My great Uncle Bill was an avid fisherman. Morning, night, hot, cold, he’d take his boat out on the ocean, sometimes with my grandfather, often times alone. One breezy fall afternoon when he was fishing alone, a couple nips of gin in, he lit his cigar, sat down in the pilot’s chair, and admired the sun bouncing off the four-foot swells from beneath the brim of his white sailor’s cap.
The rod bent like a lowercase f, and soon he grabbed it with both hands, his cigar clenched between his teeth, and fought for twenty minutes, reeling in the line only for the creature to take it all back. It was bigger than a blue, could have been a marlin, a swordfish, not unheard of this close to the Jersey coast. A shark, he finally admitted, on its way back down the coast to the warmer water.
As the fish tired and it’s restless splashes appeared closer, Uncle Bill realized it wasn’t a fish, but a man. A few passes around the back of the boat, and Uncle Bill led the man along the side, and in one strong tug, hoisted him over the gunwale and onto the deck.
The man was dressed in a tweed jacket and slacks, had a thin mustache and short curly hair, all sopping water on the floor. He pointed to the hook lodged in his mouth. Uncle Bill dropped his cigar to rummage through his tackle box for the pliers, and when he came back and removed the hook, the man kneeled with one hand on the side of the boat and stammered to his feet, hacking up seawater and bits of minnow. The man picked up Uncle Bill’s cigar, and took a long drag, patting his chest as he coughed up more water.
Uncle Bill went into the cabin, poured a heaping of gin into an empty cup, and handed it to the man. “Got a name?” Uncle Bill asked.
Uncle Bill was about to ask Cliff what the hell he was doing in the water but stopped when Cliff smiled as he popped water from his front jacket pocket and gazed out at the ocean, puffing on the cigar between sips. Uncle Bill leaned over the boat, pulled a minnow from the trap, and gouged it through the eye with the end of the hook, then dropped the line into the water.
The two men stood silent for a while as the boat dipped, the wind drying out Cliff’s clothes and his cough. When Uncle Bill’s rod bent the next time with a force equal to the man’s, he thought for sure this couldn’t be happening again. But as Uncle Bill started to smash the reel, Cliff went into the tackle box, came out with a knife, clipped the line just below the tip of the reel, and said, “Better leave that one alone.”