Caught by the River

Pleasures of…..September

1st October 2010

Paul Greenberg is the author of the recently published and highly recommended, ‘Four Fish: A Journey From The Ocean to Your Plate’ (Allen Lane).

photo: Justin Schein

The Fishing Trip That Finally Happened by Paul Greenberg

It had been a summer of endless talking about fishing but no actual fishing. A book tour through the most fishable places in America. The olive-dappled rocky coast of Stonington, Connecticut – a one hour talk about the collapse of fisheries within sight of shore . . . and no fishing. Seattle and The Puget Sound with my teenage daughter in tow where I was grilled on questions about genetically modified salmon while the salt breeze carried the scent of migrating chinook through the bookstore window . . . and no fishing. Too short a layover in Los Angeles hosting a sustainable seafood dinner, the chance of a quick jaunt on a local boat for yellowtail dashed by a schedule change and once again . . . no fishing.
In the end it was on the island of Martha’s Vineyard during ten days of holiday that I managed to evade talk of fish and speak with the fish directly. And even this little adventure was nearly thrown off course. A reporter from the local paper wanted to come along and watch. My daughter threatened to accompany me as did my three year old son. But I woke too early for them or anyone else. The keys had stealthily been placed in the car’s ignition the night before. The trunk was loaded in advance. The coffee pot needed only a small click to make my cup. And I was off!
Driving down the Moshup Trail on the island’s far western end, a coastal road the Wampanoag god Moshup was said to have once strode down to catch whales for his evening meal, the rainbow clay cliffs of Gay Head were ablaze in the morning light—their colors all made up of whale blood and spatter, according to the Wampanoag myth. This and other tales intertwined themselves with happy memories of the summer vacations of my youth on Martha’s Vineyard and guided me to the fishing village of Menemsha. The twin jetties, as in my childhood, shunted the azure water between them in a swift 8 knot current. It was here that I first came to know the abundance of the ocean and it was here that I now came to be reassured that the sea could still be healthy and giving.
I rigged up my small spinning outfit with a sinker and hook to try to catch what we here call scup or porgies (in the UK you might call them sea bream). In fact there were many fish I could have tried for but I needed something quick and easy before the talking and parenting life swallowed me up again. As I stepped on the rocks a pod of yard-long striped bass crashed a school of sandeels near the elbow of the jetty. But I let them be, happy to just watch these big fish frolic. In my childhood there had been no striped bass here at all—they were in steep decline and would have disappeared entirely had fishermen and conservationists not banded together and stopped their slaughter.
Onward I walked to the jetty’s very tip. I sliced up a single squid into tiny triangles, baited my hook and cast straight out. There is something magical about knowing a particular patch of sea so well, to almost have the ability to see a fish coming up to the bait, knowing precisely when it will strike. And so it was that morning. My rig was carried by the current toward the gap between the jetties. As the line reached a 45 degree angle I raised the tip and felt the hard, strong strike of a good-sized porgy. Darting right, darting left, then a flash of pink-silver. As the porgy came up to side of the rocks a spray of baitfish burst from the water. A nearby cormorant sidled over, curious to see if I might release the fish and give him a shot at eating it. But this porgy was mine. I measured him against the tape on my cooler—12 inches long—two past the legal size limit.
I caught more than a dozen fish in that precious hour, keeping two for the table. These modest creatures were my trophies of 2010. They were not hard to find or difficult to catch, but all of life’s hindrances had to be cleared away in order to get to them. This made them all the more beautiful and magnificent.
photo: Tatiana Zhelezniakova.

Four Fish is on sale in the Caught By The River shop, priced £13.50