“Don’t forget to take pictures, Ceej.”
My wife, Lisa, says this to me every time I take one or more of our children to a Red Sox game, a concert or a bowling alley. She likes to have documentation of our family outings and she enjoys creating calendars and albums from these photos.
Even though it seems absurd in this era of on-demand photography to remind someone to take pictures, she is right to do so. Because I never take pictures.
Well, almost never.
The camera on my phone contains an embarrassingly small number of photos compared to the average human being in 2017. I’ve never taken a picture of my food, my view from an airplane or even myself. (Am I the only smartphone owner on earth who has never taken a selfie? Probably not, but imagining that I am gives me a perverse sort of pleasure.) I don’t believe I’ve never posted a picture on Facebook or Twitter and, if I have, it was purely by accident. For some reason, I have an Instagram account even though I’ve never uploaded anything to it. Ironic, isn’t it?
So, what does the Photo section of my iPhone contain? Snapshots of shopping lists, mostly. So I don’t forget anything at the grocery store. Oh, and a few pictures of light bulb packaging so I know which LEDs to buy for our family room without having to bring the burned out bulb to the hardware store every time.
Look, if you’re one of those people who are constantly snapping away please don’t take this as an indictment of your camera habits. If it brings you joy, by all means party on, Wayne. I just want to tell you a story and I want to do it without any visual aid. If I do it right, you won’t need pictures anyway.
My son, Alex, turned 15 this past weekend. Alex is the middle child of three and, as I’ve documented on many occasions, he is both the best big brother and little brother on the planet. So, when he asked me if we could go fishing before he left for camp I decided to give him the birthday present he deserved. Instead of booking two passages on a party boat with fifty other fishermen as we’d done in the past, I got us a private 4-hour charter. I asked my dad to join us so that three generations of Kaplan men could enjoy an early summer day on the water together. If we happened to catch any fish in the process, then so much the better.
We left out of Gloucester Harbor on the north shore of Massachusetts. As anyone who has ever watched Wicked Tuna can attest, there’s a lot of great fishing to be had up Gloucester way. We weren’t after tuna on this day, though. Our quarry was striped bass, or stripers, as they’re known in the fishing community. Stripers are a favorite of recreational fishermen because they’re big, strong fish that put up a hell of fight. They’re so big, in fact, that you can’t keep any that measure in at less than 28 inches. When you’re throwing back fish that are over two feet long and weigh more than twenty pounds, you know the keepers are going to be something special.
Stripers rarely go after lures and they turn up their noses at anything that’s been frozen and thawed. They prefer live bait and their favorite snack is mackerel. So, our first order of business was to locate a school of mackerel and grab as many as we could. After a few unsuccessful forays, our captain guided us into shallower water and we dropped our lines there.
Mackerel will never be considered the geniuses of the fish world. In fact, they’ll snap at any shiny object that enters their sightline. Thus, our lines were rigged with bright red and green lures called (what else?) Christmas trees that we dangled enticingly about 20 feet below the surface. I felt a tug on my line and pulled up a couple of pollack. Now, a striper will scarf down a pollack in a pinch, but why have pollack-burger when you can enjoy mackerel mignon? At any rate, we had some live bait.
Suddenly, Alex’s line started bouncing up and down like a pogo stick. He reeled in quickly and deposited five mackerel onto the deck of the boat. Their silver bellies created multiple prisms in the June sunshine as they flopped crazily while Alex tried to scoop them up and get them into the barrel of fresh seawater the captain had provided as a holding tank. As Alex was chasing down his catch, my line jerked and I pulled four more mackerel onto the boat. Now we couldn’t get our lines into the water fast enough. The lures were actually being attacked on the way down. Every thirty seconds or so, another three or four fish would find their way into our holding tank. In under five minutes, we had over thirty mackerel of varying shapes and sizes swimming alongside my two original pollack. The captain allowed that we had plenty of bait and pointed the boat toward the open ocean.
“Jeez, Dad!” Alex exulted, his eyes bright and a huge smile pasted on his face, “We had more luck in the first hour than in all our past trips combined!” (I should mention here that our previous four outings had yielded a baby cod, a squid and a wayward crab who climbed up Alex’s line, took one look at us and threw itself back into the ocean. So, yeah, we were doing a little better this time around.) Alex, a phone shutterbug himself, snapped a picture of the full barrel of fish and posted it to his social network with the caption “HOLY MACKEREL!” Not the most original line, but I wasn’t going to play Creative Director today.
Once we were in deeper water, the captain cut the engine and got out the heavy-duty rods and reels. The stripers would’ve snapped the rods we used for the mackerel like toothpicks. We baited the hooks with a couple of the larger mackerel, set the rods in their holders and started trawling slowly back and forth.
If you’re doing it right, fishing is roughly 1% angling and 99% conversation. While we waited for the stripers to come to the mackerel buffet we’d brought them, Alex and I discussed his recently completed freshman year and his bittersweet feelings about the upcoming camp season (he’s in the oldest bunk this year, which means it’s his last year as a camper) while his grandfather lobbed in questions about potential girlfriends. You get three guys on a fishing trip and suddenly things that are not discussed on dry land are bandied about openly amid the rolling waves.
My dad was talking on the phone with my mom, who had called for the fifth time to see if I was wearing enough sunscreen (I’m just shy of 48, by the way) when, without warning, my rod bent nearly in half.
“Fish on!!!” we yelled, as my dad dropped his phone onto the deck. I grabbed the rod and felt the pull of something big on the other end.
“Let him run a little,” the captain advised. So, instead of fighting against the fish, I gave him some slack. Then, with the coaching of the captain, I kept tension on the line with brief pauses to reel against the slack. The striper showed himself briefly on the surface about twenty yards off our starboard side and then dove for the bottom. The line went limp and I thought I had lost him, but soon I felt a huge tug against the rod. He was close to the boat now and the captain grabbed a net. Guiding the line away from the gunwales so it didn’t snap, I negotiated the striper into the mouth of the captain’s net. It took both of us to haul him up onto the boat.
He was, indeed, a monster. Layers of gray, black and silver scales covered his expansive body while his while a thick, white underbelly bespoke a fish that had devoured more than his fair share of mackerel. Just by sight we knew he was a keeper, but we wanted an official reading nevertheless. The captain’s tape measure had him at 37 inches from nose to tailfin and, judging by the struggle I had getting him into the cooler chest, he was well over thirty pounds.
Alex was exuberant. We wouldn’t have to go back to shore and shrug sheepishly when somebody asked us how we did. All those times we’d been skunked suddenly didn’t matter anymore. The only thing that could make the day any better was if Alex caught himself a keeper. So, that became our mission.
After another hour in the deep water with a few nibbles, but no significant strikes, the captain decided to take us into the harbor to a place where he’d had a lot of success recently. We baited the hooks and cast them toward the rocks on the shore. Almost immediately, Alex got a bite. The captain made sure the hook was set and then basically let Alex fight the fish himself.
Alex listened to the captain’s instructions and started bringing the fish toward the boat. I reeled in my hook and watched Alex battle. Little by little, the fish got closer. He was good-sized. Not quite as big as mine, but definitely impressive. When he got within range, the captain netted him and brought him onto the deck. Now the only question was if Alex’s striper was a keeper.
(The first time we went fishing, Alex was only 6-years-old. After 4-hours with nothing to show but the aforementioned crab, we headed in. On the way back to the dock, Alex was very upset.
“Hey, man,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. You don’t always catch a fish.”
“But, what are we going to do for dinner?” he asked, near tears.
He was under the impression that our meal that night was dependent on us catching a fish. It was only after I assured him that we had a backup plan (pizza) that he calmed down. We still laugh about it nearly a decade later.)
The captain got out his tape measure and stretched it out in search of that magical 28-inch mark. We held our breath as the spool clicked all the way to 29 inches. Alex had his keeper.
“Guess what?” I said, hugging him. “You caught us dinner.”
“Yeah!” he beamed.
Alex and I caught five more stripers between us that day. None of them were keepers, but two were just an inch short. It didn’t matter, though. We were more than happy to put them back in the ocean and let them grow bigger for next time.
When we got back to the dock, the captain took pictures of us for his website and Facebook page. Alex and I stood side-by-side holding our fish and grinning like a couple of fools while the other fishermen gathered around to admire our catch. If I were going to script this day, I couldn’t have done it any better.
That night, my dad grilled the striper with a little seasoned salt and nothing else. It tasted of sunshine and the briny North Atlantic and the triumph of a father and son.
No photograph could do it justice.
* I requested that there be no accompanying pictures with this essay because, well, you know. The editor and I decided to go with an empty photo frame to invite your curiosity rather than having no photo and it appearing to be a glitch or error.
Photo credit: Getty Images