We are five days past the winter solstice, locked fast in the season of shortest days and longest nights when the sun rises in the south and sets in the south.

The earth is tilted at its wildest angle for the northern hemisphere, like a funny car at the carnival tipped up on two wheels, careening around a dark and frozen track.

It's time for long fires of glowing red oak, for good brandy and comfortable chairs.

The image I can't drive from my head on these bitter evenings is of along walk on a warm and stormy night with a summer friend, a man I don't think I'd recognize in good down and mittens.

His name is Wendell Corey, like the old movie actor, and we meet each August on an island off Connecticut. There's never any plan to it; he's there and I'm here, and eventually we collide, It's accepted that night we'll be fishing.

Last year we met at the beach, with our ragtag collections of sons and daughters and nephews and nieces and other assorted moppets.

He showed up at our cottage a t6:30 that night. A spitting rain had sprung up from the southeast and the wind was building. We drove cheerfuly down the long southern neck of the island and parked the truck, donned slickers and rigged our surf rods with big topwater plugs.

It was a mile walk, barefoot, down the spattered beach to the point where sand and rocks finally give way to counter-currents from the sound and ocean.

We picked our spots 50 yards apart and began pitching the lures out in the surf, then cranking and popping them back to shore. We fished an hour, two hours. The light fell out of the sky close to 9, with sunset obscured by dark thunderheads.

Just as blackness settled over the sand and sea there came a terrific tug on my line. I squinted and strained and caught the last glimpse of a silver tail 35 yards offshore, diving and leaving behind a swirl of churning water.

"I got one," I shouted.

"I got one too," shouted my partner.

He wrestled his shore first, then came over and helped me land mine through the thundering surf.

His was a magnificient 14-pound bluefish.

We would have fish more, but in my excitement I had dropped my roda and fouled the spinning reel with sand. So wer gathered up our gear, hefted the catch and started trudging back.

The fish were big. We grabbed them under the gills, then crooked an arm and rested the elbow on a hip. Still the tails were dragging, and every few moments the fish would thrash or heave as their lives left them.

We walked back in silence on the sound side, where the water lapped gently at smooth sand. We could hear the surf crashing and rumbling across the dunes as we worked part the old stone lighthouse.

The wind was now at our back, softening the rain and giving us an eerie feeling of solitude. The sand sparkled and squeaked under our feet; the lighthouse light cast swinging shadows as it circled and left, then returned.

Halfway back a Jeep passed us, going our way, and slowed, then inexplicably sped up and roared away.

Back at the cottage we fileted the fish on newspapers. The kids came home from a trip downtown and danced a merry jig around the huge, tattered carcasses.