Congratulations to Jim Barker, winner of On The Water’s 2014 Fishing Fiction Contest. Jim will receive a brand new Shimano Saragosa SW reel for his winning submission, featured in the March edition of On The Water Magazine.
by Jim Barker
Sitting on the tailgate of his truck, struggling into a pair of waders so long unworn he wasn’t confident that they wouldn’t leak, Jim thought about how his wife was going to react when she found out he had thought up the simple ruse of getting her to a film festival with the girls just so he could sneak out and catch the evening tide at its peak and make some casts before the ebb was in full swing. He thought about how peeved she would be that he’d gone and risked falling among the jagged rocks of the jetty…at night, no less. But if not now, when? The window of opportunity was closing. It was time to get back in the saddle and show people he didn’t need to be shepherded so much, even if he’d accepted that he would never be the same person he had been.
It was almost two years earlier when he had opened up to her about the health issues he’d developed. A colonoscopy led to the diagnosis, tears, agony. Just shy of 53, the news hit like a major league wild pitch. Then reality set in, and after a consultation a short time later, he had a good feeling about the oncology surgeon his family and friends recommended. He was scheduled for surgery up at the university hospital a week later, where they removed a tumor the size of a deck of cards along with a portion of his colon.
She was there both times in pre-op when they knocked him out and post-op when he came to, playing her cellphone games and smiling as the anesthesia wore off. She listened to his incoherent ramblings and monitored him like a doctor as his faculties slowly returned, then visited each day, staying until he fell asleep, and continuing her daily visits until he was finally released.
“Damn, lousy, gruesome, #$@%&$% experience,” he now thought to himself as he struggled to secure his boots. He recalled the tube down his throat, the maze of IV tubes, and the 30 staples running down his abdomen like a zipper holding a long surgical line closed. He thought of the damn bag that was glued and re-glued to his side every few days until the nine months of chemo was over and a final surgery would reverse the ostomy, or as he described it, make him a complete ass again.
Shaking those memories out of his head, he focused his attention on his rod and tackle bag, headlamp, permit, knife, pliers and gaff. That was plenty, as he really wanted to take just a few casts and then get home before she did. Back a few years, he would have hauled more, but not knowing how successful a venture this would be, he decided to go light the first time out. Jen would no doubt call his stunt stupid, “…so why not keep it simple that way,” he chuckled to himself.
The trek out to the jetty once again confirmed, as did most any walking in cold or damp conditions, that he had suffered permanent nerve damage in his hands and feet from the chemo. That was his primary concern—that the pins-and-needles feeling was not only a little painful but left him unsteady on his feet. “Danger, Will Robinson, a fall is imminent,” he said as a heads-up to himself, again chuckling at his own expense. He decided that he didn’t need to risk falling on the sharp hook of the gaff so he stashed it in a rosehip shrub along the path; memory permitting, he’d pick it up on the trip out.
He could smell the salt and hear the waves gently lapping at the beach and turned on his headlamp to make his way since the sand would soon give way to the embedded rocks marking the beginning of the jetty. That much he hadn’t forgotten in his absence from the sport. A seasoned fisherman would probably scoff at the use of the light, arguing that the glare on the water would only turn fish away. “Screw ’em,” he mumbled. He was already moving along the rocks at a snail’s pace, hesitant to put the next foot forward until he could clearly see the makeup of the surface. A discarded fish rack, broken glass or part of a gull-dropped shell would be enough for him to lose his footing. The thought of falling on a hard, unforgiving boulder, or worse, into a crevice in between several boulders, made him second-guess his intentions a bit. Besides, he knew he’d inevitably take some lumps from the boss when he arrived home later that evening.
Finally reaching the slight bend in the jetty, he knew he was about halfway to the point.
He thought he sensed silhouettes moving around further out at the tip and decided that he’d gone far enough and was at a safe enough distance to keep from disturbing them, whatever they were up to. The slight elbow in the jetty had been a producer before; maybe it still held a little mojo.
The jetty marked the entrance from the sound into the river, and the street lights and houses on the opposite side provided enough light to tie on a swivel and a length of fluorocarbon followed by a “blurple” darter he’d finished off in the garage some years earlier. The first cast felt good and not at all rusty like he imagined he would feel after so long a layoff. His 11-foot standby paired with the old Penn 704 still talked to him as he reeled, “A-Rr, A-Rr, A-Rr, A-Rr, A-Rr…” It was a comforting sound. He settled into a rhythm, fan-casting the first ten on one side of the jetty and then switching to the other side for ten more, knowing that a big bass might not hit its prey at one angle, but would destroy it at another. Fifty casts later, he’d felt a single bump, with no serious takers.
“The jetty may still have mojo,” he thought, “but perhaps it’s time to retire the darter to a more suitable spot hanging from the rafters of the garage with the rest of the pluggage.” He’d trimmed down his tackle bag, so there was now only one plug per each of the six tubes, plus the jig pocket. It was easier to manage at night, and he could immediately tell what each was by its feel, even in his numbed hands.
“Eeny, meeny, miney, mug, what is going to be the next plug?” He really loved the Cutty popper, but made it third in the order and next tied on a dark-olive-over-yellow jointed flaptail sand eel. It was longer and heavier than the darter, a little harder to throw. Casting parallel to the jetty, he could see the splashdown about 75 yards away followed by the subsequent v-wake resulting from an ultra-slow retrieve. He looked away briefly as a light out in the sound caught his eye; looking back, he lost track of the lure. A split-second later it was clear why, as his rod was practically ripped from his grip.
“Arrrrgghhhhh. Hold on! Hold on! Come onnnnn! Crap! Hold on!” he shouted, hardly realizing what was actually spilling from his mouth or how loudly. The fish had completely blindsided him and he struggled briefly to compose himself and make sure he wasn’t about to step off the edge of anything. The rod went parabolic and the fish was peeling line at a pretty good clip as he tightened down on the drag to see if he could turn the fight in his favor. It was give-and-take and some serious grunting for a good ten minutes before he could feel the force of the head-shakes beginning to wane. The cow wasn’t done yet, but his arms and back were sure beginning to feel the fight.
A brief lull in the tug-of-war found him holding the forward grip of his rod with both hands, leaning back slightly, neither making nor losing ground to his as-yet-unseen adversary. He sensed it might be a bass from the almost sluggish way it fought at times. Looking down, he realized that from where he stood—and without his gaff—he could not possibly land the fish.
“Rookie mistake ditching the gaff, pal,” he muttered to himself. “So what are you going to do now?” As his eyes had become adjusted to the dark, he hadn’t felt it necessary to keep his headlamp on, but he’d need it now to locate a place to land his catch. At least he had his Korker spikes on so he would have some stability on the slick rockweed that blanketed the boulders. Just keeping tension on the line now, he focused his light and made his way to a spot up the jetty he’d spotted. It was an area that was flat on top, then there was a moderate crevice to get over to reach a nearly flat surface of boulders puzzled-in together that angled not too steeply down almost to the water’s edge. He focused his light in the crevice and found he could step in, then would be able to swing himself around and make his way down the rock face on his butt, then jam the heels of his
Korkers in a cleft to hold steady and land the fish.
Just as he began his descent, he got the sense he wasn’t alone. The four souls who had been at the point were making their way back and were standing above, watching him, holding grossly mismatched rod and reel setups and those 5-gallon buckets that reeked of ill-gotten, undersized catch.
“Ahhh, the freakin’ bucket brigade. Just be neighborly,” he whispered to himself, and then turned and looking upward, asked, “How’s it going. How’d you guys do out there on the point tonight?” There was no response to the questions, but there was a question in return, “You keep fish?”
“Nah, I’m thinking about letting her go tonight,” he said.
The voice asked, “You give fish up?”
“I tell you what, you show me just one in-state saltwater permit and she’s yours. Otherwise she swims away.”
Jim went back to landing the fish. She was close and she was tired. Suddenly, there was the sound of a glass bottle crashing on the rocks around him, followed by a hail of expletives. He reached up, turned the lens and the headlamp went dark, making him less of a target, he hoped. He sat motionless, one arm protecting his head and neck, anticipating the next round, but it didn’t come. Thankfully, they’d moved on. Out loud, he said, “Hey Jimbo, I guess we know who didn’t get their fishing permits this year, huh?”
Wedging the rod butt between two rocks, he hand-lined the fish in, and a cooperative swell brought her right up the rock face onto his lap. She was a big striper, but no record holder – about 40 inches, he estimated, holding her up against the markings he had on his rod. The big striper was spent, and Jim feared she wouldn’t revive so he decided to take her home and fill the freezer with filets for the winter. The adrenaline rush from everything that had happened in the last 20 minutes had his heart pumping, so having to make two trips up the rocks, once with the fish and once for his rod, didn’t really faze him at all. He was a little ticked off when he figured out his plug bag had been clipped, but chalked it up as his second rookie mistake of the night, another he knew better than to have made.
As he eased his way off the jetty, he could see a cruiser coming down the beach road with its lights flashing. “Don’t suppose they’re coming to get those thieves who stole my gear,” he thought, and hustled his gait a little to see if he could make it back to the parking lot to watch the action. When he got there, though, the only soul around was a fish and game warden Jim had long known, who was just ending a radio call.
“Jimbo, don’t suppose you have a really good excuse for being out on that jetty tonight, do you?”
“Good evening to you too, Warden Jeffries,” he responded, “Just catching up on some long-overdue night fishing. What’s with all the flashing lights? What the heck is going on, anyway?”
“Well, you idiot, your wife was pretty darn concerned when she got home to a dark house and there was no sign of you. There was no note and you weren’t answering your cell phone, so she called the station a while ago. You’re in deep doo-doo on the home front, my friend. I would not want to be in your shoes when you get back to the house.”
Jim half smiled, “Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t want to be me either right now. How mad do you think, on a scale of one to ten?”
Jeffries shook his head and leaned into the cruiser and grabbed something off the passenger seat. “She was probably around a fifteen when I hung up with her, but hey man, seriously, after all you’ve been through together, and you know what I’m talking about, you know better than to go off the grid like that, and alone for that matter. I’m not going to stand here and lecture you, but if you were to get hurt out there or take a spill and end up in the drink – or worse – there’d be no one coming for you. Hey, a short while ago I busted four guys down by Cove Light for possession of twenty or so short fish. Sound familiar? When I cited them and searched their car, I found a plug bag and figured the ‘JB’ inside the flap might be you.”
He placed the plug bag on the hood. “One of them even got a conscience and told me about a guy they’d had a run-in with out on the jetty who might be hurt, so I drove out to check. I know your truck and could see your frame lumbering up the trail from the jetty when I pulled up, so I called Jen to let her know you were okay.”
Jim looked off into the dark and thought for a moment, then began to speak, “Yeah, I guess it was sort of a boneheaded move on my part. I just thought if I let on what I had planned she would have handcuffed me to the fridge before she went out. I wasn’t committing a crime or anything, I just wanted to assure myself I can still man up a little, but I appreciate your concern, Steve. Guess it’s time to head home and face the music. I’ll see you around.”
Jeffries got in his car and rolled down the window. “Hey Jimbo,” he called out, “Get yourself a fishing partner and you’ll be fine…oh, and I’m pretty sure that florist you pass over on School Street is still open.”