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FISHING "DOWN OUTSIDE"
In the beginning of things were the cunners, known along Massachusetts Bay mainly as perch. Names are good only in certain localities. If you ask a Hingham boy how the cunners are biting he will be likely to throw rounded beach stones at you, thinking he is being made game of. Down at Newport, R. I., they catch cunners and if you talk salt-water perch to them it is at your peril. Elsewhere they are chogsett, or peradventure burgall, but everywhere they are nippers and bait-stealers, and the trait which makes these names universal is the reason why in the beginning of things were the cunners. For the first bait of the first fisherman that ever threw hook into the North Atlantic was taken by a cunner. There are today forty million, more or less, North Atlantic fishermen who will corroborate this testimony with personal experience. It may be that the first hook was taken by some other fish, but the cunner got in ahead on the bait.
The cunner is not very large. He rarely tips the scales at a pound, but he will eat his own weight in bait in a day and he is numerous and pretty nearly omnipresent.
Wherever the salt tides flow, whether it be up the sandy stretches of a clean bottomed cove, along the mud bottom of the creek, or amid the red-brown tangle of kelp on some ledge awash a mile off shore, there comes the cunner, suiting his color chameleon-like to that of the bottom.
On the mud he is brown, on the sand gray, but if you wish to see handsome creatures you must pull them from some bottom where the red kelp grows. Then their rich bronzy reds will make you forget their bait thievery and love them for their beauty.
If you will go back to Dombey and Son and read the description of Mr. Carker you will realize that Dickens must have been fishing off the ledges of some English headland when he planned that gentleman and his characteristics. In whatever mood or from whatever side Mr. Carker approaches you it is his teeth which dominate the situation. I am convinced that every time Dickens tried to make him otherwise he found another cunner tugging and drew him up.
Judging by Carker it must have been good fishing for cunners. Like Carker this fish comes to you teeth first. His mouth is so full of them that they stick out like quills on the fretful porcupine. Nature, which gives each tools for the trade which he most loves, made him a bait-stealer extraordinary with these.
The beginner who fishes in the salt sea does it almost invariably with a pole, whether from cliff or dock or from a boat. Experience brings the desire for the hand line. The farmer's boy who comes down for the salt hay tucks his long birch pole into the bottom of the wagon and the trolley tripper comes to the beach with his split bamboo. Dawn in Maine years ago the pinkies used to sail equipped with numerous short poles whereby to trail for mackerel. In the day of your grandfather and mine it must have been a sight to see the crew of a pink-sterned chebacco boat dancing from pole to pole flipping the number ones aboard when a good school struck in. Of course, all that is a waste of energy and of wood. A hand line is the more intimate and serves the purpose better. A man is not really a salt water fisherman till he has learned the use of one. Then let him go forth. Through that line shall flow to his nerve ganglia deep sea knowledge galore. By it shall come to him in time all creatures of the vast deep.
Lovers of deep sea fishing grow best from small beginnings. They yearn from tide flats to the spar buoy in the harbor channel, thence through Hull Gut to the rocky bottoms about the Brewsters. After that the sirens sing to them from every wash of white waves over ledges far out to sea, caution drowns in the temptation of blue water, and they fish no more except it is "down outside." They who dwell on the very rim of this deep sea, at Marblehead or Nahant, at Cohasset or at Duxbury never know the full depth of its lure as do those who must win to it from the Dorchester flats or the winding reaches of the Fore River. To these latter only is the perfection of desire and the full joy of fulfilment. You can leave the shallow bays inland only when the tide serves, hence gropings for a tender on the beach of starlit mornings, the chuckle of halliard blocks in the rose of dawn and a long drift in the pink glow of morning fog while the boom swings idly and the turn of the flood drifts you eastward. Little wayward winds, too lazy to make a ripple on the glassy surface of the water or stir the sail, play strange tricks with this morning fog. They carve chasms in it and open tunnels down which you see far for a moment, then they wind it like a wet sheet about you and you may not see the bobstay from your post at the tiller.
They bring you sounds and scents from afar. You know you are abreast Grape Island now far you scent the wild roses on the point. Another breeze brings faint odors of the charnel house from Bradley's. A stronger chases it away and you have a whiff of an early breakfast, brown toast, fried fish and coffee, at Rose Cliff. The chuckle of oars in rowlocks tells you that the old fisherman is astir at Fort Point and the man with the new motor boat over at Hough's Neck is giving it a little run before breakfast, with the muffler off, as usual. A gull goes over, flying low. You do not see but you hear the soft swish of the wings. By and by the sun shows through a rift in the fog and you begin to move before a faint air from the southwest. A half hour more and the shreds of fog are melting upward into the blue of a clear day, the wind fills your sail and you are sweeping eastward with wind and tide round the Sheep Island bar.
The Argo, bound eastward for the golden fleece, bearing Jason, Hercules, Theseus and the other Greek heroes, carried no higher hopes and no greater joy in the dangers and mysteries of the sea than does many a keen-bowed sloop or broadbeamed cat bound "outside" on a fishing trip. It is neither the goal nor the gain that counts. It is the spirit of the quest. The golden fleece looms eastward over all such prows. In the tide rip of Hull Gut, where current meets current at certain turns of the tide in such fashion that "the merry men" dance gleefully, is a dash of adventure, and if you come through with a cockpit half full of water and your clam bait afloat so much the merrier. Thus you are baptized into the sect of the deep sea rovers and the leap of the mysterious green dancers into your boat is the coming of Neptune himself. Henceforth his trident is at your mast head, a broom wherewith to sweep the seas as Van Tromp did. The conquerors are abroad.
You may bother about the skerries that skirt Boston Light if you will. There are cunners big and ravenous at the base of Shag Rocks or along Boston or Martin's ledges. I dare say there are flounders skimming the sand to the east of Hull, but you will hardly care for these if you have Neptune aboard. His spirit will bid you jibe your sail to that freshening west wind off Allerton and bowl down the coast parallel with the long stretch of Nantasket sands. Again at the spindle on Harding's Ledge you may catch cunners; perhaps a stray cod. A cod! There you speak a magic word to the fisherman from the tide flats far inland. There is the golden fleece for which the Argonauts of the land-locked harbor set their prows to the eastward in the starlight. A pull on the sheet and it is full-and-by to the southeast, with Minot's Light looming gray dead ahead in the gray wash of breakers. Black-headed gulls swing across your wake, and in their laughter rings a wild note of sea freedom. Thus the Vikings laughed as their boats wan to seaward outside the black cliffs.
The cod is the solid citizen of the sea. In some localities they call him the ground keeper, and he seems to be that -- a sort of land owner of the sea bottom. Just as ashore most substantial success comes from land-holding, and those who own the earth are almost invariably financial magnates also, so the cod is a banker. Some people, not financial magnates themselves in all probability, have given this substantial dweller of the under-water plateaus undignified names. They call him pilker, scrod, groper, etc. This is pure envy. When he bites it means business. There is none of the bait-stealing tomfoolery of the cunner, none of the dancing hilarity of the pollock. It is just a steady down tug that makes the line cut your fingers and likely takes your hand under water. If he is a good one you will need to sit back and snub the line over the gunwale in that first plunge which follows the stab of the hook. Then it is a steady, muscle-grinding pull to get him up. It is a stogy, heavy resistance which he offers. To lift him out of his depths is a good deal like explaining to a middle-class Englishman something that he does not wish to comprehend, but by and by, leaning perilously over the rail, you see his tawny bulk coming up through a well of chrysophrase lined with the scintillant gold of the imprisoned sun. A lift and a swing, and he is aboard. He may weigh anything from a few pounds up to a score. Cod have been caught weighing 150 pounds, but not in Massachusetts Bay of late years.
A half-mile to the east of Minot's and southward to beyond Scituate harbor runs an irregular ridge along the sea bottom at a depth of six to ten fathoms, while to the east and west is deeper water. Something like a half-mile farther eastward again you will find another, both probably moraines of sand and gravel on the sea bottom like those one finds ashore. These ridges the fish seem to frequent rather than the valleys between, and if you will ease your sheets and, setting your boat's prow a little off the wind, drift slowly along these ridges, you will be able to cast your lines among the best of the summer society. The cod go into things only on the ground flood. It is a way substantial citizens have. You will need to let your sinker strike bottom and then lift it a little, but not too far. A greased lead dropped will show you a variety of bottom. Here are rocks, about which especially the cod congregate and where sometimes giant cunners dwell, there is a sandy stretch which is beloved of the big flounders, which when hooked make a gallant though unsteady fight before you get them up.
I am always sorry for the flounder. He looks as if he might have once been a fish of respectable, perhaps even beautiful shape and proportions, that had met with an accident. He is a shore frequenter, especially when young, and I cannot help thinking that in antediluvian days when mastodons were plentiful and went wading they stepped on the flounders. A flounder is shaped just as if he had been run over by an Atlantic avenue truck. His eyes moved over onto one side of his head, fleeing hand in hand to escape the wheel. His mouth was mashed fairly and seems to be perpetually ejaculating "Help, murder!" and one side of him is still white as snow with the fear of the affair. He ought to be in a cripples' home, but he is not. Instead he is as jolly as a sand man and amply able to take care of his wreck of a body, which is flat indeed but fat. Necessity is the mother of invention. When the flounder sees food that he wants he falls upon it and holds it down with ease while he devours it. A slender fish would have no such chance.
At this time of year come roving northward from unknown feeding grounds outside the Cape the haddock. There are people who call the haddock "scoodled skull-joe," probably in derision because he is such a dapper fish. He is so silvery and neat that the black stripe down his side seems to give him the effect of being clad in the very latest thing in summer trousers. The Banks fishermen who sail from Gloucester and are probably more intimately acquainted with the personal affairs of fishes than anyone else, say that the haddock, though now reformed, has not always been what he should be. The haddock, they say, was once such a young sport and conducted himself in such unseemly fashion that he was in danger of hell fire. In fact, the devil, searching the Grand Banks for whom he might devour, took the shameless youngster between his finger and thumb and held him aloft in glee, saying, "You for the gridiron." But the agile haddock, skilled in getting out of scrapes, squirmed loose and fled in the depths of the sea. In proof of this adventure if you examine a haddock's body just behind the gills you will see the marks where the Old Boy's fingers scorched him, the scars remaining to this day. I am not sure whether this fable teaches us to be good or to be agile.
With the cod, as often most intimately with him in the boneless codfish box, come the hake and the cusk, both rated as inferior fish, though it is hard to see why. The cusk in particular is esteemed by the fishermen for their own use above any other fish that is taken from the trawls on the banks. Go down into the forepeak of any Gloucesterman and ask the crew, while they "mug up," if they like baked cusk. You will see their mouths water and their eyes shine in appreciation of the suggestion. Yet the cusk is hardly a beauty. In fact, the first man who suggested eating him must have been hungry or else adventurous beyond the common run of men. If you will take a bilious looking eel and compress him lengthwise till the becomes a stubby bunch, put on him a pair of yellow goggle eyes that stare madly as if at ghosts, and seem, withal to be sadly afflicted with strabismus, you will have the beginnings of a cusk. Then he must have a broad fin that begins at the back of his neck, promenades his spine to and including his tail and returns beneath him to the spot where some people wear neckties. That is a part of the paraphernalia of this denizen of the deep sea. Often when brought to the surface this peculiar fish will swell up with imprisoned air until he is enormously fat and covered with blisters.
The cod and the flounders, cunners and pollock will make up the bulk of your catch as you drift along these under-sea moraines, though now and then a freak may come to your hook in the shape of a dogfish or a skate. These are to be looked for and welcomed. Once the horse mackerel struck into Massachusetts Bay. These weigh a thousand pounds apiece and take live fish of considerable size on the fly. In those days a deep-sea fisherman, hauling in a respectable cod, was likely to find adventure enough with the situation suddenly reversed and a horse mackerel hauling in the line with the fisherman, on the end of it.
It is leviathans of the deep like these that Jason Theseus and their companion Greeks bear in mind as the Argo drifts and the catch steadily grows. By and by the low sun flares red through surly clouds of nightfall. The sea is getting up and it is a long sail up the coast to the lee of the outer light. Then with darkness gathering and a head wind and tide the real glory of the day comes. Out of the black west blows half a gale. The waves curl in ghostly phosphorescence and the merry men dance wildly in Hull Gut. It is a long and dogged fight to win through these against the swift tide to the comparative safety of the shelter of Peddocks, where you catch the back wash that helps you well along the lee of Prince's Head.
And so the Argonauts sail westward again in the pitch blackness of the gathering storm. They know the harbor floor as they know the floors of their homes and can as well feel their way. What if the falling tide leaves the flats bare and they may not win to the mooring, but must lie at anchor off the channel edge until morning shows gray through the rain? They have won the golden fleece of adventure from the blue sea to eastward and sailed home with it.