Friday, June 5, 2015

Long Beach Island Fluke Fishing Recalls a Life in the Bay, at the Books and Writing

Matt's expression appears precisely as terns flying over him.
Published in The Sandpaper some years ago, this is an essay about a Long Beach Island day mostly spent fluke fishing. It's possible to experience a little deeper than the surface of life, and you will find an interesting account of personal history.
A Conquest to Care in Return

By Bruce Edward Litton

          Little Egg Harbor corrugated by breeze under partly sunny skies was just right: no rolling boats between whitecaps and runaway bait drifting. Polly’s Dock in Beach Haven rented us a garvey with an eight-horsepower motor and loaded a five-gallon bucket with a quart of killiefish. I shoved off with my son, Matt, eager to hook up, and my wife, Patricia, ready to relax and read Mission to Paris by Alan Furst.

          Like other outings from Polly’s, we found fluke eager to hit anywhere from seven to 25 feet deep. My first fish was a large skate that weighed about five pounds. I was surprised it took a live killie, but knew it was no fluke on the line. The head shake like dance during a dogged fight belongs to fluke; a skate comes in like a wet T-shirt.

          Patricia must have lain on the center board seat for an hour, sunbathing with the book down, when I finally caught a keeper over 18 inches, the only fish to go on the ice in the cooler. We baited three-eighth-ounce jigs for the shallows, and used two-ounce sinkers to drift the channel depths. The tide moved us at a persistent pace and fluke felt like added weight before we set hooks.

          When the sun approached the horizon through stratified clouds and the bay calmed, I knew that if we were to catch a big one, now would be the time. The tide crested. A willet’s call alerted me to see little of its long legs on a sand bar exposed earlier. I relished the fight of my last fluke since I knew it would be the last caught boating that year, but it was only about 17 inches, released.

          The 18-foot garvey didn’t travel fast, but we were in no hurry to dock. Eighty degrees felt silky serene and the flow of brine around the boat eased like sand through an hourglass. I began to feel unwilling to drive the 90 miles home. I wanted to fill time with something else besides fishing.

          Polly’s staff felt happy to see we had a keeper. Like anyone else, they’re most interested in hearing about a big catch, but first concern is to see at least something going home. They roped the boat in a moment and we unloaded, paying homage to the snowy egret taken residence on the dock by feeding it leftover killies. The bird was almost tame, a wild creature grown fearless of close company with people.

          “Let’s go to Barnegat Light,” I said. “We can get there just after sunset and see the Wharf.”

          “What’s the Wharf?” Patricia said.

          “I’ve never shown you. Commercial fishing boats are docked and art galleries fill battered wooden rooms. They may not be open this late, but we can enjoy the scene on the water.”

           When we arrived, more stratified clouds appeared on the horizon to the north and west, reflecting an extravagantly red sunset. My son photographed his mother and father against a back drop of net boats and expansive color with feathered edges. The mood had risen to a success far beyond celebrating our catches. Feeling addressed a wonderful day on the water and island, our faces burned as red as the clouds, as if glowing with shared affirmation.

          We had one more place to visit: the end of Broadway near the lighthouse.

          Fish broke water like firecrackers exploded on the surface. With patient speed, I tied wire leaders and Kastmaster spoons onto our light rods, anticipating cocktail bluefish. Matt must have missed half a dozen hits before he got a blueback herring over the rail.

          “Well, let’s catch bluebacks,” I said.

          We caught about a dozen, missing many more hits. Herring are not fierce predators like blues, have delicate mouths, and they had a subtle way of not quite taking the metal lure. But they fought hard and measured about 16 inches. I’ve never seen them in droves before or since.

          A light meal finished from somewhere on the island I don’t remember, we entered the causeway and it occurred to me why the sunset, the boats, the photography, finally the herring, had inspired such a lift in mood. I had lived on Long Beach Island more and less for 13 years from age 19, clamming the bays to make a living. It wasn’t the hard, crusty life that may be imagined. Working only about four hours a day self-employed—doing aerobic exercise by treading bottom in the water—allowed me time to study and write.

           The hard part wasn’t the years in the bay and on the island but returning to the mainstream from Island Time without so much as a college degree, just some credits, and taking jobs by the clock. Clamming involved tough days, but mostly I lived a dream in which visions held great promise. I had turned my back on “the world,” walked out, and pursued happiness without formal economic complications. And I knew at 19 that a life apart for a while would be best. Return would be hard, but I didn’t know how difficult.

          Here we were on June 29th, 2010, as I drove to the crest of the causeway, sky dark and lights bright as we headed for the mainland, feeling as if Little Egg Harbor, Long Beach Island, Barnegat Inlet—all places deeply familiar—had answered my complaints to let me know that at least some of the essence of those youthful visions survives and will survive.

          I had achieved some mastery over fishing articles seeing publication for five years, and had begun getting essays published. I knew I hadn’t studied classics of the Western Tradition and much else besides only to write fishing articles and essays; my ambition is to write novels. But I began as a writer at 16 by getting published in outdoor magazines, and quit this for the literary vision quest. I know better now. Sometimes you have to start at the beginning again. 

           As we began the long approach to our residence in Bedminster, I knew that a sort of meeting between the deep levels of writing I had achieved on Long Beach Island in youth, and getting published in magazines, newspapers, and literary journals had bonded my family with a promise for the future that, while it includes us, reaches out to all.

           It’s not easy getting anything published. And what fills handwritten notebooks may be of great personal value and more. But the market informs a writer even as it denies publication. As I had found a voice in the bays during my 20’s, my middle age demands that it be spoken more from the mainstream.

          The lights of Long Beach Island glimmered behind us, suggesting unity of wildly electric nature and cultural means of its capture. The island bays are a wilderness of brine, flora, fauna and expanse which I had explored and submitted to physically and spiritually without losing connection to them later. And the lights along Route 72 looked like torches held high for a conquest not to destroy the wilds which nourish us, but care for them in return.       

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