By Paul Fersen
There are times he seems like a father, though only a few years older than me. Perhaps it’s the knowledge, at least when it comes to fish and the ocean. I always feel like a child next to him, learning, more importantly wanting to please. It’s been that way since the first night on a black and sqaullish Atlantic beach where he seemed so sure and comfortable, and me so disoriented, trying to cast in the dark.
When it comes to the business we share, the roles reverse and I look on him as someone to be protected as I would my own. As confident as he is on the water, he is naïve in business – honest to a fault. A rare man indeed. It‘s why my youngest bears his name – Cooper.
The pilgrimage to his island comes with all its inherent freedoms. One becomes feckless when the ferry leaves the dock and the bonds of accountability are severed by the channel. Once ensconced in the beach house, rods and waders scattered along the porch rail, the release is complete. Beyond the Elizabeth Islands, the mainland remains at bay, unable now to burden me with the grinding weight of responsibility.
This year was different. His heart was struggling. Too many years of blue-collar cuisine. The smile and the warmth were there as always and little Coop didn’t notice the gray pallor where sun-burnished leather once glowed. He only knew those thick and weathered arms encircling him loved him and were taking him fishing.
I noticed. He shrugged as if it were nothing, but the worry in Lela and Tina’s eyes spoke volumes. I spoke with them quietly while Coop took the boy to see the eel tank.
“Apparently there is a significant blockage,” she said, moving quickly around the room. Stopping too long allowed too much time to think. The worst always creeps in. Tina watched her mother and then looked at me with a flicker of a smile.
“We’re so glad you’re here,” she said wrapping her arms around my waist and burying her head in my chest. As if I could somehow solve this problem as I had solved a few minor business problems for them in the past.
The house was up-island near Gay Head. A small cluster of houses gathered together overlooking Lobsterville Beach. There was nothing here, the nearest resemblance of a store some five miles distant. Even on the busiest weekends, this long stretch of beach remains unpopulated, the tourists concentrated like lemmings down-island where the ferries land. Somehow some dim tribal instinct offers comfort in numbers and they seem to be content with what they can find close by. Thank God for my genetic deficiency.
Lobsterville is a fishing beach, stretching from Menemsha Pond up to the cliffs of Gay Head. Across the sound, the Elizabeth Islands stretch westward. The bloody sunsets over Cutty Hunk are familiar to anglers just stepping on the beach for a night’s fishing and in June the stripers gather here fresh from the northward migration, covered in seal lice and voracious. Menemsha Pond offers billions of sand eel fry spewing out with the tide and the striped bass feast here for weeks. At night as the outgoing sweeps the eels west along the beach, the big fish hang by the tidal conveyor gulping big holes in the dark sea.
The house was perfectly situated overlooking a huge stretch of beach and we could watch the birds and the bait without leaving the deck. In the evenings as the sea darkened and the sky went blood red, we watch the surf line for swirls and the nervous water of trembling baitfish. This year we were treated to a phenomenon never seen in our previous years there – a nightly fluke blitz. Normally fluke are content to lay in wait, darting up to snatch their prey while posing as the bottom. For some reason Mother Nature had encouraged them to become school feeders and attack this line of sand eels in the Lobsterville surf. It was something none of us ever before witnessed, but was delightful in its rarity.
Looking down the beach, the water was churning with small swirls and round flat fluke popping up in the air like pancakes on a diner griddle. Little Cooper was beside himself wanting to catch some fish.
Big Coop was not allowed to fish – doctor’s orders, and Tina and Lela were as solid as the rocks at Devil’s Bridge in their refusal to let Coop sneak out for few hours, but little Coop’s arrival brought a softening and a “maybe” when he begged to go fishing.
“Just for an hour.”
“We’ll be down at sunset,” Coop said, as he began searching through the turmoil that is his garage in pursuit of a little rod for the four-year old. I watched him for a few moments and smiled thinking he was as purposeful as if he were preparing for one of our offshore tuna trips.
“You’re sure this is all right?” I questioned Lela.
“This is the only exception I’d make,” she said. “Fishing with Coopie will do him more good than anything I can think of - but only for a bit. Tina and I will both be there to make sure he doesn’t overdo it.” Together we watched him rig the little rod.
We were all on the beach that evening. Joey, Matt and I were outfitted for the duration of the night - waders, chest packs, fly rods and wading jackets. We resembled an assault team. Everyone else, Coop, Lela, Tina, little Coop, Mimi and Lizzie were dressed lightly as they would depart the beach when the sun finally disappeared behind the islands.
Coop rigged the rod with a white Sluggo and a bobber. He cast the tiny rod, flipping the rig into the sea, set the drag and handed it to my little boy who stood expectantly by his side in bare feet and an oversized sweatshirt. The night air and expectation caused him to tremble visibly.
For near an hour the child reveled and laughed at the tug of the fluke as he and Coop moved back and forth toward the water, big Coop casting and removing fish, while little Coop reeled and squealed with delight as each fish appeared in the wash. The little rod doubled over with the slightest tug and for the boy, each fish was an epic struggle.
The striper hit just as the sun dropped below Cutty Hunk. Crimson streaks raced across the sky, and we all marveled at the sunset when we noticed a change in the boy’s demeanor. The squeals of joy turned just enough in their timbre that his mother and I instantly looked over, recognizing the subtle change in pitch from joy to helplessness. The line was peeling off the reel despite the child’s best efforts to reel. This was obviously no fluke. I grabbed him as he stumbled toward the water reeling furiously, his little hands trying to keep up a relentless pace. The spindle began to reveal itself and suddenly the knot appeared. I held on to little Coop and grimaced, waiting for the inevitable sound of snapping mono. The fish stopped.
Little Coop was in a four-year-old frenzy, trying to reel against the big fish. He was getting nowhere, the drag on the tiny spinning reel allowing no gain. Big Coop kneeled next to him and gently held the child around the waist. I stepped away. He began to whisper to the child. Immediately the boy calmed and began steadfastly reeling while the rod bent toward the sand.
“Christ Coop, how much line is on that thing.”
Coop looked at me with a grin.
“25 yards of six pound.”
“No way.” I fish striper with 200 yards of backing and 16 pound tippet. My son was fighting this fish with six pound mono.
For twenty minutes we stood transfixed by the struggle between big fish and little boy. Though my son, I stepped back and left him in the hands of Coop, watching the two of them, Coop kneeling and the little boy wrapped tightly in his arms reeling, reeling, constantly reeling, while Coop whispered encouragement to him. There could be no better way for my son to catch his first striper.
At a certain point the battle seemed to be too much for the child and the tears welled up in his eyes. His tiny arms were failing and the fish seemed no closer now than before. He kept looking at Coop who tightened his grip on the boy and again whispered something to him. The calming effect was immediate. The two Coops gained on occasion, but then the big fish moved easily away, stripping line from the tiny reel – but each time, as the knot appeared – the fish stopped, turned and allowed the boy to pull her back toward the beach. I looked around at the group who loved these two Coops so much and noticed the remnants of salty tracks glistening on more than a few cheeks as we watched our old friend and his namesake do exactly what Nature intended – catch a great fish together.
The fourth time the fish came to heel, she stayed. Coop gently pulled the boy back up the beach, and slid the fish on the sand until it was clear of the wash. Cheers erupted, cameras flashed and Coop reached for the fish. Little Coop’s eyes widened as the scope of what he’d done revealed itself and a 35 plus inch striped bass lay staring at him, its gills moving heavily from its exertions. Coop pulled the fish up and held it for the little boy urging him to get closer for a picture. The sheer size of the fish frightened the child, but he stepped closer reaching out to Coop for reassurance while eyeing the fish carefully.
The cameras flashed again and I took the fish from Coop and walked out into the surf to release her. I slid her into the water and moved her back and forth giving her time to recover. As she began to move, I held only her tail, waiting for that powerful shake that would assure me of her revival. Waiting, I looked closely at her. She could have snapped the line with one half - hearted shake of her head, but she didn’t. Her tail could have easily propelled her out of danger, but it didn’t. I pulled her back one more time. She looked at me with her bottomless black eye, shook her tail and moved off into the dark water.
Perhaps every little boy has a fish out there. One would hope that was the order of things. My son was fortunate to meet his - even more so wrapped in the arms of one who loved both him and the fish so much. Ever so rarely, fate offers up a moment of such perfection that one struggles later to relate it without crushing sentimentality. I grinned to myself as I walked slowly back toward the beach. This one will be the hardest tale to tell.