A college boy’s lament on a cold November outing

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It’s 7 a.m., mid-November, the first maliciously frigid morning of our season. We cleared the breakwalls just after sunrise and made six miles of ice with the bow en route to our present location in 90 feet of water a few miles south of Newport, R.I.

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Today, on the third “cleanup” day since a run-of-the-mill low-pressure system swung across southern New England and out to sea across Georges Bank, stiff northwest winds have dropped out, replaced by a light breeze straight out of the north. Two rounds of haul-and-reset later, the anchor fetched up, and we landed on our piece. Four of us — Capt. Andy Dangelo, two old friends he invited and I — have been fishing in an almost unnerving silence since the other three wrapped up a brief shop-talk session about a construction project they’ll start in a few weeks.

Content to fish without speaking for once — no “Don’t forget to level-wind that wire” or “Seriously! Level-wind!” or “If you can’t wind that wire on level, I’ll hack off your torso with a meat saw!” — I settle on a nice little plot of air about 20 feet straight ahead and stare at it intently, trying to just outlast the chill by keeping it off my mind. And then I do what any good fisherman would in my position: I start thinking about Puritan literature.

Who was it who wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” again? Was it Cotton Mather? No, stupid. He was a leader but not a theological rhetorician. Was it Charles Edw … No, no Jonathan Edwards. Was it Jonathan? Yeah, yeah! Jonathan Edwards! Yes! Wait, who’s Cotton Mather, then? Was he even a Puritan? Or was he … a Pilgrim, maybe?

By the time I return to the blackfish grounds from my slack-jawed inward journey to the summit of Mount Geek — the score on deck still four guys and zero bites — I’ve plowed through the “Puritan work ethic” to the so-called “conservation ethic,” pondered by a different Mather — Frank Mather, the founding father of fish-tagging. I’ve tried to visualize one of the huge great whites that researchers have tagged off Chatham, Mass., but I still can’t, for the life of me, remember who Cotton Mather is in any specific way.

As I crank up my unmolested tautog rig to replace what must be one seriously washed-out green crab, I vow never to mention any of this to anyone, especially not on this boat, and especially not today. It feels as if I just got clear of the whole “college boy” thing full-time watermen like to point at part-timers and desk jockeys.

I swing my simple tautog rig up to my right hand to inspect the bait — Green Crab in the Hands of a College Boy Mate … snicker — and note that there’s none of the all-important “ooze” in it. I yank the washed-out morsel off the hook, retrieve a whole crab from the bait bucket, snip the legs off one side, then use my sinker to crack the shell so some scent will leach out slowly.

I dump the reel into free-spool and send the fresh bait back to my little patch of bedrock 92 feet below deck level. My hands — both mostly fingerless gloves are damp now — ring and throb in 20-degree air driven by a gentle but persistent 5-knot wind, still due north. I vow that if I haven’t connected with bite one in five minutes, I’ll head into the cabin to worship the propane heater.

The waiting can drive an otherwise disciplined angler to the brink of distraction.

I squint north to the shoreline stones, eyes watering in the frozen breeze. It will be January before you know what hit you, College Boy. This is what makes you strong, what tempers you, what gives you most of the perspective you have.

The old guard, my foremost mentors in fishing and in life, are the three-dimensional, full-color proof that the old-timer rationale for enduring misery — “because it builds character” — is more than a cliché or a call to masochism. If you live and fish in temperate climes, you owe it to yourself to live beyond the easy months. There are so many reasons to live the food chain at close range, to eat “seasonal” and “local” because your food tethers you to your planet, not because some of the great culinary minds of our day just invented what was human reality until 30 years ago. Fish for tautog in November because tautog is what’s here in November.

Just as my cold-tolerance self-pep-talk has mushroomed into a nonverbal manifesto on the disconnect between man and nature, it happens. Tink, tink, tink, thud. Taptaptap. Crunch.

I coil up like a leaf spring, absolutely intent on the strange signal vibrating up 95 feet of braided line to my rod tip from the ground floor. My left thumb and forefinger interpret the message, and my brain races through the long list of known transmissions I’ve received via rod and reel over 30 or so years of bottom fishing. Instinct takes over.

I reel quickly as I drop the rod tip toward the water’s surface, and in one swift, determined motion, I snap the rod skyward. I shout to my three other deck mates that it’s finally happening as the 7-foot composite stick bends nearly double and starts to buck wildly.

At first, it’s all I can do just to keep the big blackfish off-balance, keep it from aiming its head into the stones and parting me off in a few pumps of a tail. Twice I manage to pry my long-awaited quarry five feet off the bottom, and twice my quarry lunges back to the starting line. The third time, I keep the fish coming, head pointed toward the light. Two minutes later, the stocky tautog beats its tail wildly, charging in wide circles as it corkscrews into view from the blue-green murk. A few more cranks haul what I now see is a big female into net range, and Dangelo does the honors, lifting her across the gunwale and ejecting her onto the non-skid deck.

The character that a day on the bone-chilling autumn Atlantic invariably builds has, in a matter of five minutes, lost its previous rank on the list of reasons to brave the frozen north winds as winter looms. For that matter, the biting cold as a reason to stay home has much less menace.

Fat tautog are as good a reason as any to try to salvage November fishing.

By 9 a.m., the southward-retreating sun has climbed high enough to throw some noticeable warmth on us, enough to offset the relentless wind, enough to drive the residual silence right off the deck. By 10 a.m., we’ve all begun to shed layers, and by noon, 10 solid specimens — bled out and iced down, awaiting the fillet knife — are proof-positive that this wasn’t just a good idea. It was the only real option that made any sense. We work on tautog in November because they’re one more compelling reason to log a few more precious hours afloat before the gales pile up so tight on the calendar that we can’t pry a single day loose.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

November 2013 issue