Sunday, August 30, 2015

Jigging for Snappers // Yale Anglers' Journal

Seven years ago, reminiscing about fishing as a boy I sent this piece to the Yale Anglers Journal.  This is it as it appeared. Unfortunately that was the last year of the journal, its best pieces published by Yale University Press in the collection Tight Lines.

Jigging for Snappers

George Conk

rode my bike the mile, though I hoped it was more, to the sporting goods store on Montauk Highway- the one with the tennis rackets in the window, and a dozen tapered bamboo poles canted like spaghetti in a jar, propped against the edge of a narrow waist-high wood bin. The poles towered over me.

The thin tapers from the tree top were the best, so that when a baby bluefish, no longer than the span from thumb to out-stretched pinky, was plucked, hooked, from the water the pole bent from the effort. Like  Hemingway's rod with a marlin on the line.

Riding home, single handed, the new pole, held high like a javelin, arched like a spring, bending at the pivot point of my fist. In the wire basket that usually held the Long Island Press which I delivered every evening was a white paper box, like the ones the Chinese restaurant gave you for take-home chop suey and rice, but filled with a block of frozen silver bait fish - spearing. In my pocket were the bobbins of choice. I was torn between the round, miniature mooring balls, red on the top, white on the bottom, and the conical tapers.

Narrowed at both ends, the tapers lay flat, the clear monofilament line running the length, tied at the tips. Below dangled a couple feet of six pound test monofilament and a black hook baited with a small, silver fish peeled from the softening top of the frozen mass. Above, the line was carefully knotted behind the knuckle at the end of the bamboo. From there it ran to the bobbin which lay on the surface, riding the wavelets. Even a nibble by a bluefish pulled the tapered bobbin unmistakably toward the vertical.

The problem with the round ones was that the weight of the split shot that sank the line and bait created a bobbing movement in the sea that left you unsure of whether it was a nibble or the current that was at work. But the round ones were the best spares. You could keep one in your pants pocket, where it wouldn't break, unlike the mated cones that cracked at the joint when your leg rose high as you ran down the street with your bike, one foot on the pedal at the bottom of the cycle, the other knee hurdling the seat as you performed the running mount that was the newspaper boy's art.

At the mouth of the canal, at the point, the bay swept past on its way from sea to sea, flooding from Rockaway ten miles west and ebbing past the Captree bridge across the Great South Bay, through the Fire Island Inlet six miles east. In the shadow of the point a quiet eddy formed, where the little fish came for shelter from the currents and from the baby blues, traveling in packs, training for long lives at sea. But somebody had taught the snappers, as baby blues are called, to hunt like U-boats off Galveston and Norfolk, waiting for convoys to form. We waited for them to come inside, close to shore where our baited hooks bobbed in the quiet water.

There is little more satisfying than a fish on the line, the quickened heartbeat as the bobbin plunges out of sight, the slack running out, the firm tug as the weight of the straining fish is felt, the arched pole as the fish is plucked from the water, into the air, then the lightness as the pole, recovering its strength, straightens, the silver prey swinging toward you in a rewarding arc, over the bulkhead, onto the sand. Grasped, hook backed out, and tossed into the bucket to flip futilely, tire, and die.

We were not the catch and release generation. The haul was cleaned, gutted, breaded, and frozen for mid-winter breakfasts, on dark, cold mornings. But we appreciated still the thrill of victory, excitement for the ones that got away, flipping furiously in the air, shaking the hook, plunging back into the water, diving down, the silver turning to amber, then disappearing into the opaque sea, fleeing east.