Then, following O'Neill's advice, I drove over to Long Beach, a strip of sand and pebbles that fronts the bay. I got there at dusk, just as the sun was making its flaming descent into the water. All along the shore boys were casting lures and bait as far as they could, with an energy that bordered on the obsessive. The boys ranged in age from 15 to 70. Behind them, in the parking lot, they had assembled an armada of vehicles of a type you see only in the East—rusted-out V-8 sedans that seemed like nothing so much as the final tortured outcry of the Industrial Revolution.
I stationed myself between two boys who were knee-deep in the water. I tried some squid first, threading chunks of it on a pair of hooks that hung below a pyramidal weight—a "special" weakfish set-up O'Neill had sold me—but it just sat on the floor of the bay, ignored by everything but thieving crabs. So I switched to a purple plastic worm trailing from a lead-headed jig and joined the others in their rhythmic casting. The worm flew out about 50 yards and then sank slowly to the bottom. I retrieved it slowly, dragging it inch by subtle inch across clamshells, rocks and half-buried Budweiser cans. This was an interesting exercise in underwater topography, but nothing more, and I was forced to change tactics again, replacing the worm with a plug that resembled a minnow. The evening began to seem like a homage to O'Neill's salesmanship instead of an attempt to attract fish.
Nobody else was having any luck, either. I was able to take solace from the sight of so many grumbling boys. Quite a few of them had jammed their sticks into rod holders and repaired to their rusting hulks to suck on brews and complain about the state of the universe, with particular regard to the absence of weakfish in Gardiners Bay. I figured this was part of the saltwater game, so I repaired to my own unrusted Datsun to have a drink. A boy named Charlie noticed my California plates and struck up a conversation. Charlie was 54. He believed absolutely in the power of squid. "Why is any fish going to bite a piece of plastic," he asked, speaking in the general direction of the sky, "when there's good fresh squid right under his nose?"
"I think the idea is to fool him."
Charlie frowned. He crossed his arms, which gave a certain life to his tattoos. "I don't go in for tricks," he said vehemently. "Maybe you do, being from California. Everything's fake out there. The people. The fish. Everything!" I was saved from any further assault when Charlie jumped to his feet and shouted, "Somebody's got one on!"
We dashed down to the shore, where a tall boy in a Mozart sweat shirt was wrestling with a weakie. It was evident from the way his rod was bent double that weakfish is something of a misnomer. The name has nothing to do with the fish's fighting ability; it refers instead to the soft tissue around its mouth, which tears easily. The tall boy was aware of this. He coaxed the weakie, reeling it in ever so gently. The fish didn't want to surrender. The tide gave it extra leverage. It made several good runs, working hard against the tall boy's muscle. Once the fish made the line sing, and this produced an awed murmuring among the observers. We were all playing the weakie in our brains. There's an angler's prayer you mutter at such moments: At least let me see the fish. Losing a fish you've hooked and almost landed is bad, but it's infinitely worse to lose one you haven't seen. The mystery is too much to handle when something that's rightfully yours has sunk into the realm of the invisible.
When the tall boy at last beached the weakie, there was a shared sense of relief. The other boys moved in to examine the spoils. The fish lay on a pile of glistening kelp, its gills opening and closing rapidly. The tall boy bent down and removed his hook. It came away simply, without any effort, as if the fish's mouth was made of Kleenex. A bit of squid was stuck in the fish's mouth, which caused Charlie to nudge me with an elbow. "You listen to what I been telling you," he said.
I was caught up in the fish's colors—blue, green and purple along the sides—so beautifully brilliant in the moonlight that I understood why weakies are also called seatrout.
"It's just a school fish," Charlie said. "Maybe seven pounds."
"They get much bigger?"