect.

          Matt had the Friday off as teachers attended an New Jersey Education Association convention. I had to turn burgers for a Cub Scout fundraiser all day, but had time in the evening to prepare for the trip. Me, Matt, and his uncle Jim, fished Saturday late afternoon and evening near the Highlands Bridge at the mouth of the Shrewsbury River where it empties into Raritan Bay. The wind blew directly out of the east at what seemed about 25 knots, and we had seen the ocean on the front of the barrier beach where we had wanted to fish. It raged, the surf unfishable.  

          With so much water pushed ashore and into the bay by the wind, our prospects seemed slim there too. A six-ounce sinker hardly held bottom. Sea Cabbage loaded the cut bunker bait and lines, but Matt caught an 18-inch bluefish, which gave me thrilled relief, and yet the thought of dawn the next day felt onerous. I phoned my expert surf fisherman brother, Rick. He said we could forget it; wind would blow all night and into morning. I too believed the fury would not abate. Matt’s uncle wished us well with his cheerful temperament perhaps a little more hopeful for our prospects in the morning than I was, and parted from us to drive home to Maplewood.

          We stayed at the Best Western in Hazlit. Matt insisted we stay up and watch TV. The previous fall when we first tried one of these overnight surf fishing adventures, I refused to do this. Getting up at 4:45 a.m. is enough of a challenge. But this time I was sure that watching a movie would pass without sorry consequences, whether fishing would be worthwhile or not in the morning. So we stayed up until 11:30.

          My eager response to the alarm was bred from a 35-year habit. Ready to go, I felt no self-division from a wrong choice the night before. Matt had no trouble either. We had only to pack clothes, leave the key at the desk, walk out to the car neatly arranged for action. But the drive ahead seemed ominous. The parking lot seemed deceptively calm as we departed at 5:00.

          I pulled into the first parking lot for fishermen, not far beyond the entrance to Gateway National Recreation Area. Daylight had begun to ease into very thick fog. Off-white gray enveloped the surf and most of the beach without heavy wind hustling those horizontal columns of mist westward I'm familiar with, yet the surf sounded rough. Then we saw a human figure emerge from obscurity. 

          “Catch any?” I asked.

          “Just took a few casts,” he said. 

          By that I imagined the worst. But I continued walking to see the surf for myself, which didn’t look bad. Rough, but fishable.

          “Let’s get the stuff,” I said.

          Matt said, “You think it’s good?” 

          “We can find out.”

          The bunker in the iced cooler stayed fresh overnight—it was still half frozen in vacuum sealed bags. With my big Spanish war knife I whisked one open, and cut a chunk of the greasy, foot-long fish with a head about a third of the total body length. A 30-pound test wire leader fully 18 inches long received the 7/0-stainless hook at the snap, baited with reel drag set at 1/3rd strength of 16-pound test monofilament, a five-ounce pyramid sinker on a sliding sleeve rode above a 65-pound test barrel swivel. I cast each of our rods. Into two PVC sand spikes I dropped them.

          We set up collapsible arm chairs to lounge, but it worked out better that we never used them. Within minutes Matt’s rod doubled over. He grabbed it, but missed the hit. I felt the confirmation, positively liberated from the feeling of being oppressed by the dark, cloudy onshore blow. The weekend pivoted in our favor. Sometimes even very auspicious days make the surf yield nothing. Maybe we would catch fish.

          I baited Matt’s rod again and took a long, sweeping cast. Surf casting with a ten or eleven-foot, stiff spinning rod is a beauty that beats fly casting by sheer force. And the value of each infrequent cast is far greater than standing on a bank or in a boat and simply whipping a light-weight plug, feet firmly set and a six-foot rod in one hand. When surf casting, you have to move your feet forward to load up the momentum of the five-ounce sinker—which is terrific power, an accident could kill—while a rod almost as stiff as a pool cue bends under momentum like a willow branch. All of the action functions under the control of your whole body, moving as a flowing unit, unrelieved until the sheer joy of the cast is felt with the line released and lead weight soaring like a little space capsule. The sinker makes contact with the water beyond breakers as many as 100 yards out. Fly casting never knows quite the same grace under pressure.

          Once again Matt’s rod doubled, and he was on it fast. The fish was on and no 18-inch cocktail blue. Jagged surges assured, though—bluefish! Three explosive runs. 

          With experience catching stripers from the age of six, Matt played this fish well. It “took drag,” as we say, stripped off yards of line. I walked into the wash maybe five minutes into the struggle, clad in breathable waders. He got the fish near my feet, and with my left hand I grabbed in the middle of the 18 inches of wire—much easier than getting cut by monofilament—and then quickly clasped the blue behind the head with my right hand.

          The fish went about eight pounds, and the set of razor-tooth studded jaws would crush with force many times that weight. Even the wire leader had to be replaced, as badly serrated as it remained.

          Onto the sand with this fish—blues to my taste are good eating, and the dark meat reminds me of the dark meat of turkey. It isn’t as mellow and soft, and I like the pungency of bluefish.

          We would load quite a few fish into our pile. I’ll never know why Matt got 90% of them. The small area where I kept casting his rig yielded by far the most fish, which made him proud. One of his fish was no blue at all, but a fine silvery striped bass of 29 ½ inches and about nine pounds, an inch and a half over keeper size. The blues ranged from five to about eight-and-a-half pounds. I had fought one larger, 12 to 15 pounds. It stripped off about 20 yards of line on its last run pulling the hook free at full force.

          What we kept—ten fish including the striper—I strung onto a long length of rope. This would be a day to remember well, and not only because fish would fill our freezer and feed us for six months. As I shouldered out about 80 pounds of fish across the wide beach to the lot, and backed the car to our catch, I knew that being a good father is more than offering advice.




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