Thursday, September 20, 2007

Research: Gone Fishing

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve spent the summer writing the first draft of my mystery set in the Hamptons, not among the rich and famous but among my series protagonist’s housemates in a group house “north of the highway” in an imaginary Hampton located between Amagansett and Napeague on the way to Montauk. I’ve already blogged about what fun I had researching a scene set in a pick-your-own strawberry field back in June. As the plot and characters came into focus, I decided it would be fun to send Bruce and his sidekick Barbara out fishing and set my denouement on the boat. So I wrote my way right up to the scene on the water and made a date with my across-the-street neighbor Bob to go fishing.

Bob is a retiree whose joy in life is to take his boat out on Gardiner’s Bay for bluefish. His wife Pat has long since stopped going along. She neither cleans, cooks, nor eats blues, having had more than her share many years ago. But she graciously accepts Bob’s passion. Bob is in it for the sport, so unless a friend or neighbor requests some fresh caught fish filets, he tussles with the bluefish, striped bass, and sometimes albacore tuna—all game fish that give him a good fight, he told me—lands them, and throws them back. The day before he took me out, he took in 30 blues in about three hours. Of course, he admitted to me that since nobody sees his catch, there’s nothing to stop him saying he was landing four and five pounders when they were really only a pound or two and claiming that the one that got away weighed a hefty ten or even fourteen pounds.

Bob picked me up in his red Jeep Cherokee in time to catch the ebbing tide.

“I hope you haven’t used up all your fishing karma for the week,” I said.

More likely, he assured me, fish yesterday meant fish today. Besides, he’s a veteran who’s been fishing these waters since he was a boy and knows the bay so well he hardly glanced at the screen of his fancy GPS as we pulled out of the marina. In fact, he didn’t “watch the road” or use his hands to steer at all. I didn’t know whether to be alarmed or impressed.

My agenda was to get answers to a long list of questions so I could “get it right” in the scene in my manuscript, absorb the experience, and, if possible, bring home fresh fish for dinner. Two minutes from shore, before Bob had finished showing me how to cast, he hooked and let me land our first bluefish. It seemed to augur well for the day.

“Do you want to keep it?” Bob asked.

“We’d better,” I said, “just in case it’s the only one.”

For the next four hours, it looked as if I may have jinxed us with those words. This is not to say I wasn’t having a marvelous time. It was a gorgeous day, and even though for some mysterious reason, we couldn’t find the usual schools of bait fish churning up the water, with flocks of birds above and schools of bluefish below competing for the chance to dine off them, it was great to be on the water. Bob said it was the worst fishing day he’d had in years. It wasn’t just us, either—ordinarily, where the birds and fish gather, so do a cluster of fishing boats. No boats, no birds, no fish. So I took notes on the boat and the fishing process and got a close look at Gardiner’s Island, Plum Island, and a ruined fort. I learned to cast well enough to stop hooking parts of the boat every time I tried. And Bob told stories.

Since I can’t work the best story into my manuscript, I’m free to tell here how Mr. Gardiner blew the whistle on Captain Kidd. In the 17th century, the first Gardiner in the American colonies bought about half of Long Island from the local Indians for practically nothing. The family got very rich, and the present-day heir still owns Gardiner’s Island, the largest privately held island in the United States. Captain Kidd was hanged for piracy in 1701, although there’s still debate over whether he was just a privateer. So it must have been right at the turn of the century that Gardiner and his son came upon Kidd and his crew burying treasure on Gardiner’s Island.

“I damn you, and I damn your family!” Captain Kidd said, according to my neighbor, Bob, threatening to come back and murder the son if either of them breathed a word about the treasure. Gardiner, not intimidated, notified the authorities, and Captain Kidd was captured, brought back to England for trial, and hanged. The Gardiners later boasted that they dined off solid gold plates that had been part of the pirate’s hoard.

We kept looking for the elusive blues. Finally, after we had given up and just before we reached Hog Creek, the inlet leading to our local community’s marina, we finally spotted a flock of terns wheeling and diving into a patch of churning water. Out came the fishing rods, and I’m glad to report that I came happily home with two or three nights’ dinner.


Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, Liz, I'm such a wimp that I can't bear the thought of impaling some poor worm on a hook, much less hooking a fish! If the world were full of squeamish people like me, no one would eat.

Clea Simon said...

I, on the other hand, found this a joy to read! I grew up on Long Island (not the ritzy North Shore or the Hamptons, but the solidly middle class South Shore) and have many, many fond memories of fishing in Great South Bay. We tended to go out in the marshes for flounder and blowfish (we had a little Boston whaler flat-bottom boat), rather than bluefish. But we'd occasionally venture into the inlets when the blues were running!

Was back there recently for the bar mitzvah of an old friend's son, and got to show my Rhode Island-born and bred husband some of my old stomping grounds. Now if I can just dig up that picture of me, age 8, with a flounder at the end of my dropline!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

No, no, Sandy--NO WORMS!!! We used a red and white plastic lure that bobbed merrily through the water. I downplayed it on the blog because I used it in the book. :)