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Born to fish: get ready – the next wave of fishermen is the most fanatical yet

A fisherman describes an outing to Lonelyville in which he teaches his six-year-old daughter ‘dirtball dockfishing,’ and the excitement eventually attracts three other youngsters. Learning how to fish should be a wild experience for children in which adults avoid doing everything for them.


We took a house in Lonelyville. Lonelyville is a dusty little hamlet on stilts that lies midway down the 18-mile-long, 200-yard-wide barrier called Fire Island, a half-hour ferry ride south of Bay Shore, New York. In the last century, Lonelyville was a commercial fishing station at which oceangoing trawlers would off-load their catch. The fish were then dragged over a tiny railroad to the bay side and put on shallow-draft boats, saving the big boats a 20-mile round-trip to market. Lonelyville got its name because the fishermen had no women in the town.

Lonelyville has since lost its fish train and relaxed its admissions policy, but it never did get a store, and the most popular beaches are miles away. Cars are banned on all of Fire Island, but in Lonelyville there isn’t even a lot of bike traffic. Because there are no cars, because the houses are open, there is tremendous freedom for children. You see packs of them roving the island, dreaming up heady, Huckleberry Finn sorts of trouble. Then there is the fishing which they view as part of their God-given right to mangle nature. They are hungry for that, too.

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The difficulty in presenting fish to children is finding a way to put enough wildness into their hands without having to pollute the experience by doing it all for them, or by otherwise letting them think that the act of fishing comes, like so much else in their lives, without responsibility. Our daughter Eliza Grace remembers in splendor the tiny, thrashing, blue-striped grunt she caught off Islamorada, Florida, two summers ago, and she can imitate to this day the Chihuahua-like barks the fish made in her hands before she threw him back. She has no clue what could possibly have made him get on a hook. My angling goals in Lonelyville are simple. I want to fish enough with my daughter to stuff a new row of ocean pictures into her head.

There are four sorts of fishing in Lonelyville: 1) Flats-wading-with-fly-rod–a tweedy, rarely productive enterprise to which I am devoted. 2) Convincing locals to take you out baitfishing for bass and blues–by sucking up to the right boat-owning local without having to become “friends.” 3) Charter, all weights of tackle and fish–good clean fun for grown-ups, but, in my view, a $250 to $400 experience squandered on people under 8. 4) Finally, what I call dirtball dockfishing–my client demographic, but a sort of fishing that can breed the world’s worst sporting habits in an easy, sleazy, baitfishing second.

It takes me a couple of days to puzzle this out. By then it’s also clear that Lonelyville’s sporting culture is suffering from abuse. The bay side of Lonelyville is about six miles from the Atlantic Ocean inlet. Some of the bass and blues in that inlet chase the bait up into the Great South Bay as far as Lonelyville, where they are instantly bush-whacked by the Long Island headboat fleet. Some mornings, as I wade and cast with my trusty 9-weight, I see a half-dozen of these tourist-laden hogs rooting up the bay, 40 lines to a boat. I can also see the cruddy, bearlike dancing that two or three simultaneously hooked fish causes among the humans along the rails. Yes, they are catching fish, but you know it doesn’t have to be done that way.

I bike to what passes for a tackle store a couple of towns away. It is the same store that sells boogie boards, glitter, makeup, and crystals that grow in water. Hanging from the ceiling near the bike tires is a maroon, carbon-composite six-foot Silstar, for $30. I buy it. I buy a couple of four-ounce sinkers and mangle them into eighths with my Buck Then I walk around to the grocery store and buy two packs of the fat yellow anchovies it sells for bait.

Eliza Grace races me down the street to the dock The T-shaped dock ends about 30 yards from the little channel that has been cut in the bay for the ferryboats. The creosoted channel-markers are just out of grown-up casting reach, but within range there is a little bank with some current and some fish. This girl gets the whole idea of having to release the index finger, which is hard for this size person, and she’s beginning to think about how to make the bait move after the cast. Then, on precisely the fifth cast with a grown-up rod in her life, there is a strike.

It is a hell of a strike. She freezes-she doesn’t expect this much thudding through the rod. And she can’t see the fish, which, for a 6-year-old, is as sudden and weird and breathtaking as having to battle a ghost. The fish works out and down; quickly down, judging by the whine. I jump to loosen the dug. Whatever this is wants to sit on the bottom miles away from here. At first I think it’s a fluke, but he’s pulling with such wind that I think she’s hooked into a sand shark. Eliza Grace is holding the wildness. It’s why we came.

I’m in the middle of telling her how she can gain line as he slows down, when bah-LAMM!–somehow he gets enough purchase, maybe he rips a chunk of his jaw out, or maybe he had the anchovy but not much of the hook. Or maybe he’s just plain big. At any rate, he’s gone.

“Daddy,” says Eliza Grace, studying her slack line, “where did the fight go?”

“Reel it in, honey. He broke off.”

The anchovies, big and fragile, were not a great holding bait, but this line had hot to slack, which is not usually what happens when an anchovy rips in half. he gets her line up. It looks as if it’s been cut.

“How do they do that?” she asks me, still sort of stunned.

“He can twist and turn and jerk his head around. That’s what you felt him doing. He can take the line around a rock and cut it. He can cut it in his mouth. The way this is cut, I think you had a little shark. See, he didn’t want us to pull him up on the dock. He doesn’t like the dock.”

Eliza Grace digests this without response. She is serious. Children take some things that happen off to a place inside themselves, as raccoons take food off to a creek. I watch my daughter do that with her fish.

Word of cool, scary animal adventure gets around: Three kids show up at the dock to fish the next afternoon. There is a girl, Emmy; a boy, Jackson; and another little boy named Nick. Average age: 7. Nick is a sad case. The father has warehoused him and his mother in Lonelyville. The father never visits.

I have no idea what tale Eliza Grace has sold these children, but I think she’s trying to get into their orbit by offering as bait her own personal, fish-findin’ dock guide–in other words, me. The intramural politics of dockfishing are not much different from those of a $3000-a-week billfishing expedition off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica–it’s just that the people are a little smaller.

I fit Nick with the Silstar, because I have a twinge that it might be a lucky rod, and because this child is in need of some luck. I start the other three with canepoles and bobbers. They instantly pull up spider crabs from under the dock. Spider cubs are ideal dock quarry–as blackened and weathered as longshoremen, they’ve been down under there drinking petrol spills and scavenging boat refuse for so long that our anchovies seem like brightly illuminated hunks of ambrosia. The rates give us a reason every few minutes to jump around and act as if stuff is happening. Low and dirty though it is, crabfishing teaches concentration (on bobbers) and discipline (in checking bait).

Lonely Nick hooks up. It’s a soft, fluttery, electric strike. He sets his jaw like a little man, trying not to be scared. The other three stop to watch. I check Nick’s line with my palm–he’s really got this fish, and the rod is well undermatched, so tell him to reel it in, which gives him something to do under his terror. It is the error of a kid who has not been given the chance to accomplish much.

We see the flat white underbelly flash in protest about 20 feet out–it’s a fluke. Nick lands him. Great hubbub on the dock, and best of all, the fluke is almost unbearably ugly. He has two eyes on one side of his head! As I’m slipping the hook out–holding the fish flat with my left hand while my right works the pliers–he reflexively ripples both fins down the length of his body, like rows of fans doing the Wave. Nick is out of his mind. I think some of the others might fall down.

“Okay,” I say, cradling the fluke, “I’m going to throw this boy back, which is what we do with all fish on this dock. Anybody want to touch him?”

Jackson and Emmy touch a fin, Eliza Grace almost pokes one of his eyes out, and Nick, who is not squeamish but whose tongue seems to have been robbed by aliens, does nothing. He is still holding the rod.

Nick’s fluke unleashes a firestorm of rumor and desire in the under-8 set. I realize this belatedly, as kids I don’t know sidle up to me at island functions to ask if they can come with us. A couple of moms–cute and lonely moms, I might add–ask me point-blank if I am “the fisherman.” I cannot tell if they are asking me for a date or asking me to baby-sit, or both. I tell them I have been fishing with my daughter. I emphasize the word daughter.

All this puts pressure on the dirtball dockfishing tackle, not to mention on the dock itself. For the first time we have to space the fishermen on the dock (everybody one rod-length apart). I find some beat-up rods in the storage shed behind Jackson’s house. The afternoon meeting time is determined by tide, by me and by kid availability. “Emmy can’t come today. She’s got a play date with Halley, and they are going to dress up in the same clothes as their Barbies” is a sentence I actually heard and took into account when composing one day’s fishing strategy.

Our original team member Jackson has been having a run of bad luck. As a guide I am now officially worried about him. At 8, he is older than Eliza Grace, and quick to understand what fishing is; namely, hooking and landing your personal fish. He is not persuaded by the camouflaged charms of cub fishing. He wants the real thing, and he can’t get it. Jackson is paying his dues, and though he understands it, it’s costing him. The most awful day he had went like this: A prissy little girl from another part of the island strolls onto the dock, takes the rod Eliza Grace offers her catches a fluke five seconds after her bait hits the water, lands it, says “Eeeuuuw, gross,” then leaves for the ice cream store.

Nothing I do does him any good. I keep him on the water longer; I tell him about tides and banks and the way fish feed; I go to the tackle store and get him a two-bait flounder rig with spelled hooks and little geodesic rattles. I send a telepathic message to the fish that they will have a much better time getting caught and thrown back by us than they will getting caught and filleted on the greasy, beer-washed deck of a headboat. No go. Everybody–everybody else but Jackson–catches fish.

At the end of the month I realize that a few of my rules have sunk into these little people, and it makes me proud. The act of dirtball dockfishing–dropping as much meat out of the sky as your hook can hold–leaves precious little angling of which one can be proud, so fishing etiquette becomes my accomplishment. Rule 1: Watch your hook Rule 2: Check your bait after a strike. Rule 3: Wear shoes. Rule 4: Congratulate everybody on their catch, whether you have caught something or not. Rule 5: After your catch, give your rod to the kid who doesn’t have one.

Two things happen just before we leave Lonelyville. The first is that I get a phone call from Jackson. I’ve never gotten a phone call from a child other than my own.

“Hello,” he says.

“Jackson,” I say.

“I’m calling to tell you I caught two fluke,” he says. “I kept one and ate it.”

“Fantastic. Congratulations. When?” I ask.

“They took us out on a boat with lots of people,” he says.

I don’t have the heart to tell him he was on a headboat, but it’s okay. He got his fish. Them will be time to inoculate him against headboats later.

The second thing was a conversation with Eliza Grace, one of those idle moments in which a child tells you what you know is the truth. Most of the time it happens when you are talking about something else. We were talking about having to leave. I had asked her what was her favorite thing about Lonelyville.

“The shark,” she says quickly.

I’m not sure what she means.

“You know, the shark that broke the line.”

I have thought about it since she said that to me, and I think there are a couple of reasons she holds that fish so dear. First, it gave her a sense of the true strength of what lives underwater. The second reason is common to us all, and I hope it means that my daughter has the imagination to become a real fisherman: She never got to see it. That fish was the one that got away.

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