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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Ed's Fish Story

SAILORS OF FORTUNE By Ed Schneider
She’d pulled it out many times over the years: the photo of her at 18 on the deck of a fishing vessel. In it she’s surrounded by other schoolgirls with their hair in rollers, who marvel at a 250-pound blue marlin laid out across the stern of boat. My wife, at that time no bigger than its dorsal fin, had landed this monster in a seven-hour ordeal. She looked proud and exhausted. The other women looked envious. Everything I know about fishing, I learned from this picture.

At an hour even laughing gulls don’t find funny, four self-proclaimed sea sirens and I stowed our gear -- chips and Diet-Cokes, mostly -- in the cabin of the 50-foot charter boat Dollar Bill. Our mission: to catch a 600-pound tuna and sell it to the Japanese for $30,000 like some guy we’d read about in the newspaper.

As we settled in -- a matter of choosing our own piece of gunwale -- the Bill roared to life and before you could say “Dramamine,” we pulled out of Ocean City at 24 knots through what Captain Cale Layton called “medium chop.” This, I found, is a nautical euphemism for “hurl-inducing turbulence” featuring waves as high as an elephant’s eye -- and sometimes higher.

I can report that taking notes in “medium chop” causes mild queasiness... Make that extreme nausea. Excuse me...

Okay, I’m back. Doesn’t look like I missed much either. The Bill, bounding due East, has yet to reach the Hot Dog Lumps, an area 40 miles out where, we were told, schools of tuna, marlin and dolphin eagerly waited to jump on our hooks.

I can report that it takes nearly two hours to reach the Lumps and once you’re out there... well, there you are. No dogs, no lumps and for a long time, no fish.

After we watched first mate Scott Waltmeyer bait and cast eight lines, there was little to do except wait and wait and wait until the tuna noticed.

I found you have two options during this period: You can hold the pole or you can let the boat hold the pole. I’d recommend the boat.

Sandy, a fitness executive, insisted on holding her pole. Thereafter, however, her day was spent “feeding the fishes,” after which, she’d sleep for an hour, then stagger back on deck to flirt with the captain, throw up again and start the process all over.

Sekita, the next to succumb, grappled more actively with her mal de mer. Like a triumphant diva, she’d bow over the side and, with a gesture she refined as the day wore on, whip off her sunglasses and regally thrust them back into our waiting hands.

After watching these two perform, I can report that seasick sea sirens really do turn green.

Meanwhile, the hale among us whiled away the time planning how we’d spend our 30 grand. Tax-free munibonds seemed tempting until Joan, a practical publicist, argued persuasively for a new Lexus. As we debated color selection, a pole came alive and Scott scrambled into action. He whipped the rod from its mounting and cranked the reel like crazy.

“Shouldn’t we have some kind of orientation?” cried Joan as Scott handed her the pole. Never mind, we didn’t need it, for our quarry (a 600-pounder, for sure) broke free.

For the rest of the morning, we saw only two kinds of fish: One was the 9-inch Ballyhoo Scott used for bait (about which Sandy, in one of her lucid moments, exclaimed, “I thought that’s what we’d be catching!”) and the other was gold, came in a box and was made by Pepperidge Farm. These soon proved beneficial because Sekita, having once again demonstrated her patented maneuver, decided to eat a few to settle her stomach. “I never thought I’d be eating these for medicinal purposes,” she said. Within minutes she was fine.

Meanwhile, Scott, who fishes 365 days a year and loves every spine-tingling second of it, got antsy for action and began flipping pocket change into the Atlantic -- an old sailor’s superstition called “paying for the fish.” We chipped in six dollars, figuring it would be tax-deductible after our $30,000 payoff, but still got no nibbles.

Then, a brainstorm: a goldfish sacrifice! We began throwing handfuls of the little buggers into the wake and almost immediately got a strike. Scott was pretty relieved because the sirens had begun comparing his favorite sport unfavorably to golf. He gratefully snapped up the pole and set the hook as Sekita climbed into in the “fighting chair” -- a gynecological-looking contraption bolted to the center of the deck. “Women see a chair like that, and we get in, no question.” Joan said. “We know it’s made for us.” She dubbed it the “Throne of the Goddess,” because, “You sit in it and men bring you stuff.”

And, indeed, Scott brought Sekita the fishing rod, then secured it in the gimbal between her legs. “What do I do?” she shouted over the engine’s roar. “Pull up, crank down,” he hollered, “pull up, crank down, pull up, crank down...”

After 10 minutes of pulling and cranking, Sekita, though fit and still game, was struggling to hold on. With each exertion she began to moan and suddenly, fishing sounded sexy. “Am I’m missing something good?” the captain queried from his post on the flying bridge.

“Pull up, crank down,” Scott urged. “Pull up, crank down!” we chanted and slowly, triumphantly, Sekita won the tug-of-war with her valiant prey -- a 30-pound yellowfin tuna. Although it was 570 pounds shy of our meal ticket, we were still excited as it flopped on the deck -- no one more so than Sekita who, proud as a new mother, squealed, “He’s beautiful!”

Scott much prefers fishing with “lady anglers,” he says, “because women listen.” He delights in watching groups of big, blustery men stuff themselves with hoagies and beer, only to lose their lunches and beg for mercy before the day is out. “Even when women are seasick,” he says, “they’re still in there fighting.”

He told us about one woman who would barf in a bucket, fish like crazy, then throw up again and fish some more. “She caught a ton of fish and when she got off, she said, ‘You boys are nice, but the only Dollar Bill I ever want to see again is in my wallet!’” As for me, well, I still hadn’t touched a pole, but as they say at sea: women and children first. So Joan took the Throne, Rita blessed the goldfish and we made another sacrifice.

Moments later, Bingo! Joan had a bite and in ten minutes, another 30-pound yellowfin lay flapping at our feet. Of course there were the ones that got away, like the brightly colored dolphin (mahi-mahi, not Flipper -- don’t write in) who escaped as we attempted to haul it onto the boat.

When my turn finally came, I studied the horizon, contemplated my goal and became one with the ocean. Forty minutes later, when I woke from my nap, the sirens caucused and decided I had dissed the fish with my body-language (slumped) and my attitude (condescending). I’d have to atone for my sins, they declared, before the fish would bite again.

So I said my mea culpas, saluted the horizon, chanted holy words in the secret Atlantean language and bowed to Mother Ocean, but she was not appeased.

We tried more “voodoo goldfish,” as Scott called them, but but half an hour later, still nothing -- and it was about time to turn back. I had one last hope: trickery. I hid behind the Throne while Rita occupied it, pretending it was her watch. Two minutes later, I saw a telltale twitch in one of the rods and all hell broke loose. Fishing line spewed from the reel like there was no tomorrow. In a dandy doe-see-doe, Scott set the hook, Rita vacated the chair and I took my rightful place in the center of the universe. When Scott passed me the scepter, for one brief moment I was Neptune.

I had watched the women struggle valiantly -- pulling up, cranking down. I knew what had to be done. I was a man and I knew I could do it. I gripped the rod with my left hand and positioned my right on the reel, then jerked that pole back with a mighty stroke and started cranking, but...

“You jerked too hard,” Scott said matter-of-factly. I had dislodged the hook and now my chance at fishing history was, well... history. “You’ve got to ease the pole back, like the ladies,” Scott advised.

“You gotta use finesse,” Sekita said.

“You gotta fish like a girlie-man,” Joan cracked.

So, finally, I can report that in the battle of man against the sea, it’s the women who win. And though our group may not have landed the big-money tuna, we know how to get him next time.

We’ll bring more goldfish.

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