Feeling That Familiar Tug

Just another fisherman hoping rod and reel will do what they were designed to do. Durell Godfrey

One of my closest friends growing up in Levittown was Ronald Kuhlman. His father was a taxidermist, an old-school practitioner of the ancient art who was able to skin a hunter’s pride right down to gut and bone. He would store the essentials (fur, skull, scaly skin) in the fridge while he sculpted the wire frame to recapture a trout’s lunge, or a rabbit’s last hop, and then re-stuff the trophy to a semblance of that moment: that interplay of trigger finger or perfectly cast lure — and immortality.

Ronald and I loved to search his father’s fridge, its rabbits-in-progress, a hawk waiting for its perch to dry. There were the glass eyes, the smell of formaldehyde, and the kindliness of a meticulous craftsman who reminded me of Geppetto.

I’m far from a meticulous type, but I admire them whether their art involves repairing a harpsichord or, like the man with jeweler’s glasses slipping halfway down his nose who last week rebuilt my old Penn reel, the very same combination of perfectly meshed and oiled gears that I hope will do what it was designed for — in fact, what it did two years ago — haul a monster striped bass to shore before the end of bass season.

I wonder which comes first. Is it the man or woman who wants a better way to catch a fish or build a better piano or mousetrap? Or is it the urge to tinker? I think tinkering is the heart of it, tinkering and, more important, the symbiosis that forms between “the fool and his tool,” as my reel-repairman puts it.

It was a silvery afternoon like we’ve been blessed with in recent days, no, make that weeks. Rumor had it that a massive school of very large bass was moving east to west with the tide. A friend urged me to start looking at Atlantic Avenue in Amagansett. I was in the hood, took the tip.

There was a good-size swell with an offshore wind that stood the wave up like tall, powerful grass, and through the brownish-green grass fish streaked, chasing smaller fish — a surfcaster’s dream. I ran west to catch up with a boil of feeding striped bass.

Experience had taught me to stop shy of the boil itself and shy of the casters crowding the spot.

On the third cast I felt the tug, the one that hooks a fisherman at the very same moment it hooks a fish, never to be forgetten, and a reel never to abandon.