Some people begin a new sport with the equipment -- the best tennis racket, a green jogging suit. I am more interested in the scene. If you are going to climb, it need not be the right ladder, but it ought to rest against the right roof.
So for fishing -- having known nothing of the sport since my safety pin and worm attempts of my 10th summer -- I sought the challenging fish: bluefish, I set out for the docking site of distinction: Nantucket. Being as terrified of high seas as any reasonable adult ought to be, I hedged my bets by taking along a senator (John Heinz) and my lawyer (Ron Goldfarb). Fate would not dare mess with such a formidable team.
Nantucket has a half-dozen or so charter captains, but for me the choice was obvious. Tom Mlesco is a high school science and math teacher in the offseason. Surely he would have patience with an eager student.
The final requirement was good fishing, and there I was successful beyond my wildest dreams.
We started at 4 p.m. I was well wrapped in a windbreaker roomy enough to carry home my catch, in Nikes borrowed from an 11-year-old, and nondesigner jeans. There was no time to turn back when I saw Mlesco's rubberized, waterproof tip-to-toe costume. We each had our seconds -- Mlesco's high school assistant, Jed, and Goldfarb's two small sons.
Our mission was to catch enough bluefish to feed 30 at a dinner party.
Mlesco is the most weatherbeaten young man I have ever seen. Even so, he is in danger of singlehandly destroying the myth of the grim, cantankerous sea captain. Calm. He was always calm.
At first the setting was, too. As we cruised for a spot to fish, he explained that bluefish are so gluttonous that they overfeed and regurgitate, creating an oily slick that smells like watermelon.
Watermelon? Yup, I smelled it.
Mlesco's bluefish lore lapped at my ears, lulled my fears. He started summering at Nantucket as a camp director who took people fishing on his off hours. But his off hours grew until now he has two or three charters a day, and catches up to a thousand pounds.
Bluefish are the prey because they are fighters, always a challenge. They strike hard and fight to the end. Mlesco believes them to be the toughest fighting fish in existence.
Tie a 10-pound bluefish tail to tail with a 40-pound bass and he'll pull the bass out to sea," Mlesco challenged.
On the other hand, bass are much more difficult to catch because they are smarter fish, night feeders who prefer cooler water. On a rough day, however, conditions change because then bass come up regardless of the conditions.
As the winds whipped up whitecaps and they broke over the boat, I began to suspect this might be a bass day. I was right.
I huddled with the children, water dripping down my eyebrows, my jeans dragging and soggy. I kept fighting images of long, stainless steel counters, clean and dry, lined with peaceful fish.
In the meantime, Heinz and Goldfarb were behaving like schoolboys at recess, impatient with reeling in empty lines so they could cast again into the white foam. I was wondering whether Ritz crackers soaked in bottled clam juices could pass for bluefish pate, all the time wishing dark would come so we could go home.
But Goldfarb struck first and caught a 20-pound bass. That just isn't done often around those parts, and I knew it had just become a long trip. No sooner was the beautiful, glistening fish established in its orange plastic coffin than Goldfarb started reviewing every detail of their battle. Heinz was out for bass blood, and Goldfarb was primed for more. But we needed bluefish.
The winds, too, were whipping into greater frenzy and Heinz and I began to discuss returning to shore and shucking some corn for dinner. We understood, however, that Mlesco would never be deterred from his duty, in this case filling our shopping list.
To my relief, the blues began to bite. Perfect sixes -- three to five pounds -- a matched set. Three lines whizzed overhead, as Jed got into the sport. Mlesco careered around the boat, gaffing fish and steering into whitecaps, unhooking trapped lines and trapped fish. He never seemed to be doing less than four things at once, all the time keeping a steady flow of, "Good casting, Ron," and, "Right into those whitecaps, John," coaching the youngsters on reeling in the fish the men had hooked. Goldfarb's 10-year-old son, Max, said his dad looked like he was tap dancing, trying to keep his balance while the boat tossed and a fish fought for freedom,
I brought one in. They said I did a great job, but by then I knew Mlesco had been well-schooled in Parent Effectiveness Training. Everyone expected me to be proud of my perky little bluefish. I was proud that I had kept two feet on the deck and my lunch in my stomach.
Jed began to talk about that storm that was moving in fast from way over there. But we had a hot spot, and Heinz and Goldfarb were deep in the game. Another 20-pound bass. A few more bluefish. And finally a 25-pound bass. More bluefish. The fish were leaping as the sky darkened.
The final count was three bass, 11 bluefish and a good lead on the storm. We agreed there was no need to be greedy. I tried to recall my Red Cross drownproofing techniques.
With the darkening skies at our backs we headed in, Jed steering as Mlesco set up a formica counter for cleaning the fish.
"Save the cheeks," we chanted as he whipped his knife through each bluefish gutting, fileting and skinning. He couldn't bear to decimate that handsome 25-pound bass. So he promised Goldfarb he would deliver a fish steamer to his home if he would take the trophy home whole. Calm and lassitude settled over us as we passed around bottles of ale.
Every man and boy on the boat looked proud as a bullfighter. And I was feeling pretty good myself, now that it was over. After all, the four hour trip had not taken that much longer than finding a parking place in Georgetown and waiting in line at Cannon's. With bluefish at 89 cents a pound and bass at $1.99, our $130 boat trip had saved us $30 or $40 over retail.
Or had I missed the point?