My childhood was of the dirt-beneath -the-fingernails variety. I spent fall afternoons uncovering salamanders from under old logs and trapping slugs to see if they did indeed wriggle up when sprinkled with salt. (They do.) Summer days found my cousins and me on Chilmark ponds filling buckets with blue crabs and moon jellies, and out on Sengekontacket digging for quahogs with our feet. My fingers and toes were immersed in dirt.
Despite growing up here, it was outside of Boston, on the banks of the Charles, that I learned to fish. My mom and I visited my grandparents in Newton a few times a year, and on each trip, she took one full day to run errands alone. My grandfather and I let her think we were sad to see her go, but as soon as the front door shut, we were out in the garden digging worms. Then, armed with a picnic lunch, we drove to the river. Sometimes we caught fish, sometimes we snagged our hooks on tires. One time, I reeled in a boot. Whatever we caught, we threw back.
After my grandfather realized I was happier baiting my own hook than playing with my dolls, he bought me my own rod. While my mom daydreamed of Chinese dinners and haircuts as we drove north on 195, I waited for the fishing. When we returned home, I regaled my father, who never has caught the fishing bug, with stories of my adventures and asked him to take me.
Finally, he arranged a trip. He called former Edgartown selectmen and avid fishermen Ted Morgan and Larry Mercier. The four of us drove out to the Gut on Chappaquiddick in the height of derby season. I must have been about eight.
I was the only one to catch a fish that day, a big bluefish that I reeled in alone. Mark Alan Lovewell, who wrote about my catch in his fishing column, said he remembered hearing about grown men jumping out of my way as I brought it in.
That is the last memory I have of fishing. I probably went again, but maybe not. Soon, I left the Island for boarding school and stayed away for college. Summers quickly filled with jobs and internships.
It was not until I moved back to the Island this spring that I once again began dreaming of fishing. I talked about it for months — at home, in the newsroom — but the opportunity never seemed to come. Finally, motivated by a friend and novice fisherwoman who has joined the derby, I borrowed a rod and some hooks from Mr. Lovewell.
It was a beautifully crisp fall Friday when I took the ferry over to Chappy. I drove down to the Dike bridge, unpacked my gear and walked over the bridge to meet my father, Mr. Mercier and a tough-talking chef from San Francisco on Island for a week-long vacation, every day of which had been spent rod in hand. Again, Mr. Mercier steered me to the Gut. As we drove along the shore, the three of them talked fishing and Vineyard history. I took in the view of the Island that I never get to see, looked back at it from the Chappy side and watched its changing contours as we dipped in and out of secret slices of Chappy beach.
When we finally reached the water, all it took was watching Mr. Mercier cast out a few times before I remembered how to swing my arm, flick my fingers and shift my weight to send the line flying.
None of us caught anything Friday. The word on the street was that the fish weren’t running. But it did not matter.
Up until that afternoon, the memories of fishing I carried with me had been of the catch. Standing out on the water on Friday, taking in the woosh-woosh-plop of the cast, all of the other memories came flooding back. The time spent with my grandfather, the mesmerizing calm of reeling and recasting, the touch of the cool, autumn water on my fingers and toes. I realized all over again the whole point. Empty-handed, I ended Friday satisfied.
It is never about the catch, I thought, as I waited in a long line of fishermen to get back to the big Island, but about getting a little bit of dirt back under my fingernails.