Back in the fighting chair after a long break

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It was almost two years ago — Sunday, June 10, 2012, late afternoon — when I wrapped up my last professional turn on a charter boat deck. Through May that season I’d avoided making any of the usual commitments to full-time party- or charter-fishing gigs. I’d had one hell of a time wrapping my head around this sudden disruption of my normal seasonal rhythms — felt like the proverbial “man without a country,” a guy with no peg on which to hang his hat.

Zach Harvey

I was writing and editing then, too, but found, then as now, that I couldn’t rattle off the phrase “I’m a writer” without giggling or feeling like the most precious lad in the village.

Still, the reality I could not shake was a left foot and ankle I’d absolutely hammered on for at least five years in the full-time grind — the pain intensifying under protracted strain, the age-old metrics of time plus abuse plus the onset of arthritis equals ex-fisherman. Of course, the other age-old equation — stubbornness plus macho bull plus financial gravity minus contingency plan equals still-fishing-at-age-70 — had kept me going to that point and might have continued to do so.

It might have, that is, had it not been for the younger of the two loves of my life, Miss Kaya Mae, age 2, who had in a matter of two or three earnest questions catapulted me into a reckoning that shook bricks right out of my foundation. When will your foot feel better, Daddy?

One day I was headed into another year on deck. A week later I was sitting across from a respected orthopedic surgeon running through probable outcomes, best cases and worst cases of a full-scale surgical reconstruction of my banged-up foot.

Chalk it up to the sudden and terrifying realization that — contrary to the tough-guy doctrine that says if some pain, health problem or high-risk habit causes no direct physical harm to anyone else, then it doesn’t count — anything that adversely affects our family hurts everyone we love, and no one more so than the smallest, who need us most. No man gets to be an island.

* * *

On that last run to Block Island — a place where I’ve spent thousands of hours on dozens of boats targeting 20 species with a half-dozen totally different gear types over all sorts of bottom — I managed to stick to a carefully rehearsed game plan I’d built around one driving principle: Do not, under any circumstances, stray from the present tense and let any part of your brain access any part of the dreaded “big picture.” (To do so might as well be looking at a billboard-size rendering — oil on canvas — of a grown man, a seasoned deckhand, sobbing uncontrollably as he kneels before the smoldering ruins of his career, symbolized by a giant left foot. If you look closely, you’ll see that the foot is on fire.)

Anyway, we caught bass, not a load of them but a couple of good ones, high 20s and low 30s, jigging off the island’s famed Southwest Corner. When the tide quit, the fish followed suit. After a quick stop to disqualify the North Rip, we fled north and ran out the clock picking away at short fluke.

Giving up fishing for a living doesn't mean letting it go.

For the eight hours we fished, I soaked up a solid reserve of green June water, sky, breeze and the feel of familiar fiberglass underfoot, along with the particular satisfaction that lives in the array of small duties dispatched with practiced ease.

My mental state held past our charter’s departure, and I convinced the captain to leave all of the dockside chores to me. I needed him gone just in case — facing the possibility that I was playing out the last minutes of a 15-year career that forged my very identity — I fell apart completely, emerged from the cabin with a box of Kleenex and a cup of chamomile tea and sat down in the starboard fighting chair for a good cry.

I was fine until the instant when I heaved my sea bag up onto the main dock. Feeling like a lit fuse, I climbed up swiftly, flipped on the shore power, scanned dock lines, listened for any pumps still pulling water and finally — mercifully — with my eyes boring holes in the tops of my feet, I snatched up my bag and made a beeline for my car. Cleared town inside a minute.

* * *

Surgery, 10 years overdue, came and went. I spent that first summer trying to conquer 15 remote controls that operate the living room and worked on other eternal mysteries, such as bathing. I fielded constant calls from friends who seemed to be catching 6-pound sea bass — drool — every nine minutes without me. The worst part of self-inflicted exile was the need to double the reach and frequency of my information outreach to keep a handle on things. During those first eight months I replayed the surgeon’s words about a “long road” and “slow progress” enough times that hearing either phrase now triggers Tourette-like outbursts.

So slow was the progress that I braced myself for a new life in which my seafaring time had run out. But as I powered through the intervening months, I found some sorely needed perspective on my fishing past and future — as a writer as much as a fisherman. What began as a stretch of professional-grade self-pity evolved into a serious re-evaluation of a long and complicated relationship with the full-time ocean.

* * *

It was 2002 when I landed in the editor’s chair at The Fisherman magazine and published my first pieces of professional fish-writing. I was 23 and had just migrated back into the world of office work from a winter site on a monkfish gillnetter. I had applied for the editing post primarily to quiet my parents, who were understandably less than thrilled with my newfound enthusiasm for winter fishing, particularly since I had a degree that gave me some options beyond a frozen deck. When the help-wanted clipping arrived — strong writing skills and thorough knowledge of local fishing required — I immediately went to work reeling off all the reasons this job was too good to be true.

Zach in a contemplative frame of mind.

I was afraid to get excited about what I realized would probably be about the closest thing to a dream job I could imagine, though I’d honestly never considered the chance that jobs like this were open to guys like me, twenty-somethings who could barely get a foot in the door for meaningless entry-level jobs with companies that all seemed to manufacture solutions back then.

I knocked out a destiny-themed cover letter, added a whole bunch of fishing vessels to my resume, threw enough stamps on the envelope to send a cement block to California and promptly expunged the whole matter from my brain. Three weeks and two interviews later, I accepted an offer.

During more than a decade since, I’ve learned quite a bit about the idea of these dream jobs with which our culture has such a love affair. Although I see the possibility that fishing is more volatile than other life passions, I maintain that the moment you make any major personal interest financially load-bearing, it becomes work — work you’ll have no trouble obsessing over. When I merged two lifelong pursuits — fishing and writing — the urge to practice both at the highest level possible made a manic episode of each workweek.

In my experience, you don’t learn fishing by approaching it as a weekend hobbyist. Likewise, it’s hard to make much headway against the craft of writing unless you attack the work with consistent, frequent focus. At 23 and full of courage and good intentions, I set out to strike a balance between these two jealous-mistress occupations. My solution — the best I could come up with — was to stack a part-time fishing schedule (40 to 60 hours) on top of the full-time editing gig (40 to 50 hours), my weekly hours hovering around the threshold of triple-digits from roughly May to November.

For the uninitiated, the way you survive such a grind is to develop a kind of waking autopilot to get you wherever the work demands your presence. You learn to conserve energy whenever possible — the way long-haul truckers employ the practice of “drafting” to minimize fuel burn. Most important — and this is where all of this comes full-circle — you train yourself to make the most of any available momentum, physical or mental, and to live every waking moment in near-religious avoidance of the “inert” half of “inertia.” You never have to get moving again if you’re already up on plane.

It has taken me the better part of the almost two years since surgery to realize that fishing experience (the fragmentary wisdom it yields) is cumulative, and if you’ve paid attention, there’s no expiration date. Much as my 23-year-old self might punch me in the neck for saying so, the wisdom that fishing offers is so much easier to access when you take up the rod because you’ve missed it and you love it — and not because you’re afraid to put it down for fear of what you’ll miss. As winter yields to spring and I find surer footing in my well-worn deck boots, the fish are calling me in a way they haven’t for years.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

May 2014 issue