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A Fisherman’s Cycle Of Loss And Redemption

Photo of William Sisson

William Sisson

I’d known Noah since we were kids, part of a gang of feral boys who spearfished in the lighthouse cove where Fred kept his lobster skiff on a ramp that sloped down to the sea. To launch the boat, Fred would wet the planks with a few buckets of water, and then we’d all eagerly embrace the skiff’s rough skin with our arms and shoulders and backs and shove her down the ramp and into the drink

Noah was like an older brother and mentor to me. I lost track of him for a time, but he showed up on our doorstep one summer needing a place to stay. He’d recently split with his wife.

He’d been sleeping on friends’ couches for a couple of months, and his little skiff was moldering in his soon-to-be-ex’s driveway, looking like a tern with a broken wing. To add to his woes, a family of crows had camped in a tree outside the window at his last way station, and their cries woke him each day at dawn. The prodigal son was looking pretty frayed when he showed up at our abode and moved in for a few weeks.  “She says, ‘All you want to do is fish,’ ” he told me. She had him pegged pretty good, I thought.  

By fall, Noah was himself again. I was fishing a place known as the Bishop’s a lot in those days, and I saw his truck pull up late one afternoon. He’d no sooner parked and gotten his big Lamiglas surf rod out of the back than a school of bass started busting water a couple hundred yards down the beach to the east. He took off running after them the way we used to chase fish as kids — that’s when I figured he was OK.

silhouette of man fishing off pier

We fished together from time to time, but more often than not I’d run into him in the surf after dark, mostly in the fall out on the mussel bars.

I liked talking to him because he told stories about the old timers and the old days. Damned if he didn’t know some characters. Guys with names such as Ichabod and Peleg and Hezekiah. Don’t hear those names anymore.

He knew a bit about a rough character named Oscar, who used to fish the very point where we stood talking. A former railroad man, Oscar would come out for a couple of days at a time with his tackle and a watermelon, a block of cheese and a shotgun. This was probably back in the 1920s or ’30s. If a boat strayed too close to shore — they were probably commercial netters in those days — he’d brandish the gun and chase them off. “Try doing that today,” Noah said.

He asked me once if I knew Latin. “My old man was the Latin scholar,” I told him. “I didn’t take it in school. Wish I had.”

He was searching for a phrase that an island fisherman used to mutter whenever he picked up his wooden priest to deliver the coup de grâce to the head of a fish. Noah was certain the phrase was part of a lost prayer from childhood, one he thought might be useful, but for what purpose I don’t believe he had a clue.

Sometimes I’d go by his home in the early evening after he remarried. He’d be on the back porch, saying goodnight to his family.

Not much had changed. We were still rushing off to a beach or a rock pile or a waiting boat. Someplace where there weren’t many people. “If we’re lucky,” he’d say, “we’ll have it all to ourselves tonight.”

I’d watch him as he kissed the kids on the tops of their heads.

“Daddy will catch you a big one,” he told them.

“Big as me?” asked the boy, who was probably 6.

“Taller,” the man said, swinging him off his feet. “And bigger.” He pretended not to see the frown on his wife’s face, but I saw it. She tried to tell him something, but he cut her off. “Running late,” he’d say.

It was always that way — racing the light, the wind, a tide and something else only he could see.

Noah meant well, worked hard, but there just wasn’t enough time for everyone and everything and the fish, too. I think he felt the pull of the tides more than the rest of us. When he couldn’t resist their draw any longer, he’d harden up and flatten anyone who stood between him and the water.

Back then, he was constantly moving from one life to another, as I remember it. And he’d slip back before dawn, like a creature from a netherworld, one who didn’t want to be seen, who didn’t give a damn about companionship when he was on the fish, save for that of his fishing partner. And sometimes he didn’t give a damn about that, either. I know that  firsthand.

Abridged from Anglers Journal

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.



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