Every October since 2007, four or five friends and I have headed out to Montauk for a weekend of fishing. We rent rooms at an aesthetically challenged motel two blocks from the water, and spend the breezy and sunny days on the beach and the crisp and starry nights watching baseball playoffs at a local bar.
My friends suit up in their expensive waders, brand-name windbreakers and polarized sunglasses, and then to their credit, spend most of the day casting into the ocean. With the exception of Andrew Shelhorse, they look down their noses a little at me before they head to the water because I’m not a fisherman. I don’t mind; it’s a fishing trip for them and a thinking trip for me. Instead of looking for striped bass, I fish for inspiration for various free-lance writing pieces. With its salty scent, constant motion, and enormous presence, the sea helps my pen move. I’ve written lots of lines in my notebook while caked in sunblock in front of the rumbling Atlantic.
The true fisherman of our group is Andrew. When the guys return from the beach sunburned and empty-handed, it is Andrew who has caught a half-dozen stripers. When everyone is sleeping off his hangover, it is Andrew who is up at first light, casting into the briny. When everyone is ready to hit the road home on Sunday morning, it is Andrew who stays to fish for a few more hours.
It’s not just Andrew’s passion that impresses me, it’s his compassion. He rarely fishes from a boat because he feels it’s unfair; he likes to be on the land and the fish in the water. I’ve seen him carefully remove a hook from a bass’ lip like a surgeon, then gingerly place the fish back into the water. A respect vibe rings when I see Andrew fish, and I find that very admirable.
I make a point of asking him how the day’s fishing looks. He gives me his two cents and then usually reminds me that he has an extra pole for his old friend Matt, in case I get the urge. I sometimes join him for an hour just to hang out.
Andrew’s passion for fishing is nothing new. In our early teens in Smithtown, we fished Thatch Pond for bluegills and the Nissequogue River for trout. Armed with poles and tackle boxes from Herman’s World of Sporting Goods at the mall, we walked down a deserted Jericho Turnpike toward the Smithtown bull on Sunday mornings to get to the river.
With tiny balls of dough or Del Monte corn for bait, we dropped lines from a footbridge near the road or from under the train trestle. The few times I caught one, I gave Andrew a nod, and he got it off the hook because he knew that touching the fish “just wasn’t my bag.”
In truth, I threw my line around, but inevitably grew bored and took to throwing rocks at glass bottles I found in the woods. But Andrew, Huck Finn to my Tom Sawyer, would patiently stand on the bank, in his zone. I can picture him even into our later teens, with his pants rolled up to his knees and a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, unhooking a brown trout.
Fishing still might not be my bag, but I enjoyed those days on the Nissequogue, the camaraderie and libations of our annual Montauk trip, and making new memories with buddies like Andrew. Those are definite keepers.
Reader Matt Kindelmann lives in Smithtown.