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The Quiet of a Frosty Morn

A defense of fishing's finest hours—when only a gull's cry or the chug of a distant motor stir the philosophic stillness

The other night at a cocktail party I found myself listening to a fellow named John Coleman, an impressive young man, maybe 32 or 33 years old, tall and lean and with a face obviously tanned by the cold winds of winter and the reflected rays of January sun. Coleman was not drinking, at least not right then, and he was talking about skiing. He had just got back from a week in Canada.

I listened, but to me snow is strictly for the penguins. I was about to move to another group when Coleman asked me, "Do you ski?"

"No," I said. "I fish."

"Oh? I have never understood why anyone would like to fish," he said, with a half smile, looking at his shoes and shaking his head slowly. "I guess I never had enough patience to wait for the action. Skiing is action. Skiing is using your body. Skiing is a challenge. You get a sort of spiritual satisfaction, yet it's a sensual thing."

He stopped for breath, I think pleased. I was about to start a rebuttal when my wife grasped me forcefully by the arm and said we had to go. We went.

That was a week ago. Tonight as I sit by the window and watch the snow swirl outside and listen to the wheels whirring as some poor soul tries to free his car from a snowbank, I strain to think about snow and skiing and John Coleman, but mostly I think about fishing. If there had been time that night with Coleman I would have explained my liking for fishing something like this:

First off, let me tell you what kind of a fisherman I am. I am strictly a salt-water man. Oh, I have, in my early years, presented the fly to the allegedly wary trout. And I have fished a good many lakes of the United States and Canada for bass, pike, walleyes, pickerel, perch and panfish. For the last 10 years, however, I have concentrated solely on salt-water fish. I do most of my fishing from the shore and, except for occasional jaunts south, my fishing is confined mostly to the surf on Long Island's south shore in the summer, and in the fall to the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound.

I guess my fall trips epitomize why I fish. October on the Connecticut shore is a wondrous time of year. The beaches are deserted. The equinoctial storms have pretty well blown themselves out, and most days the water is flat calm. Along the shore behind the stony beaches the leaves on the maples and oaks are turning; far out on the water a workboat slowly chugs by—the scene is one of peace.

And, of course, in October the bait fish start their migration south along the shore. The striped bass school up and follow the bait fish.

Most fishermen swear that dawn is the best time to fish. I am not convinced this is so, but I go along with the theory because I enjoy getting up at 4:30, putting on my fishing clothes, drinking a cup of hot, bad-tasting coffee, gathering my waders, rods and knapsack and slinking out silently so as not to wake the children. I enjoy the loneliness of the hour's drive on a parkway almost empty of cars. By the time I reach the toll booth at the Connecticut line the sky has begun to lighten and I can see the trees outlined against it. The toll collector generally says good morning to me. I have found that even the most irascible people are glad to see another human at this time of the morning.

From the parkway turnoff to the Sound is a three-mile run. I pass through a sleeping town, along a river, across an old bridge and then through the upper-middle-class sections.

This is a morning when the tide is at full ebb—the best time, I think, to start a day's fishing because it means six hours of incoming water. I park the car near a battened-down summer cottage, rig up my rod and reel and slide into my waders. In the morning light I can make out the white beach and the jetty, but looking down east on the water a shoal light still flashes brilliantly. I walk as noisily as I can across the marsh so the black ducks that spend the night there will have plenty of warning and won't flush directly under my feet as they sometimes have. When they do, it scares the hell out of me.

A low tide is not the sweetest-smelling thing, but to me it is part of the whole scene and I don't mind it. My waders slurp in the mud as I cross the bar to the 100-foot-square clump of grass that becomes an island at half tide. At high tide the bar carries five feet of water.

When I reach the eastern point of the island I rig up with a metal jig and a sliver of pork rind and start to fish. I use a very light two-handed spinning rod with eight-pound line for this Connecticut striper fishing. The fish average about four pounds.

I work around the east point and then wade across the sandy bottom to a rocky point about 50 yards north, fishing as I go. For a half hour there is no sign of action. The sun is up now. I put my sunglasses on and start back toward the island. Half way there, I see the first fish. F just a swirl in the calm water about 50 yards out. The gulls have seen him too, for six of them come from nowhere and start circling with shrill cries waiting impatiently for the bass to drive the bait to the surface. Suddenly there are two swirls, then three more, then a dozen, and the bait fish skitter over the water and the birds dive. I cast as far as I can but can't reach the fish. I fish for another two hours with not a strike. I start back to the car. On the way I find three large oysters washed up from their bed. I open and eat them—a better breakfast by far than ham and eggs.

In the car there's a sip of coffee and then the country road along the shore, rolling with sharp turns, and the sturdy, weatherbeaten old houses along the way. About three miles east I stop again at a small deserted beach and walk along under walls marked "private" that ring the water around the sweeping half-mile curve that leads to the rocky point where I am headed. The tide is half in. I am now going to the place where I will catch some fish. When I reach the point I am certain. The gulls are diving around me, and fish are breaking not 15 feet from shore. I have a strike on the first cast. It is a small fish, about two pounds, but within the 16-inch limit. I keep it and catch three more on successive casts—two four-pounders and one too small to keep. Then, as suddenly as the fish started biting, they stop, and I stop fishing. I wade out of the water and walk across the beach and up a slight rise to an old apple orchard. I sit down, lean against a tired tree and watch the water as I crunch an apple.

Far out a large raft of ducks moves spasmodically. First a group at one end will rise and fly a few hundred feet, then in a moment of panic the entire raft will leave the water and fly a quarter of a mile. They look like bluebills.

I keep watching the ducks as I trek back to the car with my three fish hanging from the stringer and bumping my leg on each step.

It is 11 o'clock when I start the drive home. There will be a good meal tonight—broiled or poached striped bass—with two drinks to start it off. Maybe three drinks; one to you, John.