Recently, many of my old friends from Wantagh and I were reminiscing on Facebook about our many youthful summers spent at Jones Beach, Long Island. It got me thinking about a story I wrote quite a while ago (1990) about a day’s fishing at Jones Beach with my dad. I also thought that as long as we’re all probably in that Christmas spirit of remembrance, I would share this little piece of Wendt lore. I actually wrote this story for my dad at a time in our lives when things weren’t always the best between us. And this story really is about more than just a day’s fishing, and it did bring my dad and me much closer together. I hope you enjoy it, even though it’s quite a bit longer than my usual photoessays.
FAITH, LOVE AND FISHING
A LIFE’S LESSON
This was not an ordinary Saturday morning. I was going fishing. Stripers; just me and dad!
For me, this was to be a day of transition. I was to learn the inner secrets of catching the infamous striped bass. I was to leave the house a boy, and return a seasoned fisherman. My father (Fred), like his father before him, was to pass down to his son the mystical secrets of landing this mighty fish. That day I came away with much more, but it took me almost thirty years to fully understand the lesson I had learned.
My Dad and his mom prior to leaving for WWII
What I knew about the wily striped bass, I knew from dad. Their place at the top of the fisherman’s heap, their fighting ability, their overall importance to anyone who knew anything about fishing on Long Island, I knew from dad. My attraction however, to the whole idea of fishing, of getting up at some ungodly hour in the morning, came from within. It came from generations of fishermen; forever bound within my genes. My inner rhythms were tidally synchronized with those of this elusive fish. This gave me the ability to awaken naturally two hours before the change of tide, so we could get to the beach at just the right time. This “right” time, for some unknown reason, was always hours before dawn. But every fisherman knew and accepted that, and never questioned it.
Anyway, it was three-something in the morning and I was up. Dad was due to arrive in a little while. He didn’t live with us any more, this being a somewhat recent complication. At eight years old, it was also one that I didn’t fully understand yet. But it was one that couldn’t interfere with my special day. This was not going to be just an ordinary fishing trip for me. This was just me and dad; my older brother Chris was not going along. He wouldn’t be there to make me feel younger than my eight full years.
Chris’s absence was kind of a two-edged sword, though. Until now, Chris got most of the attention when it came to proper fishing instruction. He also had to face a father’s disappointment when he came up empty handed at the end of the day. I, on the other hand, was free to experience the full adventure of the beach, in its entire wondrous splendor. To a boy of seven or eight, no greater place existed that could challenge the imagination like the beach on Long Island. Tide pools, shells, sand dunes, driftwood from exotic and far away places. It was all there to be explored.
But now this childishness would soon be behind me, as I was ready to embark on a new frontier. The mysteries of catching the feisty striper would again be handed down, and this was my day! I was ready. My tackle was all cleaned and strategically placed throughout my tackle bag, as it had been for several days now. I could tell that this truly was going to be a different kind of day for me. My mom wasn’t already up and making breakfast for us like she usually did when I tagged along on such adventures. I was on my own, from the beginning. So I whipped up my Cheerios and sat at the big table like the true sportsman that I was.
Still dark outside, the kitchen seemed especially quiet. I could hear the ticking of the old Timex Big Ben in the corner by the stove. After I finished my hardy breakfast, I began what seemed like an eternal vigil for dad. As I waited by the window in the living room my head began to fill with wild expectations of what may lie ahead. How would it feel to land a striper? A big one!
You see, I was still a virgin. I hadn’t yet landed a “keeper”. While I may have landed a few undersized “shorts”, I haven’t had the thrill of actually fighting a big fish. But my waiting was over. I saw the headlights pulling into the driveway and I was out the door, gear in hand. As I approached the car I could see that he brought the station wagon, a big Mercury. This was a car he had won in a raffle a year or so ago, and made it his fishing car. Complete with big balloon tires and a mattress in the back, this car could go anywhere it needed in order to chase the mighty striper. The sight of it alone was enough to conjure up expectations of grand proportion.
Fresh with my newfound sense of impending transition, I tried to downplay my exuberance. I gave my dad a rather tentative “Hi, how ya doin?” My somewhat tentative greeting was also made easier to accomplish, as I hadn’t seen him in several weeks. As always, I was sure he had selected in advance the exact spot where we would fish. Before this special day (back in my childhood) I was more motivated about the spot he picked based on its exploration possibilities. Upon entering the car, I would immediately begin pestering him to tell me where we were going. But today was different. I was going to fish; we were going to fish! This was not kid’s stuff, so I patiently waited until he told me where we were going. As we headed down the road past some of my friends’ houses, he casually suggested that we “hit Jones Beach”. I casually responded with a “Yea, that sounds pretty good to me, how’s the tide doin?” I thought I would impress him with my knowledge of the sea, and my complete focus on fishing only. He said that the tide was going to be just right, and that he heard that the stripers were running hot along the sand bar at Field 9.
Inexperienced in such matters myself, I didn’t know how he always knew where they were, or what the tide was doing, but he always did. Even if it was pure hype, I succumbed to its powerful influence. I instantly wanted to be there with my line in the water. I know we talked for the thirty-minute drive down to the beach, but to this day I couldn’t remember what about. When you’re going fishing, all talk is small talk, and who remembers that.
As we pulled into the Field 9 parking lot it was still pitch black out. Our only field of vision was that provided our headlights. Finally, we stopped, and I couldn’t wait to get out and retrieve my fishing tackle from the back of the car. When he turned off the engine, the familiar sound of waves breaking on the beach overtook me. It was a powerful sound, telling me that the waves were big, much bigger than usual. This sent a small shiver of fear up my spine, scared that the big surf would somehow hinder my plans for this momentous day.
But one thing at a time. Just then dad began speaking, in his fishing voice. This was a somewhat subdued tone, but not quite a whisper. This, I was sure, was designed to not scare the fish away; a code of behavior he developed from his youth, now a natural instinct. This only served to renew my previous level of excitement. He said that it sounded pretty wild out there, but that stripers like the rolling surf. This was all I needed to hear. “Lets go!”, I said, and with that I was out and gathering my waders, tackle bag, and surf‑casting rod from the back of the station wagon.
The early morning air was cold and damp, but I was dressed for it. I had planned for this, and so far, I was doing pretty well. That first blast of sea air, no matter how cold, always saturated my senses and served to get me in the proper “beachy” mood. Not that I needed any extra stimulation on this day.
I wanted to put on my waders and set up my pole, complete with the right rigging of hooks and sinkers, here in the parking lot. Then, once we arrived on station, I wouldn’t have to do anything but cast my line. I already knew how to set up my rod, but was clueless as to exactly which rig to put on it for today’s match with the mighty striper. Dad came over as I began going through my tackle. He casually scanned the contents of my tackle bag. I nervously looked on. Then he picked up a specific rig and said that he was going to use his rig just like this one. I said “Good, I’ll use this one too and stripers beware!”. I felt proud that I had the right rig in my bag ‑ this day couldn’t be going any better.
I proceeded to attach the rig to the end of my new monofilament line. Naturally, I had previously put new line on to secure every possible advantage for the ensuing battle. I looked up at dad and he too was busy securing the proper hardware. I had pretty decent skills in this regard, knowing all the right knots and just how to tie them. This masterful art was acquired over many outings with Chris down at the lake by our house in search of the much inferior sunfish, or “sunny”. Same skill, different scale. Because the sun was not up yet, I had to employ my newly acquired flashlight. Especially designed for fishing, it hung around my neck, allowing my hands to work their magic. In attaching the hook and sinker rig to the end of my line, I got the proper knot on the first try. I was standing close enough to dad to see him scan my handiwork. He said nothing. It must have been perfect, for I knew that he would make me do it over again if it wasn’t right. My confidence was building by the minute. At that moment, I was sure that the only thing that stood between a trophy striper and me was the hundred or so yards to the surf. Dad said, “OK son, lets go get some fish!”.
The sun was starting to lighten the morning sky as we headed towards the surf. We walked, poles over our shoulders, down the beach towards the sunrise. It was beautiful. It reassured my feeling that this was the only place in the world to be at that very instant. The walk to the sand bar was a little longer than I anticipated. My bulky waders and the soft sand under my feet made it seem even longer. The hard work of getting there served to calm me down, though. It also made me feel that now there was a debt owed me by these unscrupulous fish.
As sunrise continued to unfold, the full rage of the pounding surf revealed itself. The rollers, one after another, were stacked taller than me. This was not going to be easy, I thought. I was not prepared for this. The stripers might like these conditions, but I felt at a distinct disadvantage. I continued to walk, keeping my apprehensions to myself. Dad, a seasoned veteran of all such conditions, did not appear the least bit concerned. After a few moments, he stopped, turned into the wind, and faced the pounding surf head on. I looked up at him and watched as he gazed, all‑knowingly, at the scene before him. I too turned and faced the rolling surf. To me it looked like one continuous series of breakers, extending out from the beach perhaps several hundred yards. He must have sensed my inability to decipher these conditions. Pointing to a rather thin line of foamy surf beyond the second or third set of rollers, he said that was where the sand bar started. He also knew about where it was from previous trips. I looked and could now identify this area as being separate from adjacent areas; my first lesson in reading the surf.
He stared at the surf again. This time he looked as though he could see the little devils right through all the foam and waves. He pointed to some gulls hovering and diving into the surf close to the area where we were standing. “Birds feeding, that’s a good sign”, he said. As he said that, I remember being amazed that all this feeding and diving and swimming, the normal cycle of the sea, could continue in the midst of this churning surf. But there it was, right there in front of me. I followed dad down the beach a little way, until we were right in front of where the birds were feeding. He stopped and put his tackle bag down on a piece of flat driftwood. I put mine next to his. He looked somewhat more serious now, more focused and intense. Things were about to happen!
As he dug through his tackle bag for the sandworms he brought as bait, I looked down the beach to see what other fishermen were sharing our morning. There were only a few other brave souls “feeding the fish”, as my dad sometimes referred to it. Just about then he looked up and asked me if I brought my sandspike. This was a handy little tool used to allow one’s fishing pole to stand by itself in the sand, while the bait at the other end was doing all the work. Rather simple in design, it was merely an aluminum tube about 18 inches long and two or three inches wide. It had a long spike at one end, anchoring it and one’s pole into the sand. I told him that I had my sandspike and promptly produced it. Did I have my sandspike? Was he kidding? Not only did I have it, it was as shiny as the day I got it, never having call to use it in my childish days of beach exploration, or in my pursuit of the not‑so‑mighty “sunny”. He told me to get his sandspike out of his tackle bag and set up both, complete with accompanying fishing poles, right in front of where we were.
Sandspikes all ready, I anxiously waited for the ceremonial baiting of the hooks. Dad said I should select a fairly big worm for each of the two hooks on my rig. (Somehow having two hooks seemed like cheating to me at the time, but considering the sea conditions and my apprentice status, it all seemed to balance out to me). I felt I was fairly well equipped to deal with the actual impaling of the sacrificial worm. But after all, this was an extremely critical part of the overall process. So, I deferred to my dad by closely watching him carefully thread each hook through its respective worm. I guess the overall goal here was to get the hook through the worm in several spots while leaving enough of the worm free to wriggle in some alluring manner. For some unknown reason, this job of wriggling was always left up to the anterior end of the worm. Of course, some experience was required to determine anterior from posterior. I quickly caught on, though, after dad pointed out the somewhat prominent mouth and accompanying hook‑like teeth that made up the head of these lovely creatures. Any sympathy for these little wrigglers soon waned after close contact. Striper‑bait seemed a more than fitting end for these little mud scavengers.
With hooks baited, now came the moment of truth. The part I’ve been dreading; casting this mass of wriggling worms, sinkers and lines into the surf, against the wind and pounding waves. It seemed an impossible task for one small boy. Dad explained that the game plan here was to get the rig out as far as possible and then walk the pole back to the sandspikes, feeding the line out along the way. He said I’d just have to wade out into the surf as far as possible and cast the rig as well as I could. Easy for him to say ‑ he was 6’4″. I could barely get past the first set of smaller rollers.
I decided I would watch him cast first. He slowly walked out into the surf looking for some shallow areas, undoubtedly for my benefit in my upcoming attempt. Seeing him wading out there somehow gave me confidence that I might be able to at least make a go of it. He finally stopped and readied his pole for a cast. He paused for a second or two, to let the wind die down long enough to make a cast. He cast. Actually, I had seen him make better casts. Even he was vulnerable! This too added to my confidence, or at least it took some of the pressure off me to make a perfect cast.
I followed out into the surf along the route he had taken. My little frame was unstable and easily knocked about by the incoming surf. I held my ground though, with each advancing step, and forged ahead. I got to a point where I felt I could go no further and still have any hope of making a cast. I was at eye level with the furthest rollers. I readied my pole, glancing at the rigging to make sure my worms were still firmly affixed to their hooks. The wind was fading, so I gave it my best shot. I let it go with a mighty fling, hooks whirling around and the outgoing line whistling through the eyelets of my pole.
It felt like an excellent cast, although I couldn’t see where it landed, falling behind a set of rollers. I let the line continue to pay out the end of my pole as I made my way back to the sandspikes, and dry land. I looked up at my dad as I walked out of the surf and I could tell by his wide grin that he was pleased with my effort. “Good cast, son! You looked like an old pro out there”, he said. This made me feel great, although I always had confidence in my casting skills. In fact, I think casting was my best thing. But the real test was soon to come. All the technical skills in the world wouldn’t put a striper on the beach. You had to have a feel for it, for them. Dad had that feel, and I was there to learn it from him. School was about to begin!
Fishing is waiting. Fishing is patience and persistence. At eight years old, I had a pretty dismal track record at patiently waiting, but I had more than my share of persistence. Perhaps my biggest disadvantage at the moment, though, was that I never hooked, much less landed a big fish. I had no point of reference from which to anticipate what was to happen. Without that advantage, the fish would surprise me, and not the other way around. My overabundance of persistence was not much good here.
As these waves of insecurity rushed through my mind, dad chimed in with some timely words of wisdom. “Now all we have to do is wait. Patience is a virtue, you know.” I thought to myself that I already had been over that, and gained no added sense of comfort from having done so. He said I should get a fair amount of tension on my line, set my pole in the sandspike, and the fish would do the rest. “All we have to do is wait”, he said. Wait for what, I thought. Wait for some overfed striper to come along and take my overworked sandworm, new line and pole out to sea? I looked at my dad. He was calmly sitting on the sand watching the ocean. Every once in a while, he would casually look over at his pole, and then gaze back at the ocean.
Totally confused, I decided I needed more information. I asked dad how I would know when I get one. He said, in the voice of experience, “You’ll know it when it happens.” I thought to myself that this was of no help. There had to be more to it than that. Where was all this knowledge and experience dad had accumulated over his many years of fishing? This is what it all comes down to? How does anyone ever learn this stuff, I thought. “How will I know what will happen”, I repeated in complete frustration. He turned and looked right into my eyes and said, “Trust me, son, you’ll know.” Given my complete lack of experience in such matters, this seemed like a quantum leap of faith on my part, and his.
I was standing quite nervously next to my pole, as if at a bus stop and the bus was late. I looked at my pole firmly fixed within the security of its sandspike. The line was taught, and the tip of the pole was flexing towards the ocean. As the waves broke over my line it would cause the tip of the pole to dart forward. My hand was firmly grasped around the pole just above the reel. Just then he said, “When ‘It’ happens, just take the pole out of the sandspike and give it a good yank to firmly set the hook in the fish’s mouth. More fish are lost by not setting the hook properly than any other way!”
With that, another large wave must have broken over my line causing the tip to jerk forward. Without thinking, I immediately snatched my pole out of the sandspike and gave it a tremendous pull backward, almost falling over in the process. I started to crank my reel feverishly. “I got one!”, I yelled out. Dad was looking at me quite bewildered and surprised and said, “What the hell are you doing, there’s no fish on there!” I continued to reel in my line, as if in a daze. He then told me to stop reeling in and see how the line felt. Somewhat leery of losing the bounty at the end of my line, I reluctantly stopped cranking, only to realize that it felt pretty dead at the other end. No sign of a striper fighting for his life was apparent. Quite embarrassed, I put the pole back in the sandspike and sat down. My dad again reassured me that I’ll know when the big one hits.
Over the course of the next hour or so I repeated several times my little ritual of bounding up and jerking my pole until it nearly split, with nothing to show for it each time but a red face. After the second or third time, dad didn’t say anything. I guess there really wasn’t anything else he could say.
Then all of a sudden, the tip of my pole took a dive for the sand, the rest of the pole nearly bent in half. My reel was screeching loudly. The line was actually being pulled from my reel even though the spool was locked. I’ll never forget the sound of that line being peeled off my reel. My striper had arrived, and promptly announced its intentions!
I immediately lunged up and grabbed my pole. There was so much tension on it that I had to wrestle it out of the sandspike. Dad, having viewed this little melodrama, yelled for me to keep a firm grip on my pole. There was definitely a more serious tone in his voice than before. Once out of the sandspike, I gave it as much of a yank as I could. Neither of us ever formally acknowledged that I had a fish on the end of my line; no such words needed to be said. “It” happened and we both knew it!
Dad yelled that the hook was set and that I should let the fish play the line for a while before trying to reel him in. He said this would get him tired. I really didn’t have much of a choice about letting the fish play with the line. I think he already decided for himself to play with my beleaguered sandworm, and me. No matter, I was so pumped full of adrenaline, I was ready for almost anything. I could tell from the pitch in dad’s voice that he too was excited about my fish. He said that, above all, “Keep tension on the line; don’t let him spit the hook out!” About a minute had gone by since it first hit. It seemed like an hour. I didn’t know if my fish was getting tired, but I was definitely drained from the excitement and all my previous false starts. The sensation of power on the end of my slender line was unbelievable. I remembered dad’s many conversations about the fighting ability of the striper. No words could do it justice; it was truly incredible.
Just then he yelled out for me to start cranking him in. This was done, he said, by pulling the tip of the pole up and towards myself, and reeling in on the down stroke. I buried the butt of the pole against the top of my belt and started pumping. A few times of this and my arms were like rubber. But this is where my overabundance of persistence paid off. I was not going to give up.
I continued to reel in, pumping and reeling, keeping tension on the line all the while. Every once in a while, my fish would do a rather unnerving thing, however. In the middle of all this struggling, it would apparently swim right at me. The line would go limp and I would have to frantically crank my reel to keep up with him. This fish was no fool, and I was beginning to wonder just who was playing with whom.
I finally got to the point where I could no longer pull the tip of my pole up against the tremendous pressure. But I could see that my fish was very close to shore now. I saw him burst to the surface, twisting wildly and flailing his huge head from side to side. I could look right down my line at him. This was my first glimpse of my long-awaited adversary. I wanted to savor the moment, but it was over in an instant. He was tremendous! But I was pooped. I then got the bright idea to just start walking backwards and drag this “lunker” up onto the beach. As I started walking dad ran down to the ocean where my fish was being hauled out. I could tell by the way he ran down to the ocean, those long bouncing strides, that he was very excited, and very proud.
I could now see my whole fish as he emerged from the surf. It was a magnificent specimen; beautiful silver body with black stripes along its side. He looked almost as big as I did. He was still twisting and rolling around, gills flaring, mouth gaping; but he was landed. He was mine!
The sun was not yet high in the sky, and my lesson was all but over. It was certainly all over for my formidable, yet unfortunate, adversary. Although the lesson was over, my luck nevertheless continued. Beginner’s luck, I guess. Throughout the remainder of the day I managed to put four more “lunkers” on the beach; the thrill of the last as grand as the first. Even more importantly, though, my experience on the first spared me the endless bounding up and jerking my pole as the waves played with my line. The lesson had been learned, albeit the hard way but learned just the same.
The memory of that day was also mine, forever. As the years went by the memory of that magical day remained with me. But its relevance I could only begin to appreciate as life’s experiences unfolded. The legacy handed down by my father on the beach that blustery morning reached far beyond just a lesson in fishing. I’m not sure that at the time he intended any additional significance to what was to transpire that day. Nevertheless, a seed was planted inside me, only to blossom much later. This was not just a lesson in fishing, but a lesson in life, especially in faith and trusting your heart.
Love is also one of those great mysteries of life, just as landing a mighty striper was to an eight-year-old boy. We grow up with little or no point of reference on love and how to recognize it. We’re told that it will just happen, and to place our trust in god and our parents, and that we’ll know it when it happens. They were right, of course. But as much as they loved us they still couldn’t protect us from those all false starts, from picking up our fishing pole every time a wave breaks on our line.
Without the wisdom of age and experience we follow our youthful hearts into seemingly healthy and productive relationships, only to have them end in unfulfilled expectations. Losing faith, we then believe that this is all there is; this is as good as it gets. Faith is taking that quantum leap in believing that “It” can happen, and that when it finally does, we’ll know it. But until we actually put a big one on the beach, faith is all we have!