Captain Mike did not laugh when we saw a silver fox clear as day on the Napeague stretch, 6 a.m., early May 1982. He said there were two left out here: “Animal looks like a big wolf, easy to see.” His 1956 Willys Jeep barely had a front windshield, window wipers never worked. Must have been a clear morning.
Mike was driving to the Montauk docks that May morning to go half-day fluke fishing. As long as anyone remembers, captains and mates showed up early morning, discretely parked their vehicles, sometimes directly in front of their boat, or scattered elsewhere around the Montauk docks. Traditionally a captain’s vehicle could be a Ford 250 truck — never really look new once a commercial fisherman uses it — or an old Willys like Captain Mike’s. Mates, or the exclusive humans that tag along for fishing excursions, drive 1960s Chryslers, an occasional big motorcycle, some weathered 1970s truck, or wage contests for longest winged old cruiser. It’s something like a French wine tasting competition. Very snooty!
The late spring, summertime mate types, arrivistes, are a slightly different breed than the commercial guys. Tilefish types tend more toward deep winter crews. Some of the winter crews and captains simply change their personas over to the hazier days of summer — half-day and a variety of other charter/head boat fishing excursions.
A fluke is a wonderful fish to eat. Those emipros and ringers who command spots around the boats like the Marlin V on the half-day summer fluke excursions know this fact. Mike’s party boat attracted the best mix of family-oriented fluke enthusiasts to the hardened flukehead. The best of the fluke fisherman come in all varieties ranging from priest to dubious to the lucky child who lands a doormat.
Captain Mike had occasion to come down from his commanding view in the Marlin wheelhouse to catch a fluke for his family’s dinner. He had an old wooden pole with a sidewinding rig and a certain style of tossing the rig and hook over the side. The style was somewhat unique, not at all like some of the people around him. He had no spot of choice to toss his rig, nor could one guess when he might decide to fish.
One rule stood on Marlin V: Cursing was not tolerated when Father Walsh was in earshot. Father Walsh fished from the bow. Being something of both the regular and the pro, the man never seemed to leave the boat without sizable fluke. He always spent his two-week vacation fishing, showing up every day.
Comical moments ensued on festive occasions with two brothers — older brother, first mate on Marlin V, and younger brother, 8th class demoted mate of the day. The brothers would convene in the forward first lower cabin looking directly upon Father Walsh. Their antics included a discretely hidden bottle of whiskey that was produced to lightly toast the priest as he cast his line into the sea. The priest was in clear view at 12 paces away seen through the slightly tinted lower forward cabin windows. Of course the priest had no idea the boys were sending him an afternoon toast, maybe even a simple prayer to boot to enhance his fishing.
Mike’s sons grew. By age 5, Willie was no stranger to a fishing boat and seemed to have inherited to a certain impressive fishing style. His paramount privilege to sleep in the wheelhouse anytime he liked was always observed. Willie had already ventured far, far offshore, for multiple-day fishing trips, in winter. Fluke fishing or the fall bluefish massacre were cake for young Willie. Watching him wander through a pile of bloodied bluefish with Mocha, a slightly deranged husky sheepdog, close at hand on a brilliantly lit fall day was par for the course. Willie might open a Pepsi while Mocha ate a whole bluefish, bones and all. A salt-spray-coated head boat or charter customer might contemplate: Could it be like this every day? A pack dog with a young child, fish flying in the boat? The customer might watch the dog growl with a big bluefish hanging from his mouth, the stout young Willie with pole and Pepsi. The customer might think, who’s that guy sitting in the shade drinking Budweiser? He’s not fishing, board’s unpaid, doesn’t talk. Must be some kind a friend of the crew. The customer thinks again. Is this fun or what? The boat steams around Montauk Point headed for the docks and the inevitable unfortunate reality of stepping off the boat back to what is called reality.
Captain Mike picks up his two sons at an East Hampton school wearing a spanking new, clean surf sweatshirt. One son rides out school attached to Mike’s shoulders, the other bulldozes out bowlegged like a hockey player. Out the front doors the family goes. The teacher observing might think, “That’s Captain Mike. Fine person, Captain Mike. Guess he’s always fishing. Rare sight, seeing him at school.” Teacher thinks further, “Stout young men, those Stedman kids.” Makes you wonder about school conversations with Willie. Little kid asks Willie, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” Willie answers, “Going cod fishing with my daddy.”
Same type of conversation takes place between Willie and teacher after Christmas. “Willie, what did you do for Christmas?” Willie puffs up his chest and says, “Daddy took me to the Grand Banks and canyon fishing.” Teacher thinks child has a good imagination, moves on to next student.
Captain Mike took a large wave rounding Montauk Point while steering the Marlin IV back to the berth at the Montauk docks from a multiple-day commercial fishing trip in winter, circa 1980. Not necessarily a rogue wave, yet tall enough to knock out the wheelhouse windows 35 feet above sea level. Ritchie, the owner of the Marlin IV, was waiting as the boat made dockage. Ritchie in a total tizzy, asks Captain Mike, “How bad was it out there?” Captain Mike says, “Fine, not so bad,” then promptly secures the boat, gets in his car, and drives home. Ritchie is left at the docks hopping up and down saying, “What do you mean, fine?”
That was Captain Mike. The man had seen a lot of stuff, fished the Atlantic Ocean expanse, by his 30th birthday. An odd set of 24-foot waves was just another day at sea. He knew the waves could have been a lot bigger. That story floated around the docks for a few years, told by other people who had been there that winter day. Not likely Captain Mike ever mentioned it to anyone.
Morgan McGivern is a staff photographer for The Star. This “Relay” is an excerpt from a much longer unfinished story also titled “Captain Mike.”