This Fisherman's Biggest Catch

An inspiring story about his greatest loss and his greatest victory

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Posted in , Feb 11, 2010

Five generations.

That’s how far back I traced my family roots on Martha’s Vineyard, a small island off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

My father taught me to fish for striped bass and bluefish in these waters. When I wasn’t running my gas station I was in my boat. I never thought I’d love anything more than fishing. That was before I met Wendy.

She came to the island with her family as a child for the summer. But Wendy fell in love with the place. When she grew up she moved in year round. In the winter she delivered lunches to businesses like mine. We talked every day until one delivery I leaned over and kissed her.

Naturally I wanted my two great loves to get along, so as soon as I could I took Wendy out on the boat.

“The best fishing is in September and October,” I called over to her from the wheel, the salty air whipping past us. “That’s when we have the annual Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. It’s the biggest striper fishing contest on the East Coast. We islanders can get a little crazy around derby time. Bigger guys than me have cried over losing a catch in the derby. Some even got caught spying on their friends to size-up the competition. Women, kids—everybody wants a chance to hook a winner, lug it through town, then get it weighed and recorded on the big board in Edgartown. I’ve seen fish 40 pounds or more. It’s my absolute favorite time of year. Just think, this year you can come out on the boat with me! Wendy?”

It wasn’t like her to be so quiet. I turned from the wheel and found her clinging to the side of the boat. She didn’t look good. In fact, she looked green.

“Patrick,” she managed in a small voice. “I think I’m seasick.”

So much for my two loves getting along! I’d fallen for a landlubber. I got us back to the dock right away.

“Guess I’m not much of a first mate,” Wendy said as I helped her onto solid ground.

I gave her a hug. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, and I meant it. Wendy might not be my first mate on the boat, but she was meant to be my first mate on land.

We made it official on a chilly November day on a sheep farm on the island. The ground was muddy from rains, but that didn’t bother us sturdy islanders. We just pulled on our boots over our wedding clothes and tromped up in front of a big red barn to recite our vows.

Wendy looked me in the eye. “I solemnly vow,” she said, “never to interfere with my husband’s annual chase for a winner in the derby.”

Family and friends hooted and hollered. I toasted my new bride.

True to her word, Wendy supported my favorite pastime one hundred percent. When our son, Wyatt, was old enough to handle a rod and reel, I taught him to fish too. Soon the two of us were competing in the derby together.

“This year will be our year!” I said come September. Wendy took my optimism to heart, despite the fact that 40-pounder remained out of reach. Until next year when I made the same proclamation and Wendy’s eyes twinkled.

Then came the unlikely September that found neither Wyatt nor me thinking much about fishing. Wendy had been suffering from severe headaches when a CT scan showed a tumor on her brain. She was fighting for her life.

I took a leave of absence from the gas station, but Wendy refused to let me sit out the derby. “I want you to do what you always do,” she insisted. “You know how much you love being out there on the boat.”

“Not as much as I love you,” I said. If it would’ve made Wendy well, I would have never fished again.

“I promised I wouldn’t ever come between you and the derby. Besides,” she said, a little of the old twinkle coming into her eye, “this could very well be your year!”

Wyatt and I took the boat out reluctantly, but soon enough we saw Wendy was right. Just being out on the water did us both some good. We had to be strong for Wendy, and do all we could to help her through her deteriorating condition. We didn’t catch that 40-pounder, but we were glad we entered for our number-one fan.

Wendy died the following July. I’d never felt so lost. Wyatt and I were on our own now, with no idea what lay ahead. I remembered Wendy’s insistence that we enter the derby even when she was at her weakest.

“I want you to do what you always do,” she’d said. But how, without Wendy to encourage me?

A few days after the funeral, I took the boat out off the southwest corner of the island. I didn’t expect to catch anything, not in the middle of the day. But I needed to be by the open water.

Friends and family were doing all they could for Wyatt and me, but only the sea could provide the peace I needed. I dropped anchor, put a bit of eel on the hook and tossed the line over the gunwale.

Everything felt heavy: the line, the bait, my heart. Lord, I miss Wendy so much. Part of the joy of fishing was knowing that she was waiting for me back home. It was hard to believe she was really gone now.

My line jerked. Could I actually have a bite this time of day? The line tugged again. Must be some little fish. I braced myself and reeled it in. This was no little fish. It was strong. I looked over the gunwale to see a great head pop out of the water, followed by a pair of broad shoulders, dusky flanks and a big broom of a tail. I nearly lost my balance!

The striper fell into the boat with a slap. Forty-one pounds if it was an ounce; the biggest striper I’d ever caught. Big enough to win the derby—if it had been September.

All these years I’d chased a big fish like this, but the day I caught one everything was wrong: Wrong time of day. Wrong time of year. Most of all, Wendy wasn’t back home waiting for me. What joy was there in catching a big fish if Wendy couldn’t see it?

Or could she? Maybe I wasn’t on my own. Wendy never stopped expecting me to reel in a winner when she was alive. Why would she expect anything different now?

I imagined her looking down from heaven, happy, eyes twinkling, and not the least bit seasick! I couldn’t wait to show Wyatt the fish I’d caught, and to give him the message that fish carried with it.

Wyatt and I would never stop chasing the next big catch. And Wendy would always be with us. The best first mate we ever had.

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