Blood Lines: Fishing With My Daughter

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For a little while before the sun came up, we could imagine we were alone on the dark waves, a solitary boat beneath a full moon. The sound of the boat’s motor chugging along made the silence around us feel more encompassing, somehow. We had the whole of that immensity — 18,000 acres of scattered islands, brackish waterways and shadow-shrouded wetlands — to ourselves. There was salt on the breeze.

And then, like that, the spell was broken. An A train clattered out of the darkness, not a quarter-mile away, heading north, every window filled with light. The sky slowly brightened. Far to the west, the Empire State Building caught rays from the not-yet-risen sun. Looming, abstract shapes resolved into houses along a low shore; lumpy hangars at J.F.K. airport; other boats; other fishermen. We were on Jamaica Bay, on a charter boat called Forever Two Worlds. We were seven men and my 10-year-old daughter, Catie, who was looking to catch her first striped bass.

She and I were optimistic. My daughter is an angler. We fish together.

I fished a lot when I was a kid — in ponds for pickerel and bass, for smallish trout in Connecticut’s unremarked rivers and streams, and for snapper blues and other seasonal visitors in what Fitzgerald, in “The Great Gatsby,” called “the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound.”

I loved to fish, even if I wasn’t always very good at it. (My wife pokes fun at me for fishing with raw bacon when I was younger. I didn’t know then that catfish go for bacon; largemouth bass, not so much.)

I loved getting up early on a summer morning, wolfing breakfast and biking to a stream or the town dock, usually in the company of my friend Marty. I loved the quiet. I loved the complex, calming patterns the wind carved all day on the face of the water. Especially, I loved the jolt of a strike, setting the hook, the living current that seemed to run from the fish, up the line, to my hands and heart.

And then, for a long time, I didn’t fish much at all. I sometimes joined friends on charters here and there — off the ghostly Farallon Islands west of San Francisco, or on the Chesapeake — but I didn’t own any fishing gear and I didn’t think of myself as a fisherman. Maybe it was because the boozy, post-punk, literary crowd I ran with (or, more accurately, sat around with) for so many years was not especially outdoorsy.

In 2005, on a family trip to the Bahamas, my father-in-law, my two brothers-in-law and I went out on a charter. We didn’t catch a lot — some barracuda, one of which, thrashing, managed to put a slice in Dad’s arm with its teeth; he packed the wound with tobacco and went below to take a nap — but on that trip the old feeling came flooding back. I wanted to fish. I wanted to fish all the time.

Catherine was born not long afterward. Our little family began spending a week or two every summer on a tranquil island off the southern New England coast. Blessedly, there’s little for vacationers to do on the island besides read, nap, eat, swim — and fish. When Catie was 6 she caught her first fish there, a good-sized fluke. Like that fish, she was hooked.

In the years since, she and I have fished those same waters together, sometimes with her mom, but usually just the two of us, casting our lines from boats and from the shore at dawn, at noon and at moonrise.

We have fished at the same dock and from the same breakwater where I first caught snapper blues four decades ago.

Catie has caught sea bass, porgies and big, mean bluefish and, memorably, a sea robin that seemed to be trying to tell us something before we tossed it back into the waves off Sag Harbor. She now does a fair impression of a sea robin earnestly croaking, Put me back! Put me back!

From the moment she put a line in the water, Catie was learning to appreciate the pleasures (and weather the frustrations) of the most meditative of outdoor endeavors. Unbidden, she practices patience as others practice the piano. Every time we fish she engages in a ritual that deepens her love of the sea, rivers, lakes, clean air and that singular fellowship that endures among anglers of all ages, races, genders and — even today — politics.

On the water, such distinctions hardly matter. What matters is the waiting; staying open to the rhythms of the natural world; tending to the hope that any moment might bring again the always-new thrill of a strike.

She has learned, too, that fishing is more than sweetness and light and Zen-like acceptance. Sharp red blood and slippery guts are part of any outing. Forcing a treble hook through the head of a live bunker or squirming eel, and using that critter as bait, is not for the squeamish. Depending on the season, water temperature, the direction and strength of the wind and plain old fortune, hours and even days can pass without much action at all.

And there is not a fisherman alive who is not competitive.

Several hours into our Jamaica Bay trip, when neither of us has yet caught a fish, I tell Catie I’m sorry we aren’t having much luck. She smiles. “That’s all right,” she says. “I just like being out here.”

Pause. The smile goes away.

“But if you catch anything before I do, Daddy, I’m going to be really mad.”

We both laugh. We both know she means it.

Catie caught her striped bass, a 20-pound beauty, on Jamaica Bay that day, June 10, 2017. No one else on the boat — not her old man; not the captain or the first mate; not Vinny, Mike, Kevin or Victor, hard-core fishermen all — landed a bigger fish.

I tried hard to hide my pride, but I don’t think I succeeded.

My daughter is an angler. We fish together.