Not long ago on Christmas Eve day at Basseterre, St. Kitts, I found myself embarking on a deep-sea fishing trip, but I worried that the wind and the waves and rough waters might be too much, and that I would embarrass myself with seasickness. I also doubted my physical strength because a year earlier, just after turning fifty, I had had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, my heartbeats irregular, prone to becoming rapid without medication. And two years before, my right shoulder had required surgery for a torn labrum and bone spur removal. Midlife, I felt, hadn’t been very reassuring to me.
Five other people materialized to board the fishing vessel, a white fiberglass 32-foot Century, complete with a tower and outriggers: there was a skinny, angular young German couple; an overweight sandy-haired father in his late forties with his husky sleepy-eyed twelve-year-old; and there was a rugged black-haired high school kid with hard blue eyes who hailed from Fort Worth.
We were welcomed aboard by the charter captain, Jose and his first-mate, Aldo. Soon Aldo cast off the lines, and we set out from the marina at Basseterre, keeping parallel to the island of St. Kitts on a northwest course. The strongest winds soon gathered, jouncing the boat from the stern. Whitecaps became prominent, and as the boat heaved up and down I realized we were in for an incessant rough ride and therefore the longest of days. Why had I wanted to go fishing?
I had chosen to go, I remembered, because, like an addict, I had once fished weekly while living only a mere forty-five minutes from the Gulf of Mexico, in Houston, Texas. Since my wife and I lived now in rural Georgia I rarely saw the sea and had missed being on the water. I had also wanted to test myself, to see how my heart and shoulder would hold up; I wanted, to a certain degree, to defy midlife and retain my masculinity.
As Aldo hosed down the white floor in the stern because our sneakers and sandals had tracked in sand and dirt, I observed he was barefoot. The five other clients and I were sitting in the forward cabin as Jose explained that we would be trolling, staying above a reef line that ran parallel to St. Kitts. I saw, as well, that Jose’s dark skin was a shade lighter than Aldo’s, and the stubble of not shaving for several mornings covered Jose’s chin and jowls. He possessed sunken eyes, with the tired look of a man who’d been staring for too long and too hard at the ocean, and his body appeared gaunt, as if he was more skeletal rather than of ample flesh and blood. I also noticed that the boat was equipped with a state of the art Garmin GPS and sonar system, and I listened to the diesel engines throbbing smoothly, propelling us forward at a steady 7.1 mph. Jose hadn’t opened the front cabin window yet, so I smelled the slightest backwash of diesel fumes, which prompted me to remove my sneakers and head out to stand barefoot with Aldo on the open aft section. As I took a deep breath, he nodded, acknowledging my awareness of wanting to avoid the fumes. I tried not to stare at him, but kept looking because several long scars marred his forehead. Though he stood shorter than me by several inches, his upper body appeared far stronger than mine I thought, like he’d played sports during his youth or had worked as a construction laborer.
Aldo glanced at my worn Columbia fishing shirt and asked, “You’ve fished before?”
“I used to go a lot. In the Gulf of Mexico. My friends and I fished out of Galveston, Texas.”
“Four and five hours out?”
“Yes,” I said,” impressed that Aldo knew how it often took that long to reach the oil rigs or the best deep water. We caught a lot of red snapper, though, or kingfish and cobia. Mahi-mahi and sharks, too.”
Aldo shook his head at the inconvenience of having to travel several hours out to fish, and as if expressing additional opposition to the thought he scaled the starboard tower ladder and began setting an outrigger line, emphasizing how we could start fishing right now, only minutes away from the marina.
Despite the rough day the Caribbean Sea enlivened me, for the water appeared blue beyond any blue to be found far north. My focus sharpened on our fishing; I glanced into the forward cabin and saw how the Garmin unit registered the water depth at over four hundred feet. Aldo proceeded to set six lines, rigging the hooks with ballyhoo, an ocean baitfish, behind bright heavy lead-weighted teasers. Trolling this way could be extremely efficient because the boat could cover a lot of water; the six baits soon created the illusion of a school of baitfish moving rapidly across the surface, as if they were in distress, vulnerable and fleeing. But I figured that the rough water and the boat’s 7.1 m.p.h. speed would not allow the bait to be easily seen by as many big fish or predators compared to if we were trolling slowly through calmer seas. “Are we going to troll like this all day?” I asked.
“Yes,” Aldo said.
“Then we’re going for more of a boat ride than fishing, aren’t we?”
Aldo nodded reluctantly, realizing that I knew their method of fishing amounted to making the time pass more than striving to deliver fish for their clients.
“Do you ever anchor up and drop bait, so everyone can catch something?” I asked.
“No,” Aldo said.
I sighed, and the very air seemed to thicken between us, as if suddenly the fact that I had paid for the trip and knew from experience about fishing might become like indomitable leverage. But then I said in a relaxed voice, freeing Aldo from being more honorable, “At least we’re out here fishing, instead of staying ashore.”
Aldo smiled, grateful that I wasn’t going to protest about their speedy trolling. My eyes became distracted by the beauty of the green hillsides sloping upwards from the shoreline. The hillsides soon steepened, becoming volcanic mountains, and then the more hospitable shorelines further northwest became dotted with houses of extravagant colors, like popsicle orange, hot pink, cherry red, cerulean blue, lime green or canary yellow. We passed the small towns of Challengers and Old Road. Soon the German woman joined Aldo and me on the open aft area; she took a deep breath and tipped her head back, basking in the sun. Her face was youthful and noble, with brown freckles and strong cheekbones. Her blue eyes cast exuberance, and she wore her long brown hair in a ponytail. Hoping to inspire luck, I told her, “You should reel in the first fish.”
Aldo agreed with a nod, and then I said, not wanting to appear selfish, hoping the fishing gods might somehow smile upon me if made some type of personal sacrifice, “I’ll go last.”
As the German woman grinned nervously at the thought of fighting the first fish, the high school kid from Fort Worth emerged, followed by the father of the twelve-year-old—who was still in the cabin, fast asleep, leaning sharply to one side—while the German husband stood beside Jose, talking about how to operate the boat.
I asked Aldo, “How often do you fish?”
“At least twice a week, man.”
“What pound test do you have on the reels?”
“You set the drags light?”
“Very light, so the lines don’t easily break.” Aldo glanced ahead and pointed to the port side where a brown pelican sat in the water like a sentinel, bobbing alone on the waves.
I thought of how birds sometimes waited to feed atop schools of bait, so there could have been large fish below. “Sometimes the smallest thing can mean everything,” I said.
Aldo’s eyes gleamed, and he wagged his head, saying, “Yeah, yeah.”
Aldo whistled at Jose and pointed at the pelican, so Jose aimed the bow towards the bird. As the boat drew nearer to it, no fish struck, and when the pelican flew away Jose swung the boat back over the reef. Soon he began maneuvering the boat through a series of S turns, crossing back and forth over the reef, until suddenly a fishing reel whined. Aldo bounded across the aft section. He grabbed the rod from its holder, lifted the rod, reared back, set the hook and motioned for the German woman to hurry into the fighting chair. She shuffled over and sat down, then Aldo placed the rod in the holder in front of her. Noticing all of the activity, her husband came outside.
Jose barely slowed the boat, so the German woman bent down and strained, reeling until a small flash of silver broke the surface. She and her husband laughed, and she grunted, reeling in a silver skipjack that was no more than a foot long. Aldo worked the hook from the fish’s mouth, then threw the skipjack into a bucket, reached into a cooler, baited the hook with a fresh ballyhoo, and set the line out again.
We trolled past the town of Half-Way Tree. We were approximately six miles from port. There were no more strikes, so the German couple drank several beers, sacrificing sobriety to improve the boat’s chances. Soon another reel sang as if prompted by the drinking, and as the German couple laughed at their alcohol-induced luck, Aldo called to the husband to occupy the fighting chair. Aldo set the rod in front of him, and the husband put his shoulder into fighting the fish, but it was only another small skipjack. We all sighed, hoping for a better catch.
Beyond Brimstone Hill another reel sounded, and Aldo hastened to the rod, lifted it from the holder, and attempted to set the hook. The fish had stolen the bait, though—there was nothing there—and in my mind I questioned the boat’s speed again, but soon another reel buzzed. As Aldo grabbed the fishing rod, the teen from Fort Worth commandeered the fighting chair as if believing that the initiative of his assertion could lead us all to a greater piscatorial reward. He leaned back, brought the rod down and reeled furiously, but his profound effort only resulted in another small skipjack. The teen’s eyes said that he wanted to chastise Jose and Aldo, as if he also knew they were fishing too fast, but then he stood up, held onto the base of the starboard tower ladder, and braced himself as the water grew rougher, quiet, but scowling at Aldo.
Our surroundings soon felt more ominous: Mt. Liamuiga, a dormant volcano formerly called Mt. Misery, the highest point on St. Kitts’ western side, loomed over us, and frigate birds—resembling pterodactyls because of their long pointed beaks, thin bodies and triangular wings—hovered ahead of the boat and skimmed the waves. The husky twelve-year-old son had awoken because of how the boat was heaving up and down, crashing through swells, so when a reel on the port side sounded, Aldo called him out to fight the fish. The boy tottered onto the aft deck, struggled into the chair, and within a minute, to no one’s surprise, he landed a skipjack. His father said gruffly to me, “You can go next.”
“You should follow your son,” I said.
“I’m older than you,” the father said.
“How old are you?”
“I’m fifty-one,” I said.
“I don’t believe you.”
“I can show you my license,” I told him.
The father didn’t challenge me again. A few minutes later another reel whined, and without protesting he sat down in the fighting chair. He reeled the fish in quickly—it turned out to be yet another skipjack—so he frowned at me, as if blaming me for his poor luck.
I didn’t feel the slightest amount of guilt or selfishness for having called the last turn. How could I know where the boat would be or what the conditions would be like when that chance came up? Yet now we left the island of St. Kitts behind, venturing into much deeper, more open water. And all at once, like fighter planes on strafing runs, frigates dove on all sides of us, feeding voraciously on plentiful schools of bait. In the distance to the north, a volcanic island rose up that appeared like a foreboding portent, suggestive of the power of nature.
“Dolphin!” Aldo shouted. He gestured urgently to Jose, and what I saw next were not dolphins like Flipper but the blunt shaped heads of mahi-mahi, circling below and savagely slashing upward, ambushing bait on the surface. Jose yanked the wheel and steered the boat to bring the teasers and the ballyhoo closer to the fish, but the maneuver didn’t elicit any strikes. Then the boat swung about to keep the wind and waves at the stern, and I watched in sheer awe and horror as a wave rose and its curl grew, the apex extending higher until the crest formed far above my head. The wave appeared like a living entity that wanted to pursue the boat and flip us over. Oh, God, I thought, and at that moment I experienced a feeling that I’d known only a few times before—it was like a tingling or a sensation of deeply heightened awareness, my intuition telling me that something significant was about to happen. Indeed, I felt fortunate to be alive now, to inhabit the earth and space and time, as if my life was a part of far more than midlife alone, and most importantly I knew—despite how I would barely be able to stay in the chair because of the ferocious waves bearing down upon us—that I was about to hook a big fish.
Thirty seconds later the starboard rod and reel connected to the outrigger screeched; a fish struck and was taking yards and yards of line out, and despite the harshness of the waves, Aldo bounded across the aft section. He was all serious business as I stumbled into the fighting chair, and I laughed at how the prophecy of my intuition had been realized, but I feared whether I could stay in the chair and handle a big fish in such severe water. Still, part of me felt very excited and glad to be there, confronting the extreme challenge, and Aldo yanked back on the rod twice, setting the hook. After carefully bringing the rod over and dropping it into the holder, he shouted, “Reel!” I bent over, putting my surgically repaired shoulder into the fight.
Jose slowed the boat a little. As excited as I felt, my heart did not beat wildly, the beta-blockers for my atrial fibrillation keeping my pulse steady. Perhaps because of this, I was very aware, noticing more than when I had fought fish in the past. I counted the five other fishing lines and saw where they were in comparison to the line attached to the rod and reel in my hands. I noted that the angle of the line attached to the reel I was holding slanted sharply, meaning the fish was deep. The waves gathered and crashed, tossing the boat to and fro, evincing thoughts of the Kon-tiki, the Pequod, and monsters of the deep dark sea. And as Aldo worked to haul in the five other lines, I reeled as he’d instructed. Still, the fish didn’t move; I could feel all of its weight and then several strong tugs. “Reel!” Aldo shouted again.
“I’ll break the line if I do. The fish is head shaking,” I said.
“Stay with it!” Aldo exclaimed, more excited than I was.
The fish remained deep, so I lowered the rod, reeled, gained a few feet of line, but when I brought the rod back up, the fish veered to the starboard and hung far below, as if wanting nothing to do with being forced to the surface. I sensed the fish was toying with me. Suddenly it sliced through the water and remained directly behind the boat, still far below our wake, and Jose slowed the boat more. I worked the rod downward, reeling as much line as I could. My right shoulder felt tight, but no tendons popped or snapped —everything held together—and although I wished for Hemingwayesque grace under pressure, it felt more like I was barely surviving, just hanging on.
“Reel! Reel!” Aldo shouted.
I gained a few yards of line.
“This is a big fish,” I said. “We have to be patient with it.”
A huge wave crested and broke right behind the boat, sending a deluge of water over the rail. Soaked, I shook my head and laughed. What else could happen? The battle progressed but seesawed for twenty minutes; I reeled in some line, the fish took some, but I kept gaining line slowly. As I concentrated, it felt like there was no one else on the boat, like I alone was connected to the fish and the sea, though if I became careless and couldn’t stay in the chair, the entire ocean waited to receive me and draw me down to the bottom.
“Bring it in!” Aldo shouted, and I could see he’d become enthralled from watching the fight, but I noticed he’d forgotten to pull in one of the lines which still had a heavy teaser and a ballyhoo attached to it.
“You have to reel that other line in. I’ll slice my line if I cross it,” I said.
Realizing his mistake, Aldo lifted the other rod and quickly retrieved the line. So now the path to the boat seemed clear, but I feared that the fish, upon being dragged closer, might swim beneath the boat or cut the line in the propeller. Still, I leveraged the fish by pumping the rod, reeling as much as I could when I brought the rod downward, and in time the end of the leader appeared above the water—the leader was a stronger length of line that was tied between the bait and the line on the reel. “There’s the leader,” I called out, my hopefulness increasing; I believed we might actually bring the fish to the boat.
I reeled without having to lower the rod and gained more line until suddenly my eyes caught sight of the fish. It was sleek but massive, as long as a kitchen table, the sides bronze and highlighted by light blue vertical stripes, the head narrowing to a point, the mouth filled with jagged teeth. I recognized it as a wahoo, Acathocybium solandri, also known in the Caribbean as Peto. The fish easily weighed over a hundred pounds.
To my astonishment, Aldo forced his way in front of me to stand at the rail, and I couldn’t see the fish anymore. Worse still, he seemed oblivious to how the rod actually rested on his right shoulder. “What are you doing?” I protested loudly. He awkwardly reached with his left hand for the leader and tried to haul some line in. Then he grabbed down for the gaff with his right hand, and suddenly took a wild stab at the fish. The wahoo reacted by initiating a run, diving, shooting like a little missile to the starboard, and in a matter of seconds I felt all of the resistance from the end of the line dissipate, leaving me holding nothing.
I sat there stunned, incredulous, not wanting to believe how badly Aldo’s attempt to land the fish had been. He should have waited until I called that the fish was played out, that it was ready. By letting the rod rest on his shoulder, he had removed how the rod would have acted as a shock absorber, providing resistance when the wahoo dove. So the fish had been able to yank the hook out of its own mouth because of how Aldo had been forcefully holding onto the leader. I knew all of this from having successfully landed several big fish in the past.
And indeed, since I had paid for the charter, I could have yelled at Aldo. I had seen and heard many fishermen berate a boat’s crew for mistakes. Aldo had been reckless and incompetent, not to mention how we’d already been trolling too fast. I merely shook my head, though, saying nothing as disappointment moved through my mind and filled my whole body, and now Aldo looked at me, waiting, anxious, wondering, anticipating my severe pronouncement.
The five other clients appeared bothered and suspect, because of the heaving seas and the lack of fish; they, too, were not happy with Jose or Aldo and offered me their consolations as Jose shut the forward cabin front window and climbed up onto the tower. He began steering from above, turning the boat around so that the bow faced southeast, aiming directly into the wind. The waves broke hard against the bow, drenching the front window; we were heading back to Basseterre. Aldo set out the six lines again, and as we continued to troll—motoring against the wind—we even passed by another boat that was also trolling.
“Aren’t we moving too fast to hook anything now?” I said.
Aldo nodded at me with the same begrudging reluctance he’d revealed earlier. “We have another trip this afternoon. Out of Nevis,” he said.
Since Jose and Aldo had brought us out for several hours and hooked one large fish, I supposed that, in their minds, they had done enough, but I had been on other fishing trips where multiple hook-ups were the norm and the expectation.
So I felt more upset now about losing the wahoo. I contemplated if I had caught it, how I would have strained to lift the fish but then held it up, the moment making for a once-in-a-lifetime photographic trophy. I had certainly never caught a wahoo like that before, and I thought of how wahoo fillets are highly praised by gourmands.
“Your fish,” Aldo said, trying to explain now, “it ran and lost the hook. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do.” His eyes told me that he still seemed to be fearful of my pronouncement.
I inhaled deeply to try and let the clean ocean air calm my thoughts. How long had it been since I’d been deep-sea fishing? I realized that over a decade had passed since I’d moved to rural Georgia and been out on a bigger boat. My eyes swept across the ocean on all sides, absorbing all the variations of blue, and I felt glad that my heart had kept in rhythm and that my shoulder had let me fish again. How often was I given the opportunity to hook a wahoo and do battle? Wasn’t I fortunate to have hooked the trophy fish, rather than a skipjack? Hadn’t I fought it perfectly, bringing it to the boat, and hadn’t I seen it? Yes, a bruiser of a fish, so alive, with all its resplendent colors—I knew the image of it would not escape my mind. I considered, as well, how Aldo had told me he fished at least twice a week; in comparison, I was an American who worked too much. Then I thought of how, by 2042, minorities in America were supposed to outnumber whites, and our behavior then, as we travelled abroad could bring a whole new meaning, or a reversal, to the term Ugly American. I thought I probably wouldn’t still be alive by then, but this was like a brief preview of that time, and I did not want to seem at all like or be an ugly American, much less an ugly Chinese-American. How insensitive would I be as a person of color if I berated Aldo, another person of color? How far would I have fallen if I acted in the stereotypical white way? Shouldn’t I prioritize being part of the larger community of the world? Now, instead of far in the future? I also considered how I would be catching fish like the wahoo more often if my life were arranged differently, which was none of Aldo’s fault. And that day once the sun went down it would be Christmas Eve. I asked Aldo, “Will you be at home with your family this evening?”
“Yeah, man. After the trip to Nevis.”
Wouldn’t I be a better man, I thought, if I released Aldo, like a fish, setting him free from any bitterness between us, or ill will? “Most fish are lost right at the boat. It’s never certain. You did everything right,” I said, lying, adhering to higher moral ground, but relieving Aldo of any guilt.
He gave a faint smile, understanding how I wouldn’t be reprimanding him. I felt better for having chosen the proper answer, for having offered a kinder, gentler response.
“Do you own your own boat?” I asked him.
“Yeah. A sixteen foot Boston Whaler,” Aldo said.
“I have a seventeen foot Carolina Skiff. It’s about the same.”
“I caught a one thousand pound black marlin from my boat,” Aldo recounted. “It took six hours to haul it in, and the fish towed us far off the island.”
I laughed. We shared a few more fishing stories. Soon Jose throttled up the diesel engines, requiring Aldo to haul in the six lines and clear the ballyhoo from the hooks. We sped back to the marina, grinding out the last six miles along the coast, pitching up and down, the ride far rougher than when we had come out. Everyone looked green, on the verge of seasickness. As we docked the high school guy from Fort Worth looked like he wanted to pummel Jose and Aldo for how we hadn’t caught anything else, and the overweight father helped his husky son wobble to his feet. Standing arm in arm, the German couple commiserated with each other about the long, rough ride. Jose and Aldo tried to shake hands with everyone as we stepped ashore, smiling, thanking us for going fishing. But I was the only one who acknowledged them, and I have been contemplating since about what happened between Aldo and me, wondering about the influence of minorities from what will be a very different America, in a rapidly transforming world.
I really enjoyed reading this. I loved the descriptions of people, e.g. “rugged black-haired high school kid with hard blue eyes.” I wonder how many people would be as gracious as you in this type of situation. Good story about taking the high road on the high seas.