An excerpt from Ocean Fishes
Peter Matthiessen on his love of fishing and new book of paintings from the sea
In book, renowned artist James Prosek captures 35 of most pursued saltwater fish
Prosek travelled the Atlantic and each painting reflects an individual experience
Text reprinted with permission from Ocean Fishes, Rizzoli, 2012.
James Prosek and I first met in southern Chile as guest speakers on a yacht expedition that offered clients fly casting for introduced trout on pristine Andes streams. We were fishing partners that first morning in sparkling snow rapids high on the mountain, and in the afternoon, with two of the clients, we were coptered down the mountain to the lower river to haul in "steelhead"-type rainbow -- hatchery fish, to judge from their obliging nature and uncolorful tattered appearance. And after a while, feeling we'd already caught too many, we quit. To the bewilderment of our corporate companions, we lay down on the sunny bank and swapped fishing stories and discussed books, including a planned book of portraits of the beautiful salt water fishes already being planned by this gifted artist-author. Since I, too, much admired the great ocean fishes based on long experience -- surf-caster, ocean haul-seiner, charter boat captain, shark expedition diver, and lifelong naturalist -- James suggested that some sort of informal recollections of so many fine days on the salt water might serve to introduce this book.
As a boy not prone to seasickness, age 11, perhaps 12, in the late 1930s, I was lugged along on my father's boat on deep-sea fishing expeditions out of sight of land south of Montauk Point, Long Island, trolling artificial lures for yellow-fin tuna, with strip baits of fresh squid or mackerel for possible swordfish or white marlin fresh and ready in the ice chest behind. Since even one school tuna, diving deep, wore out my twiggy arms, I would leave the rod to my father's guests and climb to the cabin roof with the boat's binoculars, and as broad swells lifted the boat on the calm sun-misted sea, scan that ocean emptiness -- that imminence -- for sign of marine life, in particular the black dorsal of the swordfish, which in those days was often very large, up to 700 pounds or more, and relatively common. Those stiff dorsals were readily distinguished from the floppy fins of sharks (so abundant then that, keeping careful track, we once counted eighty in a single day). Now and then, the surface would be parted by the squarish heads and shining carapaces of big sea turtles or the unearthly disc of the ocean sunfish, and all the while the shearwaters and storm petrels, replacing the noisy terns and gulls along the coast, came and went, as silent as all else on the silent ocean. And one great day, the mists of whales appeared off to the south.
Another day, well past Montauk Light on the way back to Fishers Island, we had stopped for a cool swim when an alarmed yell from the boat -- Big shark! --got us back aboard her in a hurry. Half a bloody tuna, tossed out on a shark hook, swiftly attracted an enormous mako which took over an hour for three men to subdue and only then by towing it behind the boat to deprive its gills of oxygen in a belated attempt to drown it. When finally it was hauled up close under the stern, my father leaned down and fired a full clip of .38 bullets point-blank at the general whereabouts of its small brain. Said to be swiftest and most agile of all sharks (and the most beautiful, in the enchanted eyes of its admirer James Prosek), the mako fights like hell and jumps clear of the water like a tarpon and has now won recognition as a game fish. That mako steaks were often marketed as swordfish, being all but identical raw as well as cooked, was less well known, and I'm sorry to say that this beautiful gray-blue creature we towed back to Fishers Island -- where it measured out at close to thirteen feet -- went shamefully to waste, all but the jaws of razor teeth I treasured for years afterwards.
At the end of WW II, as an enlisted man stationed at Pearl Harbor, I sometimes fished on liberty days inside the reef off Punaluu on the north coast of Oahu for the silver jacks known as papio, and on one occasion, the rough Molokai Channel between islands, where under a blue sky carved by turning frigate birds -- the so-called mahi-mahi birds -- my lure was tracked across the wake by a bolt of brilliant green -blue lightning, the swift mahi-mahi or dorado (after the resplendent gold that transmutes it for a little while when it is first removed from the salt water, soon after which, in dying, it turns gray; it is these fleeting color shifts in ocean fish that James has captured wonderfully in these pages.
That year I married, moved to Paris, and for the next two years -- the one period in my life I ever lived far from the sea. In the spring of 1953, I returned from two years in Europe with my young wife and infant son, I rented a small cottage in a lovely Long Island South Fork village called The Springs and brought my first boat, a primitive 19-foot double-ender acquired in Quebec in 1950 (the yellow pine bulkheads in the codfish hatches still had bark) across the Race to Three Mile Harbor, where with the advent of the scallop season in September, my friend and fellow writer John N. Cole and I found some old dredges (pronounced "drudges") and began our careers as baymen. With a daily limit of ten bushels each, we made good money, and my humble cod boat, (rechristened Vop-Vop in honor of the loud pop-pop of her one-cylinder engine) served us faithfully and well.
The following spring, we joined the five-man crew of Capt. Ted Lester in Amagansett, which except on days of heavy wind and longshore current, used a large Nova Scotia dory and two big beach trucks with winches on the beds to set and manage a long ocean seine and bring it ashore through the surf. On our very first haul -- as the new crewmen, Cole and I in chest-high waders served as the two oarsmen in the dory -- each crew share came to about $200, we knew right then that this surfman's life was the one we needed to support our writing habit, though we never made another nickel in the next two weeks. It was also an indelible experience of surf and nets and beautiful hard gleaming ocean fishes. In three years of seining, keeping careful record, and even though our big three-inch mesh let all smaller fish escape, I would list 33 species, including big Atlantic sturgeon and big stingrays, even sharks -- not many but no doubt a few more than our friends who swam in summer off this beach might have cared to hear about.
Since haul seining is limited to six-odd weeks in spring and six in fall when the great bass schools are migrating east and west along the coast, and since this fishery is impossible in heavy weather, when the surf is too high to launch (or beach) the dory and the longshore set or current is too strong, skewing the net, there was plenty of time left for our other uncertain livelihood. And outdoor work on the salt water nicely complemented the sedentary toiling of the writer, who was quite content to be indoors and warm in winter and foul weather.
In June of 1954, on a mooring in Rockport harbor near Gloucester, Massachusetts, rode the prettiest fishing boat I'd ever seen -- a tuna boat with a full canvas canopy, a long low cockpit like a Maine lobsterman, a harpoon stand, rigged harpoon and all, and a For Sale sign. Even in those days, the non-negotiable price -- five thousand dollars -- was an unholy bargain. Though scarcely in the market for another boat, I had to make this work. Two days later I was on my way south, stopping over at Block Island for the night and going on next day to Long Island, and within the week the Merlin (named for the magician and the falcon), was a charter boat berthed at the Town Dock at Montauk.
At 32', the Merlin was smaller than most charter boats and lacked a flying bridge, which made her look smaller still, but because John Cole and I loved fishing and busted our butts to find fish for our passengers, she did well enough to build a list of return clients for the following year. That first season effectively came to an end on the last day of August when the notorious Hurricane Carol obliged us to keep the Merlin's engine running at half-speed forward in her slip, hoping her fuel tank would outlast the storm. A few days later, with storm warnings, I took her back to the sheltered inner boat basin at the head of Three-Mile Harbor, one jump ahead of a second bad storm, Hurricane Edna, in the course of which, unable to tend both, we sank the trusty Vop on purpose to keep her from being lifted by a surge and battered to pieces at the boatyard bulkhead. (A few days later, we floated her and snaked out her small engine, submerging it at once in fresh water and spraying its interior with oil, and Vop-Vop emerged from her undersea experience as good as new.)
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