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South of Block Island, reelin’ in the years

We were drifting 12 miles southeast of Block Island, R.I., in 140 feet of water in a spot called the "Gully" - six old friends in the cockpit of a 30-foot sportfisherman, chumming for shark and hauling long strings of memories out of the deep water.

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To a man, we are lifelong fishermen, boatmen and surfers, with a couple of raconteurs tossed into the mix. The water and a love of fishing have brought this crew together. That and our shared pasts. I have known two of the men on the boat since at least first grade. That's a lot of miles, a lot of ground. Everyone aboard shares similar, overlapping connections. Tom, Ted, Bimbo, BT, Gomer and myself.

We don't have a history of getting together like this, but skipper Tom O'Connor had recently bought a lightly used, nicely tricked-out 30-foot Regulator Express sportfisherman and figured it was time to pull together at least some of the old members of the band. There was supposed to be a seventh crewmember, but Buck B. showed up at the dock a little after 6 a.m. with a bum back (tweaked while surfing) and had to beg off. I fear it's a sign of the times. All of us are north of 50 and, whether we admit it or not, everyone is quietly nursing assorted aches and pains.

But short of being hobbled, who says no to a shark trip with the old gang? I think everybody was looking forward as much to the stories as the fishing. I was.

We had a chum slick going by a little after 8 o'clock, and soon after there were two mackerel baits drifting near the surface under balloons, with a third set in deep water. Tom poured a bit of concentrated fish oil into the slick to give it a little oomph. His brother Ted adjusted the baits by pulling line off the reel, causing the drag to chatter. "Don't you love that sound?" he asked.

Early on, there was a good 2-foot swell, with an occasional 3-footer thrown in. Wind was light and out of the northwest. Water temperature was 69 degrees. Humidity low, sky clear. To the east, a small lobster boat trolled for tuna. Nobody was in any hurry. A nice day to be alive.

"Some things never change," said Gomer, a natural storyteller. "The O'Connor brothers were gearing us up 30 years ago, and they still are. If you told me in 1977 that we'd be out here fishing again, in 2010, with the same crew ..." True enough - none of us would believe it.

Before the morning was over, Gomer had flashed the shark tattoo on his right bicep, which he'd gotten a million years ago (summer 1977, to be precise) in anticipation of the big Montauk, N.Y., shark tournament. He went to a local watering hole that night and learned that the tournament had been held the previous weekend. That was still good for a laugh. I'd forgotten the tattoo and the story, of which there are numerous versions.

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Now all we needed was the real thing. "Come on sharkie. Come to Papa."

We were hoping for a mako or thresher, but they're never a sure bet. Confidence was strong, however, that we'd find plenty of big blue sharks. The O'Connors had been out here not long ago and wound up with blue sharks around the boat all day.

The sharks apparently slept in this lovely morning, but we didn't mind the slow start. We caught up, told stories, laughed, watched the balloons for signs of action and waited. More stories, more laughter, a soft drink and sandwich, and we were quickly mining a new vein of "remember whens" and "have you heard from so and so?"

A good number of stories revolved around Tom's old 22-foot Aquasport, On Time, with its 115-hp Merc, which carried the gang on numerous shark trips in the 1970s, back when the staff of life came out of a can or bottle rather than in the shape of a loaf. The usual drill was to run out of sight of land off Montauk or some other headland and start chumming.

You know the old saying about God watching out for sailors and drunks. The boys always made it home, but it's probably open to debate whether that was due to the benevolence of some higher power or to the dead reckoning and compass skills of the young, fearless sharkers. Perhaps both. On this trip, there was far more interest in sandwiches than beer, another sign of the times.

And the difference in boats between then and now is as great as that between photos of us in the '70s and today. Different worlds. The 30-foot Regulator Express is powered by twin Yamaha 350s and outfitted with an impressive suite of communication, navigation, safety and entertainment electronics. A real sweet ride.

The first shark showed up around 10:30, circling the Regulator, gliding in graceful figure eights off the stern and then rubbing and later gnawing on the chum bucket. When you first see one of these animals after a long absence, they still give you pause - it's got to be primordial, a visceral reaction to an animal that could actually eat you.

About 20 minutes later, as George Thorogood ordered one bourbon, one scotch and one beer over the boat's sound system, BT set the hook on shark No. 1 and another kind of fun began. Shortly after that, Gomer was into a fish as well. During the next two hours, we caught and released seven sharks in the 7- to- 8-foot range.

It was a good pace. Plenty of action, but also time to talk and reflect and just soak up the pleasure of being offshore. Sometimes the big fish come so fast the cockpit is a constant fire drill. This was about right. And it's not like it was anyone's first rodeo. Through the years, we'd all burned out our muscles pulling like the devil on big fish - shark and tuna and their cohorts. No one had anything to prove. Maybe we had learned something along the way after all.

Not surprisingly, most of the stories told throughout the day looked astern. That was sort of the idea. And most couldn't be told in a family magazine without some careful editing, primarily with the delete key. Most of our children - even those who are grown - hadn't heard some of the tales. And probably won't. They will make their own, which is how it should be.

When we first became acquainted, we were just kids, too, who grew into headstrong adolescents, pushing the boundaries and indulging our wanderlust and need for adventure. Now we are husbands, fathers, grandfathers in some cases, entrepreneurs, bosses, company presidents.

In helping us remember who we were, our stories, perhaps, help us better figure out how we got to where we are today. At their core, they inform us.

Mingled with the remembrances of the old days were references to cholesterol levels, colonoscopies, skin cancers and extra sun cream for the top of your head.

Gomer joked that we were the Geritol fishing team, and we all laughed. The truth is, we're all going through this aging thing together, and if a joke makes it a little easier to swallow, then it's better than most of the other remedies I know.

This bunch still has a lot of sand and grit. No one has yet to spit the bit or settle into a glide pattern. No one on the boat is going down without a good fight.

We ran back in at 42 knots, smiling at the speed, leaning into life, comfortable in the company of the men we'd become.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.