The beach club where I’ve worked for the last 12 summers is centered on a one-road thin, one-mile long isthmus dense with wealth in Water Mill. Beautiful both big and quaint oceanfront houses line the south side for a half-mile in either direction, with marsh and Mecox Bay lining the north. The club used to be a short, squat, large deck with old wood lockers and blue swinging doors, and an old cottage next to it. Now it’s a big building with fancy cedar walls and lockers, and a big deck and new cottage next to it. The club and the other isthmus properties have a single tall line of a dune on the oceanside, with long stairs down to the beach. The isthmus’s beach is short, maybe 40 yards from the dune to the ocean.
If you walk east a half mile from the club’s beach, you get to “The Cut.” “The Cut” is the periodically naturally and more often synthetically opened waterway between Mecox Bay and the ocean.
Opening it’s a way to stir up the bay and flush out bad bay goo for the benefit of the bay life… it makes the crabs generally scared and happy and the swans furious. A crane or storm opens a path for the bay to dump bay badness during low tide, and refill with ocean goodness at high tide.
All that weird bay stuff, including many frightened crabs, go out into the ocean, where it brings in all kinds of ocean fish who want to eat that bad bay goodness. My goal since 2008 was to catch and eat one of these ocean fish.
I guard lives, so i have the liberty of and inclination toward fishing as often as possible. I’ve been on the Viking, and on friends boats, and i’ve even hooked some sea robins and blues and skates from the beach with the club’s surfcaster, but I’m no fisherman. I’m only semi-fluent in fishermanese, and I’ve never caught something solo, cleaned it, and eaten it.
I’ve had bad luck and poor skills for the last 5 summers. Snapped a couple lines, missed some opportunities… I’ve got more excuses if you want them.
Work ended here in October 2012 I moved to San Diego. A week later Hurricane Sandy moved the beach club and it’s cottage, in pieces, violently, across the street. The Cut wasn’t enough for the ocean that day. So it ate the large, sandy beach on the west side of the cut, and swept up the whole beach for the next quarter mile along the retaining wall, then broke through the dune at the end of the wall… ie: the beach club, and made another cut. The crabs were elated and terrified. The swans didn’t seem to care.
At home they salvaged what they could and tore up the rest, and started anew. I was training to become a lifeguard out west and watched jealously through Facebook photos and news articles as the club rebuilt.
San Diego was fun, but I think there’s something about how the sunrise and set hits the ocean in reverse that makes everything there a little different. And I still wanted to catch a fish. I could have tried to catch one in San Diego, but i had already made a pyrrhic investment on Long Island. Plus, lifeguarding out there wouldn’t start until June, and they were rebuilding the beach club over here already. So I flew back April 1 and started working immediately.
The first three weeks consisted only of building the club’s 4000 square foot mahogany deck. I definitely lost a couple a decades of knee life bending banana boards, pre-drilling, and keeping the dang spacing near perfect. Knee pads are baloney.
I worked with some seriously salt of the earth carpenters. Lots of fishing talk with these guys. The boats and fish and rods and reels and all the kinds of lures and bait and everything else. So many cool words and techniques, too much to remember, but enough of a reminder of my fish vow. Every day it was mahogany and fishing, and the almost 180 degrees of ocean from the elevated platform upon which we were building deck.
I had to catch a fish. Had to.
We finished building the club in early June. I drove up 27 and the ocean parkway one night to meet my Uncle Jimmy in Long Beach, and see the Rush concert at Jones Beach. I left that night with his old, ratty 9 foot surf caster and a popper that was “friggin nuts” and would definitely work.
There were a couple schools of fish out a few hundred yards in late june, too far to cast to. Finally, in mid July, they were in real close. The unusually chilly July air sat pretty still under some high, thick clouds. I saw the schools boiling out there around noon. I ran up the beach, up the long stairs, around the club and under the deck, grabbed the surfcaster and ran back, I got to the edge of the shore-breakers, and cast.
Nope. I just couldn’t cast anywhere near that far. I tried a dozen more times. The beach was almost completely empty, except for a few construction guys at different houses, and a guy in an orange shirt, jeans, and boots sitting on the beach a couple houses east, all watching the schools. I walked up to the lifeguard stand, and dragged the 11 foot rescue board into the waves, got past the breakers, and hopped on. I felt like I probably looked stupid and thought the orange shirt guy probably thought so too.
I paddled out one-handed, grasping the surfcaster with the other, and drifted to a stop about 100 yards out. The very light north wind left the water cold and almost glassy. 20 yards ahead of me boiled underwater the dark red school, wound into a squished ball, splashing on the surface. . Every now and then or so a medium to large sized bluefish would pop a foot out of the water, looking surprised and hungry, then air swim into the surface, leave a football sized splash, and blast down into the darkness. I sat up on the board and took a few nervous kicks back, getting ready to cast.
You don’t want to get too close to that. When frenzied those things will bite your toes off. A couple years ago there was a surfer and lifeguard massacre across Southampton. Over the series of a few days in late july, a half dozen different ocean aficionados got chunks of ankle and foot removed by prehistoric choppers. Sunburned, skinny, disappointed looking, giant foot-cast wearing dudes on crutches were everywhere.
I leaned back on the buoyant board and cast well past the school twice. Nothing.
On the third cast i got a big hit, and i was ready for it. Sort of. I was holding the rod tight enough but the thing was pulling me right into the school. Not good. I laid down, let out some line and one-arm-back-paddled and worked the fish around the school. He started swimming away from the school. The fight was on.
He tugged, I reeled. I paddled with and against him and reeled and let out line and got towed and pulled and paddled and paddled and finally he was weak, and I towed him back to shore. He was quite diffident. I got about chest deep and dragged the bright, big blue in through the breakers. He got rolled twice, and then lay there flopping in the sand.
“Lifegad tooda rescue!”
I looked behind me and the ostensibly mustachioed orange-shirt guy was right there, on his feet and psyched. The construction guys who were watching were in various stages of head shaking and smiling, like someone told a dirty joke in front of kids.
Orange shirt guy spouted, “Go gettim byda tail!”
I obeyed. This guy knew his stuff and knew i didn’t.
“Whoa man dat was awesome. Thanks fuh doinat, i been fishin fora lawng time, an i aint neva seenat!”
“Thanks man. What do i do?”
“Dats good eatin. Puttim on Ice, gutim, filletim, an cook it onna webba in some tin foil. Friggin awesome. I gotta go back to work, friggin awesome man.”
I put the fish on ice and a little later did the best I could to fillet it. I put both of the fillets in the club’s fridge, one marinating in some of Tennis Pro’s orange juice (sorry, Frank) and the other in Italian Dressing with crushed pretzel. I put them on the giant club gas grill in tin foil and steamed them up good, and took them off when i thought they were ready.
I enjoyed the ocean’s gift on the club’s new teak tables with club staff and a couple members. The fillets were delicious, but I’m happy to try again and do better.
Brendan Regan is originally from Rockville Centre. His parents rented in Sagaponack in the ’80s, then bought land and built a place in 1990. Regan spent every summer out East, ocean lifeguarding until he started staying with artists in Sag Harbor. He has also summered in Hampton Bays and Water Mill.
This essay is one of the many nonfiction essays entered in the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize competition. We editors liked this entry and present it here, hoping you’ll like it.