Back in the eighties, my girlfriend Sharon and I started going over to the foot of Ferry Street to join the poor people fishing in the Niagara River. On our side it was Buffalo, on the other side it was Fort Erie, Ontario, and just downstream was the municipal sewage treatment plant. The poor people ate their catches, or so they said. We didn’t want to, even though the sewage plant was downstream. Who knew where those fish had been? Plus, this was the Niagara River, which is the complete, one hundred percent outflow of entire Lake Erie. Nasty stuff that went into the lake at Cleveland, for example, showed up here, under the Peace Bridge, for the fish to eat or soak in.
So we usually gave our catch to the other fisherman, with some lie along the lines of “I love to fish but I don’t like fish.” Maybe they believed it, maybe not. I always felt safe down there, even though our fishing partners were people whom in another setting I might have crossed the street to avoid. But at the foot of Ferry Street it was all good.
There are salmon in Lake Erie, but no one at Ferry Street had ever caught one. I caught and lost a very large carp there – really, a four-footer, maybe five – and for a few days when we showed up some of the regulars nudged each other and pointed at me. I grinned and stretched out my arms. I would have landed that carp, too, except that Sharon had the long handled net way down the breakwall, catching minnows. She would get sidetracked by those minnows, which made excellent bait. She spent a long time at it because, she said, she really liked manuvering the net under a cloud of unsuspecting little silver fish. Sharon did like easing the net up from where you couldn’t see it.
One cold Sunday in December we went down to Seneca Lake to fish with her brother. He took in charters, sold drugs when the fishing was slow, and raised leeches for sale. His boat had a fish finder. I’d never seen one before, and when he started it up and I saw how it worked it didn’t seem fair to me. A little blip appeared on the screen.
“That’s a fish,” the brother said, “we’ll drive the boat over it and it might strike.”
It did. Sharon set the hook and reeled it in. A good sized lake trout, a pretty fish, but there had been no fight, no contest, less action even than at Ferry Street. But it was a higher teleost, a worthy fish. The brother’s girlfriend fried it up and we ate it.
I don’t like that trolling business because it’s boring. You don’t try to outwit the fish – you drag a lure through the water where the fish finder says they are. Then either they bite or they don’t bite. Even at Ferry Street we had to cast out and watch what we were doing. I don’t see the skill in trolling, but I might be missing something. I can’t shake the feeling that trolling is like sitting in a tree with a rifle hoping to blast an unsuspecting deer that ambles by. That’s hunting? Not to me.
A couple of months later we went to California. I promised her we’d go deep sea fishing. After California she was going to decide whether to marry me or not, she said, and because I thought I wanted her to, I figured I’d better do what she asked. In truth I wanted to go salmon fishing myself, even if it meant trolling from a charter boat. At least we’d be trolling in salt water, where there might be sharks, or maybe tuna. Anyway, big fish in deep salt water. I didn’t have visions of giant marlin. But if I had to use a sturdy rod with a massive reel, I wanted to hook something big. That would be fun – at least the fish would be a match for the tackle.
I found a charter boat in the Santa Cruz Yellow Pages, and made a booking. On a cold Easter Sunday morning we drove over from Aptos, where we were staying with friends. Along the way we saw Christians doing their Easter Sunrise thing along the beaches. When I heard one bunch singing what sounded like Christ The Lord Is Risen Today, I elbowed Sharon and said “Guess what?”
“What,” she said.
“He is risen!”
“Oh, just shut up,” she said. She had a mild case of Christianity.
The boat had a high tech fish finder, a serious captain, and a laid-back deck hand. On board there were three Israelis from Silicon Valley, and a half-dozen drunks. The drunks had blown a couple of joints before we left the dock. Then they started on the Bud.
We trolled along the California coast north of Santa Cruz, off the Sand Plant. Even though she had a rod assigned to her, Sharon hung out in the pilothouse watching the fish finder screen. Trying to spot them with a machine must have seemed more exciting to her than trying to hook them. Or maybe it was the early warning she liked, the old easing up the net thing, or maybe it was too cold. I didn’t know. I stayed outside, so I couldn’t ask her.
What I did know was that if she decided not to marry me there was another guy, a test pilot, luring her with more money than I had or would ever earn, and the possibility of a child. It was in character for her to be trying to see what was hidden down there rather than working blind like the rest of us, but I didn’t like it. I paid for the trip, so why couldn’t she come out onto the cold deck and troll with me? She could have just waited for the reel to scream, and then grabbed it. I was beginning to see that she wanted things offered up to her.
She wouldn’t even have to hold a rod, because they were all in holders. The deckhand assigned them to us – “This is yours, number four over there is yours, you two guys take seven and nine on the left side.”
“Port, right?” said one of the drunks.
“Yeah, port, sailor boy. And how many charter fishermen know that? I stick with left and right, talking to you guys,” the deckhand said.
“You got a point there,” the drunk said, and popped another Bud.
The captain found where the salmon were, but then a sea lion who could swim faster than we could reel them in found us. The salmon, well-hooked, couldn’t take evasive action. They couldn’t go faster than we could reel, so they were easy prey for the lion. At first I was worried about having a couple of hundred pounds of sea lion on my rod, but the deckhand said, “No, the fuckers know what they’re doing. They bite through behind the head. I never saw one get hooked.”
The captain drove his boat in circles above the salmon. When I wasn’t thinking about the sea lion, I couldn’t help imagining the fishing boat as a Q-ship getting ready to drop depth charges on an unsuspecting U-boat. I wanted a klaxon to sound and the bait racks to tilt and dump grey cylinders over the side. We’d cheer when the oil slick appeared. When the crippled U-boat surfaced we’d run up the White Ensign and attack with the heavy machine guns we’d disguised as gaffs. Victory at sea!
The sea lion, patrolling alongside the boat, was fearless. Sometimes he came right next to the boat and looked at us. One of the drunks threw a can of beer at him, and was ready to throw another one before the deckhand stopped him. Sometimes he disappeared, but we all knew he was there, all right, the arrogant, beautiful, fast-moving pirate lurking under the steely swells, letting us do his work. If we could have machine-gunned him, we would have.
He. It could have been a female, I guess, but I tagged it as a male. Why, is not even worth wondering about. I’m not offering a fable or allegory here. The way I figure it, the world delivers up what it delivers up, and it’s the humans who drape meaning over it. But it’s true, I said to myself, I can’t believe this. It’s too perfect. And then I stopped thinking about the sea lion as symbol, and returned to the practical issues, because I wanted a salmon.
The drunks would point and yell, There’s the bastard, but what could any of us do? One of the Israelis asked the deckhand if the captain could take off at high speed and lose him. The deckhand said no, that once a sea lion started grabbing the salmon it was all over. If we tried to go somewhere else, it would follow.
“This isn’t a cigarette boat,” he said, “you know what I mean? We could get away if it was. Do they have cigarette boats where you’re from?”
“I’ve seen them,” the Israeli said.
“All you can do,” the deckhand said, “is try to crank your reel faster than anybody else.”
“Makes sense,” the Israeli said.
The final score was eight for the sea lion, six for the humans. The lion didn’t get mine, though he made a serious rush at it when I almost had it in. But one of the drunks grabbed my line just in time and gave it a mighty jerk, slinging my salmon over his head onto the deck, where the deckhand tossed me his baseball bat and I whacked it. I was grateful for the helpful drunk. Without him the sea lion would have taken my salmon, and I’d have had nothing but a fish head to show for my charter.
Deus ex borracho, I thought, as Sharon waved at me from the cabin. I didn’t wave back because something was beginning to shift in me. Who was the salmon here, anyway? I’d beaten the sea lion, yes, but I was feeling I might just have saved myself.
On the way back we rescued a guy who’d lost his motor and was drifting towards the rocks. The captain spotted him and we took a detour towards shore. He took a line from us and we towed him in, his little outboard jumping and skipping on the grey California waves, through a school of bright Easter windsurfers, and into the bay at Santa Cruz.
I thanked the drunk and gave him a shoulder clap.
“No problem,” he said, “Glad to help.”
The deckhand gutted my salmon, and I gave him a twenty dollar bill.
“You did good with the bat,” he said.
On the flight out of San Jose we didn’t talk much. The shifting I’d felt on the boat continued. Before long we were back in Buffalo. I dropped Sharon off at her house, went to mine, and stuck my salmon in the freezer. Fresh, it would have been perfect, but I knew it would be wasted on her.
I waited. The Buffalo predator struck quickly – as I expected – and I wasn’t unhappy about it. May her bones stick in his throat, I thought, and then I called a woman I knew and invited her to help me eat the salmon.