Catching the Big One
A true fish story that hooked a rookie. . . and helped raise funds for a good cause.
What is it about fishing that seems to inspire famous sayings, many of which have become part of our language? Why does fishing turn rational men (and women!) into obsessed individuals who will sit motionless for hours waiting for that perfect catch?
How could a woman—a mother and a wife, a professional with a good career, a dedicated member of a local garden club for God’s sake—turn into a screaming banshee, hurling curses at a big fish in the pre-dawn hours of a cold rainy Cape Cod morning, throwing every ounce of strength and determination into reeling in the ONE that didn’t get away?
This is my fish story. And it’s all true. I even have witnesses.
I have always loved the ocean, coming from a family of sailors, lobstermen, seafood chefs, fish market owners—I think there’s even a few whalers somewhere in our family’s foggy past. For a large part of my life, I have lived less than a mile from the salt water. But until last summer, when a friend reeled me in to an Osterville Anglers Club fishing tournament for a good cause, I had never touched a fishing pole. I thought jigging was something my grandparents used to call dancing.
And the only time I ever talked about fishing was when I used one of those sayings to sum up a situation, like “Fish or cut bait.” Any one will tell you that editors have a bad weakness for quotes, aphorisms, or clever sayings of any kind.
Last spring, my friend Missy called and asked if I would like to take part in an Osterville Anglers Club fundraiser for the American Cancer Society’s “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” event called the Ladies Shoal Troll. Missy—who falls hook, line, and sinker for lots of good causes—asked if I wanted to come along for the fun. “You can write about it for the magazine,” she said. “You don’t have to actually fish. Just come!”
How bad can this be, I thought. Cruising around on a nice summer Saturday morning with a boatload of fun women captained by a cute guy? “Sure,” I said to Missy. “I’ll do it!”
The first glimmer of reality came when I heard that we had to get up, on my day off, before sunrise. When my alarm woke me, it was dark out and pouring rain. I sank back into my pillow and thought, “Oh good, it’s raining. We won’t go!” This relief was quickly followed by the realization that fish—obviously—don’t care if it’s raining.
I gulped down some coffee and dashed through puddles to the dock in Osterville where our resourceful captain, Scott Swaylik, and his dad, Dick, waited for their crew to appear. The crew (some dressed in flip-flops and short-shorts) crowded on to Scott’s 28-foot Mako center console boat, the First Nichol.
After some quick instructions, we headed out of the harbor in the near darkness. By the time we cleared the cut near Dead Neck and Sampson’s Island, the all-female crew in the open cockpit were soaked to the skin. We huddled together and tried not to think about warm beds left behind. Breakfast. Saturday mornings with nothing to do.
Someone finally asked where we were headed. “Nantucket!” Captain Scott said with a jaunty grin, warm and dry beneath his boat’s hardtop roof. We grimaced and huddled closer. We were out there all alone, just us and far away in the distance a flock of birds, diving and hovering over the water, busy catching . . .fish.
Scott and Dick, experienced fisherman with long reputations for reeling in big ones, headed towards the birds. “Okay ladies,” said Scott. “Everybody’s fishing!” I demurred. Said I had to write a story. Take photos. “Nope, everyone fishes,” said Scott firmly. Soon I was planted in the stern of the boat, a large plastic belt around my waist. A big fishing rod was put in my hands, anchored in the belt.
“This is how you jig,” said Scott, showing me carefully how to whip the rod back and forth over your shoulder before letting the lure (colored an appropriate pink to honor the fight against breast cancer) fly. I braced my feet and give it my best shot.
“I’ll just try it a couple of times,” I thought to myself. “Then maybe Missy will give me some of her snacks. The sun might come out and I can work on my tan for the party tonight.” Suddenly I felt a ferocious tug on my line. The rod in my hands bent in half.
“FISH ON!” yelled Scott. And that was the moment when everything else dropped away and I became completely, totally obsessed with getting that fish in the boat. I reeled and reeled. Tried not to think about the pain in my shoulders and my arms. Cursed the hours I missed on the treadmill at the gym. Kept reeling.
The fish leapt in the air over a wave, shining in the dim morning light, about 30 feet away. “It looks like a big one,” someone said. I gritted my teeth and kept reeling. Twenty feet. Fifteen feet. “I can’t do this!” I said to my cheering crew members. “Yes, you can, keep going!” they said. “Bear down, come on!” I felt like I was giving birth.
Somehow, with the support of my sisters and the guidance of the captains, the fish slashed and flailed beside the boat. Scott leaned over and with a big net, dumped the whale—I mean the striped bass—into the boat’s cockpit. I collapsed into my crews’ happy arms.
“THAT is a big fish,” said Scott. “It is?” I said, having absolutely no frame of reference for the size of a catch. And after careful weighing, Scott said,” I don’t know, but that just might be a winner. Definitely one of the top three of the day.”
I begin to feel a warm glow in my heart, somewhere between shaking shoulders. The ladies cheered. We all high-fived, and then kept on fishing for six more hours, in search of maybe even a bigger bass and the biggest blue. Trying to best 18 boats with nearly 70 ladies trolling.
Soon the sun came out. I peeled off my pink slicker and lolled in the sun. Cheered crewmate Suzie Glover’s big 15-pound blue. Shook my head in amazement over Missy, Donna, and Robin, who must have reeled in at least 30 blues and several good-sized bass.
Finally at high noon, we headed triumphantly back to Crosby Yacht Yard, boosted by Scott’s claim that we might, just might, win it all. At the weighing station on the dock, a small crowd gathered. Other captains and crews strained to see what lay in wait in Scott’s big cooler. I knew my bass was on the very bottom.
We had some tough competition. One boat landed a whopping 26-pound bass. “Wow,” I said to the fisherwoman, who towered over me at nearly six feet. “THAT’s a big fish.” My heart sank, sure that we had lost the day. “Don’t worry,” said Captain Scott, quietly. “I still think you’ve got her beat.”
And then it was the moment of truth. I hauled my fish out of the cooler with both arms. Put him on the scale. Held my breath, my teammates and our captains huddled close. “Weigh it one more time,” said the helpers. I lugged him up and put him back on the scale.
“27.75 pounds!” said the woman at the scale. We all cheered, danced a few jigs. Hugged each other, not minding the fact that we were covered in fish blood and guts. Cheered some more. Had our pictures taken for posterity.
So that’s my fish story. And yes—it’s true—my fish was the biggest fish and the striped bass winner of the day, and our crewmate Suzie Glover caught the biggest blue. We were triumphant. I called my husband, my kids, my incredulous mother.
Later that day at the Osterville Anglers Club awards ceremony, some longtime anglers congratulated me. One said, “You know, there are members of this club who have waited their whole lives to catch a fish like that.”
My husband and I headed home, happy to share 28 pounds of fresh bass with family, friends, and co-workers. And of course, I have told my fish story to hundreds since then. It never gets old.
In a few weeks, on July 28th, the Ladies Shoal Troll will be held again. Our crew have rallied together and will be heading out again with Captains Scott and Dick on the First Nichol. I am sure that Lady Luck will not strike for us twice. But you never know.
After all, there are plenty more fish in the sea.
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