I finally have my old man fish story-- although, I suppose I could have made one up a long time ago. It's easy to criticize, to fault, the epic retellings and enhancing that our parents, grandparents, and ancestors have a demonstrable propensity for. Oh Vanity, you drive us to such depths of falsity. But, as I grow older, older still, and feel these ancient forces of mortality and meaninglessness swirling around in the shadows, occasionally piercing me with hypodermic talons so sharp I don't even truly feel them until I realize I didn't jump as high, stay up as late, or, and this is truest one, recover as quickly– in the pain of these jabs, I find mercy for all the liars that came before me. Because, one day, a talon will pierce my heart or brain or some other load-bearing organ, and then I'll be little more than food for fish and thought. And I probably won't be either of those for long.
So, in the face of all that no more, I find myself on the other side of the world, in a paradise of sorts, under a thatched roof, with a tropical storm crushing– no, no, it was crushing, forgive an aging man his artistic license, the sea is quite peaceful now and the fish have returned to my back yard. But it was a helluva kicker here before you arrived- I swear. In the face of all that no more, I make the choice (actually, I made this choice years ago, but lately, I've been saying it out loud) do I merely accept what age, age and death, have in store for me, or do I rage, rage against the dying of the light? Since I'm sitting here sun-singed and sore, I think my answer, which will surprise no one, is obvious: I choose to rage.
I suppose one component of that for me is writing my own story, doing the things, and telling you about the things I do. C'est la vie. Pour the wine. I'm climbing into a boat yesterday if you want to remember it in the present tense, which is how I'd like to be remembered. I'm climbing into a boat, and what results are the following three stories. All of these strive for The Truth of one sort or another, all of which are, to me, basically the same story. And they are my fish story.
Story Un (I’m in French Polynesia, after all)
The day was clear and bright, but there were distant rain clouds outside the tiny atoll. I was expecting a big sport fishing vessel for my 55,000cfp, but what had just moored to another boat, which was itself moored to the dock, was about ten feet long, four feet wide at its widest, wooden, uncovered, and weathered in the way only the fervent application of poverty and time can weather an object that was far from sporty. Still, jutting out from its bow were two big fishing poles, thick as a slim woman's wrist at points and with a translucent line that any fisherman would instantly recognize as “tough enough,” so I climbed aboard with Captain Henry, who I had been told, spoke only a few words of English. The language gap was an advantage, as I was there to fish, not to talk.
Notably absent from the boat, well additionally notably absent from the boat, was the proverbial fight chair or really any device designed to keep me in the boat– which is rather important when you might catch a fish that outweighs you and has no desire to be in the boat with you. Also missing were life jackets.
“I go twenty-five minutes. Then poisson.” Captain Henry pointed across the atoll at a channel between two islands. Beyond that was the open ocean.
As we motored closer, the waves began to pick up, and soon we were rolling, skipping, and splashing through swells that averaged three to four feet.
I was drenched before the first hook hit the water. And when it did, something else was missing– Bait. Having done my fair share of fishing, I had always regarded bait as an important component. Henry had but two lures, both shaped like squid and colored like techno parrots. One was larger than the other.
I began to think Henry might be a bit of a hustler– taking out rubes and cutting corners on the costs. Still, as costs go, mine were sunk.
Hours went by. It was easy enough to divine Captain Henry’s fish-finding method. Every now and again, he would reach into the hold, pull out binoculars, find a flock of sea birds and chart a course in their direction. We did this over and over, and all I got was wet clothes, sunburnt knees, and twice over butt hurt (from the possible rip-off and the abrasive seating).
Then rains came. For a bit, it seemed that my Captain was trying to outrun the storm, droplets splashing behind us. But now, the waves were getting bigger and bigger, and the rain drowned out the sea spray. The earth seemed to rise and fall as the boat was rolled over six and seven-foot swells.
I began to doubt all things Captain Henry. Where was the fight chair, the seat belts, the bait, the life jackets? Why was I in a glorified and ill-kept canoe, on a stormy ocean, with someone who couldn’t even tell me how to save myself if I needed to know? The boat crashed down with a thud in the valley between two waves so tall that, if I had had the courage to stand, it would have still been a bit taller than I. I thought it was time just to cut bait and return to the resort.
ZHHZHZHZHZHZHZHZZZHHHH. There is no noise like thick filament spiraling off the reel at 20 miles an hour. It sends adrenaline through the veins of a fisherman. Fine if you’re on land or in a fight chair– it prepares you to fight. But without those comforts, it froze me. Wide-eyed, I looked to my captain for direction.
He pointed at the port-side bow, where the line buzzed. “You there.” Then he mimed reeling.
And then I made the choice. I could play it safe, accept the limitations that fear implied, or I could rage.
Absolutely terrified. I stood up for the first time since setting foot on the boat, and a big wave slammed me into the hull. I caught myself, and climbed up completely out of the boat, and slid the reel between my thighs. With one foot in the water, I tried to reel in the catch. One-quarter turn, with all my might. Another quarter, fire shot through my right shoulder, which has never truly recovered from a rotator cuff tear that took a chunk of bone off with it.
“Beeg Yellowfin.” Said Henry, and he moved to help. I waved him away. My macho insecurity and desire to win battles I shouldn’t having harnessed the adrenaline to its cause.
Splashing down over and over, one leg deeper and deeper in the water I reeled with everything I had. Soon the reel was spinning under my power. I had no idea how much line had gone out, but I was determined to bring it all back in.
“Sheet,” said Henry. “Wrong way.” Later I would learn the fish had severed a thick bolt that was part of the rudder system. But in the moment, all I realized was that I should be more afraid. I knew that some species of tuna might outweigh not me but the entire boat and all its passengers, and I might be one hard dive or jerk from being under a boat in a stormy sea. One leg was already in that grave. I blocked it all out and reeled like hell. All Captain Henry had to say was. “Good job. Good job. Beeg.”
As the drop of the line neared vertical, meaning the fish was near the surface and the boat, the rain relented, and Captain Henry, ran to the starboard stern with a hook to haul in the fish, while I held the pole and continued to reel. Once the fish was in, he savaged it with a club four or five times in the skull, and its body became as lifeless as the eyes.
At that moment, the legend of Henry’s life, to me, transformed from the “opportunist” boat owner to the legendary sea captain who helped me catch a massive fish in the middle of a downpour (perhaps storm is too strong a word?). We tried a bit longer, but nothing else bit, and Henry piloted us back. It seemed longer going in than going out. We stopped to eat a tuna sandwich, which was far too delicious, thanks mostly to five hours of drinking sea spray. And then we stopped again to watch a ghostly black-finned manta ray glide around the reef. We pulled into the dock at the same moment as a new boat of ten or so tourists were coming to our little island paradise, and I was, for a moment, a legend to them. They smiled and took pictures of Henry and me and our massive catch. From the effort it took me to hoist my fish, I’d say it was about 100 lbs, maybe less, maybe more.For my part, I took enough of the fish to make the dishes you see in the photos (tatar, steak, and sashimi). They were perfect. I’ll doubt I’ll taste better before… The rest I donated to Captain Henry.
Ahh, the most truest and faithful version of my fish story is longer than I planned. Or, perhaps, I never intended to tell two or three more. There is a version in my head where I have to kick my foot through the hull to brace myself because I considered doing just that if I had to. In another, the fish could be up 400lbs and going 30 miles an hour because I never weighed it and I never clocked its speed– and well, those are the extremes for the species. In another, the fish wins, and my life is un, deux, trois, quatre, sunk.