As the vodka shots, earlier chased by bottles of Żywiec, started to wear off, and the midday heat set in, we knew we had more sea-hunting to do. In the cooler, the bluefish was receiving last rites from an invisible gilled priest as it made its way into fish heaven. Surely fish heaven would be more appropriate under the sea than above it. The logistical hurdles of dragging billions of fish souls skyward boggled the mind. Captain Edik, less given to idle thoughts when there was action to be had, shoved a rod at J., and another at me. “Your turn,” he ordered. Who were we to disobey the captain’s orders?
The boat, gliding at a barely noticeable speed on the gentle algae-green waters, now afforded us an opportunity to get our rods wet. Far enough to spread of open seas all around us and the pot-bellied shapes of Russian Brighton Beach mercifully just out of sight, J. and I cast our rods and let our lines unspool. I looked doubtfully at the string of floss disappearing in the water somewhere behind the stern. The last I had caught something of note was when I was 12, and even then I suspected the fish were somehow coerced unto my hook by my friend’s generous dad, an experienced fisherman. A few seconds in, the light tug of the line left me unpersuaded. But the the next one seemed real. I did my best imitation of an able angler, reeling and pumping the line and relying on muscle memory many years stored in what are now layers of fat. Miraculously, the flattened, familiar shape of a flounder soon appeared on the surface, offering what little resistance it could to my heft.
Dropping the fish onto the deck and looking in the general direction of the others for some vague approval, I watched J. struggling with a load of her own. Her burden was clearly heavier than mine and put up considerably more resistance. Captain Edik was cut off from scolding my dad for some minor infraction and hurried to her side. We all wondered what was at the other end–what mythical beast of the deep was fighting for its life?
“Son of a…it’s a nasty one…this bastard is putting up a fight,” Captain Edik commentated, the rest of us too rapt to join in.
Flexing his muscles, Edik haled the line one more strained time. Suddenly the unmistakable snout of a shark was staring directly into our faces. It was a small shark, no bigger than the bluefish–but it was a shark! A shark with the familiar gill slits and overbite from TV and cartoons staring us down ferociously, letting us know that just because it was out of water didn’t mean it couldn’t snap all our faces off with its sharpened chompers. But this Shark Tale was all too real. “Baby sand shark,” Edik said knowingly. “They don’t get too big around here.” We pulled the hook out and tossed the fish back in the water. Boat rules.
Minutes later, I caught another flounder, only to have J. trump me once more with…another shark! This time, we paused for a moment before tossing the guppy overboard.
“Shark’s fin soup,” Edik said, as if announcing the first course at a mansion dinner.
“The Chinese pay good money for it.”
“Yes, but do they want baby sand sharks?” I asked
Lines out once more, we trolled once more. Another minute, another flounder! But on the other side of the boat, J. was busy bringing another shark aboard. We stared incredulously at her, confounded by her uncanny and heretofore unknown aptitude for catching giant predatory baby fish.
But this one, either through greed or stupidity, chose to sink the hook deep inside its throat. Edik struggled trying to hold the fish in place, holding one hand on the rod and the other on the shark’s sleek body. “Pliers!” he called like a doctor in an operating room.
I skipped over with a pair. Edik, now applying a stranglehold to force the shark’s mouth open, signaled for me to begin the procedure. I went in with the pliers, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. With no ichthyological or medical training, I managed to mangle the inside the poor creature’s mouth while fishing for the hook. Do no harm, I remembered the doctor’s motto, even as I haplessly performed this botched oral surgery. I stared at the fish staring back at me, both guilty and annoyed that the beast couldn’t cooperate.
Asshole, the shark seemed to say. I always get the idiot on call.
Sharky, just let me take the damn hook out of your jawline, and you’ll be scot-free. But fish and men don’t talk.
After some more sweating and scowling, Edik grabbed the pliers out of my hands. Demoted to surgical assistant, I held down the shark while Edik somewhat more adroitly maneuvered the tool in its mouth to produce the hook. We let the badly injured fish go, watching it flap on its side in circles until it stared sinking under some air bubbles. We were happy at the sun and open waters, and the bluefish in the cooler, and a little remorse and black humor, hoping our final prey and patient would hunker down for a few days deep below, recovering to swim another day.