SCULPINS, WOLF FISH AND OTHER UNMENTIONABLES - MARK DAVIDSON
The rocking of the boat had almost put me to sleep. My hand was draped overboard, still clutching the handline Papa had given to me to use when he saw my fishing rod from Ontario. My arm was tired from jigging and the tiredness had spread to my eyes. I closed them against the sunlight that flashed on the wave tips and left yellow and blue spots in my vision as though water had spilled upon camera film. We were anchored just off the church at Felzen South in Lunenburg Bay and opposite the lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor. Papa was jigging on the other side of the boat.
“Oop, oop, there we go.” Papa began to haul in his jig, the thick, green filament coiling at his feet. A moment later there was a thud as a body flopped against the side of the boat. Papa set the codfish on the floor of the boat and twisted the hook out of its mouth. I had opened my eyes at “oop, oop”.
“Tommy cod. Look at the little fellow,” said Papa, disappointed. “Too small and all he’ll have inside is worms from eating seaweed. Parasites. I’ll have to let him go.”
“Can I hold him?” I asked.
“Well sure,” Papa chuckled. He passed me the orange-brown fish and I investigated its eighteen inches, over-sized head, mouth and bulging stomach. A whisker-like feeler protruded from its lower lip and hung down another inch below its jawline.
“That’s how he feels the bottom,” Papa explained as he saw me investigate the whisker. Cod are called ground fish. They live on the bottom. That is why I tell you to wait for the jig to stop sinking and then to pull up only three feet. It puts the bait right in front of their noses.” Papa reached into a freezer bag at his feet and felt through the slimy herring bellies for another fat piece. He slipped it on his jig and tossed it overboard. I let the tommy cod go and watched him disappear into the darkness under the boat.
“You’re not going to fish?” Papa asked.
“Yes. Just taking a break.” I sat up sleepily and undid the top of my jacket.
“Here, have some water.” Papa passed me the water bottle and I drank, realizing how dry my throat had become.
“You gotta keep drinking out here or you get real dry. It’s all the salt and sunshine,” he explained.
I passed the bottle back to Papa and started to haul in my line. It came up with an empty hook.
“See, while you were sleeping they were having lunch down there,” he chuckled. “Put another piece on, go ahead.” I took a fresh herring belly from Papa’s big hand. In places scales from the codfish had adhered to the skin of his fingers.
“Okay, I’m gonna catch a real codfish or maybe a flounder,” I said, mustering some excitement to mask my sleepy state.
“You see the government wharf over at Feltzen South? Your Uncle Peter caught a nice flounder right off the end when he was your age. Your mother was there and saw the whole thing. Boy, was she jealous!” Said Papa.
“Mum liked to fish?” I asked, surprised.
“Oh no, not at all. She just didn’t like it when her brothers did something she didn't.” Papa twisted in his seat to find a more comfortable position.
I finished baiting the jig and held it for a moment as I had done with the tommy cod. The jig was heavy, almost five inches long and shaped almost like a banana and tapered on one end. Attached to the heavy end was a large treble hook. I compared it to the tiny hook tied on my fishing rod and the little split shot weights strung up the line. Even with five or six of these weights strung in a row it was not heavy enough to go to the bottom. The rod lay discarded in the front of the motorboat.
“Leave that in Ontario next summer. It’s for trout, not codfish.” said Papa.
I slung the jig overboard and let the heavy line play out through my fingers until it suddenly stopped. Then I took back a few inches and let it drop again to make sure I had bottom. I was always amazed how a fishing line could be coiled and pliable on the deck but when fitted with a heavy jig and let straight down you could feel the bottom right through the line as though you were using a sixty-yard long pole to touch the bottom of the bay. Papa watched to see that I brought the jig up far enough.
“That’s how they used to measure the depths on the schooners,” Papa said. “It was called ‘flying the blue pigeon’. They had a ten-pound lead weight attached to a line and they threw it overboard and then counted fathoms of depth...” He paused to watch me mending the line. “Okay, now bring it up a little more, you don’t want to be too low or you’ll get a sculpin.”
I knew enough to not want a sculpin. These were bottom feeders as well but they ate dead things that had fallen right to the ocean floor. Sculpins were orange-yellow with a mess of spines on their heads that could deliver a mild sting. Their tails were good to eat but getting at the tail meant getting passed the head.
A moment later I felt a bite and pulled. Dead weight. “I got something!” I said excitedly.
“Okay, pull it in! Not too fast now. But keep it tight,” Papa instructed.
In handlining there is always those few moments between when you first hook the fish and when its face materializes out of the deep and you know what you have got. Because you are using a handline instead of a long pole, the fish surfaces right at the side of the boat, and you find yourself looking eye to eye.
I watched into the darkness of the water as I continued to pull in the fish. First, there was a faint cloud of yellow growing larger and then suddenly an orange face full of spines.
“Crap, a sculpin!” I complained.
“Well, you had to too low. I told you! Let me see.”
“Goodness, he’s a nice one though isn't he?”
At first, I thought Papa was being ironic but as the fish came to the surface his weight suddenly tripled and my fourteen-year-old arms could hardly lift him over the side of the boat.
“Watch him, he’ll sting you. Set him down a minute and let me take out the hook.”
Papa reached into his tackle box and found his pliers. The sculpin’s mouth was fully open and it looked like he was still trying to swallow the herring stuck in his throat along with the hook and jig.
“You got him good, Mark.” Papa was breathing heavily as he bent over the fish and performed the operation to remove the jig. “Well he’s a good size but I really don’t want to clean a sculpin. We’ll let him go, eh?”
“Okay,” I said somewhat disappointedly. Part of me wanted to show off this monster to the rest of the family. The sculpin went over with a splash and he lay on the surface for a moment. Then with a flick of his powerful tail he torpedoed into the depths.
I took another herring belly from the freezer bag, baited the treble hook and let the jig over the side. This time I was more careful to count, one, two, three feet, pulling the line back in after it touched bottom.
“Did Uncle Jon like to fish?” I asked.
“No, not as much as Peter. Jon is the youngest, like your brother Timothy, and I didn’t get him out that much. The church got busy in those years.”
“What about Uncle David?”
“Oh, David liked to fish, when he was your age.” Papa paused and shifted in his seat and was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “David wanted to be a minister at one point. Well, he was thinking about it at least.”
“When was that?”
“After he went out to B.C.”
“Did you always know you would be a minister?”
“Oh no. It was not until high school. A man in our church approached me and said I should consider going into the seminary. That is what started me thinking.”
“What about before that? What did you want to be when you were my age?”
“I can’t remember. A teacher maybe.”
I tried to picture Papa in the place of my teacher at school but I was only able to envision him in his service robes and standing behind a pulpit. For a moment I could force myself to have him say something about mathematics, but my mind could go no further.”
“Your mother could have been a minister, if they allowed that at the time she came out of college.” Papa said.
All this while as we were talking we both continued to jig. Even at that age I had started to learn that it was easier to talk with men if there was another common activity at the same time. Jigging was perfect for this; the rhythm of jigging added an undercurrent of rhythm for our words. If there was nothing to talk about or if we reached a subject that if pursued further may take too much work or emotion, you could stop, turn your head and fiddle with your line or change bait. For Papa, this was the case with the topic of women ministers as well as Uncle David. David had died two years before I was born in a fire out west. I learned this when my parents explained how I got my middle name, David. I knew what we could talk about when it came to David. I had watched my parents talked with Nana and Papa whenever the topic came up. It was usually only a couple of sentences and maybe a question about his life. I tried this out a few times myself with Papa. One or two questions were okay and then when I had found out a new fact or detail about his life I could take that piece and fit it into the picture I had of him in my mind. This mental picture was like the oil painting Nana and Papa had of David in their home in Ontario. It only showed his face and shoulders and it was painted in such a way that if you were too close all you would see were the colors and the ridges in the paint left by the artist’s brush. A new piece of information about David was like one of those colors or brush strokes, and I placed it into the picture and then backed up to see how it changed the overall look. In this way David gradually became clearer in my mind with each new question answered. But there were many more. I knew that some of those questions could be asked when I reached the age at which he died. Perhaps then I might understand the answers.
I continued jigging, pulling now horizontally across my body rather than up and down. This used different muscles and I found I had a whole reserve of strength left in that movement. The line now bent at the edge of the boat at ninety degrees and then continued down into the water, searching for something else to bring to the surface. Suddenly, there was a tug. It was heavy, heavier than the big sculpin. The, another tug, so strong in fact that the line moved a little to the side even at the surface. I hauled hard against the next bite and I had him. Whatever I had at the end of the line pulled back as hard as a large dog on the end of a leash. The line jerked side to side and I held on, only able to reclaim a few feet each time the tugging subsided.
Papa noticed my struggle, “What you got there!?”
“I don’t know. It feels like a horse!”
“Haul him in! You’ve got him hooked nicely.”
I brought my hands into the boat again and let the line bend over the smooth side of the motorboat. I pulled in sideways just as I had been jigging. This took some of the pressure and forced the fish to fight against the weight of the boat as well.
“Good job! Keep her coming. Let the gunwale help, that’s good!” Papa encouraged. My arm began to ache and now as the fish rose to the surface it began to pull sideways back and forth.
“Papa it’s so strong!” I was holding on now with both hands and letting the creature fight.
Papa leaned over the side and peered into the water as I had done with the sculpin. “Oh my!” he said.
“What?” I asked a little frightened now.
“I have never seen one of these up close. My goodness!”
“What is it?”
“It’s a wolf fish! Here, I’d better take it.”
Gladly I passed the handline into Papa’s big hand. “Oh my, he’s not happy,” observed Papa as he took over the fight. Papa grunted as he braced himself against the side of the boat and lifted the fish right out of the water. I got my first look at the wolf fish. It was a monster, three feet long and bluish-gray in color. What I focused on first was the huge head and jaws that slimmed out over about thirty-six inches into an eel’s body. Rather than having separate fins on the top and tail, the wolf fish had one fin, a spiny fringe that ran the length of its back around the tail and back along its belly. But what amazed me more were the teeth. It looked like a sea monster or something out of a prehistoric display at a museum. Surely, I had pulled it out of some hole in the bottom of the ocean.
“Oh my!” He said a third time. The beast flapped menacingly on the floor of the boat. I was sure I heard it growl. “Don’t get too close now! Do you see the teeth?”
“Yes, I said weakly.
The wolf fish flopped from its side so that it was now upright on its stomach, its large jaws bearing its teeth and looking like it was about to lunge at my ankle. With pliers in one hand, Papa worked his other hand down the line toward the jig. The top of the jig protruded only a few inches in front of the teeth. It had swallowed the hook deep into its gullet. As his fingers approached it the wolf fish began to snap.
“I don’t want to get near that mouth, I’ll lose a finger,” said Papa carefully. He tried to kick the beast onto its side and place his foot on its gills in order to immobilize the monster. But the wolf fish flopped violently again and snapped its jaws as soon as the sole of his shoe touched it.
“That’s it. I’m gonna cut the line!” said Papa.
Papa lifted the line and with a grunt he dangled the heavy fish over the side of the boat. He slipped the line into the crotch of the pliers and with a quick squeeze he severed the line in the wire cutter. The wolf fish leaped into the waves and was gone. Papa sat back in his seat breathing heavily. “Well that’s that.” He said between breaths.
“He’s still got the hook in his mouth?” I asked.
“Yes. He won’t live long like that. It was way down.”
We fished for another hour and then motored back into the channel by the island. All the way I thought about the wolf fish, his throat pierced with a hook and mouth filled with my metal jig; his last supper stuck forever halfway down his throat. I felt cruel and a strange sense of injustice overcame me. Life was not fair for a fish either, no matter how ugly. We anchored the boat and walked back to the cottage in silence.
That night I dreamed of my Uncle David. In the dream I was walking the shore just below the cottage. A mist covered the beach and the foghorn at Battery Point lighthouse was wailing from across the bay. As I walked along the water’s edge I noticed saw a small, thin figure sitting near the shore. I drew closer and I recognized the face of David from the painting, but he was younger, about my age. I drew nearer and saw that he was fishing, slowly reeling in and casting into the water by the rocks. As I watched he seemed to see me but continued as though I were not there. All of a sudden, his line went tight and he began to fight as though hauling in a great fish. He struggled for what seemed an eternity but when he landed the fish it was only as long as a boy’s finger.
He took the fish off the hook and turned to look at me. “It’s for you,” he said without emotion and handed the fish to me. When I looked again it was no longer David’s face but Papa’s that stared back at me. And then, Papa’s face transformed and became a portrait in oil.
I woke with a start in the darkness of the cottage. As my heart slowed I recognized the familiar ticking of the clock in the dining room and the rhythm of Papa’s snores from where he and Nana slept on the pull-out couch. I opened my right hand, the one that had held David’s fish. It had been clenched tight.
Mark Davidson is a pastor and family man who seretly wishes he was a West Indies cricket player