John N. Cole's Striper (Little, Brown and Company, $10) is, as the title implies, about that excellent sporting fish, the striped bass; its 19 chapters cover the life cycle of the fish as well as the history and practice of haul seining for stripers. But, most compellingly, Striper is also a poignant personal memoir of seven years in the life of the author, who as a young man in the '50s, worked as a haul seiner on Long Island. Subtitled "A Story of Fish and Man," Striper is perfect reading for a cozy winter evening in Maine, and, as a matter of fact, that's where much of the book was written; Cole is the co-founder and editor for 10 years of the Maine Times.
Cole is not the sort of writer who leaves you breathless. He leaves you calm, pensive and satisfied—satisfied not because he supplies the reader with answers but because he presents his questions about the fate of the fish, and those who fish for it, clearly and honestly. The striped bass is an admitted passion with Cole, maybe an obsession. He finds this preoccupation with a striper fairly inexplicable, and offers no explanation than to suggest that in another life he used to be one.
"I don't understand how the odor of fish can be so deeply absorbed," he writes. "We wear waders most of the working day. We must consume this essence of fish...by a kind of osmosis that transmutes the oils in the fish slime into a part of our own skins. It is not, for me, a disagreeable smell. Fresh fish have a kind of fruity scent, like ripe melon. It is a unique odor, one I have never smelted before, and one which I was once proud to acknowledge. When I first began fishing, the smell of my trade was witness to my participation. But now, when a southeaster keeps us from the beach, I get the time, at least, to scour most of the sand from my bed, to shake out my waders, to repair the broken buttons on my oilcoat, to patch my boots, to put on clean clothes—I would like the transformation to include an escape from the smell. It does not. No amount of bathing, no splash of aftershave, no spray of cologne can subvert the smell of fish. The striped bass go with me to the movies."
Despite the last line in this passage, the book exhibits little of the humor apparent in Cole's other writings. Evidently his emotions about the seven years spent fishing are too intense; it was a free, but not a frivolous, period. If Cole's relationship with striped-bass fishing could be condensed into one moment, it might be when he and three partners haul in their net only to find it contains the body of Smiley, the lovable old codger of the crew, who had fallen overboard six days earlier. It is a place where one wants to close the book for the night, go to sleep, and not begin reading again until the next day.
Cole avoids lecturing the reader with the fact that he believes "the striped bass is being destroyed by the effects of the toxic chemicals which have penetrated every creek and tributary of the Chesapeake and every mile of the Hudson accessible to the fish." There is no moralizing in Striper and no easy answer to the destiny of the fish and its fishermen. However, as he asks, "What would be the message for the men who have assigned to this fish the qualities of courage, the virtues of bravery and strength? If this fish were to vanish, how much time would be left to the men who extol it?"