There are lots of reasons for a man to be alone on a beach at night trying to catch a fish. Love of fishing isn’t always high on that list.
The quest for solitude, to be alone with one’s thoughts. That is a common one. The need to get away from one’s wife and kids. That’s a good one, too.
But for men of a certain age, say 50 or older, the main reason is to get away from themselves. To have a clear purpose again, if only for a few hours. To avoid the drinking or TV watching or junk food eating, or whatever it is that gets them through the typical night. To pause, however futile the attempt, the creeping realization that no one much needs them anymore.
For Ethan Fromberg, life has been okay so far. Pretty good in fact. From the outside anyhow. But isn’t it always that way? He had a good wife, who still looked pretty good most days and treated him well. She didn’t give him much trouble when he said he wanted to go fishing, just so long as it wasn’t on a weekend night.
And he had kids too. One of each. Just like you read about. But they were grown and off now. It ate Kate alive that their family unit had dissolved so easily. To Ethan’s way of seeing things, 24 years of one or the other or both of them being at home was already pushing the natural limit of things. They needed to go, wanted to go, and he understood that and was happy for them.
But the house was a sad place.
The kids rooms were unchanged. Frozen shrines to yesterday’s glorious achievements. Third place in the sixth-grade spelling bee? The ribbon was still tucked into the edge of Kayla’s mirror. West Side little league championship team? The trophy sits proudly on the chest of drawers in Will’s room, religiously dusted by Kate every Thursday. Pennants from the kids’ colleges still flew at jaunty angles above their desks.
When Kate wasn’t deep into her despair of paradise lost—usually on Thursdays, after said dusting of the kids rooms—she was in bed, planted squarely in front of the television, binge-watching reality TV dating shows. It was a harmless vice as vices go, but it was one that kept Ethan away from her for long stretches. He hated those shows and she knew it. He would tinker in the basement workshop or watch some sports in the living room or resort to his own, slightly less harmless, vices of good bourbon and a little weed. On those occasions, he sometimes headed to the garage and broke out his vintage Telecaster and had a little jam session for one.
Both of them together, yet separately, acting more or less like teenagers. It made some sort of sense. When they had the kids their lives shifted gears into parent mode. The kids’ needs came first and childish pursuits of their own got put away. Not thrown away as it turns out, just put on pause.
By default, when the kids were gone, and the structure and organizing principles of their life were removed, they fell back to the patterns that immediately preceded the kids. They didn’t so much revert to their previous pursuits as they unpaused them.
Only things weren’t quite the same as in their early 20s. They didn’t have groups of like-minded friends to hang out with. The people they knew were now scattered across the country, some empty nesters like themselves, but others had gotten started later or were on their second families and still had their hands full with kids. Lucky them.
But unlucky Ethan and Kate. They pursued their youthful habits in parallel solitude.
One thing Ethan had loved as a kid was fishing. Every summer his family headed to the Cape for a glorious month of sun, shore dinners, sleeping late, and lots of beach time. It was the only month of the year his family was happy. His dad relaxed, his mom relaxed. They actually laughed together. It was nice.
His dad taught him to fish and for his 9th birthday, he got him a sweet Daiwa 9-foot rod and reel. He cherished that rod. He would ride his bike to the beach balancing the rod in his clenched armpit and fish for hours. He mostly caught sea robins that he carefully returned them to the sea. But one day he landed a snapper bluefish and his heart almost burst with excitement. He had no way of bringing the slippery flapping fish home on his bike, so he buried it deep in the sand to keep it cool and out of the sun, a technique he had learned from reading a book on shore fishing. He left a piece of driftwood sticking up to mark the spot. Racing home with adrenaline-fueled legs, he burst through the door to announce his catch. His dad drove him back down to the beach to get the fish and then cooked it up in a pan for Ethan’s lunch. It was probably the best meal of his life.
Attempting to recreate those moments with his own kids, Ethan did his best to get them into fishing. But the only time they seemed to enjoy it was when he rented a private boat and captain to take them out to where the fish were. They had no patience for standing on the beach casting and retrieving endlessly into the surf. He was tempted to say it was a generational thing, but he saw other kids out fishing. There were plenty of other activities he shared with his children. They had a lot of fun together. But not fishing. That was for Ethan alone.
He kept his rod on the roof rack of his modestly upscale sedan. He liked to think it gained him a little respect from the local tradesmen. When he was alongside a carpenter’s pickup truck at a red light, he would look over and nod with a little smile, imagining the workman saw his rod and approved. See, we’re in the same club, you and me. I may work in an office and speak a bit of french and eat farro with pesto sauce for dinner. But at heart I’m a guy like you. The carpenters nearly always averted eye contact.
On this particular Tuesday evening he was heading from his home in Weston to his usual fishing spot: Compo Beach in Westport. It had a jetty that jutted out into the Long Island sound and was a reliable spot for blues and stripers. During the day it was filled with local families and day-trippers from the city. But at night he had it mostly to himself. There would be the occasional teens drinking beer or other fishermen, but mostly it was just him.
When the sun went down and darkness set, you could stand out on the tip of the jetty and see across to the twinkling distant lights of Long Island. And if you turned your head to the right, you could see the blinking red lights of the chimney stacks at the Manresa Island power plant in Norwalk. The plant had been decommissioned years ago, but they still needed to keep the blinkers on to prevent low flying aircraft from hitting the massive brick silos. During the day the plant was an eyesore, but at night you could imagine you were far out at sea, and it was the blinking lights of a freighter off to some exotic port.
Ethan pulled into the parking lot just past the town softball field and began unloading his gear. The mid-September evening was warm still, so he opted not to wear his waders. He was going to be on the jetty and the wind was fairly calm, so there was really no need. When it was cold and the wind was churning the water into the jetty rocks, shooting pellets of icy water drops in every direction, then he had no choice but to throw on his clunky waders. But he was grateful tonight was not one of those times. His great fear in life was slipping on the rocks in his waders and having them fill up with seawater and, glug glug glug, down he goes before he is able to unhook and slip out of them. He shuddered as that image once again played in his head. Just part of the daily screening of the constant film noir series of his mind.
Before gearing up with his rod and shoulder bag of lures, spare leaders, knife and needle-nose pliers, Ethan grabbed his cell phone and called home. He would be out of communication for a few hours so wanted to check in with Kate. No answer. She must be doing her exercise video. She moved from one workout craze to the next, and every few months fresh crates of sleek new equipment arrived at their house. The previous gear would be replaced and moved to the back of the closet, then the basement, then the garage and finally complete their lifecycle on the curb. It reminded him of the charts from junior high school showing how water made its journey from the ocean to the clouds to the ground, then to rivers that fed back into the ocean to start all over again. He fantasized that Kate’s discarded stationary bikes, treadmills, rubber balls, rolling tubes and trampolines were simply being recycled into the next batch of stuff to arrive at their house.
Ethan held onto things longer. His fishing pole was going on 8 years old now, but he still thought of it as new. He held onto wounds, grudges, and perceived slights for even longer than his fishing gear. Every bad thing that had happened to him since childhood was still stuffed in the garage space of his head. He could not or would not push it out to the curb. It was getting crowded in there.
These nights of fishing served some purpose. What exactly he was not sure. But cathartic they were not. He cleared his head, yes maybe, but he did not empty it. It was more like turning out the garage lights so the crap wasn’t visible. But it was very much still there.
In fact, some rather sweet-sad memories revolved around fishing itself. The time his son caught his first fish at the lake upstate and Ethan couldn’t get the hook out of its mouth…it had swallowed it whole. They wrestled with the twitching wet beast on the heaving pontoon dock until they both almost fell in the water. Will, by this time, was hysterically crying for the poor fish, anthropomorphizing the pain and confusion it must be feeling. Out of its element. All it had wanted was some food, and here it was being twisted and tortured, unable to breath until what seemed like certain death. Just then the lake lifeguard arrived on the scene. She had seen the whole amateurish debacle unfolding, and raced over to save the poor fish. She deftly grabbed the fish behind the gills to stop its squirming and gave a firm pull and twist to free the hook. She gently placed the fish back in the roiled water and off it swam. She gave a disappointed look at Ethan. What kind of man brings his son fishing and doesn’t even know how to take the hook out? Ethan was ashamed. Will was shaken. No wonder he never agreed to go fishing anymore unless it was with a professional captain.
A vibration and a light in the darkness from his car snapped Ethan out of his revery. He quickly realized it was his phone. He grabbed it and his heart leapt with joy when he saw it was Kayla calling. But then he remembered that Kate was not answering calls at the moment. He was Kayla’s second option. He gave a less-than-excited hello.
This chipperness took Ethan a bit by surprise. And his mood immediately spiked. “Hey Kayla. Good to hear your voice. Everything okay?”
“Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t everything be okay?” “I don’t know. Just checking.”
“You have noooo idea.” Ethan replied in a deep sinister drawl, quoting Scar’s famous line from her favorite childhood movie, The Lion King.
Kayla laughed warmly. For a brief second they were attached again. Like they used to be when he would put her to bed and lie until her breathing fell into a steady sleep rhythm. Come to think of it, it was 8:30. Kayla’s bedtime. 14 years ago anyway.
After a pause to readjust to their new, more intimate, footing, Ethan said softly, “What’s up kiddo?”
“Nothing really. I was just thinking, dad. Remember that dollhouse you built for me?”
“I do.” He replied proudly. He had worked in the basement for months on a miniature version of their actual house, with removable roof and outer walls for Kayla to put her dolls and accessories in. Then he got Will to help him paint it just right, and they gave it to Kayla as a surprise gift. Not on her birthday or Hannukah, or anything special. Just a random Tuesday night before dinner when she was 8 years old.
“That was super nice of you.”
“Thanks Kayla. It makes me so happy that you still remember it.”
“You think we have that house around still? I’d kinda like to have it again someday.”
Ethan tensed up. “You’re not pregnant are you?”
“Jeez dad, why don’t you just go to the most ridiculous extreme! God no, Tim and I just moved in together. We’re not even engaged. And we’re not stupid either!”
Phew. “All right, all right, simmer down there. Just asking. You know, dollhouse and all.”
“I mean I guess I was kind of thinking along those lines. But not for a long time, don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried. I can’t wait…I need something to do with my time now that you guys are gone. And you’ll be a great mother.”
“Awww, thanks Dad. You’re a bit of a mother yourself.”
“Ha ha ha haaaa,” replied Ethan with a sarcastic fake laugh. “Good one, Kayla.”
She laughed. “Anyway Dad, track down the dollhouse for me if you could…text me a picture of it when you find it. Love you!”
“Love you too, sweet girl. Night night.” Click.
Back to the crickets and emptiness of Compo Beach. But now with a warmth in his chest that hadn’t been there before. And an optimism he hadn’t felt in a long time. His legacy wasn’t his career accomplishments, meager as they were, or his handful of okay songs he had written and recorded for posterity. Or his scattered friendships. It was his kids. He had an impact on their lives. And a lot of it was positive. He had poured his soul into theirs, and it had been appreciated after all.
With his small fishing flashlight swinging from its rubber loop around his neck, Ethan shouldered his lure bag, grabbed his rod from the rack on top of the car, kicked off his knock-around loafers and left them lined up next to the driver’s side door. He got his Crocs out of the trunk, slipped into them and locked the car with the push of the key fob, an electronic squonk confirming the car was in fact now locked. He began his walk through the brightly lit parking lot to the darkening edges of the beach, and the jetty beyond. The electric buzz of the parking lot light stanchions gave way to the dull roar of the surf as he crossed from the bubble of light into the blackness, like an astronaut leaving the earth’s atmosphere and heading into the dark unknown.
The gritty crunch of sand and pebbles on asphalt under his flip flop soles softened to the swish crunch of pure sand once he hit the beach. All sound faded except the white noise of the water and his eyes, unadjusted to the dark, were temporarily useless. But he knew where he was going, and allowed his muscle memory to transport him to the jetty. As his eyes adjusted, his hearing also sharpened, picking out the pattern of the waves in the white noise, a slight whistle of wind. He could feel the wind coming out of the east and blowing onshore. That would limit casting distance, but also hopefully push the baitfish closer to shore where the blues and stripers would come in close to feed.
Ethan loved these first moments of hitting the beach. The anticipatory rush of adrenaline quickened his pace as he imagined the giant fish waiting out there for him. All his senses focused outward on the bigness of the ocean, the vastness of the sky and the possibilities of the night.
He reached the first rocks of the jetty and stepped up. A little higher now, a little more exposed to the breeze, a little freer from the earth, he picked his way carefully out to the tip, making sure of his footings before placing the full weight of each step. The jetty was pretty flat, and tame as jetties went. The giant boulders were mostly level on top, but there was a little variation here and there, and the constant wetness made them slick. They sloped away gradually to the waterline.
Ethan had a bucktail tied on. It was his go-to lure for the rocks. It was a bright yellow teardrop-shaped hunk of lead, with a single plume of white feathers glued onto the back to tease a fish into biting. Underneath the feathers was a single large hook. Ethan had crushed the barb on the hook to make it easier for him to safely remove from a fish’s mouth without causing too much harm to the fish. He mostly released what he caught. Occasionally, he would bring home some bluefish to cook, but Kate wasn’t a huge fan of the smell of cooked bluefish, so most times, he didn’t bother.
But stripers, those were another story. They were much rarer, and also a much cleaner fish in taste and smell. Flaky, white, and tender, with none of the oily funk of bluefish. When he caught a keeper-sized striper, he always brought it home. But that didn’t happen often.
His dream, as yet unrealized, was to catch a “cow,” a large female striped bass, with a big fat pregnant belly. The male stripers were always leaner, as they did not have to carry extra nutrients and calories for eggs. So, you could catch a large male and still not have much meat for dinner. But even a relatively small female would provide some nice plump filets.
He was endlessly seeing stories and videos of lucky fishermen hauling in 30- and 40-pound cows up and down the Northeast coast. But his biggest from the shore was a 10-pounder. Still a nice fish, but he had been unable to break into the elite realm of the truly big fish.
On his 10th cast or so, Ethan felt the WHOMP of a fish hitting his bait. The rod bent and the line screamed out. Holy shit, he thought. Was this a shark? Or a ray that he had foul-hooked? He had never felt anything like it. And it was definitely moving, and changing direction quickly. So not a ray. He struggled to maintain his footing, tightened the drag on his reel a bit and held on for dear life.
He paused mid-fight, as he always did, to remind himself of the feeling. He tried to take a mental snapshot, “this is what it feels like to have a fish on the line.” He liked to access those memories during sleepless nights. The snapshot was crucial because all too soon the fight was over and the fish was swimming away. The night calm restored and it was easy to imagine none of it had ever really happened.
But not this time. He wasn’t gaining any ground on this fish. For every crank of the reel’s handle, he seemed to lose two cranks worth of line. He was becoming short of breath. Between the adrenaline and the effort, his heart rate was getting up there. He had had a mild heart incident years earlier and got extremely anxious whenever his heart rate elevated into the danger zone. His doctor said he was as healthy as anyone else his age and there had been no damage to his heart, yet still he could not shake the skittishness.
He loosened the drag and let the fish run to catch his breath. As he gathered himself on the rocks, taking deep breaths of fresh sea air, he laughed out loud and whooped with exhilaration. He had a fish on the line! A monster!
Ethan shook the tension out of his neck and shoulders, took one last deep breath and a long exhale, tightened the drag back and again felt the strength and terror of the fish. It was always a small miracle to him that standing out here lonely under the night sky throwing his tiny bait into the vast ocean every so often another life form made contact and the two of them danced, connected by the thin filament of his fishing line. It was surely as great a surprise and wonder to the fish as it was to him.
He needed to tire the fish out before it tired him out. He turned the rod tip hard left and walked back along a few boulders toward the beach to get the big fish to turn. He needed to make him change directions as many times as possible to wear him down.
A turn! Ethan headed back now toward the jetty tip. Aiming for another turn. Who was turning whom wasn’t quite clear. The fish was diving hard for the bottom now. Definitely a striped bass. A blue would be thrashing on the surface. And another turn! Ethan’s rod was arched at a near 45-degree angle. His back was sore. His lungs were burning and his crank hand and arm were wearing out.
He was gaining on it for sure. More line coming in than going out now. He took another break to get ready for what he hoped would be the final push. He loosened the drag just a bit, and took in the scene. The blinking red lights of the power plant seemed to be winking at him in congratulatory approval. They knew he could do it all along. The twinkle of the Long Island lights was a merry festive garland on the ocean. The sea itself was laying its ultimate gift at his feet…a trophy striper.
What had he done tonight that he hadn’t done hundreds of times before? Not a thing that he could think of. The universe just decided it was time to reward him. He tightened the drag and pulled back hard on his rod, drawing the fish several feet closer. He greedily cranked in the line as he threw the rod forward, gobbling up the slack with frantic cranks of the reel. He repeated this move four or five more times and the fish was now close enough that he could hear it breaking the surface, trying desperately to build up the momentum for a strong downward dive. But Ethan was winning. Each dive became weaker. The sideliner was now expending what energy it had left thrashing on the surface, trying to shake the hook. Ethan kept his line tight and steadily brough it in.
The fight had been going on for what? Five minutes, fifty minutes? Ethan had no idea. He had lost all sense of time. His mind had been cleared completely of all earthly thoughts or concerns. His entire world had become the rod in his hand, the fish in the sea, his feet on the rocks.
When a fish (or human) fights so hard and for so long, lactic acid builds up in their body and has nowhere to go. Striped bass, especially the big ones, conserve their energy by generally feeding on the scraps of other, younger and more energetic, fishes’ hard work. When bluefish or schoolie stripers are in a feeding frenzy on the surface, the cows will wait patiently underneath for injured and partially chewed debris from the melee above to drift to the bottom where they gobble it up uncontested. A fight with a fisherman puts them in a dangerously overstressed situation. Even when the fisherman releases the striper back into the water, and even when the fish swims away, many times it is too late for them to survive. The lactic acid is at toxic levels and they are hopelessly poisoned from within.
The lactic acid in Ethan’s body was likewise being produced at levels foreign to his usual laconic pace of life. His adrenaline was waning and the fatigue was becoming more apparent with each crank of the reel and each heave backward of the rod. His back was now throbbing, his shoulders and neck tensed and cramping. He wanted this to be over. The exhilaration had given way to exhaustion.
He contemplated cutting the line, but somewhere deep within him, the ghosts of a thousand fruitless nights fishing screamed no. He labored on. The fish now was within sight, still thrashing up whitewater, but only sporadically so. It was swimming and diving as best it could, but at this point its sheer size and weight seemed to be creating most of the resistance. Ethan had won the battle, he just needed to muster the strength to get the fish in and up onto the rocks. No easy feat in the slippery darkness.
Ethan grabbed the flashlight dangling from its rubber necklace and twisted it on. The red light gave a cinematic glow to the area. It was red to prevent dilating night-adjusted pupils. He popped the butt end of the small flashlight into his mouth and shone it in the water. The foam took on a sinister horror-movie vibe. The fish was mere feet from the nearest boulder now and the spray and foam was reflecting red like blood spurting from the stab wounds from hundreds of knives.
His heart rate was dangerously up there, probably 160 or higher, but he could not stop now. The fish was at the rocks, he needed to keep the line tight to get her slid up on the rocks, and then crawl down to the lower rocks himself to grab the fish. It was going to take some seriously nimble athleticism to pull this off. He should have led the fish to the beach he realized now, too late. He could have simply dragged it up onto the sand and done. Stupid mistake. So caught up in the glory of it all he forgot about the logistics.
He wanted a selfie too. How was that going to happen? He got his phone out and tried to prop it up against a rock, the screen saver came in showing Kate, Kayla, and Will smiling out from behind a birthday cake. They were glowing, healthy and looking right into his eyes. But he was far removed from that birthday night, here on the rocks, pushed to his limit, and frantically preparing to land the biggest catch of his life. The phone propped, he cranked the reel a couple of times to get the fish as close as possible to the rocks without actually hitting them, and he maneuvered to step down to the water’s edge. His footing gave way as he searched for purchase and he went over onto his side, his arm awkwardly twisting under his shoulder and his cheek squishing up painfully against the wet rock. He managed to hold onto the rod as his feet went into the cold water. He scrambled back to rock, but his feet had come out of his Crocs, and he could not gain traction. He needed his hands to grab a crevice or edge, but that would mean letting the rod go. He tried one handed but no luck. The weight of the rod and the pull of the fish was dragging him further into the water.
Ethan reflexively clamped the rod into his armpit, like he used to on his bike all those years ago, and used both hands to hold on. He found a sharp crevice between two boulders and wedged his fingers in. It hurt like hell, but he was no longer slipping into the water. He pulled himself up a bit. His legs scrambled onto the rock and into a fetal position. He was out! Thank god. He pulled himself up several inches more and was able to get on his knees and crawl a bit. He did a quick shift of his weight and a turn, and he was sitting safely on his butt on the lower rock. He still had the rod, and he still had the fish.
He gathered himself and cranked on the reel. He was almost eye to eye with the thrashing fish now. Just feet away. He threw the rod back up onto the rocks above and grabbed the line with his hand. He would pull the striper in from here. Hand over hand he brought in the line. Now he was at the leader, the last 4 feet of line, made from monofilament instead of the thin, cutting braided line that was the bulk of his spool.
With one long lunge, he reached his right hand down the leader to just above where the lure was tied on, and heaved back onto the rocks. It took all his strength but the fish came flopping up on to the rock between his legs. It had to be 4 feet long. And fat! This was the biggest striper Ethan had ever seen. Even in pictures.
With another twitch of its still-powerful tail, the line slipped his grip and the fish was back in the water. Ethan repeated the lunge and pull and got the fish back between his legs. This time, instead of admiring it, he reached into its mouth and secured a firm grip on its lower jaw. He struggled to get access to the needle nose pliers he had on his utility belt. He had to twist to get at them. He could feel his side muscles straining, pulling in fact, as he twisted while still wrestling the throbbing panicked bulk of the fish. They were cramping up painfully. He somehow got the pliers out and went in to remove the hook of the lure from the fish’s mouth. It was nearly impossible to get a grip on the straight stem of the hook. The fish had swallowed it deep. Every time he did manage to get a hold, it slipped off with a mighty twitch from the fish. He pulled the fish up closer to him and wrapped his legs around it in a scissor grip, interlocking his ankles below. He tried to grip it so tightly that the fish couldn’t move. But this proved to be wishful thinking, the fish had no plans to submit. They wrestled on the rocks until Ethan was able to get a decent hold on the lure with the pliers. He sat up to get a better angle and locked his arm into a right angle at the elbow and pulled straight back with all his remaining strength. Something gave suddenly and whomp! Ethan’s upper body flew straight backward and bashed his head into the rock behind him.
He felt the metallic iodine taste of blood in his mouth from the impact. He was dizzy and disoriented but still had the fish squeezed between his legs. The hook was out, dangling somewhere above the rocks behind him. He dropped his rod to make sure the bucktail didn’t come swinging for an eye or an ear. He laid back exhausted and in pain, He looked at the fish as it squirmed to free itself. He glanced up at the glowing screen of his phone, and the idyllic family portrait. A selfie seemed out of the question. But he wanted to try.
He twisted his body to reach his right arm up for the phone. He just managed to get his fingertips close. He made one more lunge and felt the edges of the phone case. As he brought his wet fingers together on the phone, it squirted away from him and clanged down the rock crevices and splashed into the water. The twisting had also loosened his legs’ grip on the fish and a final twitch of the massive fish’s dorsal muscles sprung it free and it, too, slithered down the rocks and into the water.
At first there was no motion from the water below his feet and Ethan feared the fish may have died from exhaustion. Within a minute or so there was a gentle thrashing and ripples of motion, and then a fin and tail appeared on the surface of the shallow water. The dorsal fin and the tail fin flexed tentatively a few times and the fish inched forward. Then they moved in opposite directions with powerful and confident coordination, and with a final splash the cow headed back for the deep, leaving a swirling eddy in its wake.
Ethan could feel warm liquid running down the back of his head. And throbbing pain from what might very well be a large gash from smashing his head against the rocks. He laid back gently and looked up at the stars. The rhythmic lapping of the water against the jetty was like a lullaby. I’ll just rest right here for a moment, he thought. And closed his eyes.
Joel Tractenberg is a NYC-based writer and advertising creative director who has yet to catch the big one.