Most sane anglers with boats under 30 feet, are long winterized and shrink-wrapped by the time the curtain drops on striper fishing. For many others, the season comes to a halt by the start of deer season, or perhaps in time for duck hunting the local back bays and marshes. Admittedly, once blackfishing is done, so am I. That’s when I cheerfully head for the living room to join my youngest son, Johnny, as we glue our eyes to NFL Red Zone all weekend long.
Then of course, there are the insane fishing fanatics, like my best friend Paul Nilsson who eats, sleeps and dreams fishing, keeping his 21-foot Sea Ox on the trailer and at the ready 365 days a year. Over the years, Paul and I have had fishing experiences that would make a billy goat vomit. Suffice to say, we have fished in some of the most nautical weather and places no man has gone, or would want to. But one particular beautiful day in January, several years back, really takes the cake.
My phone rang around 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday, with Paul on the other end saying, “Hey look out the window, there’s no wind and the weather is stellar, you in for some cod fishing? Meet at my house as soon as you can, we’ll launch off Maple Avenue and shoot out Moriches and hit either the Miller or Marklyn,” Paul went on to say he expected we’d be back before dark with a cooler full of fish. Now, I trust Paul with my life and certainly with the weather, but just for kicks and giggles, I double-checked since I didn’t want to miss the NFL playoffs should there be any obstacles. But things looked good, so off we went with smooth sailing towards Miller Wreck, some 15 miles southeast of Moriches.
That morning the marine forecast pegged winds out of the northwest at 10 knots or less with seas 2 to 3 feet. The forecasters were mostly on target, except that seas were more like 4 to 5 feet. No big deal, and soon enough, the wreck drew a picture on the recorder with quite a bit ‘fish life’ showing up. Paul watched the GPS for the direction of the drift and within a few minutes it was lines-down. Fortunately, lady luck was on our side, within seconds of our baits hitting the bottom, we were both hooked up to a cod. “A good start,” I thought to myself as both cod were 26 inches and around 6 pounds. Down they went again, but we drifted too far from the wreck so we picked up the lines and returned for another drift just as the wind speed was picking up and the seas began to build.
Back in the same position, we instantly hooked up with another pair of 6-pounders, then repeated the process two more times putting eight beautiful market-size cod in the box. That was about when Paul and I became concerned about the weather. At that point in the trip, winds were gusting 25 knots northwest with seas building to a somewhat harrowing, 6 to 8 feet. Needless to say, it was time to buckle up and head for the barn, 15 miles to our northwest. Paul took the wheel, turning it toward home, and the steering cable snapped! “Just great,” I thought to myself.
There wasn’t a single other boat around, we were out of cellphone range, and too far from shore to make any communication with a 25-watt VHF. “Let’s put our heads together and figure out the next move,” I said to Paul. Looking around the deck, I notice a 22-inch Berkley aluminum fish ruler resting against the gunnel. “Grab a roll of electrical tape, and tape that ruler to the steering bracket, we’ll steer her manually,” I said to Paul.
Honestly, it was the only choice we had. So with one of us working the throttle to try to keep the boat on course, the other would remain in the stern to steer the boat by hand while taking a cold, long bath in rough seas facing head-on winds. Since Paul was younger and in better health, he volunteered for steering duties, while I ran the throttle, pointing out our course for Paul with my hand, the whole way home. We aimed for Moriches Inlet, but it was much too wet of a ride and quite dangerous. So we adjusted our waypoint to Shinnecock Inlet finding the travel a little smoother and not as wet.
Four hours later, and about a mile away from Shinnecock Inlet, we found calm seas and hardly a breeze. Fortunately, there was a boat about a half mile north of us, so we sent up a flare and the other crew towed us to the ramp under the Ponquogue Bridge. Once back in cellphone range, we planned for our friend Mike to bring Paul’s trailer over. Despite our foul weather gear, we were both completely soaked, and cold to the core. But luckily, we were safe.
Home and showered by 10 p.m., I thought more about what could have been a truly traumatic day. Thanks to the good Lord and a bit of improvisation, we made it back to our families… that one beautiful day in January.