Essay by Brian Engles
Photos by Ben Allsup
My father spent half a century working as a commercial fisherman and tugboat captain, so I’d say being on the water is in my blood.
I don’t work on the sea but I tend not to stray far from it. Growing up on Cape Cod consisted of nighttime coastal drives, hours of watching waves hit the shore, and having withdrawal anytime I went to a landlocked place. Even with this connection to the ocean, somehow I’ve never gone fishing.
I can’t remember if my father tried to get me out on the water as a kid. Once when I was five we went on the Island Queen and I spent the whole voyage feeling seasick. That might’ve stopped any efforts to pass along his trade.
I had wanted to learn to fish for a while, but I felt nervous about asking for help. There was a sense of embarrassment that came along with being a beginner in my mid-twenties. I got over my reluctance this summer when a friend of mine died unexpectedly. He loved being out on the water, so I decided to not let anymore time pass without learning how to fish.
I posted on Facebook offering to bribe someone with snacks if they could teach me a little about boating or fishing. Fortunately my friend Ben saw the call for help. He got in touch with his fishing buddy Sean and the three of us went out on a Saturday morning in July.
We left Green Pond a little after 6am on Sean’s boat, the Reel Cape. The name was partly a tribute to his late brother-in-law Damien’s website. I didn’t know Damien but I admired how locals on the Cape identified with his writing.
The ride across Vineyard Sound was pure joy. I forgot to ask for the exact speed, but it felt pretty fast to me as we kept pace with the birds above. Any seasickness I had as a kid was no longer a problem; I was grinning for the whole ride.
Sean slowed down as we approached the island. A few gulls hovered in one area like they might have found their breakfast. “Sometimes the birds do the hard work for us,” he told me.
We stopped nearby at a spot where two currents converged. Ben said it would be a place where different kinds of fish gathered. He couldn’t recall the science behind his thinking, but he turned out to be right.
We got started and I was thankful to have friends that were willing to show the ropes to a novice. Sean went over the basics of casting a line out. I fumbled with closing the bail for a bit but eventually got the hang of it. Then Ben taught me some tricks about giving the line a little motion instead of holding it still. “And if you feel a tug, give a tug back,” he instructed.
Nature called right as I cast out, so I relieved myself off the side of the boat. That’s when Ben told me I had something on my line. “I just had to bless the waters first,” I joked with the guys.
I rushed back to the rod, began to reel in, and brought a bluefish out of the water. He was on the smaller side, but I still had the thrill of catching a fish.
Since the first one was out of the way, my mission for the day became to catch a big fish. I went on to draw in a couple baby ones, a crab, a sea bass, and endless pieces of seaweed. At one point I caught a scup right through its eye and the creature had already lost a big chunk of its back from a bite. I felt guilty I had given the survivor-scup another injury and I tossed him back in the water.
I caught bottom twice. For those unaware, catching bottom is when the hook on your lure gets lodged on the ocean floor. Both times it happened I convinced myself the pullback I felt was a big catch I’d have to square off with, only to be disappointed that I had latched onto a rock instead.
When we stopped by some cliffs we didn’t have much luck, but we did notice a couple seals swimming around the boat. They had most likely scared off any fish, and I was getting scared that we were surrounded by shark food, so we kept on moving.
Sean decided to cross circumnavigating the island off his bucket list and I got overzealous at the next spot where we fished. Whenever I felt the slightest pull on the line I’d reel in so fast and end up tearing the hook through whatever might have bitten on the other end.
For our last spot of the day we posted up near a bunch of other boats. We indulged in some Coronas and I made good on my promise of food with turkey sandwiches I had packed for the trip.
The other vessels left, but then a large charter boat called the Capt. Leroy out of New Bedford came around so I had an audience watching for the showdown with my big fish.
I felt a strong tug on my line and I answered with one of my own. I made sure to reel in slow and not yank the bait out again. There was a good amount of resistance as I reeled in. This process went on for a while and I was worried I had just caught bottom again, but Sean and Ben assured me I had a fish.
“I’ve been reeling this in for a long time,” I said to Ben as I struggled to keep up my efforts.
“This is the battle, Brian,” Ben said back to me.
Sean and Ben instructed me on the best way to bring in a big fish as my line got shorter. I lifted up with the rod and I reeled in again as I shifted back downwards. A few repetitions of that and we finally saw the shine of a bluefish, bigger than the one I had caught in the morning.
I raised it out of the water and swung it towards Sean. He had a net ready and maneuvered the fish inside as it wiggled around. Sean pointed out the holes in his net where bluefish had bitten through before. They had the kind of teeth that were not to be trifled with. After a few attempts, Sean got the fish to bite on the plastic gripper while Ben snapped a photo of me holding my catch.
Sean had reached the limit of five sea bass so the cooler was full. Ben said it was my call if we would try to make room for the bluefish. No matter what, I would be going home with fish for dinner. And I had already been rewarded for asking for help with the amazing day I had.
So the riders of the Capt. Leroy, who seemed like they hadn’t had much luck while they were in our area, watched as I released the bluefish back into the sea.
Sean drove the boat back to Falmouth and cut up the fish so we would all have some to take home. Then it was time for science as I assisted Sean with collecting scale samples. He planned to send them into the Sportfish Angler Data Collection Team to learn more about the fish we had caught.
After nine hours on the water, we came into Green Pond and went our separate ways. That night I cooked up some sea bass and couldn’t believe how fresh the taste was. The day of fishing had been the best one of my summer. I’d keep it with me going forward as a reminder to spend more time in those places of convergence, where the fear of the unknown meets the thrill of discovery.