"Are we goin' to get any cod today, Captain?" one intrepid customer asked through vapored breath on this frosty morning.
Wrege regarded him coldly. "How do I know what you're going to get?" he growled. "I'll take you to where there's fish. Just because you show up with a rod and a hunk of clam you think I'm going to guarantee they'll bite for you?" He continued haughtily to the pilothouse.
The angler ducked his head and grinned. "Pardon me for living," he said. Another fisherman nodded. "That's what he gets for asking the old man that kind of question."
The stars were still out as the Effort backed away from the pier and headed out through Rockaway Inlet, following in single file behind several other party boats. Once clear of the breakwater, Wrege broke away from the others and set a course to the east. "I'm goin' down off Fire Island to a wreck I know about," he muttered. "I'm the only one that goes down to it. Some people like to fish in their own backyard but I like to get off a bit. When the tide and temperature are just right it'll rain fish around some of these wrecks."
The stars faded away and then the sun's rim burst out of the sea and climbed quickly into the sky. Wrege opened his throttles and ran away from the land. There was a slight chop from a southwest breeze and the onetime subchaser heeled over stylishly. In the daylight it was possible for the first time to see clearly the Effort's passengers. Some had sought shelter on the lee side from the damp, chilly sea breeze and were warding off the cold with swigs from flasks and bottles. A good many, however, were already methodically working away at their tackle.
They were dressed in a wide variety of fishing ensembles. Some wore GI combat clothes, even to combat boots. Others were bundled up in sheepskin coats. One man at the port rail had on a Navy woolen watch cap, tattered yellow polo coat and trout waders. Another was attired in a blue serge double-breasted business suit and fedora hat. A length of store twine had been passed through a hole punched in the rear brim and led down his back to his belt to prevent it from sailing off into the ocean.
Captain Wrege commented on the number who were wearing rubber overalls and windproof and waterproof parkas. "There's one reason winter deep-sea fishing is becoming so popular," he said. "During the war they developed all that stuff to wear on Atlantic convoy work and up in the Aleutians, so today a man can really dress for the weather. A fellow comes out here and freezes and then he notices that the guy next to him wearing that foul-weather gear is actually sweatin'. Soon as he's ashore he goes and gets himself an outfit. Used to be the only protection you had out here was extra suits of long underwear and the power to concentrate. I've seen guys down there on that deck fishing their heads off when it was so cold you couldn't hardly draw your breath." He pointed to a grizzled old fellow in a threadbare suit and cap. "That old party has been coming out with me for 25 years and I've never seen him in an overcoat yet.
"A lot of people get the idea there's a lot of wild Indians out on these party boats. My God, I get lawyers, doctors, dentists, teachers and judges down there every morning! They wear old clothes, and nobody knows who's the judge and who's the pants presser. That's the way they like it. All they want to do is be left alone to fish.
"We get people from Canada and the Great Lakes out here. They come here weekends from Pittsburgh over that turnpike. We get people from the prairies who've never seen salt water. They get to talking to the elevator operator at their hotel in New York and he sends them out here. They have a hell of a time."
The Effort's alternate captain, Charley Vandervoort, a wiry, red-haired young man wearing a blue flannel shirt and khaki pants tucked into knee-high rubber boots, joined us in the pilothouse, blinking the sleep out of his eyes. He'd been down in Jersey after stripers most of the night.