This photo shows four rugged Hudson River fishermen in a pose that owes not a little to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. It was taken in the spring of 1973 at the Garrison Landing after a seining expedition in search of the mighty and elusive striped bass (Morone saxatilis), then in full spawning splendor. I am standing dead smack in the center of this picture. To my right is my boss and head of the expeditionary force, Garrett McCarey, and to his right is Davey McGahee; to my left is John Cutten.
Ah: But why were we pursuing Morone saxatilis, a fish that never did anyone a lick of harm, and why would I have this very photo nailed to the wall just over the photocopier in my office all these many years later?
I had just completed my first year as an M.F.A. and Ph.D. aspirant at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, had acquitted myself well, written a few stories and won a fellowship for the following year. But I was feeling effete and pasty-faced, my spine humped to the contours of my warped and tilting imitation oak desk ($2 at a yard sale in Iowa City), my brain clogged with literature, my feisty backwoods rail-splitting Bunyanesque side shrunk to the size of the flea that infests the flea clinging to a deer mouse's whiskers. It was small, that spirit. Moribund. Nearly extinct. So I hied me back to the scenes of my boyhood in search of a summer job that might revivify it.
I started out bartending, as I'd done the year previous on my way to Iowa, and for a few days I poured aquavit and Chartreuse in the late-night glow of neon and grew pastier still -- not to mention drunker. And more restless. It was then that I discovered that two of my old friends and sinful companions of the past, the aforementioned McCarey and McGahee, were working on the river. The River! The mighty turgid Manhattan-washing pure-stream-and-sewage-fed Hudson, inspiration of Cole and Irving and two of the last and most gracious commercial fishermen then left on its banks, Ace Lent and Charlie White.
Their job? Prowling the river with the tides and netting fat-mouthed stripers gravid with eggs and slick with sperm, in the hope of combining those two elements in a bucket, and then in a lab that would become a hatchery, funded by Con Ed (out of shame and concern for the fish killed on its intake screens at the Indian Point nuclear facility) and overseen by N.Y.U. Their need? For two more grunts to set those nets and haul those ropes. I became an estuarine biologist. Temporarily. And of sorts.
The thing I loved most about the job was its sheer physicality combined with its proximity to nature. There are few excitements to rate with closing off a beach seine, drawing the bag ever tighter as the water churns with the sunstruck snouts, puckered mouths and stabbing dorsals of a grab bag of fish, and then dashing in amongst them to snatch up 30- and 40-pound specimens by the gills . . . if you're a piscaphile, that is. If you're not, better you should purchase a cheesecloth net and engage in fritillary pursuits.
But I loved it. Throve on it. Grew hardened and brown, hands scraped raw from the translucent sandpaper teeth of striper and gill of carp, skin encrusted with scale and slime, waders speckled with milt. And when I -- when we -- stepped into a bar at night, redolent of the day's endeavors, we were a force to reckon with -- and not only on the olfactory level. We were as calm as prayer wheel watchers, we ached in our shoulders and arms in a way that makes pain a pleasure, and when we took up beers in the rough grip of our fishermen's hands, we knew we'd earned them.
This was a job that dispensed with intellectualizing. We were the crew, the seine pullers and carp wrestlers (and they get nigh on to colossal on the Hudson, up in the range of 50 and 60 pounds), and we weren't expected to speak to the finer points of the operation. No, this was the province of the host of pasty-faced, spine-humped, formalin-breathing marine biologists and Ph.D. candidates who crowded round us as we returned from one expedition or another with that bucket of plenty, that liquid gold, those eggs and that milt, those embryos in embryo.
I have held those writhing bass in my arms like a piscine lover, I have milked those vents of their sperm and their eggs, and it was a mighty gratifying -- not to mention sensual -- experience. I will never forget it. Not as long as I stand humpbacked and whey-faced over my copier, the spirit shrunk in me again, my shoulders yearning for the pull of a good rope, a fat seine and a fish wrapped in its slime like a gift, a hope, a persistent nagging fragment of the great mystery poking its shining snout in my own.
It was the best job I ever had.
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T. Coraghessan Boyle lives in Los Angeles. His new novel, The Road to Wellville, will be published next spring.
GRAPHIC: Picture, NO CAPTION desc Black and white: Garrett McCarey, Davey McGahee, John Cutten, T. Coraghessan Boyle., ROB JORDAN
Life, September, 1992
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Last Page Update: February 11, 2001