Reconnecting with Rods and Reels

A haul of sea bass.


From left to right, Sean McLean, Michael McLean Sr., Michael McLean Jr. and Christian McLean
From left to right, Sean McLean, Michael McLean Sr., Michael McLean Jr. and Christian McLean

By Christian McLean

The sun was pushing up on the horizon when we got to the dock in Orient. Family fishing trips were few and far between. My brother Sean has two kids, I’ve got two. My brother Michael has one and lives in Chicago. So carving out a day to be on the water with our dad – just the four of us – without worry of jobs, naps, snack traps or cellphone reception hadn’t happened in over a decade.

There was drizzle on the windshield and the radio was talking about a storm moving east. As a person prone to seasickness and a literal fair-weather fisherman, I’d been tracking the weather all week. The radar had the green and yellow blob cutting across the North Fork and climbing toward Fishers Island, Nantucket. All week – chance of thunderstorms. All week – lightning bolts on my iPhone.

I was not prepared. Not just for the impending storm, but for fishing in general. I didn’t know the lingo. I didn’t know the rest of the fishing party, if we were jigging or trolling. What was the difference between sea bass and striped bass?

I was promised we were staying in the bay. No waves. But I got the transdermal ear patch anyway. No reason to take chances. The ferry from Shelter Island was smooth, so that was a good sign.

Captain Richard Jensen welcomed us aboard. His first mate, Kevin, was getting the Nancy Ann IV organized – stowing gear, arranging poles. The rest of the fishing party had already arrived. With captain and mate there were 11 of us. I recognized a couple of my dad’s fishing buddies, but mostly I was a stranger. Everyone introduced each other. We talked fishing and weather. There was banter and ball busting between old friends.

FF 1965When we headed out of the harbor, I caught the usual landmarks I’d learned from taking the ferry to New London. There was Plum Island then Great Gull. I figured 10 to 15 minutes into the bay and we’d drop anchor or lines or whatever the plan was. But we kept heading southeast. We passed Shelter Island and I thought any time now. We passed The Ruins – the remnants of Fort Tyler used for target practice during WWII – and Gardiners Island. The troughs and crests were getting deeper and farther apart. I could see the Montauk Lighthouse in the distance then not so much in the distance, then to our stern. This was not the bay. But the waves were smooth and rolling. It wasn’t churning, there was no chop. Not even a spray over the bow. My stomach was steady, even as I watched Kevin carve the clams and squid for bait.

The captain had a spot in mind. He said he knew we’d catch fish. He was a third generation fisherman, so I took his word for it. Plus the farther south we went, the better chance we’d avoid the storm. It had almost been two hours under motor, when, in the shadows of Block Island, the captain cut the engine and we found our spots on the ship. My father took the port bow (boat lingo for front left), Sean on the starboard, Michael and I on the port about mid-ship.

The sun stayed out. The sky stayed blue and clear. The storm was nowhere in sight – the weathermen hand once again nailed it.

Slow and methodically, I lowered my line, two hooks (one with clam, one with squid). I’d baited it myself, then not having a towel or rag, I wiped my hand on my t-shirt. It made sense at the time. I wasn’t about to show weakness. An eight-ounce weight took the bait to the sea bottom. Thirty seconds, maybe a minute passed and someone near the bow was reeling in the first fish. Then the next person and a third. It was a frenzy. Kevin was all over the boat, pulling hooks out of fish. So that’s a sea bass.

A haul of sea bass.
A haul of sea bass.

Then it was my turn. There was a nibble. There was a jolt of adrenaline. I waited for another little tug, then I set the hook. If I could get the fish in the boat, I would be content. One fish — that was what I was accustomed to, I didn’t expect anything more. It was a good size. Sea bass aren’t anything like striped bass. A three-pound fish is considered pretty big. Mine was respectable, maybe 1 ½ pounds. Biggest so far on the boat. There I was, no longer green (except I needed Kevin to unhook the fish for me). My brothers were excited, my father was excited. This was what it was all about. The whole boat was catching fish. One after another, after another. Michael had one, my father had one, Sean hauled in beast after beast, catching the biggest of the day. I had never experienced anything like it. It was like those tales of explorers crossing rivers on the backs of salmon. I had not known you could catch that many fish so quickly. It got to the point that if I wasn’t reeling something in after five minutes, I was worried something was wrong. We threw back countless fish.

“I want big ones,” Kevin kept saying and we aimed to please.

The author with a sea bass.
The author with a sea bass.

Keepers at the start of the day seemed like guppies. A few fish in, I started unhooking them myself, throwing them back, wiping the slime off on my shirt. In two hours we hit the boat’s limit.

There was an overall sense of joy on the ship, one of comradery and victory (except the poor guy who was sick as a dog). While the four of us hadn’t sat next to each other along the rails, hadn’t shared bait buckets, we had shared the experience of fishing. We had all caught so many fish. There was a fun sense of competition, but mostly there was a feeling of pride and maybe a little freedom.

In a very classic way, the men went out and caught supper. Unlike in the movies, no one bared their soul, nothing was said of great magnitude. We fished. We supported each other. We had six hours when we weren’t pulled in 15 directions. There was only one objective: catch fish together.

When it was over and we went home the cellphones rang, there were emails and screaming kids. That night, Sean smoked his trophy catch on the old Webber grill, then we sa