When the alarm
clock went off at half past four I was awake and waiting for it, wishing for
it, the nightlong, fitful southwest wind having made my sleep fitful—that, plus
my anticipation, mixed with some misgiving, over the coming day. The place was
Nantucket, the month September, the day the last one of my two weeks' stay on
freshwater fishing, with drought and pollution and crowds on the streams, I had
heeded the advice given me by a famous fisherman, now dead, and had turned to
the ocean, expecting to find it teeming with trophies and to have, if not all
of it to myself, at least a sizable private portion of it. During my time on
Nantucket I had seen more fishermen than fish. The striped bass and the
bluefish had shunned its accessible shores. In the tackle shops, fishermen
reported daily on conditions at Surfside, Smith Point, Tom Nevers Head, and the
story was everywhere the same: high tide or low, daylight or dark, using this
bait or that lure—nothing.
conversations, however, often ended on a note intriguing to a newcomer like me.
"Catching them out at Great Point," one man would observe with a sigh.
To which another man would give a snort and say, "Oh, sure! There!"
After that, there was nothing more to be said, it seemed. I ventured a time or
two to wonder aloud, why not try at Great Point, then, if that was where the
fish were? What I got by way of reply was the dampening look of an old salt for
a rank apprentice, of an islander for an off-islander.
are men of stamina, rugged and adventurous, ready for anything. Theirs is not a
gentle and contemplative recreation. They rise in darkness, drive distances,
fish in the worst weather. Of all the many subspecies of fishermen, they take
the greatest risks; in fact, they are downright reckless, even foolhardy. A few
of them, breasting the breakers, invading the surf, seeking to extend their
casts a few feet to reach schools of feeding fish, are swept to sea and lost
each year, leaving widows and orphans to mourn them. What was there about Great
Point that deterred these oldtime surfmen whose scuttlebutt I overheard at Bill
Fisher's Tackle Shop? And who were those fools who rushed in where others
feared to tread, the ones who were out there catching the fish?
were to be answered today. I had been joined on the island by my friend, the
dauntless Al Clements, a man whom nothing can discourage or deflect, or even
distract, wherever there is water with possible sport in it, who groans at the
thought of fishes being changed into loaves. Al would stop at nothing. Knowing
this was the cause of my misgiving, and my anticipation. He had arrived in his
four-wheel-drive Scout—the indispensable conveyance for the trip to Great
Point. Now as I dressed in the predawn darkness to the lost-soul wailing of the
wind, I felt a bit like Melville's Ishmael, accosted on another Nantucket
morning by Elijah, crazed survivor of a voyage aboard the Pequod with that
maniacal fisherman Captain Ahab: "Shipmates, have ye shipped in that ship?
Anything down there about your souls?"
fishing fleet is not made up of square-rigged whalers with longboats on davits
ready for lowering at the cry of "Thar she blows!" It is an even more
numerous fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles bristling with surf rods the length
of harpoons, ready-rigged for the signal that sweeps over the island with the
wind—"Bluefish in!" You see them coming off the ferryboats from
Hyannis, bouncing over the cobblestones of Main Street, parked outside the A
& P, rods riding flat in racks on the roof or else upright, like lances, in
a row of sockets bolted to the front bumper so that the riders look through
them as through bars. In the darkness of early morning and early evening, from
May to November, they ply the sand-swept island roads, bound for the beaches.
For although the books tell you that bluefish are mainly daytime feeders, the
ones that vacation around Nantucket have not read the books. They are as
independent and set in their ways as the islanders themselves; they dine at
dusk, they breakfast by the light of the moon.
It was dark but
moonless when we set off that morning from Madaket, on the west side of the
island, with Al, pipe in mouth, at the wheel. The treeless, featureless, flat
landscape might have been the sea and we in the cabin of a boat. We were to
traverse the length of the island. A strong starboard wind opposed us as we
tacked toward Nantucket town. Sanguine as always, Al said, "Today, Bill,
we're going to kill them." Doubtful as always, I grunted.
Our course took
us around the town and out east toward Siasconset. We veered from that route
shortly to go northwest toward Polpis. Long, narrow, nearly enclosed Nantucket
Harbor was off our portside.
At the coastal
settlement of Wauwinet, the paved road ended. It seemed that the world ended
there. We stopped and got out and, by flashlight, in a hurricane wind, deflated
our tires. For not even a four-wheel-drive vehicle, even in low, low gear, can
get through deep sand with its tires inflated. We reduced the pressure to 10
pounds, making certain by the gauge that it was the same in all four tires. The
least imbalance—as little as a pound's difference—can cause one wheel to dig
into the sand and spin uselessly. You do not want to be stuck on a narrow beach
with the tide rising or a line storm coming on. A fisherman-conscious community
has provided an air compressor and hose at that jumping-off place for the use
of those returning from the Point and resuming travel on the paved road—a
reassuring thought, one that I, buffeted by the wind and blinded by the
darkness, grasped at uncertainly but eagerly.
There we left
behind us the last lone human habitation and entered upon Great Point, a narrow
spit of sand extending five miles into Nantucket Sound. Instantly we learned
why all but the most determined—some might say, the most demented—fishermen
avoid Great Point. It was as though we had launched a small craft upon a stormy
sea and in a raging gale.