I owe my life to the sea. In a figurative and literal sense. A lot of fishermen say those words, but half of them don’t know what it means. Moments away from complete loss; I’ve found myself owing all I have to the great blue beyond.
It’s not as if the sea saved me from some unnatural occurrence. Sure, I’ve been miles offshore in gale force winds, 50-foot waves, and three hurricanes. What I mean is without the sea I wouldn’t be here today. My entire life has revolved around salty mists and off-white sea foam. My first real memories of childhood all started with a not so good taste of saltwater, when I fell into a tide pool. I was around 4 or 5 then, experimenting with my shovel and bucket. I’d seen something shiny in the water, just below the surface. It was probably the first time I’d seen a fish in person. A tiny minnow or silverside, most likely. So, I grabbed for it. While stumbling forward my mouth crashed into the water, causing me to cry/choke on that bitter taste. Never did catch that fish, though I’ve been chasing them ever since.
As I grew up (maybe just grew older!) my love for the water and fishing in general slowly progressed. In first or second grade my dad bought me my first fishing pole; a Zebco Model 77. An advertisement for the pole had a boy near my age checking out his new rod-n-reel combo saying: Oh boy, just like dad’s! My pops and I caught snappers all day with that pole.
“Any kind of metal lure will work, son” he said. “They go crazy for something shiny in the water.” We must’ve caught hundreds over the years, and I mean hundreds. What a tasty little treat, too. I used to enjoy trying to count our haul for the day, but it was no use. The cooler was filled to the top and I lost count each time.
Any time we’d go to the Barnegat Bay near the front of the lighthouse we’d catch what seemed like an unlimited number of bluefish, fluke, blackfish, stripers and even a ton of weakfish. I can’t remember the last time I caught a weakfish in the bay. They’ve all but moved out of this area for good. But back then catching all those fish made me think the ocean was endless; I could fish forever and still come back the next day to find the same bounty. It’s a little bit different in today’s time. Fishing came easy to me and my dad. We’d find time whenever we could, in between school work and his job at the steel mill in Trenton.
When I hit teenage years, I spent hours filleting fish on the party boats out of Point Pleasant and Belmar. It’s on the Miss Point Pleasant II where I learned most of what I needed for life, not high school. Never was too good with Algebra, but I sure could scale and filet a blackfish in no time! Times fishing with my dad gave me the skills set to work smarter on those boats, not harder. He always told me to “figure out what you need to do to make it work,”. That life lesson wasn’t said primarily about fishing, even though I applied it as much as possible.
When the time came to graduate, I did so without a regret. School kept me from fishing so I didn’t want to be bothered with it anymore. Instead of going to college I went to sea. A few older guys needed a good set of hands on commercial boats and I was just the guy to do it. If I wasn’t gutting a codfish or baiting a lobster trap you could find me knee-deep in the surf casting a red and white Bomber into the wind. I loved having fish slime under my nails. I’m sure some of you feel the same way. It’s OK to be a little dirty when you love what you do. Doesn’t matter if its grease from a brake pads or dirt from a construction site; a hard-earned paycheck is a clean living.
I wasn’t always covered in fish guts. Eventually, back on land, I meet someone special and had a family. Boy, I was sure happy I had a steady job because taking care of a family doesn’t come cheap. All my kid’s braces were paid for from hauling fish nets 14 hours a day.
The term “settled down” never fully applied to me, though. It’s damn near impossible to settle somewhere when you spend most of your week 150 miles offshore. A siren call from the sea lured me out each day regardless of problems on shore. Keeping food on the table and a roof overhead came at a price.
When my wife and I split up I didn’t turn to the bottle – I turned inward. What kept me going inside was a need to find fish. I kept fishing not because I had to, but because we had to. My children were ready to go off to college and books are just as expensive per pound as flounder. Fishing was all I had ever known and perhaps all I ever I will know. To me, it’s much easier to understand how to catch a fish than it is to ponder life.
Now… I’m what you would call an “old salt”. Got the scars to prove it.
I’ve got salty water it in my veins, deep within my muscles and bones. My face looks as weathered as a dock and I’m sure my body creaks just as much, too. Fishing has meant everything to me. From my great memories with my dad to all the hardships when the nets weren’t as full as they should’ve been. It seems the older I got the harder fishing got, as well. You would think fishing gets easier, but it doesn’t. Maybe the fish are getting smarter. I don’t know. It’s not for me to question – my role is just to keep heading out there each day I can, to chase more fish. I’m sure one day I’ll stop fishing someday. Just don’t ask me when that day will come.