On a dark and stormy night at the end of a jetty sticking into the raging surf of the Atlantic Ocean, a working class Jersey boy who did odd jobs and fished all the time to feed his family, hooked the biggest blue fish ever caught in New Jersey and, perhaps, the entire eastern seaboard.
The fish was as big as a motorcycle and the guy who landed it couldn’t lift it. He needed help. Somehow, he found help. When they got the thing back to his house on Brigantine Island, he had to remove most of the frozen fish that was already in his garage freezer. Then he wrapped his big blue in garbage bags and put it in the cold.
The guy and his family were still eating the thawed fish when he heard at the bait shack that a national angling association had offered a cash prize for a record-breaking catch. He contacted them. They ignored him. He contacted them again, sending another picture of the fish. No response.
Somebody tipped off the local newspaper. A reporter called and learned that there was no picture of the guy holding the fish up in front of a weighing scale because it was dark and raining when he landed, he didn’t know anybody with a camera (this was before the era of the cell phone) and the last thing they were going to do in fifty-mile-per-hour winds was put the fish in somebody’s truck and drive it over the Brigantine Bridge to the weighing scale at Gardner’s Basin. Besides, he didn’t know there was a contest going on for big catches. He and his family would have eaten the fish by now if he hadn’t been told to wait until this national angling society certified his catch.
The reporter tried to get a response from the angling society but nothing came in before the deadline. The newspaper printed a cautious story that this fish just might be a record-breaker but we’ll have to wait for the powers-that-be to decide.
I was living at the Jersey shore and writing for magazines. I read the newspaper story and called the guy up. He told me I had just missed the “expert” from the angling society. The expert looked at the fish and said that it didn’t qualify because he hadn’t caught it.
In order for a fish to count for the record, it has to be alive when it is landed. The expert said this fish, while certainly large, had been dead on arrival.
I asked if the expert had done an autopsy. He hadn’t. He barely unwrapped it. He just looked at it and left.
I made a visit. The guy and his family lived in a tiny, humble, barely furnished two-bedroom house in Brigantine. We started talking and he invited me to eat with his family. He opened a few cans, threw a block of frozen ground beef into a frying pan, and served us sloppy joes (a sweet bolognese) on white bread.
Then he took me to the garage and showed me the fish. I’d seen tuna that big, but never a blue. He told me how he caught it, describing how he stood alone on the jetty in a bitter nor’easter, because storms can make the bigger fish come in closer to the shore. After hours of rain and wind blasting him in the face, he was about to go in when a voice spoke inside him and told him to stay a little longer.
He stayed a little longer and hooked the fish. Pulling it in was like dragging a truck. He would have lost it if the nor’easter wasn’t blowing toward him, sending the ocean, and whatever was in it, crashing up on the jetty.
I asked him if he’d read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. He hadn’t.
When he saw how big the fish was, he didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t want to leave it there. Finally he put his rod down, ran to the nearest street and got help. The fish was there, breathing, when he returned.
I thanked him for dinner. The next day, I called the angling society. I got the line about the fish being dead. I asked if any tests were done to determine how and when the fish had died.
No tests were done. The expert knew what a dead fish looked like. Besides, the reward for a record-breaking catch was intended for professional sport fishermen who are scrupulous about documentation. How is it possible that an amateur could land a fish that big? This was one man’s story and, me being a journalist, I should know what they say about fish stories.
To be sure, some of what passes for journalism might as well be a colorful exaggeration. Journalism as a profession tends to be reviled by those who don’t like what they read or see. I had never wanted to go into the trade, but I had a fierce desire to prove to myself that I was worthy. Almost every short story I sent out had been rejected, sending me into despairing tail-spins ending in writers block. Journalism, with its deadlines, does not accommodate writers block.
Journalism does accommodate reporters who sympathize with their subject. Is there a great difference between a lone guy sending out short stories to magazines, and another braving a storm to catch a fish?
My article that suggested that the angling society could not believe that a simple, humble, hard-working Jersey boy could, through determination and luck, beat them at their own game.
After it was published the angling society sent down another expert who decided that the Jersey boy had, indeed, landed the largest blue fish, and that the check for the award was in the mail.
A month later I called the guy up to find out if he got the check. He said the check had come, and that after he cashed it, he the check, he sawed off sections of the fish and was trying to eat it, but everybody he knew was tired of the fish. He’d baked it, fried it, grilled it it so many times. Did I want any?
I thanked him but said I had a blue in my freezer at the moment that I caught at the supermarket. I told him that I liked to “blacken” it with black pepper and broil it, with onions, sliced Jersey tomatoes and garlic.
He said he’d try my recipe and we never spoke again.