A 25-pound striper
Updated: Feb 14, 2019
When I was a kid, I used to relish most in my time on the boat with my father. And this time of year, I often think of those days and nights on the boat with him. It’d be after dark, when the tides were changing, and we’d launch out of the Lynnhaven Inlet in Virginia Beach and cruise thirty minutes out into the Chesapeake Bay until we hit the second island along the bay bridge-tunnel. The city behind us was nothing but points of light, the water under us dark and wide. The air was cold and wet and quiet.
At that point in my life, I’d spent more time under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel than driving over it. Winter was for striper fishing, so that’s what we did, and the best place to do it was from a boat tied off to one of the hundreds of concrete pylons stretching from Virginia Beach to the Eastern Shore.
We’d time it so the bulk of our time on the water was during the changing tide, when the big stripers are closer to the surface foraging on anything smaller than them. We couldn’t anchor in water that deep, and we couldn’t devote one us to constantly fighting the current from behind the boat’s controls, so the tying off to a pylon was key to success.
With just the two of us, and me being not more than thirteen, it meant it was my job to tie off while he kept the boat in place best he could. It was a terrible job to do, and it scared me each and every time. The walkway to the bow was narrower than my own feet, and the few steps it took to get around the cabin and onto the bow were like walking a tight rope, or some cliff’s edge where your toes are hanging over. All I could see was the rushing and powerful current slipping under the boat, the water that was too cold and too strong to try to fight should you happen to fall in.
Once finally near the bow, I’d get my legs under me like a surfer does. Learn the way the boat was moving and let my knees absorb all they could. Then little, careful steps to the bow rail. Unspool the float’s rope so it was loose in my hand. Double check to make sure my hook was within reach. Keep the boat itself from knocking into the giant pylon right in front of me. Then throw the float out passed the pylon and pray the current would catch it and pull it back around the other side. Catch the float with the hook, pull it in, tie it to the cleat.
Then it was time to fish.
Like many of the nights we’d go out, this one I’m thinking of today was right slow. Nothing biting. No excitement to keep the chill off you. And, like lots of kids, my patience was lacking. I was sulking, bitching to myself about wasted time and effort tying off. I told him I wanted to go back in. Go home. I remember he looked at me with a certain disappointment, like he’d been both disappointed for me because of the slow night and disappointed in me for not giving it more. He had to beg me to do one more cast. I fought him on it, told him I was over it. It was frustrating. I could feel the fish just playing with the bait, phantom hits on the line.
He took the rod from its holder and put it in my hands. Said to me, one more cast, for me.
I humored him. Threw another cast into the current. Watched the current pull it back toward me, past me, and then away from me. And then the line caught, the reel whirred, and the rod bent over itself. Fish on.
He stood behind me and helped me fight it. Talked me through like a coach would a boxer from the ring’s edge. Pull back and reel down. Pull back and reel down. If the fish wants to take more line, let it. Then pull back and reel down. Inch-by-inch we fought it together like that.
The fish we pulled into the boat with us is still the largest one I’ve ever caught. A twenty-five-pound striper. It was long and lean. And it fed my family that weekend. And my father was proud of me.
I think he told that “one more cast” story to just about everyone he knew. I know we told it to each other at least a dozen times. He couldn’t believe that that was really all it took. One more cast, and that was it.
He’s dead four years today. I don’t know if I ever thanked him outright for putting that rod in my hands that night, for not letting me give up so easily. But I’ll be damned if he hasn’t taught me that lesson more times than I can count, even now. You can always give it more. If something’s worth having, it’s worth at least one more try.
Steinbeck wrote in To A God Unknown, "One cannot be dead until the things he changed are dead. His effect is the only evidence of his life." And I think there's a lot of truth in that.