FISH OR CUT BAIT

When I was a toddler my family moved to City Island, a little place in the Bronx, New York. And when I say little, I’m not kidding – 1.5 miles long by 0.5 miles wide. There was one main street and the houses were on the narrow side streets, each with a small beach at the end. Just about every day we would play for hours on the beach at the end of our street. As far as I’m concerned there was no better place for a kid to grow up. 

My Granddad “Pops” was a retired commercial fisherman and he taught us the ropes. We learned how to tie knots, cut bait, fillet a fish and just about everything there was to know about boats. Every weekend we’d row over to Sullivan’s Marina where Pops’ fishing boat “Sea Devil” was docked and spend the day fishing … mostly. I can still remember him scolding us when we dawdled: “Hey, you clowns! Fish or cut bait!” 

When we were first learning how to cast our rods there wasn’t a single time that Pops didn’t get stuck by an errant hook. Our collection of his favorite curse words grew on a weekly basis. So many memories of days on the “Devil” like the time my brother sliced off the tip of his finger while cutting bait or when the anchor chain snapped and we drifted until someone gave us a tow. 

But nothing compared to that Saturday in April. The sun was blazing and it was extremely hot for a Spring morning.  My Dad had the rare Saturday off because it was Easter weekend so he joined us. It was me, my two brothers, Dad and Pops crammed into a rowboat headed for Sea Devil

I don’t know if it was the heat or the dormancy of the day but the fish weren’t biting. We were sweating bullets and out of bait. That’s when Pops noticed the dark clouds in the distance and figured we better just count our losses and head home. 

We climbed into the rowboat, Dad and Pops manning the oars. The sun was obscured by clouds and there was an eerie stillness around us. We heard roars of thunder and Pops and Dad rowed faster. We heard it before we saw it … pouring rain, strong winds and swelling waves. They rowed like madmen but not fast enough. Suddenly we were engulfed in a raging storm and a giant wave crashed into us, picked up the rowboat and flung us into the water. 

The fast-moving rains headed toward shore and the waves quickly subsided. By some miracle we were all alive and the boat was floating upside down. Pops and Dad scooped us up in their arms and swam to the boat. Uprighting it was impossible so they dove under it to find that precious pocket of air.  

Hold onto the seats, boys, and keep your heads above water. Dad and I are going back out and we’ll push this boat to shore” instructed Pops. We clung to the seats for dear life while Pops and Dad struggled with the boat. After what seemed like an eternity they felt the sand beneath their feet and the air pocket became bigger. Eventually we also felt the sand beneath our feet and we all carried the boat to shore … to safety. 

That was almost 65 years ago and I’ve never forgotten that day though it didn’t stop me from going back out to sea. I have a boat and love fishing. And every time I’m cutting bait I’m thinking of Pops. 

NAR © 2020

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