“Whoa! Whoa! Big sea bass! Whoa! Johnny, you better get the net!” That’s Marcus calling out from the front of the boat again. Thirty-five anglers, two hooks on each line — that’s 70 different options for the fish to choose from. But Marcus’ rod seems to bend to the water every other minute, while most of us stand there with our mouths half open, wondering if we felt a nibble or not.
A few hours earlier, we had boarded the “Jet,” a party boat based out of Sheepshead Bay. My girlfriend, Adele, and I didn’t exactly choose the Jet. A redheaded deckhand sipping an iced coffee quickly and politely ushered us to the boat as soon as we stepped out of the car on Emmons Avenue, the street that faces Brooklyn’s sportfishing fleet. For 39 bucks apiece (“Make that 35, I know the captain,” the redhead said), fishermen get to spend the day on the water trying to catch their supper. Not a bad bargain, considering you can drop that much on a few beers in a bar.
What better way to spend a hot Sunday at the height of summer? Even though it was just after dawn, there were already plenty of brown-shouldered anglers making their way to the docks. A light breeze cut through the heat, clearing away the diesel fumes and Marlboro smoke. We motored down to the south Jersey coast, where the deckhands promised the action would be hot. Just in case, Adele and I both kicked in three bucks towards the big fish jackpot.
“Oh yeah we got a nice sea bass heah!” Marcus lets loose another “aw shucks it wasn’t nuthin” laugh from the front of the boat as he hauls in, what else, a large sea bass. Catching fish is only half the fun for the hotshot fisherman, he’s got to do it with style. He’s got to be able to call the fish before he sees it. “Flounder, that’s a flounder! Ling, oh my god I got a huge ling!” In 60 feet of water, with half a dozen species of curious sport fish cruising below, these predictions can’t be much more than showboating and bravado. I decided to give it a whirl if I got the chance. All of a sudden my line came alive and the rod started pumping. I yelled out, “Flounder!” Eyes turned as I cranked the reel. After a brief battle, I pulled up a ray, its wings flapping and tail curling. My girlfriend looked on while I took about five minutes to remove the hook. I was nervous that it might be a stingray. So much for bravado.
Of course, Marcus was accurate about 85 percent of the time. I asked him what his trick was. “No secret,” he laughed, “just throw your line in the water and hope like hell the fish bite.” No, what’s the secret for calling the fish. He just smiled like a slugger on a hitting streak — what could be easier?
There was one guy on the “Jet” who might have known more than Marcus, though. John, one of the deckhands, has been fishing in Sheepshead Bay on and off since 1959. Clad in ragged jeans cinched with a cowboy belt, a red flannel shirt, and a pre-hipster mesh baseball cap, John went from rod to rod tying on hooks without looking. While he was setting up my rig, he told me he was an international freight forwarder for cargo ships during the week. I squinted past his thick glasses and missing teeth, picturing Terry Malloy a few years down the road. John cracked out a Marlboro Red from his shirt pocket (I’ve never met a fisherman who didn’t smoke Marlboros). “This is my fun job,” he said. I asked John about fishing in Sheepshead Bay now versus back then. “It’s about the same,” he said. “We had our bad times back then, too.” I took that to mean times weren’t so good now. “But the tourist season is starting now, so we’ll have tons of kids and amateurs on board. It’s a lot more work for me.” I wondered if by “amateur” he meant people like me. Kids always have the best luck fishing, I noted. “Yeah, kids and women,” John agreed. “Hang on to her” (nodding to my girlfriend).
Some days, John doesn’t make a dime from fishing, but he points out that even then, he still gets to go fishing for free. When I ask him if he lives in the area, he says, “No, I live in Manhattan.” Wow, that must be nice, thinking he must have one of those rent-controlled jewels. “My house burnt down and the city put us up in a shelter. No candles, no smoking, ten o’clock curfew. It’s horrible. That’s what you should be writing about.” His family had barely escaped their burning Queens apartment with puppies under each arm and the clothes on their back. “No tenant’s insurance. But at least the city’s got us all together as a family. Whattaya gonna do?” Whattaya gonna do, I agreed.
Fishing is a lot like baseball, there’s a cliché for every situation. “The fish are down there… It’s just a matter of time… The worst day fishing is better than the best day at work… Some days, you gotta pay your dues.” I was standing next to another luckless angler. Tyree, a bus driver from Brooklyn, was out with his eight-year-old nephew. He spent most of the day untangling the kid’s line. “Hey, I’m just happy to be out here.” It’s better than the best day at work, I offered. “Sure is,” Tyree agreed, “Man, that guy up at the front of the boat is killing ‘em today.”
Marcus and a few other guys had great days. My girlfriend and I landed one keeper apiece, which we ended up giving to Tyree and his nephew. Most importantly, we were out there swaying with the swell, far from our hot apartment and the sticky street. John came over to check on us, “How’d you guys do today?” Not so good, but some days you gotta pay your dues, I said. John replied, “Problem is, you didn’t let your woman decide which side of the boat to fish from.” What do you mean, Adele asked. “Well, here’s what you do,” John explained to us, “If your sex toy is on the left side of the bed, then you fish on the left side of the boat. If it’s on the right side of the bed, you fish on the right side of the boat. And if it’s standing up straight, then you don’t go fishing that day.” I wonder if that was Marcus’ secret.