The Bucket Beckons
“You’re a fisherman, Zach,” announced Tim Coleman, after a long silence we’d each punctuated with the clicking of bails, the quiet swish of our seven-foot plugging rods slinging large black plastic worms into the bowling-ball stones and a handful of sunkers concealed within the first 20 feet of the wash.
After a pause, he continued: “You’re asking the right questions, going through the right motions—it’s not you, it just hasn’t happened yet for Zach today…”
He’d no doubt been picking up the increasingly Turettes-like flow of self-scolding (Oh, that’s @#$%in’ weak) and doubt and some measure of pleading with fish gods that were having none of it. Meanwhile, naturally, because he was…well… Tim Coleman, he was stinging a fish about every tenth cast while I wore a series of ruts in the rocky seabed with my identical 10-inch black plastic worm on an identical custom 1/8-ounce black leadhead at identical retrieve (or at least cranking) speed—same action, same rod angle, same facial expression, stance.
That night was the first time I’d ever fished with Tim, and for a whole galaxy of reasons, I was hell-bent on demonstrating that I was much more than some snot-nosed little strikebreaker who was doing a poor imitation of a real editor. Hell, I was a seasoned mate, a fair hand behind a reel. I was someone useful—not just the type of 25-year-old greenhorn you humor, tolerate, hook a fish for before you hand him the rod.
Naturally, according to the most basic ideas in god’s sacred law of fishing, when a guy has freighted a fishing trip with all that anxiety and competitive energy and other generalized bad juju, said guy invariably discovers that, at least for the duration of this trip, he couldn’t catch his proverbial ass with two hands. Over a course of a few hours bobbing in toward the cobble beach east of Isabella’s—the south side of Fishers Island—I not only failed to prove my skills. Hell, I started off in my mid-twenties full of nautical wisdom and probably just a shade of cockiness; two hours in, I’d devolved back toward my mid-teens—John McEnroe angry cross-wired with equal parts angst and self-consciousness. Not my finest hour. C’mon Tim, is it my lure? Is it my rod? Must be the line… No, the leader… Help!
In the last hour of what had amounted to a wholesale shellacking by one of the sharper casters with whom I’d ever shared a deck, I felt like a toddler—totally inept, teetering on the brink of a blue ribbon temper tantrum.
Tim, unflappable to the last, handed me his rod while he retrieved an iced tea from a small cooler behind the console. “You’re welcome to try some casts with this one,” he offered, “Who knows, that just might be it.”
Coleman squinted in at the boulder field that had given him a half-dozen bass to nearly 20 pounds, and gauged how much drift we had before the advancing waves pushed us into danger. I dropped a three-foot lead from rodtip to leadhead, braced myself, and lobbed the simple and potentially deadly lure into a little seam of current just short of the beach.
I took a deep breath as I started to crawl the jig back down the steepening seabed, made a note not to lose focus–end up absently ripping the lure back to the boat.
“Just tickin’ the stones, there, Mister Zach. Nice and easy does it.”
It wasn’t the content of the message, but a sudden semi-objective review of the day and then the place I’d wound up. Turning the handle of Tim’s pet Shimano reel as slowly as I could coordinate. The gentle bump of jighead across granite.
“Just tickin’ the stones, there, Zach,” Tim half-mumbled from my left. How awesome is this?! How could you possibly think to get yourself bent out of shape? Fishing hallowed striper grounds with a living legend one absolute mill-pond of a cool July night.
My next cast landed high and dry. I coaxed it off a flat rock back into the drink with a “plip” I felt but didn’t hear.
Tim nodded approval: “That’s the one—right where you wanna be. It’s gonna drop right off…Nice. And. Slow. Just tick-tick-ticking along.”
I’d become intent on the ticking of stones that I barely reacted to the sudden, determined taptap. By the time I’d pulled it together, my line had begun to angle o to the right. I set once like a thunderclap, and for two glorious seconds, my hook held its purchase.
And then that unmistakable plucking sensation shot through rod into my central nervous system as the steel popped. Truth be told, after a night of whispered f-bombs, and quiet, inward grousing and bitching, an eerie calm set in. I cranked up a mangled jighead, hooked it to the reel seat, and turned calmly to deposit Tim’s stick in the rocket launcher.
We agreed it would be a good thing to cross Fishers Island Sound with its various mine fields of lobster gear before our faint moon dropped from view or a white-out of fog rolled in with the next tide change. After securing loose ends on deck, Tim hitched up Yamaha four-strokes, and we ran west to Race Rock Light, then Race Point, Fishers Island.
A couple times Coleman looked like he might speak.
We jogged west toward Race Rock, and just beyond it, Race Point, Fishers in silence.
Soon enough, Tim hooked hard north toward Fishers Sound and his slip in Mystic.
“You know, Zach, every fisherman gets his night in the bucket,” said Coleman. “I think tonight it was just your turn.”
For all the years that have flown by since that first trip with the late fish-nut and capable scribe, Tim Coleman, that last line has cropped up a great many times—most reliably during those first horrid shakedown missions—by land or sea–that leave us considering the pro’s and con’s of a simpler and safer form of recreation like extreme coupons or playing Boggle. May we see the first clogged fuel filters. Or discover that a family of squirrels is holding a family reunion inside our ignition box. We see the first really serious backlashes in just-tuned conventionals. And we part off our braid-to-leader splices, retie, then part them off again three times in five total casts.
For all the pissing and moaning I do over the lack of fishing, January to late April, I find it remarkably easy to rationalize a very gradual ramp-up. It’s always easier to coast out the rest of an autumn’s momentum than it is to launch a new fishing year from the winter torpor.
No point fighting it. Get out there and fail big. Fail early, fail often. Better now when the fish are trickling than staring down all your starting-gun ineptitude when the grounds are alive and you can’t find enough hours in a day off.
For those unfamiliar with the man, Tim Coleman served a long tenure as (Senior) Editor at The Fisherman Magazine’s New England Edition. For most of his 65 years, Coleman simultaneously wreaked havoc on a host of game- and food fish from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, and shared a staggering wealth of fish-catching wisdom with many generations of rod-and-reelers through his prolific writings. His passing, in early May, 2012, had a profound and lasting effect on fishermen, writers, and friends from all corners of the fishing world—though Tim Coleman’s wit, wisdom, and good will live on wherever our sharpest casters ply the tides or fight for a fishing future. – ZH