I’m going to cheat a little bit here. I’m not sure I can do it justice, so please stop reading and look at the picture captioned “Soccer dads, together again.” Pay particular attention to the guy on the far right.
Now back to the story.
We first met more than ten years ago, when our daughters were in elementary school. They all played soccer together, so we became a group of soccer dads. Our social lives revolved around practices, games and fundraisers. We bonded quickly, sharing interests, and for the most part, senses of humor.
With the exception of my daughter Ellie, who is a senior in high school, all of the girls are off in college. Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to get us all together. Even small groups are extremely rare.
So I was excited when, after a series of texts, we were able to confirm four of us for some fishing on Long Island Sound. We decided John and Mark (also known as “Dorman,” his last name) and I would leave my house at 5:30 a.m. and meet Dave at the marina no later than 7.
I dutifully set my alarm for 4:45 so I could have coffee ready when John and Dorman arrived. I had packed and loaded my gear the night before. There was nothing for me to do but wait for them to knock.
So I waited. And waited. And waited some more.
I was just dozing off when I finally heard the knock, sometime around 6:20. As I walked to our window-filled door, I was, let’s say, a little grumpy. I muttered to myself, “I could have slept another hour.”
I thought about saying something snarky, but what I saw standing in the morning light on the porch made my jaw drop. John was dressed as you would expect for a middle-aged man who has fished in the last decade: ratty t-shirt; ratty plaid shorts; ratty hat and Crocs. Dorman, on the other hand, looked like he was ready for a sunset cocktail cruise. He had on a blue polo shirt tucked into reddish-pink shorts (with pocket linings that were a contrasting blue, matching his shirt), a fancy belt and sandals. And to top it off, he wore a round fishing hat cinched tight to his head by a leather chin strap. He looked like a cross between Gilligan and Mr. Howell.
My grumpiness disappeared. This was going to be fun. As I opened the door, I said something like, “Are you kidding me, Dorman? We’re not going to catch any fish with you looking like that.”
In his typical modest, devil-may-care way, Dorman said: “What? There’s nothing special about these clothes.”
After coffee, we loaded John and Dorman’s gear in my truck. Again, my jaw dropped. Dorman was armed with a twenty-five-year-old rod and reel combo named “THE PENN SLAMMER.” The rod looked cracked and fragile. I’m almost certain it was missing its tip. The reel held line that was kinked and worn. It looked like something you would string on a Weedeater only without much hope that it would actually cut anything. His tackle box was equally old, steel and covered in rust.
“Is this all you have?” I asked. “You’re going to struggle. I’ll be surprised if you catch anything at all. I’m especially worried about the line.”
Dorman wasn’t worried. “It’s stuff I found in my dad’s old boat. I’m sure it hasn’t been used in more than 10 years, but it will be fine.”
John and I just shook our heads.
On the drive to the marina, Dorman told us about his glory days of fishing. His dad essentially built the boat they used for overnight trips offshore. He told us how they learned the hard way, after a harrowing trip in rough seas, to pay attention to weather forecasts. “We all prayed on that trip, and some of us cried,” he said. I wanted to ask him if they dressed that way back in the day, but I kept my mouth shut.
When we got to the dock, Dave took one look at Dorman and said, “What the hell? You might have to ride below deck as we motor out. I have a reputation to uphold around here.”
And so it went, all the way out. We each took turns jabbing Dorman about his outfit and his gear. Dorman accepted it all in stride, not bothered in the least.
Dave explained the plan. We would be bottom fishing for sea bass and fluke, letting the boat drift over his favorite spots. We would also keep our eyes open for surface activity. “There are bonitos in the area. Keep one rod ready to cast quickly. Sightings near the boat will be rare, and we won’t get in more than a cast or two before they disappear.”
As we headed to the first spot, Dorman tied on an ancient black and white Dardevle lure. Then he began casting. We all thought the same thing, but it was Dave who spoke. “Dorman, we’re moving way too fast for you to catch anything. Plus, that lure isn’t going to work for either bottom fishing or bonitos.”
Dorman’s response, delivered with a smile and a laugh: “You never know.”
We got to the first spot, and all of us except Dorman dropped our fluke rigs and began jigging off the bottom. John and I were on one side of the boat, Dave and Dorman on the other. As Dorman just stood watching us fish, I thought, “Good, he’s finally come to his senses and realizes he will need to borrow gear from one of us.”
Then Dorman shouted, “Hey, look at that!”
And there they were: a group of fish smashing bait on the surface, 20 yard’s from his side of the boat.
Dave ordered, “Guys, get your casting rods. They’re right on top of us and it won’t last long.”
Of course, Dorman was the only one ready and in the right position. We all watched as he cast his Dardevle into the middle of the chaos, certain he would meet one of two fates: first, his clearly unappealing and inappropriate lure would spook the fish into disappearing; or second, he would, beyond all odds, hook one, and then lose it as some part of his dilapidated gear failed.
“Hey, I got one,” Dorman said, laughing. “It’s a bonito.”
Before either John or I could say “no way”, Dave confirmed it was a bonito, and began barking out instructions. “Don’t lose him, Dorman. He’s a keeper, and those are good eating. You’ve got to get him close enough for me to net. Work fast, but don’t try to overpower him.”
When the fish turned to make a run, Dave lamented: “Oh. Your line surely won’t hold.”
But it did, and Dorman landed a beautiful bonito. On most every fisherman’s bucket list, bonito possess a combination of speed, power and teeth that make them very difficult to catch. As anyone will tell you, it takes first-rate equipment, skill and lots of luck. Dorman’s fish was the only one we caught that day. In fact, it’s the only one we saw.
You can probably guess how the rest of the day went. Dorman, using a series of rigs and different baits that the rest of us told him wouldn’t work, out fished us two-to-one. His total included a huge sea robin that Dave declared to be the largest he’d ever seen or heard of.
As we were packing to head home, I said, “Well, Dorman, you sure showed us today. I guess we shouldn’t have teased you so much.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “ I wouldn’t have it any other way. I miss hanging out with you guys.”
I knew he meant both.
I put my hand on his polo-clad shoulder and said: “Me too, my friend.”