My hangup on stripers started at eight years old. I was fishing a rocky shoreline when a striper that seemed to be the largest bass in the sea surprised me by inhaling a snapper bluefish I was pulling into shore. After a short struggle, which seemed like a lifetime, the line snapped and the striped bass disappeared beneath the disturbance it left on the calm surface. Shortly after this episode, I saved enough money through odd jobs and my paper route to purchase lures, a new spinning rod and reel, and stronger fishing line. That day started my quest for the striped bass of a lifetime.
Ten years later, it was 1969, and another striper season was beginning in the western waters of Long Island Sound. I still had not caught my striped bass of a lifetime, but I was well equipped with a host of rods and plenty of experience with fish over 30 pounds. Still, with each cast, I was optimistic that it would eventually happen.
Magic things were taking place in the striped bass world. The prior year, Charlie Cinto landed a striper that tied Charlie Church’s record of 73 pounds, set 55 years earlier. It was his striped bass of a lifetime. I was confident a striper existed, even if it was considerably smaller, that would fulfill my dreams. I understood it might not be a world record, but surely there was a fish out there worthy of many stories, a fish I would remember forever.
There was a short article in a local newspaper about Cinto’s fish. I cut it out and kept it, folded in my wallet, as some kind of good-luck charm. Surely, that type of magic would come my way. I was counting the days until the striped bass arrived and, like every year, I knew 1969 was going to be the year it happened.
However, the universe, and 1969, had different plans for me. All I could do was dream of that fish as days turned into weeks, weeks into months. One night while dug snug into the warm sand of a tropical beach, my mind drifted back to the newspaper story of Church and Cinto. I was amazed by the similarities between the two. They both had the same first name and same first letter in their last name. Both fish were caught relatively close to each other. Both fish were 73 pounds, each being the fish of a lifetime. On the beach, under the stars that night, I understood that my fish of a lifetime was not going to arrive in 1969.
The fall rolled into winter and then the spring of 1970. Somewhere during that stretch, I stopped dreaming about my fish of a lifetime. I lost the yearning I had for the smell of salt air and the spray of the water. My previous life seemed impossibly distant.
In June 1970, a very different man walked to the water’s edge and cast out a Rebel minnow. I was visibly older, much skinnier, and had lost my enthusiasm for fishing. My foolish, youthful dreams of catching the fish of a lifetime no longer mattered. At only 19 years old, it felt like the last time I’d made a cast was already a lifetime ago. It felt like I was going through the motions of fishing for no other reason than going through the motions.
It was either the second or third cast when a striper grabbed the Rebel minnow, jolted the rod, and stripped some meaningful line off the reel as it headed for freedom. After a few short runs, I had the fish at my feet. It was 15 pounds or so, not a giant, and certainly not even close to the fish of a lifetime.
I released the fish, sat down on a rock, and attempted to compose myself, but the tears swelled in my eyes. The warm summer nights in Vietnam were now behind me, as were the dark winter nights in hospital beds. Thanks to that striper, I realized my world was okay. I had just released my striper of a lifetime.
I sit now with fewer casts in front of me than behind me, yet each spring on Memorial Day, I think back to that evening. I can’t help but pause and reflect on the men and women who served and serve today. It is because of their heroics and sacrifices that we retain the right to pursue our dreams and our individual “fish of a lifetime.”
This Memorial Day, enjoy the parades, hotdogs, and a long weekend of fishing. Enjoy your time on the water. And, please take time in your thoughts to pay a short moment of homage to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. Then, go catch your fish of a lifetime.
Dedicated to the men of the Americal Division, 4th Bn, 21 Inf. 11th Bde. and all those who have served and do serve.