An excerpt from Ocean Fishes (cont.)
In the autumn of 1955, John Cole moved away to Maine, where he started a new life as an environmental journalist and co-editor of The Maine Times; the following spring of 1956 was my last season in the dory. Lacking a mate when summer came, I avoided the crowd of boats at Montauk and ran a few charters out of Three Mile Harbor, but in August, my career as a charterboat captain came to an end. I donated the Vop to a charity boys' camp and had the Merlin hauled and stored until further notice
In 1969, I joined an expedition seeking the first underwater film of the great white shark. In the deep Indian Ocean off the coast of Durban, where the sperm whales killed by the harpoon guns of small pursuit ships could be expected to attract great whites among the large oceanic sharks drawn to the bleeding carcasses. In the next days, from an aluminum cage suspended underneath a buoyed whale, we would watch hundreds of pelagic white-tips, tigers, blues, and hammerheads among them, swim up singly into the red cave they were excavating in the carcass to seize and roll, wrench free and gulp down great gobbets of meat with that awful shuddering -- no " shark frenzy" at all despite the clouds of blood but on the contrary, orderly feeding, awaiting their turn in wide circling procession. But, alas, the great whites never came in out of the blue mists of the deep until the expedition reached the seal colony at Dangerous Reef off Spencer Bay in south Australia where drawn by the dead horse hung from the ship's side, the "white deaths", as Australians call them, banged us around in those light cages in the frigid Antarctic water in what at that time must certainly have been the wildest film footage of huge ocean fishes ever recorded.
In the 1970s, I sold the Merlin to my brother, replacing her over the years since with a series of small boats that never could replace her. In the early 1980s, in a vain effort to help defend the haul-seiners and baymen and their way of life from the erosion and destruction that development has brought to most of the old fisheries and fishing communities in the United States, I went back to the haul seiners and baymen to listen to their voices for a book of text and photos in which an account of ocean haul-seining, already under siege back in the Fifties, is contrasted with its slow paper death thirty years later. [Men's Lives, Random House, 1986]
Some years before, saddened by the long decline of the wild ducks and upland game birds, I had quit bird hunting for good and except for occasional surf-casting from the ocean beach, had gradually lost interest in so-called "recreational" fishing with conventional spinning reel equipment and heavy lures. Then one summer in the 80's?, the artist Jack Zajac on the Snake River in Wyoming, then writer Jim Harrison on the Yellowstone in Montana would introduce me to fresh water fly-fishing, which I tried in salt water as soon as I got home.
John Cole, former mate on the Merlin (and author in 1978 of Striper, a fine book on the striped bass), was spending his winters running a fishing lodge in Key West. In the 1980's, in fresh water and salt, I had become an obsessed albeit inexpert fly fisherman who probably started a bit late but has been fortunate enough right from the first to have had expert, generous veterans as fishing partners, and one spring day when I passed through on a research trip, he introduced me to Jeffrey Cardenas, a renowned fish guide, champion fly caster, sports fishing columnist, and author of two very fine books on salt water fishes and fishing (Sea Level and Marquesa), who took us out to the vast flats near the Northwest Channel to give us poor old plug-casters some tips on the presentation of small flies to spooky bonefish in clear shallow water.
Cardenas and I were to become good friends and sometime fishing partners despite the huge discrepancy in our abilities. Having suspended his career as a fish guide and sold his prosperous fly shop on the Key West docks, Jeffrey would acquire a beautiful Cessna aircraft, and when John Cole died in Maine in 2003, he flew north that summer and we helped John's family scatter his ashes on the sea "under the Light"at Montauk Point as our friend had wished. The following year, we split expenses on a reconnaissance of Great Inagua, farthest south and most remote of the Bahamas, where we were astonished by shining white mountains of harvested salt and the vivid red of the flamingos of the brackish lagoons where I would catch my first tarpon on a fly.
Preferring unspoiled coasts to fishing lodges, our general plan in the years that followed, always adapted to local circumstances, was to load camping gear, rods, grub, and rum into the Cessna at Key West and take off across the Gulf Stream, headed for some small cay with an air strip. Hunting up an old outboard skiff in the bony settlement, we would follow the coast to some remote beach set off by those promising emerald flats that we'd reconnoitered from the air on the way in. In recent years, we have visited Crooked Island, Mayaguena, and other remote cays, and pursued big permit in the mangrove cays called the Marquesas, some twenty miles south of Key West, where James Prosek would accompany us after that Chile trip two years ago. Despite Jeffrey's heroic skills on the poling platform, neither James nor I have ever hooked a big permit on a fly, which remains a lovely daydream and vague ambition.
On certain autumn days at Montauk, the gathering companies of migratory bass churn through copper-tinted underwater clouds of sand eels and bay anchovies in terrific "blitzes", chopping the water white with the loud snap and slapping of their feeding -- a pattering applause that may continue for ten minutes or more in the same spot. One November morning a few weeks ago, aboard biologist author Carl Safina's boat under the Light, my host and I already had two good big fish to take home, more than sufficient; we cut the motor, set our rods down, and let the boat drift soundlessly downwind into the tumult. In these urgent conditions, Morone saxatilis pays no heed to Homo whatsoever, and Dr. Safina leaned way over the side down toward the water to photograph at point -- blank range the gaping mouths and greenish backs of thousands upon thousands of big striped silver fish thumping softly on the hull crowding so close that we could have gaffed one. A truly amazing biomass, we agreed, and a stirring manifestation, a celebration, even, of the vitality of these salt water fishes. Yet we knew that what we were seeing here must never be taken for granted, for even this hardy and highly adaptable species, thirty years ago, was thought to be declining to the point of disappearance due mostly to pollution of its main breeding grounds in the Hudson River and the Chesapeake, and other valuable marine fishes -- the codfish and the swordfish and the bluefin tuna, for example -- have never fully recovered from their own severe declines.
Feeding on the edges of the blitz that morning were big bluefish and false albacore. A little earlier, the strongest " albie" I have ever hooked shot towards the bottom, then veered back under the boat, doubling my 9-weight rod into a U so tight that I could scarcely slack off on the line. Right in my hands, the rod seemed to relinquish tensile strength, feeling strangely brittle, and I swore aloud that this metallic blue-black little tuna would damn well break it. And so it did, eventually, just as it came up to the surface and the net was slid beneath it. Since that good rod was the first I've ever broken, its loss might have been perceived as an evil omen or at least a sign that the time has come for the old man to quit. However, I don't think I will -- or not at least while there 's still a chance I might die happily of a heart attack while fighting that big permit to the -- my own? -- finish.
-- Peter Matthiessen
Sagaponack, New York
Early winter, 2012
To purchase a copy of Ocean Fishes, go here.
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