"You knew Ben Lubell, didn't you?"
"Sure," I told Matt Swienton, "everybody knows Ben Lubell. He's the best fisherman on the island."
"I guess you knew then that he died."
I did not know Lubell had died, nor in fact had I ever really known the man, more than just to say hello. He had been coming to Block Island for 25 years, bringing his family to Swienton's weathered fishing camp, Twin Maples, and working the rips, races and points for striped bass, blues and weakfish since before I knew such fish existed.
He wasn't an unapproachable old-timer. He was just a quiet fellow doing what he liked. When gripped with the urge to introduce myself, I would decide instead, "Why bother him? He's happy."
Lubell generally fished alone and he almost always was successful. You would see him in the mornings coming back in his little boat from some predawn assignation with the night-feeders, lugging a couple of big fish on a stringer.
He was not one of the rich equipment freaks who flock to the Block every summer in their gleaming offshore fishing machines. He was a schoolteacher from the Bronx. He had a little Johnson outboard motor which he stuck on the back of a Twin Maples 12-foot rental rowboat.
He got up before first light and set off out of the harbor in the little skiff, dressed like a commercial fisherman in oilskins, brown from the weather, heading for some place he had in mind, usually out in the open waters miles from shore.
"Some day," people who knew the dangers of small boats in big waters would say, "he's not going to come back."
Fishing was one side of Lubell and he was very good at it. Evidently, it was a side few of his acquaintances off the island even knew about.
A week before Lubell died, Lou Feierabend of Colorado, a photographer and regular Block Island summer visitor and fisherman, offered to shoot some photos of him surfcasting for blues.
"I said, 'You probably have a lot of these kinds of pictures,' " Feierabend said. "But he told me that he didn't. He said no one had ever offered before.
"When I asked him for his address in New York to send the prints to he said that no one there would know what to make of them. His friends didn't even know he was a fisherman. He said to send them to Twin Maples, where he kept all his fishing things. So I did."
Every serious Block Island fisherman needs a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get out to the North Point, where a great tide rip makes up as the Atlantic and Block Island Sound currents meet.
Lubell had one of the oldest, rustiest, sorriest Jeeps on the island. One evening while he was casting off the Point the island well-digger, Gordon Gould, had engine trouble in his boat. Gould and boat wound up washing around in the surf a few feet from Lubell.
It was prime fishing time on a perfect night, the golden half-hour just after sunset, but Lubell reeled in his lure and plunged into the roaring surf to help Gould haul the boat ashore.
They got it up to the tide line and Gould spied Lubell's Jeep. He wondered if, by hooking a line to the Jeep, Lubell could haul the boat to high ground.
"Not with that," Lubell chuckled, pointing at his ragged buggy. He'd risk his back and his life, he seemed to be saying, but not his buggy.
If anyone was Lubell's fishing companion it was Gerry Scheyer of New Jersey, who has been coming to Twin Maples for more than two decades. Scheyer remembers a night five or six years ago when the striped bass were hitting off the North Point. He and Lubell were fishing together. By 11 they had a great pile of stripers. Scheyer suggested they call it a night.
Lubell wouldn't quit. Scheyer left him there, alone in the dark. Lubell showed up hours later with a 40-pounder, two 25-pounders and two 15-pounders. "He just couldn't quit when the fish were biting," Scheyer said.
The North Point is a scary place, with the surf sometimes pounding in from both directions. A long, sandy spit makes out into the ocean and the current rips seaward. Lubell, the 53-year-old schoolteacher from New York with a perpetual twinkle in his eyes, was notorious for his fearlessness in wading out onto the spit.
He wore chest waders and a hooded oilskin top cinched at his waist, which made him almost impervious to spray.
One year ago, on the evening of Aug. 23, 1980, he and Scheyer were waist deep in the water, casting into a roiling surf when Lubell stepped into a hole. His waders filled and he was washed off into the deep. Scheyer tried to rescue him but couldn't. A man in a swimsuit plunged in after him and had to be rescued himself.
Scheyer remembers Lubell holding his fishing rod overhead as he was swept away, trying to keep the reel out of the water, "the way any good fisherman would." The body was recovered a week later in nearby Cow Cove