Casting alongside a couple of other fishermen in Blackfish Creek a few weeks back, I overheard their conversation, an exchange of information about tides, wind direction, baitfish, and time of day of their last catches.
“Well,” one of them concluded, “I don’t know where they are right now, but the only way to find them is to keep putting hooks in the water.”
He was right. The simple truth is that the only way to catch fish is to go fishing. I was reminded of a fishing story from a long-ago summer, back when Truro had lifeguards. I was sitting in the lifeguard stand, hard at work, when I heard a tentative voice behind me: “Excuse me, sir. Can I talk to you for a minute?”
It was early July, high tide, with close-spaced three-foot waves breaking directly on the beach, pushed ashore by a cool onshore breeze. The voice belonged to a young man who stood on the sand holding a stubby, ancient-looking trolling rod with badly rusted eyelets. The rod’s classic wooden butt had an orange plastic knob at its end, and atop the butt stood an open-faced Bakelite trolling reel that had been popular in the 1940s and ’50s.
Without bathers to worry about — the cool water was uninviting — I had nothing better to do than talk to the young man. “I heard there are bass around,” he said. He introduced me to his sister and added, “We went into our grandfather’s shed and found his old rod, and I’m wondering if we could use this to catch one.”
As he handed the rod up to me, I saw that the reel was full of braided squidding line — an outdated type of line that was once used for jigging, trolling, and bait-fishing from a boat. The fragility of the aging line was less worrisome than the dozen or so hastily tied square knots whose tag ends sprouted out of the reel like asparagus shoots.
I released the drag and was surprised to see the reel hadn’t frozen up. “You know, this rod and reel are not designed for casting from the beach,” I told them, immediately regretting my words when their innocent, anticipatory smiles faded into sadness. The sister was holding a big old-fashioned Atom plug. Their grandfather had likely used it for trolling; it was a heavy lure with a big steel lip to force it downward. The hooks were badly rusted and the few remaining scraggly bucktail hairs on the rear set of hooks were stained a dirty orange.
I considered simply lending the pair my brand-new rod and reel. The thought of my own gear being returned minus the lure and with a fatally sand-choked reel suppressed that momentary urge.
“There’s a way to get this lure out into the water a bit,” I told them. I showed them how to put the reel in free-spool mode for casting and told them to go well down the beach away from other people, pull out 30 feet of line, and lay it out straight behind them. “Point the rod straight back towards the lure and keep your finger on the spool. Reach way back and fling the lure as far as you can, releasing the spool when the lure flies over your head.”
I half hoped my idea would sound so weird they’d find some other distraction.
For 15 minutes I watched them practice their flinging. After perhaps 20 tries they were able to get the lure beyond the first wave. I was charmed by their persistence.
Suddenly, the water exploded with what I knew immediately was a very large striper hitting the lure. Assuming it would never be put to a test, I had forgotten to adjust the drag, so I waited, fully expecting the line to part. Instead, what remained of the wave rose, then broke, dumping the fish onto the beach.
The pair stood in shock, then the young man dropped the rod in the sand and leapt for the thrashing fish to prevent it from being pulled back in the wash. I ran towards the fish, blowing my whistle, terrified he would be impaled by the flailing hooks that were still dangling from the bass’s mouth.
Grabbing the line a few feet above the lure, I dragged the fish up the berm a few feet. Even now I remain in awe of what happened that morning at Ballston. What I remember best is the smile on the faces of that brother and sister as they hoisted their 35-pound trophy and, ancient rod and reel in hand, made their way home amid applause and congratulations from a small crowd that had witnessed the miracle of that improbable fish.