Night Fishing by Frank Malley

Night Fishing

                                                                                    by Frank Malley

            In the summer after sixth grade, 1961, I had met a man one evening while fishing/trespassing at the end of the dock for the members- only Port Washington Estates beach. I was casting a quarter-ounce Sidewinder lure for the snappers and white perch, fish that took advantage of the spotlight at the dock’s end to engorge the small sandworms that swam at the surface. Fishing had been very slow; one tiny snapper was all I had caught and released. I was thinking of leaving when a man I didn’t recognize walked out along the dock and stood by me. I figured he would probably kick me off the dock since I wasn’t a member, but he only asked me, “Any luck?”

            “One tiny snapper.” Suddenly we heard a big splash behind us. “That’s no snapper,” I said. I reeled in fast and hustled back down the dock to shallower water where there was sea grass nodding in the incoming tide. The man walked with me and stopped short, giving me room to cast and fish. I sent the sidewinder out into the dark, let it sink a little, and began a slower retrieve that I interrupted with sharp jerks.
            “That splash was probably a striper,” I said. “Sometimes I hear them feeding down here, but we never get one.” My brother Joe and I cast striper lures all the time: Striper Swipers, Gibbs plugs, chrome jigs – but we had never caught anything on these big lures.

            “I caught one,” said the man, and paused. Then added, “Almost thirty pounds.”

            “Wow! Thirty pounds! Not even Sam Willis catches thirty pounders! What did you catch it on?”

            Sam Willis was a man who sailed daily on his boat, the Striper, and he was by far the most successful striped bass fisherman around. Joe and I would try to be around when he’d return every day to the Town Dock float, tie up, and step off the boat with a canvas bag full of stripers. The fish were usually 16 to 20 inches long. In the fifties and early sixties, the big sport fish – striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, blackfish, and fluke – had been largely eliminated in western Long Island Sound by two factors: commercial net fisherman, and a complex water quality problem. The ecosystem of Manhasset Bay was totally different then from what it became after these two limiting factors were handled, but in 1961, it was rare to catch big stripers. Sam Willis filled his bag with stripers that cleared the size limit, then 16 inches. (It’s now 28″ and you’re allowed only one fish.) Sam would occasionally catch bigger stripers, fish whose tails would stick far out of the canvas bag he hoisted onto the float. He must have had a buyer for all these fish, but in the few conversations I had with Sam, I never asked that. It wasn’t my business.

            By 1961, after living in Port Washington for four years, I had caught only one keeper striped bass, and that beautiful fish barely made the 16 inch minimum size, from the tip of its snout to the fork in its tail. I didn’t think of it as little – compared to the six to ten-inch fish we usually caught in Manhasset Bay and Hempstead Harbor, my first keeper was huge. It had bit on a live killie while Mike Weisner and I were fishing for snappers off the Bayview Colony dock where he was a member. I was expecting to catch 6 inch snappers, and hooking a16 inch striper on my light spinning rod was a thrill. I took off for home almost immediately with my bass to show it off.

            The man on the dock’s account to me of a thirty-pounder was supercharged by all that I had read about striped bass fishing in magazines and books, always with pictures of big stripers weighing from twenty pounds up to the legendary 72 pounder (caught in Montauk, I think) that was then the world record. Plus, Louie’s Restaurant had photos hung on a wall in the bar showing fish catches from striper tournaments conducted by the Manhasset Bay Sportsmen’s Club. The contest days’ catches of bass were photographed showing rows of stripers hung by their gills on a white wood frame. In these pictures the fishermen in the tournament had practically filled the frame with stripers from 2 to 10 pounds. Photos in Louie’s and the two local tackle stores and the stories we heard from fishermen and George Moreland’s son at our preferred tackle store were like fishermen porn.

                        “So – ” I pleaded with Mr. Wells – “what did you catch that thirty-pound striper on?”

            “If I tell you, then you’d be catching them too. Less for me,” he answered.

            “Was it an unusual lure? We’ve tried all kinds of stuff. My brother and me.”

            “No, it wasn’t unusual.” He paused. “You want to see a picture of it? I live just up the street.”

            Sixty years ago was a more innocent time. I was fairly big and strong for my age.

            “Okay,” I said. I took my rod and tackle box and followed the man off the dock.

            “My name is Frank,” I said. “Pleased to meet you.”

            “I’m Mr. Wells,” he answered, and shook hands.
           

            We walked a couple of hundred yards to his house. He opened the garage door and we went into his finished basement. On a knotty pine wall, he pointed to a photo. The giant striper!

            “Wow! That is a beauty.” I stared hungrily at the photo of Mr. Wells holding by its gills a fish that hung from his waist to the floor.

            “Wow,” I said again. I looked at Mr. Wells. “So – you won’t tell me how you caught it or where you caught it?”

            “It’s more about when I caught it,” he answered.

            “Like sunrise?” Everybody knows first light is a great time to catch fish.

            He took a deep breath. I sensed he was going to tell me.

            “In the night. In the middle of the night. Right off the dock we were just on.”

            “Wow. Were you using sandworms?” Sandworms are a favorite striped bass bait. (In the fifties, they cost seventy cents a dozen at Moreland’s Tackle Shop; at the Trading Post, on the corner of Smull Lane, we felt robbed to pay seventy-five cents. Now sandworms and bloodworms cost over a dollar apiece).

            “Nope. Not sandworms.”

            ” Sandworms on a Junebug spinner?”

            “Nope.”

            “A plug? A Striper Swiper?”

            “Nope.” After a short pause, he hinted,” What I used is a common lure for stripers.”

            “Sam Willis uses bucktails,” I said, naming a lure that trailed a thatch of bucktail tied behind a jig head to cover its hook.

            “You got it,” he said. “With pork rind.” White strips made from pig skin and sold seasoned in a small jar made a sinuous addition to a bucktail as it moved through the water, and were used almost always.

            “So – off the dock in the middle of the night with a bucktail. With a pork rind. I mean, like midnight?”

            ” Later,” he answered. “After all the yacht club and boating activities are done, the fish come in.”

            Now I knew.

            I went home and told Joe the story.

            “We gotta do it!” he said to me.

            We had bucktails. The problem was: we weren’t allowed to be out after nine o’clock. Asking our dad to go down to Beachway at two in the morning wasn’t gonna work.

            “I got an idea,” said Joe. We hatched our plan and decided to make our expedition next Friday night. The high tide at would be at 3a.m.

            Friday morning we went into the basement and checked our tackle. For fish that could be that big, we needed bigger gear. I had an eight foot, medium-weight spinning rod that I paired with a Mitchell 302 reel, a sort of gigantic version of the world-famous Mitchell 300. Joe didn’t have a 302, so he borrowed my grandfather’s 306, bigger in number but oddly smaller in size than the 302. Both reels had only 12-pound test monofilament line, but the line was pretty new and the reels had drags that could pay out line during strong runs, preventing line breaks. Hopefully. We packed all the bucktails we could find, a jar of pork rinds, and a few striper plugs into a little green tackle box. We didn’t think to include a net.

            That Friday night, the night of the furtive nocturnal striper fishing expedition, we had probably eaten fish sticks: it was a Friday, and, since it had to be fish, Catholic kids preferred breaded fish sticks to other seafood alternatives. After dinner, we maybe watched My Three Sons, or Sergeant Bilco, and, most importantly, The Flintstones, an animated show that had come out in 1960. We all sat together to watch Fred and Wilma, Betty and Barney, go through their Honeymooners antics. We loved The Flinstones. Then the younger kids went to bed, and Joe and I stayed up to watch a nature show hosted by a man who’d answer questions from viewers.  (Joe and I once sent in the question, “Could a reticulated python kill a tiger?” In a program some weeks later, the host named us – on TV! – and gave a pretty incompetent answer to our question. But we were on TV! – sort of – and it was cool, or neat, or maybe boss; whatever youth exclamation was in vogue). Around 9 or 10p.m., Joe and I went upstairs to go to bed. But – in addition to the inevitable tooth brushing and washing, we each drank eight glasses of water.

            Biology is pretty reliable. Joe and I both woke up around 2a.m. to pee. We were silent in the bathroom, pissing artfully to avoid any splashing sound. Our mom had hearing like a bat, especially when it came to her kids. We dressed quietly, leaving our sneakers off till we got downstairs – sneakers weren’t sneaky enough. Barefoot was better.

            We went out the side porch door and got the tackle we’d put on the ground along side the porch so we wouldn’t bang awkward fishing rods or a rattle-y tackle box into a piece of furniture or a railing. I guess our reading of Hardy Boys adventure stories and watching TV crime shows had educated us about stealth. Sneakers on, we took off down Murray Avenue for Beachway beach, our access point to the Port Washington Estates beach. In those days, in the deeps of the night, there was virtually no traffic. The only sounds were from night insects and occasionally an AC unit, which were scarcer in those days. We watched a police car pass on Plandome road from behind a big oak tree and then, stepping eagerly but quietly, we made it to the Beachway gate, and climbed carefully over.

            We were already rigged to fish except that we needed to add the pork rind strips to our hooks. The strips were already perforated, so it was easy to slip them over the tip of the hook and past the barb. The tide was high, so we went to the spot where the Port Washington Estates beach aluminum fence had been climbed so often that is was functionally deformed and made trespassing easier. We set the rods down on the other side of the fence and carefully lowered and dropped the tackle box. Then we stepped on the bent aluminum mesh and straddled over right by the dock’s walkway.

            There was a little bit of a breeze that night and the rows of small waves whisked and ploshed into the dock’s walkway pilings as we went toward the float. The dock had a complete set of lights along the walkway and at the roofed porch at its end, but – something we hadn’t foreseen – the dock lights turned off at night. The light from the Port Washington Yacht Club’s dock about a hundred yards away was some help. But we young eyes, glasses or not, and possessed cat-like night vision.

            Mr. Wells had told me: “Jig along the sides of the float, four or five feet down, walking slowly. Joe and I began, absolutely focused and breathing shallowly as we awaited the strike from a big bass. Time passed and we walked and trailed our bucktails behind us in the darkness.

            “I think Mr. Wells was full of shit,” Joe murmured after about a half hour of jigging, practicing his evolving skill at cursing. I was discouraged too, and starting to get a little cold in a light shirt and short pants. It was a bit spooky in the dark. But we continued, moving our undulating lures through the murky water of the bay. 

            We were hearing splashes from over by the yacht club’s dock. Repeatedly. Some sounded like you dropped a concrete block into the water.

            “You hear that?” Joe hissed.

            “Yeah.”

            “LET’S GO! OVER THERE!” he whispered triple forte.

            “Wait!” I started to stall; after all, the yacht club had watchmen, I was pretty sure, and we could get kicked off the dock – no problem except it would end our fishing; or, worse, he could call the cops. Disastrous. “Maybe we shouldn’t – “

            “I’m goin’. You stay here if you want.” There was another splash, the biggest one yet.

            I tightened my jaw and said, “Okay. Let’s go.”

            We had to wade to get around the yacht club’s fence. The water was black, impenetrable in the dark, and the high tide’s seaweed and debris swept against our shanks and thighs but we knew what it was. Pretty much. Stepping out of the water, we walked up the boat-launching ramp and peered carefully over the bulkhead that enclosed a square of lawn between us and the dock. We scanned the dimly lit interior of the clubhouse. Nobody around!

            Keeping low, alarmed by the jangle of the tackle box, we crabbed across the small lawn and started out the dock’s long walkway.

            About 75 feet out, Joe stopped.”I’m gonna try it here,” he said softly.”

            I shrugged and nodded.  “It’s high here. You’ll have trouble getting the fish onto the dock. Like eight feet up.”

            “I’ll walk him in to the beach,” he answered. “First I gotta get him.”

            I continued and went down the ramp at the end of the 200-foot walkway that ended in a terminal porch building that even had an office. Since the tide was high, the ramp to the floats hardly sloped down at all. The whole yacht club dock was brightly lit. (Sometimes visiting boats arrived at any hour of the day or night, so the dock and the floats were lit to accommodate whomever, whenever.)

            I opened my reel’s bail and lowered my bucktail into the water, sweeping it back and forth a few times to check its action – it snaked perfectly through the murky green brine.

            There were actually two thirty foot-long, connected floats here, and I walked slowly out, raising and lowering the lure. In the circles of light cast down by the elevated lights, small swimming worms and shiners pursued their meals. Occasionally a white perch or a snapper flashed upward, feeding. I heard a loud splash from behind me, where I had just fished. I reeled up and moved close to where I had seen the splash, and put the lure in the water. I took four steps and BAM! I set the hook. I was connected to the biggest fish I had ever hooked.

            “Joe!” I hissed fiercely. I realized I had no net! The fish ran vigorously, unstoppably, thrilling me, and I loosened the drag slightly so that the fish couldn’t outrun it and break the line. The universe had become that fish and me, each pulling from our domains in this brightly lit, man-made locus of life.

            I was twelve. I had never caught a fish like this, but I had read about them endlessly. I knew what to do. When the bass’s runs relented, I eased the rod upward to move him toward me, and then lowered the tip to recover that line. I did this repeatedly, and yet the bass would only run again as it sensed the nearness of the surface or the dock. It was fabulous to feel its strength.

            Finally, the fish was tiring. I brought it to the surface and it made one more violent, short run, shaking its head to free itself.  Then it lay on its side at the surface. “Shit!” I cursed. No net. No Joe, either. I set my rod down on the dock and grabbed the line at its tip. I lay down to reach the fish, a foot below me in the small waves. I got my right hand around it and gingerly let go of the line with my left. The fish convulsed powerfully and stuck my palm with its dorsal. It was a sharp pain but I held on bitterly and grabbed the fish from underneath with my freed left hand. Then I scootched toward the float’s center to pull the fish from the water. I slid it to the center of the float. Breathing hard, I marveled at the shining perfection of this animal I had caught. Joe was approaching and saw me from the end of the dock. He trotted down, hooting quietly with pleasure.

            “You did it! Wow. What a fish!”

            We were thrilled, but we weren’t ready to quit. I put the fish in an oar locker on the float, checked my rig, and went back to jigging my bucktail. Joe jigged nearby for a bit, but then he heard splashing back down the walkway where he had been fishing. He headed back there. There hadn’t been a sound from the clubhouse. We jigged intently, tantalized by occasional splashes.

            “I got one!” Joe almost yelled, and I heard his drag screaming from a hundred feet away. I put my rod down and ran towards him. This fish was big – clearly bigger than the one I had caught, simply based on how far it ran – it was out seventy-five feet from the dock, and had begun to swim powerfully in parallel to the walkway, toward the shore.

            From an older time, the yacht club dock had a couple of barnacled pilings set out a few feet from its walkway. Joe’s fish was out beyond these obstacles, waiting with their sharp, clinging mollusk coating for a piece of fishing line to cut. Joe’s fish was headed that way; he knew that if it got behind the old pilings, he would probably lose it.

            The big bass was still strong. It ran out away from the dock again, but then turned in, heading towards the pilings. Joe tried to walk it away, using all the leverage he could put on his twelve-pound test monofilament line, but he couldn’t stop the big fish – it pulled the line against those sharp shells and pop! It was over. We didn’t say anything for a minute.

            “Shit, Joe, that was a big fish.”

            “I got a look at it, right after I hooked it by the dock. It was like three feet long.” He reeled in his lureless line, wafting in the night breeze. “Shit,” he said, and looked at me.

            “We got more bucktails, right?” he asked.

            We did. He tied one on with a clinch knot, and went back to fishing, staying around where he’d hooked the big one. We knew that one wouldn’t bite again after the shock it went through, but we both knew about good spots – the spots where you hooked a fish became sort of magical, a lair for other big ones. I knew that if he hooked a fish, he would have trouble getting it to where he could land it, but I didn’t say anything. We paced and jigged.

            There was a faint glow to the east, not pink yet. Day was coming. Suddenly Joe yelled again, a suppressed Hah! I heard his reel whine as his fish took off. Joe immediately started walking away from the outrageous, useless pilings that had cost him his big fish. I put down my rod and walked to where he was, slowly walking out the dock as his rod arced in the dock lights, absorbing the power of this second fish.

            “It’s not as big,” he said. “But it’s big.”

            Joe let the fish keep away from the dock and its barnacles as he walked it out. “I’m gonna walk him out to the floats,” he said. He slowly plodded out the walkway, and then had to hand the rod to himself around the uprights that held the porch’s roof. But he did it, and the fish was still fifty feet from the structures as he walked down the ramp, reached the first float, and passed himself the rod around a piling. He moved to where he was away from floats pilings, and worked the fish in. It was tired, and he got it to where it was by the float in a minute or two. The fish shimmered in cloudy hallow of light by the dock and it took another short, fierce run – but it was done. It floated on its side in the water. Joe grabbed the sturdy bucktail, hooked securely in the bass’s lip, and hoisted it onto the float. It was about an inch shorter than my fish.

            We couldn’t see the sun yet, but it was light by the time we left the dock. Each of us carrying biggest fish we’d ever caught, we got over the fence and struggled home, carrying the fish by their gills with one hand and carrying the rods and tackle box with the other. We passed the tackle box back and forth to share the work. It was awkward and difficult, but we were carrying prizes and still full of our night’s adventure. When we got home, we entered by the side porch, leaving the rods and tackle boxes on the porch. We lugged our prizes up the stairs to our mom and dad’s bedroom, and knocked.

            Gloria softly called, “Come in,” and we did. Gloria gasped, and awakened our dad, who was dazzled by what he saw – each of his sons had a big, gleaming striped bass in hands, the biggest two fish any of us had ever caught. Excited examinations, wows, and exclamations went on for a minute, and then Gloria looked at her alarm clock, and asked, “What time did you go?”

            “I don’t know exactly, but it was still pretty dark,” I said.

            “Yeah. It was pretty dark out,” Joe said.

            Neither Joe nor I would make a full account available for years, but we shared all the fishing details with our dad. One night he actually snuck out on the yacht club dock with us to fish. I caught another striper!

            (The fish Joe caught was 27 inches long, and six and a half pounds.  Mine was 28 1/4 inches long, and almost eight pounds. The fish that broke Joe’s line was bigger, perhaps 15 or 20 pounds. In the early 70’s, after a decade or so of absence, improvements in water quality and an end to commercial striped bass fishing brought big stripers and big blue fish back to Manhasset Bay. Much bigger fish than the two we caught have become common, and indeed Joe and I caught these bigger stripers and bluefish up to almost twenty pounds. But our shared experience that night on the yacht club dock has remained undimmed in the more than fifty years that have passed since we caught those two silver beauties in the deeps of the suburban night).

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