By Adele O’Grady Botticelli
The SUV skidded on the sand, sprinkled like flour on a baker’s board along the tar road, as Jack braked to a stop in front of the grey shingled, rusty-red trimmed gate house. The July sun beat down on his truck as he leaned over to address the woman ranger, sitting inside, enjoying the cool shade. Her brunette hair was swept back in a loose bun and her khaki short sleeved, pressed jacket gave her a look of authority.
“Going out fishing, OK?” he shouted.
She looked out to the windshield to check his sticker.
“Sure. Just stay in the open areas, we’ve closed the beach for the piping plovers, east of the lighthouse,” she replied and waved him on.
“Damn piping plovers, they get treated better than we do,” Jack mused, shaking his head. He pulled over to an open area and jumped out to let air out of the tires.
“Hey, hurry up,” called Rich. His brother was seated in the flatbed of the truck, sitting in a low beach chair, legs stretched out in front of him. His khaki shorts hung loosely from his thick thighs and a bright white T-shirt clung to his torso. “It’s hot here. Let’s get a breeze going, bro.”
The air hissed as Jack pushed the tire gauge into the right front tire nozzle. When it registered at sixteen psi, he moved to the back. Behind them, another truck had pulled up. Jack jumped back behind the steering wheel, put the engine in gear and pulled onto the road. He passed under a canopy of tree limbs before coming out into the direct sunlight. The road ran past an old youth hostel, the grey shingles curling like wood shavings in the heat. He continued on to an open space. The salt air sharpened as he crossed the narrowing neck of beach where the reeds swayed like tufts of thinning hair on a balding pate.
The truck bounced on the hard bank of sand, slowing the speed of the truck. Looming on the right were large summer homes, cedar shingles beaten grey from the winds. They were shuttered in the winter, sheets of plywood nailed to the window trim, blinding them to the battering wind and sand. In the summer, the windowpanes glinted in the light, winking at the bay on one side in the morning and the ocean on the other in the afternoon.
Out here, there was no town sewer or water, so the houses had septic and water tanks instead. The environmental regulations were strict. The beach was part of a sanctuary for Atlantic wildlife of the land, sea and air. At the entrance to the refuge, the signs stood sentry, staunch in the ocean breeze, reminding the visitors to follow Federal and local laws.
Ahead on the road, there was a Jeep, following the twists and turns of the newly defined sandy trail. The ruts showed the marks of tire treads, weaving back and forth, entwined like skeins of linen yarn. The air was brisker as he headed the truck out towards the sea. The Point reached eastward, extending like a giant’s curling finger, into the Atlantic Ocean, beckoning ships to safe harbour. By the time he got midway down the beach, he could see there were several trucks, parked with the backs turned on the ocean waves.
The blues were running.
He parked as far out as possible and backed up. He looked down the stretch of makeshift road he had traversed. The beach was scattered with fishing poles stuck into the sand. Some fishermen were at the wet shiny edge, hopefully casting into the waters, patiently waiting for a strike.
The blues ran in schools, thick as commuters in a city subway at close of day. If you timed it right, you could catch a lot of fish in a short amount of time. By the looks of it, the big run hadn’t started yet. Some of the men were sipping bottles of beer while they held their rods. Barefoot fishermen wore baseball caps to shield their eyes from the sun, their khaki shorts stirring with the breezes that huffed and puffed off the surface of the Atlantic.
Grabbing his fishing rod from the back, Jack prodded his brother.
“C’mon, let’s get some,” Jack said.
His brother pushed up from the beach chair, inhaling the fresh sea air.
“Sure thing. Bet I’ll catch more than you. Hey, help me with the cooler, will you,” he said, as he jumped to the sand and grabbed a rod.
They each grabbed a handle and hoisted the white capped blue box onto the beach. Walking to the edge of the ocean, they set it down and prepared to cast. Above was a sweep of stark azure sky, paling along the horizon. Cotton candy clouds sailed majestically along, trailing stringy wisps in their wake. Seagulls traced arcs in the sky, hunting for a movement or a glint of fish from the waters below.
The early evening on the Point saw a steady stream of traffic. Beach worthy vehicles bounced and jounced down the sands, depositing eager fishermen in an uneven jagged row along the beach. Every so often, someone reeled in and then recast their line back out into the frothy waves.
Offshore, a boat balanced on the waters, fishing poles off the starboard side. Two men, a father and son, sported caps and light jackets against the sun and salt.
Suddenly, a slick black head peeped above the water nearby. Looking around, a seal ducked under the surface, disappearing from view.
“Look, he’s fishing too,” said Rich.
Seals were becoming common out on the Point, though their habitat was directly on the other side of the island. An osprey was there, circling far above the fray. Osprey nested on the other side of the Point. Several tall wooden poles, topped with an inviting platform where they built their large nests, dotted the bay side, spaced like sentinels on a border. Here the wide winged birds of prey would lay and protect their eggs. The osprey dove toward the waves, extending its talons into the sea. He lifted his catch from the shallows and carried the fish, its tail flapping, through the air, to feed his offspring. On summer nights, the blues were the dinner of choice.
The tackle was old, a long tensile rod with a wooden grip, smooth to the touch, the line new. Jack flipped open the top of the cooler and reached in for a beer. He picked up a bottle opener and popped the cap, took a swig, then twisted the bottle into the sand. The edge of the beach was covered in abandoned seashells, once the home of marine life, now bleached and smoothed by the sun and surf. They tumbled in the wash of the frothy waves, gaining the beach. The waves hissed, as they retreated and returned, with a soothing rhythm.
Jack cast the rod back over his right shoulder, holding the grip with both hands, swung the lure at the end of the line toward the deep waters beyond the shelf ledge. The line sang as it travelled through the air, before the lure plopped into the water, then sank from view. Rich followed suit and soon the brothers were casting hopefully. The sunlight warmed their shoulders beneath the backward turned brims of their caps.
“Do you think the wives will make some pâté,” asked Rich.
Recipes abounded to cook the oily fish and bring it flavour. One of the most popular was a pâté, the standout appetizer on one of the island’s best restaurants.
“Maybe,” said Jack, “I’m looking forward to a pan fried, freshly caught fish, drizzled in beurre blanc, white wine and shallots.”
He grew quiet, imagining the rich aroma. Most islanders would agree that the fish was best freshly caught, so the fishermen had the added pressure of putting dinner on the table the same night. Tossed salads with heirloom tomatoes, grilled ears of corn and chilled white wine awaited at home for their catch.
“This is the life,” sighed Jack, “far-away from the ups and downs of the stock market.”
“Got that right, bro,” Rich said and settled his feet into the warm sand, moving his toes in the grit of the beach. “Better than sitting behind a desk, any day.”
The ocean breeze, tangy with salty water, invigorated their every breath and sprinkled cool droplets on their warm skin. In the distance, a lighthouse towered, its white surface punctuated by black lined windows, the glass reflecting the late day sun. A rope lined the dunes beyond, stretching along a row of metal stakes, protecting the heart of the Point where the piping plovers bred. The green rope swung gently in the breeze. The beach grass planted at intervals along the brow of the dune ruffled gently, scraping the stark blue of the summer sky.
Seaweed floated in rhythm on the insistent waves. Up and down the beach, fishing lines stretched into the ocean from rods held by the many fishermen who had spent the late afternoon patiently waiting for a run of bluefish, or even for the occasional striped bass.
“They put up that piping plover fence again,” said Jack, nodding in the direction of the rope. He sipped his beer. “Probably only one or two nests.”
“Saw a new bumper sticker today on a construction truck,” Rich laughed. “It read, ‘Piping plovers taste like chicken.’ The carpenters and plumbers would love to run the environmentalists off island.”
Suddenly, Jack’s rod bent, the line playing off the spool with speed. He pulled back and expertly pressed the line with his right thumb and forefinger against the reel while leaning against the pressure of the run.
“Whoa,” Jack cried. He flipped the lock into place and turned the handle slowly. The fight was on. Jack planted his feet in the sand and pulled back and forth, bringing the catch closer and closer. As the line became taut, it rose at an angle from the waters, clumps of seaweed dangling like emerald necklaces on the line as it emerged. The rod bent like a horseshoe-shaped liquorice stick as Jack clung to the handle. He worked the catch closer and closer to the shore.
“Hang on,” shouted his brother, “it must be a monster!”
Jack slowly worked the long line, keeping his balance against the powerful pull. The fish was fighting hard, making it difficult for Jack to land it. He moved the bent rod back and forth toward the surface, gradually reeling it in, slowly guiding his catch towards the beach.
The bluefish became visible in the waves, tugging, fighting against the pull. Its scales reflected the light, trapped in the water, as it was dragged along. With a show of strength, it leapt into the air, tail dragging in the froth. Its skin flashed silver in the sun, hints of blue green glinting at the fishermen. Every time it leapt into the salty air, Jack dragged it closer to the beach. Finally, in the white tips of the wave, the full body of the bluefish struck the bottom of the sand and was dragged into shore, struggling in protest, gills flapping. Jack eased up, starting to drag the battling fish toward him, across the tiny pebbles dancing on the wet sand in the undertow.
Suddenly, a slick black face appeared in the waves, whiskers flicking. The seal swam onto the back of a cresting wave, surfing toward shore. Hitting the beach, it chased the flapping fish pushing its fins into the sand and galloping forward.
“What the hell,” shouted Rich.
“Woohoo,” Jack said and turned the reel faster.
With its slick skin glinting in the light like a warrior’s armour, the interloper reached with his sharp toothed mouth and grabbed the catch at the end of the line. Triumphant, the predator turned and rocked its lumbering body towards the water, its tail fins leaving a trail in the wet sand. The blue struggled in the sharp bite of the seal, the hook still in its mouth.
Jack lurched forward, caught off balance by the sudden lunge. The seal was fast, plunging back into the water about to reach the end of the shoal where the water deepened. The fishing line was zinging through the loops of the fishing rod.
“Rich, get me the knife,” Jack shouted. His brother ran to the truck, retrieved a penknife from the glove compartment and raced back. Opening the blade, he grabbed the line, pulling a length toward him and cut it. Freed from the reel, the line waved in the air, trailing like the tail of a kite before it disappeared into the ocean behind the seal.
“Great, there goes dinner.” Rich looked out over the waves where the marauder had disappeared. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know. Look out there.” Jack sat down on the cooler and shook his head. Another black shiny shape was swimming close to the fishing boat offshore. It got close enough to the edge to leap up, reach into the boat and grab a fish in its teeth from the deck. The men in the boat jumped to their feet shouting, but the seal dove quickly into the depths, along with its prize.
“You should club that seal,” Rich shouted over the waves.
“Hey, man, Federal law remember? We’re prohibited from being within one hundred and fifty feet of a seal. There’s a one hundred thousand dollar fine and one year in jail if you do. It’s almost as bad as insider trading. Don’t think we’ll have any luck today. They just seem to be overwhelming the fishermen,” Jack sighed, sipping his beer.
“The town should do something about it. That was a great blue, probably a twelve pounder,” said Rich.
“Well, no one will believe us anyway,” Jack said and finished his drink.
“How late is the fish market open? We could just buy one,” Rich suggested and kicked the sand.
“Really? That’s what you’re going with,” Jack said and stood up. He looked out at the surf. The fishing boat was moving away, as the sun glinted on the water. He shrugged. “We’ll have to do something. No point in fishing here now.” He picked up the rod and grabbed one side of the cooler. “Let’s go.”
They walked up the beach to the truck, packed everything away, then climbed into the cab. Turning the key in the ignition, Jack gunned the engine, put it in gear and started the long trip back across the soft sand. Bumping and lurching across the point, they passed other fishermen, still casting and enjoying the ever-growing briskness of the evening. The beach grass waved and danced in the breeze as the brothers beat a lumbering retreat.