Baiting the Hook with Friendship

On Tuesday, after reeling in my first fish ever, I lifted up the big bluefish and turned around to see my friends Tom and Mike with their iPhone cameras perched over wide smiles. They were as exhilarated as I was. Perhaps this is what happens when you combine two guys who have a bunch of Derby pins and plaques with their pitiful friend who’s fished the Derby the last three years without a single catch.

Before Tuesday, I’d never even felt close to a fish. I’d like to claim total ignorance and inexperience, but other fish-catching friends had taught me a few things. My own fear of looking like an idiot has kept me from actually fishing enough to get comfortable, and standing on the shore in the cold, damp wind has come to seem like a waste of time.

I decided not to register for this year’s Derby. Then one September evening, I went to the Wharf for a beer and ended up going home with a registration pin and my fourth derby cap (light blue this time). My friends, the svelte Tom O’Hanlon and the dashing Mike Poirier, had come by the bar before heading over to weigh in a couple of bluefish. Tom promised if I registered I’d catch a fish. “Really? You can promise me that?!” He didn’t flinch.

This was my chance, since Mike runs charters off his boat, Deceiver, and Tom is happy to be first mate. Tom said he’d call me when conditions were prime. Weeks went by. Finally Columbus Day weekend came with bright warm days, and the end of the Derby in sight.

I called the fish promiser: Tom couldn’t go until Tuesday, when I was supposed to be back at work, but I couldn’t go through my fourth Derby without a catch, never mind without wetting a line.

So, like pretty much everyone else who fishes, I skipped out of work and went out to sea. Tom and Mike usually stick to the flyrod competition, so I hoped I wouldn’t be in their way. But quickly I realized that for them, this trip was all about getting me a fish.

At first I felt bad they were sacrificing their own ambitions to help me, but they were basking in the leisurely pace and seemed genuinely happy to have me do all the reeling of the fish. I had heard fishermen complain about sore arms, so I was ready to be strong. And the first fish was no problem. But I didn’t just catch my first fish that day. I reeled in six — and a seventh that didn’t make it all the way to the boat. They gave me great pointers about how to hold the rod, how to stand, and how to reel all these monsters in — each seemed bigger than the last as my arms stopped working.

People have asked where I caught my 9.14-pound first fish, but I don’t really know. There was water all around the boat. We were near some kind of marker. It was choppy enough that someone could have been seasick — luckily none of us were.

That night Tom and Mike came to the weigh-in with me with no fish of their own, but it didn’t seem to matter. The camaraderie and sharing the love of the sport led them to suggest my next outing: bow hunting.

Reprinted from the October 15, 2010, edition of the Vineyard Gazette.