Years ago, before smitten with the urge to charter, we were fortunate enough to be living on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. So, there were times when I would fish alone in a 18’ Grady-White, all by my lonesome. When I think back to those days, would have to admit that it’s still exciting but with only about half the fun.
The missing part is the “fishing buddy” .... you know the guy who tells you what a fantastic catch you made or readily admits that the big striped bass you just lost by wrapping itself around a piling was definitely not your fault. Or if it’s one of “those” days with poor action, will listen to you recite the exaggerated tale of the one you caught last week.
Bottom line, fishing is better when it’s shared and then there’s another reason; it’s safer and that where our story this week is going.
But first a little about fishing those waters just north of the Big Apple. First, it’s always crowded. No matter where you go, morning, noon, or night on the water you’re in the middle of a gaggle of boats of folks wanting to do the same thing as you. And with that crush on the briny, it’s no wonder that sometimes good manners take second place.
True story. Long Island Sound is the home of the annual “Bluefish Run” which starts during the late spring and lasts until everyone on the water is so exhausted they quit fishing. The blues come is schools of thousands and can show anywhere in the hundred miles of water at any time. The game for all anglers is to locate the schools first before the fishing flotilla finds them.
At first, the group of anglers, at our anchorage marina, would check in with one another on those weekend days when the blues were in town. All would then know to keep our six or seven boats informed by VHF radio if, by chance, any of us hit a school of marauding big bluefish.
So, there were just six or seven of us and, literally, hundreds of other boats plying the Sound. Most had VHF channel scanners, so nothing was private. So, if one of our group announced, “big school of blues just off Lloyds Neck,” the horizon would look like the Normandy invasion coming at us in every direction. We’d have a scant five minutes before surrounded and having the blues vanish.
Tired of that scenario, one of the group took a Long Island Sound chart and marked if off in numbered squares. So, if you located the blues you’d radio “Blues at B7” and we’d have them all to ourself.
That happened for a couple weeks, until one of the group, one evening under the influence of John Barleycorn, traded our chart for a couple cold ones. Needless to say, we were never alone with our discoveries again.
Now it was on one of those weekend bluefish run trips that the safety issue came front and center.
John was the sole adventurer of our group; would always fish alone, except for his nasty dog, “Reckless” and operated from a dilapidated 18’ skiff. All of the others in our group would beg John to join them in a more formidable boat sans Reckless; he would have no part of it.
On the fateful morning, the group had started early to take advantage of the morning incoming tide, so our ascent out into the sound was in pitch darkness. All boats had running lights, except John’s, he carried a weak flashlight tied to the gunnel.
Even at that early hour you could see a plethora of running lights in the distance. Everyone was out there looking. Our group hovered together with engines off waiting to hear that unmistakeable chaotic sound when the ravenous blues would pounce on a school of thrashing bunker.
We still could just barely see John’s “flashlight” off a couple hundred yards when the radio crackled “Got em at D4” … it was John and he was into action.
Our gang fired engines and went hell bent for the spot. We spotted John’s boat and got into furious action on 15# bluefish one after the other. In the mayhem, all ignored the other boats; too many fish to consider.
As first light cut into the darkness, I looked for John’s boat; found it 50 yards off and running in circles but couldn’t see John in the boat but heard Reckless barking frantically.
No wonder, John was in the water sans life jacket with his boat underway making erratic circles with the engine being forced back and forth with the wake. Reckless wasn’t helping as he ran back and forth in the boat that increased the erratic course.
One of our boats quickly got close enough and tossed unjacketed John a life ring. That answered the drowning fear but the collision threat was real and life threatening. We considered getting close enough to the circling boat and one of us jump aboard but Reckless would have none of that, as he watched us with bared teeth.
One of the other boats pulled their anchor line and untied the anchor and tossed the coiled line directly in the path of John’s circling skiff attempting to deliberately tangle the propeller and stall the engine.
And it worked! We helped a soaked and thankful John back into his skiff wearing a borrowed life jacket. As John had explained it, he was simply reaching for a net when his knee hit the tiller handle which spun the throttle and out he went head first.
So, the lesson, is that if you go it alone, put that inflatable or standard life jacket on and clip that “deadman’s lanyard” to your clothing” … anything can happen on the water, ask John.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.