I cannot catch a fish.
It’s an incapacity so profound that I suspect there’s something genetic going on, although my great-grandma Olga of Lowell, among her many talents, such as brewing beer in the cellar, sewing quilts from male relatives’ ties (usually she snipped them out from under their astonished faces), and growing prize raspberries, was also known to dangle a line and catch a fish before you could say, “Cut off my tie, Olga, why don’tcha?”
But the times I have wielded a rod, with one notable and comically tragic exception, I’ve come up empty.
So that’s what I told the inimitable Pete Bradshaw who, in the yard behind mine alongside Tuckernuck Antiques, holds weekly yard sales of poles, plugs, tackle, and jigs for folks gearing up for the big fishing derby.
Pete, 56, jack-of-all-trades and dealer-of-stuff, hails from Yorkshire, England and speaks with the broad accent that comes with the territory. With a hank of dark brown hair, he has what they call in chick lit “piercingly blue eyes” and is tattooed from wrists to collarbone – and Lord knows where else; we’re friends but not that close.
He scoffed at me for saying that, in the fishing department, I’m jinxed.
“Anyone can catch a fish, ‘olly, luv. I’ll take you to a nearby shore this week and show you.”
“I don’t have any gear – ”
“All you need to bring, sweet’eart, is wellies [muck boots for those unfamiliar with the English term]. I’ll fix you up with a rod and a coupla plugs.”
He made it sound so simple, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth – wellies I ain’t got. Last spring, I trashed my rain boots with the pink and black checks, so ravaged and holey that the gingham pattern had turned to brown smudge.
But after Pete told me my sole requirement was to show up in wellies, I ogled rubber boots in local stores. I wasn’t ready to belly up $134 for the cheapest pair I could find. (What the heck, we’re still competing with tourist dollars.)
On the night of our fishing date, a Sunday in early September, I appeared as scheduled in front of the antique store, dressed in a denim jumper, pink leggings, socks and sneakers. I thought Pete might be agreeably distracted by the navy blue cargo vest I’d piled on, tricked out with zippered pockets which, had I been a real fisherwoman, I could have crammed with, like, sinking jerkbait and crystal 3D shrimp.
I also wore a purple do-rag over all-purpose pigtails.
But Pete’s sharp glance cut straight to my feet.
“You’re not wearing wellies.” He accused me as if it was I and not Richard III who’d killed the poor princes in The Tower.
I hemmed and hawed about a futile effort to find boots in piles of winter gear.
He shook his head. “You’re going to get wet. We’ll be wading into the surf when those fish get hauled in.”
In my princessy heart, I made a note to self: Do not wade into surf. Besides, I knew with a certainty close to the conviction that I would never walk on the moon that I would not, in fact, be scooping in a single fish.
It’s the cross I bear.
My fishing bio
In 1954, out in a rowboat in a pond in Calabasas, California, my visiting Grandma Olga snagged five trout, my dad two, myself, 0.
In 1991, from Brad and Betty Smith’s pier in East Chop, my seven year-old son Charlie and I hooked an infinite number of small, inedible crabs that we tossed back into the stingy sea. (Charlie has since gone on to catch authentic fish with buddies who know what they’re doing, thus entering the ranks of true Island kids.)
Then in ’95, on assignment for Lear’s Magazine, I spent a frigid October night on the southern Chappy shore with three wild fisherwomen. They were the real deal, using live eels (oh ick!) and complicated casting techniques. In the beginning, they were compassionate and kind about showing me how to pull this and twirl that, but after the ninth episode of untangling my line, they left me to my own devices.
My own devices took me to the cooler where I extracted a chicken salad sandwich and a can of Sprite. I trudged into the dunes to enjoy starry skies, thunderous surf, and my lovely snack. Sometime before I finished eating, I fell asleep. I awoke to a sensation of something odd and scratchy on my palm. I opened my eyes to behold a skunk licking my right hand.
And then there was that one fish I did catch.
It happened in June of 2002. Another pal, an Island contractor named Capt. Joe Santos (name changed to protect the man’s dignity), to whom I confided my sad story of fishlessness, offered to take me out on his boat, a 17-foot Boston Whaler.
On a blue and gold afternoon, halfway between here and the Cape, I flung out a line. I started to spool it in, and realized something harried the other end. A shoe? A copper tea kettle from the Andrea Doria? But, what’s this? I pulled aboard a bluefish. Not too big, not too small, a keeper. My sense of triumph was surpassingly sweet.
Captain Joe sat down to fillet the catch, preparatory to wrapping it in ice, the easier to fry it up the minute I got home. A wave slapped the side of the Whaler, the cap’s knee popped up and hit the cutting board set on top of his lap, and whomp! the bluefish, cleanly halved, flipped overboard.
“NOOO!” I cried.
CaptainJoey leaned over the gunwale, madly grabbing the water as if the deceased, bifurcated fish hadn’t already entered the food chain of the deep.
So, on this recent Sunday evening, Yorkshire Pete and I climbed into his blue Mazda pickup and drove down the road apiece, outside of metropolitan Oak Buffs, just where the seawall ends and untrammeled beach begins.
In effect, we had only traveled a few blocks, but it appeared as if we’d crossed two climate zones. While Tuckernuck Antiques rested under a balmy pre-autumn breeze, the sound had some kind of weather front blasting in from five or six directions, one of them the North Pole.
We strode the beach with our shoulders hunched, Pete smoking an unfiltered ciggie. He told me he’d always loved the outdoors, from the time he’d fished the rivers and streams of the countryside surrounding Leeds. Now that he’s lived in the states for three decades (he’d traveled over with a girlfriend who worked a cruise line and then just clean forgot to return), he’s fished all over the Vineyard and, in winter, the west coast of Florida.
“Fishing’s good in Florida,” he said, frowning at the incoming tumult of waves under a lowering sky.
Pete handed me a rod and demonstrated what I’d long forgotten, the complex maneuver of gripping the handle gizmo with the thumb just so, then unhooking the reel, but bracing for a quick adjustment the minute the line is unfurled.
Pete saw me struggling. He thundered at me, “‘olly, you said you could fish.”
When had I said that? In a parallel universe?
Well, I’d show him! I thrust back the rod with an arm straight and true. I pitched into the roiled surf with a lunge so forceful, I was certain I’d hit a faraway bass on its noggin.
On the contrary, Pete told me my plug had plopped onto the beach, only yards away. Really? Sure enough, I spun it in, and up came a clump of seaweed as big as Harpo’s wig.
Not to be outdone, Pete’s line, too, although propelled much farther, returned with a scrunge of seaweed.
I prepared to cast again, but I forgot what went over this and under that. Pete sighed and handed me his rod while he fiddled with mine. When we traded back, we discovered his hook had embedded itself in the collar of my cool cargo vest.
“Pete, you’ve caught me,” I shouted over the wind.
In my next toss, I knew something pivotal had occurred. The line seemed to be tugged by some elemental force. Had I just hooked Moby Dick?
“‘olly, luv!” roared Pete, “you’ve bloody broken your rod!”
I stared down at my hands, the right clutching the pole handle, the left on the reel prepared to toggle in some monster from D. Jones’s locker. But no. The rod was indeed snapped cleanly in two, yet held together by the tight line as if the manufacturer had intended for it to be stowed that way. Close to where I stood, an obscenely large clod of seaweed accounted for the break.
I sighed, “Guess I won’t be catching any fish tonight.”
I was happy to watch Pete make any number of casts into the swirling seas. The sky darkened into full night as a crescent moon glowed low and white behind us. At last Pete pronounced the official verdict:
“No fish out there tonight, ‘olly.”
Fine with me. We returned in a leisurely stroll toward the seawall. I was accustomed to harvesting zip-zero-nada fish, and Pete revealed a gentle reasoning that most fishermen and fisherwomen, I imagine, share.
“The great part is spending time along the shore. If you catch a fish, it’s a bonus.”
No bonuses that night.
P.S. My sneakers and socks were soaked.
Holly Nadler contributes frequently to the MVTimes; she’s written television shows such as Laverne and Shirley, and articles for national magazines. She lives, car-free, in Oak Bluffs.