We’ve hunted mallard and pintail and teal from blinds on Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. We’ve walked fallow fields in South Dakota
blinds for Canadian goose. We’ve cast for snook and speckled trout and sheepshead in the grass flats off Cayo Costa Island in southwest Florida. It brings a sense of connection to the land, eating what we catch.
But for Timmy and me, a susceptibility to seasickness may mean that any deep-sea tuna, grouper, or swordfish on our plates may have to come from the menu at McCormick and Schmick’s.
Huntin’n’fishin’ is a recent thing for Timmy, Jeff, and me. Cap’n Cook has been hunting since he was a kid and has brought us along, we novices. The wider group of us, though, are into our 15th year of annual rendezvous. We’ve spent time together on houseboats in Kentucky and Tennessee, ice fishing in central Wisconsin, mountain cabins along the Appalachians in Virginia, beach houses in the Carolinas, and off-the-grid solar-powered stilt houses on remote Florida gulf-coast islands. Every year, exploring some new corner of the outdoors. Some of us are practicing our Jedi mind-tricks, hoping that wives don’t notice some of these trips starting to come more than once in a calendar year.
We have Christian names, but on these gatherings guys go by a nom de guerre. Or maybe better said as a nom de frère. Gerald, Tim, Bob, Tracy, Steven, Clay, Jeff, and Robert… they go by Cap’n, Lunger, BMF, Frail, Tender, Ziebart, Moonshine, and Femur.
Each call sign comes with a story. Timmy: Missing one rendezvous on the excuse of a pneumothorax, gains the nickname “Lunger.” Jeff: Underestimating the potency of the clear liquid in a Mason jar, is known thereafter as “Moonshine.” Bob? Well, the guy is 6’6” so he’s just a "BMF."
We’re moving into middle years, some of us more middler than others. Some of us have sons who were boys who are becoming men. Those sons are starting to join us now. Gerald’s son Austin takes his turn driving the truck, can tell you what species of duck is resident in the coastal Carolinas, and has no fear of knocking on doors for permission to hunt turkey in a farmer’s woods.
At 6’8”, Ben dwarves his BMF father, who himself is of such stature to earn two nicknames, the second being “BFB” for “Big Friendly Bob.” Another son, Bobby, has given BMF a sturdy grandson who at the age of one year already has his own call sign: "Little BMF," or just "Little Beef." A third progeny, Luke, who’s joined on previous rendezvous, is off somewhere on his own, playing soccer or not wearing underpants. ("If I don't wear skivvies, you can't give me a wedgie.")
Now in early October, we're gathered at BMF’s and Marjo’s home in Wilmington on what happens to be our second rendezvous of 2016. We're not the droids you're looking for...
Their Italianate-style cottage, ringed by live oak and myrtle, was built in 1883 on a brick-paved street a half-mile from the Cape Fear River. A morning of deep-sea angling awaited us, fathers and sons. Rounding out our crew was my nephew Joe, an infantry Marine who drove down to join us from nearby Camp Lejeune. The plan was good. The crew was complete. We were going fishing.
We met Captain Jimmy and First Mate Charlie of Fortune Hunter Charters on the dock before sunrise: Bob and his boys, Timmy, and Joey and me. Austin had watched enough “Shark Week” and “Deadliest Catch” that the idea of riding a small craft into deep water seemed like a bad idea to him. He and Cap’n elected to sit this one out in favor of Alma’s Biscuits and Gravy at the Dixie Grill and a morning patrol of historic Wilmington. This choice may have worked in their favor.
Dawn pushed back the night as we shoved off in Captain Jimmy’s 35-foot Bertram fishing yacht. By late morning, we’d hooked a half-dozen false albacore, a sport fish prized for its fighting ability, but not for its edibility. It’s said that house cats will walk away from false albacore, and the best recipe for this fish is: “Dig a hole. Put the fish in the hole. Cover it up with dirt and plant tomatoes. Eat the tomatoes.” Back into the deep went the false albacore.
We hooked one keeper about 10 miles out – a king mackerel that Joey reeled in. First Mate Charlie cleaned and cubed the fish for us back at the marina.
“If you take this over to The Fish House Grill,” Charlie said, handing over our mackerel in a Ziploc and pointing across the dock, “they’ll fry it up for you. You can get a beer while you wait.” The kitchen breaded and fried, Cajun-blackened, and herb-grilled our mackerel. We added fries, slaw, side orders of shrimp and calamari, and it made for a lunch.
Just one little hitch for Timmy and me: the "us" and the "we" and the "our" in the story up to this point applied only to the eating of the fish, not to the catching of the fish. We never cast a line. Bob asked later if I’d even touched one of the big saltwater rods. I said I may have grabbed onto one at some point, but only to keep from tumbling overboard.
The morning started out great. The light came up and turned the sky from black to slate to shades of coral. We were cruising into deep water and all was well in the world. On a normal week, we might all be working. But here we were today, brothers and sons and nephews in the salt air and open water, the growl of twin 460-hp diesels powering us southeast into the Atlantic, no concerns other than would we find bluefish or mahi-mahi or sailfish.
Captain Jimmy motored toward deeper water, and the gentle bobbing we’d enjoyed on the intracoastals picked up in strength as we cruised farther offshore. The queasiness came on slowly at first, like the feeling you might get from one too many strong coffees. I noticed small beads of sweat on my forehead.
As we moved farther out to sea, the chop gave way to four- and six-foot swells. For Timmy and me, conditions went downhill from there. Later in the day, with the benefit of hindsight, solid ground, and WebMD, we found that the proper actions at this point would have been simple: 1) Stay above deck in the breeze and fresh air, and 2) Keep our eyes open and focused to a fixed point on the horizon. So naturally, I headed to the cabin and took refuge on a cushy faux leather couch, where I closed my eyes and hope the nausea would pass. Timmy joined me there a few minutes later.
I’ve been flu-sick. I’ve been bad-Chinese-buffet-sick. I’ve been whiskey-sick. But this was a whole other cricket match.
Timmy and I claimed the two ends of the couch in the Bertram’s cabin. Here we slumped and sweated and groaned as the yacht pitched and yawed.
We seemed to be alone in our infirmity. The rolling seas didn’t seem to be affecting our compatriots outside on deck, who were laughing and yelping with delight as they hooked one fish after another.
We weren't missing out on all the fun, though, as we found out later. BMF snapped a few grinning selfies next to our damp and incapacitated forms. We're lucky he didn't have a Sharpie, or we might have come to consciousness with eyeballs drawn on our eyelids or other manner of graffiti and pudenda scrawled on our cheeks and foreheads.
As far as eyes went, I did all I could to keep from opening mine, afraid of what the image of a wildly oscillating nautical horizon would do to my already tortured giblets. I did force myself to unscrew one eyeball to map a vector
to the nearest trashcan (ie, barf bucket), which happened to be on the other side of Timmy. If I needed to make an emergency dive, I’d need to climb over his sweating carcass. I hoped he would understand.
The couch wasn’t helping. Our nausea got progressively worse, and before long, sweat had soaked my shirt straight through. Timmy wasn't faring any better. C. Everett Koop could have materialized and implored us to “Get up! My clinical advice is to GET UP and stand at the stern of the boat! Open your eyes and focus on the horizon!” Dr. Koop could have offered us his bowtie as a souvenir incentive. It wouldn’t have mattered. We'd have been unable to comply. We were past a point of no return.
They say that when you’re climbing Chomolungma – the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest – if you fall out above a certain altitude, you’re unfortunately left behind. The air is so thin, the other mountaineers already so debilitated, that those still standing have the strength only to move themselves, with nothing in reserve to rescue the fallen.
This thought came to mind as Timmy staggered to his feet, making bullfrog-like urrrping sounds, and stumbled toward the tiny below-deck bathroom – or “the head” in nautical terms. My eyes still welded shut (sorry, Dr. Koop), I heard a series of bangs and crashes and what might have been breaking glass as Timmy thrashed his way through the bucking cabin and down to the head. Wish I could come help you out, Timmy, but I’ve got my own problems right now. Just be glad we’re not climbing Everest.
I can’t say how long he was down there – to glance at my watch risked a fresh churn of vertigo and nausea. When he crawled back to the couch, I mumbled, “You unkay?” He urrrped in response.
It was then my turn to venture below decks and risk a “head call.” The Bertram was pitching and bouncing like a fun house gone haywire. I made it to the head, but found no refuge. A broom closet would have been bigger, and I was being bounced from wall to wall like a pinball. Out of a sense of propriety, I’ll not describe the scene further, other than to ask: Have you seen the movie “Fight Club”? The scene where Edward Norton beats the crap out of himself in his boss’s office? It was a little like that, except with my pants down.
I survived, and made it back to the couch to flop down beside Timmy, who seemed to still be breathing. Joey poked his head through the hatch every now and again.
“You doing okay, Uncle Joe?”
After a couple rounds of this inquiry, I heard Joey ask First Mate Charlie if they had any Dramamine on board. “God bless you, Marine,” I thought. I poked Timmy with an elbow and said, “Hey Timmy… Dramamine coming.”
Timmy just got back from six months in China. He mumbled something that sounded like “shit shit,” which I learned later was what “thank you” sounds like in Mandarin when a guy from Arkansas says it. Or he was possibly speaking English. It was hard to tell.
I unscrewed one eyeball long enough to track First Mate Charlie making his way across the cabin. Jeez, he wasn’t even holding onto anything. That man has some sea legs, I thought. I was hoping to see him break out a med kit, maybe something reassuringly red with a white cross on it. Instead, I watched him pull open a junk drawer, tossing aside rolls of duct tape and spools of fishing line and pairs of needle-nosed pliers before coming up with a yellow and white tube that might have been a fat ChapStick.
Charlie handed me the vial with the suggestion, “Umm. You boys might feel better if you went out on deck.”
“Shut up, C. Everett Koop,” I thought. “Thanks, Charlie,” I said.
Through the nausea and vertigo, I was able to summon the pharmaceutical wherewithal to inspect the product packaging. The plastic vial was as grimy as if it had been lost under the back seat of mom’s minivan. Expiration date: Two years ago. Stability? Potency? Who cares, at this point?
I cracked open the lid and peered in to see nothing but a few broken Dramamine chips and some white Dramamine dust. It looked like the bottom of a Doritos bag at the end of a frat party. To risk a cliché: Beggars can’t be choosers, so I started picking through it like a Bob Marley fan sorting his stems and seeds, and then passed the other half over to Timmy. Drug stability became a moot point when 10 minutes later, we both hurled the morning’s Clif Bars, coffee, and expired Dramamine scraps into that trash bucket.
We'd booked the charter for the morning only, so we knew there would be an end to this suffering soon enough. Regardless, as the Bertram tossed and rolled, The Ballad of Gilligan's Island seemed to play: "The passengers set sail that day for a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour…" Hurry up, noon. For the love of God, please hurry.
The clock finally ran out and Captain Jimmy turned the Bertram around and returned us to terra firma. With calmer seas, Timmy and I rebounded and were soon enough able to partake of the mackerel we caught (again, "we" used loosely).
Later that night, we shared a platter of bacon-wrapped cream cheese jalapeno poppers stuffed with pheasant we'd shot the
previous November in South Dakota. And the weekend held never-ending slices of sausage made from goose that Cap'n and Austin had taken in Kansas on that same hunting trip.
Years pass, and the friendships that started on the flat glacial till of central Indiana continue on, regardless of tribe members migrating to the humid subtropics of the Carolinas or the oceanic climes of Massachusetts or the arid plains of Texas. We return, we gather. Depth and layers come to the tribe as we add sons. (Or daughters: Midge earned her hunter's education card and Keebs is deep into her copy of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac.)
Now hunting together, and fishing, and sharing the food we've taken, is part of that deepening. Grocery stores have been around a short 100 years, but humans and our ancestors have hunted for 2 million, then gathering around a fire to share in the fruits of the hunt. Taken this way, laying a slab of Canadian goose sausage on a Triscuit becomes a tribal gesture, a tribute to our ancestors, and an act of communion with the land and the animals and the brothers who hunt with you.
In his essay, “Sporting Food” (in Just Before Dark, Mariner Books, 1999), Jim Harrison wrote: “The idea is to eat well and not die from it.” If we can find our sea legs, we might continue to eat well from the ocean as well as the land, without dying of seasickness in the bargain.