very family that’s lived on the Long Island coast east of New York City has a fish story” So it’s only natural that my family, which hails from Freeport on the south shore, a hotbed for flounder fishing, has one too. We rarely tell it, though. It’s part of our family lore, something to be passed down from one generation to the next, a legacy far too sacred and precious to be shared with mere strangers. And besides, who would believe us anyway?
It happened the summer I turned 12, in the waning days of the “fluke” season. As a restless boy on the eve of adolescence, I’d grown tired of being treated as the baby in the family – and on the water, as a “child” angler. Years earlier, my grandfather, who’d taught the entire family to fish, including his wife and two children, had started me off with a simple hand line, the kind that you wrap around a wooden block and gently lower into the water.
It had a barbed hook at the end but no fishing rod or reel. If you were lucky enough to catch a fish, you had to haul it in with your bare hands, one arm’s length at a time. It was awkward and sometimes gave your prey ample opportunity to wiggle off your hook.
When I was a little older I graduated to one of my grandfather’s creaky old bamboo poles, which had a spinning reel that allowed you to cast like a “real” fisherman. But the fishing line itself was little more than tightly woven yarn. I felt I’d already earned the right to use a larger fiberglass pole with a high-grade “test” line – the kind that everyone else did, even my brother, who was just two years older than me.
It was strong enough to support the weight of a big fish, not the overgrown minnows that I typically caught (those we liked to wag our fingers at before gently releasing them, lest we get our fishing licenses revoked).
It was one of those old bamboo poles that my grandfather stowed in the trunk of his car that Sunday en route to the boat yard in Baldwin Park, where the “Gin-Jon,” the small family motorboat named for my mother and uncle, was berthed. And for some reason the sight of that dreadful junior-sized pole next to the other proud fishing rods that morning irked me something fearsome. “I need a real pole, Grandpa,” I blurted out. “What if I catch a big one?”
My grandfather smiled and seemed genuinely surprised by my uncharacteristic outburst. He gave it a moment’s thought with that stern but thoughtful look of his. “I think that pole’s strong enough,” he replied matter-of-factly.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but maybe as a lifelong angler who’d fished lakes and mountain streams the length of the country, to say nothing of both oceans, my grandfather was insulted at the suggestion that his old bamboo pole wasn’t up to the task – or that his judgment might not be sound. All I heard, as my emotions roiled, was “no.” When he closed the trunk without further discussion, I had my answer.
Grandpa didn’t think I was ready.
He almost lived to regret that decision. We weren’t on the water more than an hour before I got the first strike of the day. And from the start, I knew that it was a huge fish. My grandfather, not prone to exclamations, yelled “Holy Mackerel!” when the end of my fishing pole dipped so low that it disappeared under the hull of the boat, and I struggled just to hold onto my rod.
By this point, I had learned enough about fishing to know that I was in danger of losing my pole to the water, so I gave up a little on the tension to let the fish run with it, if need be, then reeled the line in slightly to verify that it was still hooked; it clearly was.
“Okay, hold it steady and bring her in,” my grandfather intoned, as he went racing to the front of the boat to get his net, stumbling along the way. Within seconds he was back leaning over the side of the boat as I struggled to bring the mammoth weight on my line to the surface.
My grandmother, who normally stayed quiet at such moments, yelled at my grandfather, “Jack, hurry! Get the net in the water.” She knew, better than my grandfather perhaps, that my second-class fishing pole, with its worn yarn for fishing line, a rigging she had no doubt trained on herself years earlier, might not support the dull weight of a big fish without the buoyancy of the water helping to prop it up.
The next few moments are blurred in my memory, but the memory itself is indelible. It was over in a flash. I recall seeing my grandfather stooped over the side of the boat preparing to dip the net under the water, and hearing him gasp as he saw the creature begin approaching the surface. “It’s a doormat!” he yelled.
I thought he was kidding, but “doormat” is a term that seasoned anglers invoke to describe a gargantuan catch. I saw my grandfather lean further down and start to scoop his net toward the fish as I slowly brought it to the surface. And then poof, as if by an act of God, it was gone.
“How did it get away?” was all I could say, about ten minutes into the silence. My grandfather was quieter than I had ever seen him – and more distant and pensive. My question seemed to hang in the warm breeze as a flock of hungry seagulls mocked us overhead. It wasn’t just the loss of the fish, of course. It was what my grandfather had said to me when he’d closed the trunk. He’d promised that it would be okay, and it wasn’t.
I knew, even then, in fact, that no one was actually to blame. Fish are wily creatures, far smarter than they seem. There are fish who seem to enjoy playing with an angler’s hook, even taking it into their mouths, then spitting it out, repeatedly sometimes, as if to torment their would-be human captor. A fish that found a way to swim out of a net? Well, son, welcome to the club.
My grandmother did her best to console me. Her favorite nickname for me was “Tutu,” an abbreviation of the first syllable of my first name. “C’mon, Tutu, keep fishing. There are still plenty of big ones out there.” All the while, my grandfather said nothing. However, I noticed something: He was casting his line and letting it drift to the bottom into the mud. Then, he would pull his line up and cast again.
He repeated this pattern for a good ten minutes until my grandmother turned to him and said, “Jack, what are you doing?” This was no way to fish. Still my grandfather said nothing.
And that’s when the miracle occurred. “Holy mackerel!” my grandfather declared for the third time that day, as his huge black pole started dipping deep into the water. “It’s a big one!” he said. Startled, I felt a pang of jealousy, then confusion. “Somebody, get the net,” he said calmly.
My grandmother motioned to me, so I dutifully obeyed. In fact, for the length of my young fishing career I had never maneuvered that large metal instrument, which seemed to be about half my size. Up came the fish and my grandfather indicated that he would lead it into my outstretched nylon trap, which he did.
And it was enormous, easily as big as the one I thought I had caught only minutes earlier. It lay there flapping in the bottom of the boat.
In the excitement, I quickly forgot the discomfort I’d felt at seeing my grandfather haul in such a big fish, especially so soon after losing mine. I started to un-wrap the folded mesh as the fish continued to flap furiously, leaving streaks of its slime everywhere. It seemed unusually upset, for a flounder, at the prospect of never seeing the bottom of the Long Island Sound again.
And that’s when I noticed something odd. The hook from my Grandfather’s line wasn’t in the fish’s mouth – or in any other part of its body. I did a double-take. “What’s wrong?” my grandmother asked, as I sat there unmoving. My grandfather leaned in for a closer look. “Isn’t that something,” he murmured. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Neither had I. Somehow, the hook from my grandfather’s line had caught the tiny eyelet of the rigging I’d lost when my line had snapped a half hour earlier. The same distinctive red ribbon “leader” was affixed to the rigging and streaming from the fish’s mouth. It was the exact same fish!
I peeled back the rest of the net webbing and took a closer look. There it was, with the hook from my line still firmly attached to its mouth. Apparently, my grandfather’s persistent casting had paid off. He’d “re-caught” the fluke I had lost.
I looked at my grandfather intently. “It’s not my fish,” he declared solemnly, as if invoking an angler’s ancient right-of-way. “You caught it fair and square. It’s your fish. I never actually hooked it, you did.”
And that settled the matter. On our way home, I wrapped my arms around my grandfather’s neck and kissed him the way young boys do. “Thank you, Grandpa,” I said softly, as tears welled up in my eyes. My grandfather, as stoic a man as I had ever known, tensed up, but softened as he let the wave of emotion wash over him, too. “It was your fish,” he said, softly.
Later, my grandfather would brag to all his friends that his grandson had caught the “biggest fluke I’ve ever seen in thirty years of fishing the Sound.” He never bothered to relate the intricate details of the miracle that day. Would anybody believe such an absurd – no impossible – “fish story”? Only the rest of the family knew, and they could scarcely believe the miraculous tale, either.
We weighed the fish when we got home, and my grandfather took a Polaroid of me – yes, a Polaroid – with my scrawny arms, struggling to hold it aloft. “Tutu’s fluke, 4.4 pounds, 1967,” read the caption.
That photo stood proudly on their mantle for a good two decades. Then, one day they sold their cherished home on Long Island with all its furniture and moved to Southern California to retire. I visited them many years later, when I decided to attend graduate school nearby. In the interim I had become an adult and had completely lost contact with them. I was college educated and my grandparents, who never finished high school, were intimidated, they told my mother later.
Still, my grandmother, now in her 70s, seemed overjoyed when she heard the news. “Tutu’s here,” my grandmother declared, when I appeared on her doorstep. My uncle pitched a fit when she heard my grandmother use my old nickname. “Mom, for Pete’s sake, your grandson’s a grown man now.” I blushed, and my grandmother laughed.
“He’ll always be Tutu to me,” she said.
Somehow – despite this being southern California – my grandmother had found some fresh flounder to cook. She browned the small filets as she always had, in thick butter, with lemon and oregano. We sat down at the table and smiled at the memory of so many past flounder feasts we’d enjoyed together.
We were a fishing family, and that was an unspoken bond. Rocking on the Sound together, listening to the tiny swells lap against the side of the boat, prisoners of the sea, and the deep ineffable mysteries of angling.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” my grandmother declared, suddenly. She laid down her ladle and got up and walked over to the duvet in the other room. She opened the top drawer and rummaged around.
“There it is,” she said, finally. My brother figured Grandma was looking for matches to light the table candles. He had his lighter ready in case she didn’t find any.
But when she returned to the table, beaming, it wasn’t a box of matches she carried. It was a photo. The same faded one that had sat on her mantle for so long. “I didn’t want you to think we’d ever forgotten that day,” she said, with moist eyes. My grandfather, who wasn’t the same spry or agile-minded man he once was, suddenly perked up at the sight of the photo, and started nodding vigorously. “Time to eat!” he declared.
I realized then that I knew absolutely nothing about life and that my years of formal education weren’t likely to teach me all that much. What mattered was this family netting that had caught and held me for so long – and always would.