My dad and I started going out for night blues when I was about twelve or thirteen. My mom packed us sandwiches and we’d stop at the liquor store for Slim Jims, ginger ale and beer. The boat left the dock from Atlantic City just after sunset. It was a party boat and our shipmates and crew were all men, mostly what my dad called ‘old salts’. There were older black gentlemen too, quietly leaning on the rails smoking Swisher Sweets, and rowdy young guys from South Philly getting loaded. I was the only kid.
You might get seasick if you stayed below while motoring out with the droning diesel fumes and a rising swell on the coal black sea. My dad called them rollers. We opted to stay out on deck and watched the crew prepare baitfish and chum to make a slick. With razor sharp fillet knives they sliced whole butterfish into chunks and tossed them into a motorized grinder, making a reddish oily pulp in a huge vat. I’m pretty sure my dad wanted to eat the chum himself. His mouth always watered around baitfish. He smoked a cigarette and sipped his can of beer while I watched schools of squid darting through the phosphors in the boat’s wake.
We’d watch the lights on shore slowly fade and disappear and the captain would cut the engine in the blackness. The fishermen prepared their lines in silence, baiting hooks with hunks of fresh bunker while the crew sprayed oily chum into a slick with long-handled ladles. All was silent save the ratcheting of reels and lapping of waves as the boat rocked and adjusted itself to the current, finding its drift. Sometimes you could see schools of bluefish flashing silver close to the surface, thumbs on reels waiting for the skipper’s signal to drop a line.
Then the baited hooks went down in a whir and the blues hit ferociously, almost immediately. We’d pull in one after the other, our arms like rubber by the end of a run. “Keep ‘er head up!”, my dad would shout. Bluefish in a feeding frenzy put up a tough fight and I prided myself on handling my own rod and landing my own fish. Soon the decks were covered with flopping blues, blood and fish scales. The night air turned cold and clear, our lungs filled with the salty sweetness of summertime Atlantic. I once hooked a very large bluefish that my dad entered into the boat’s pool. As we motored back to shore towards dawn the crew set up a scale on deck. My dad quietly slipped a six ounce lead sinker into my fish’s mouth and dropped it down the gullet. I didn’t agree with the idea but needed the money to buy a CB so went along. It didn’t matter, mine was still not the biggest fish on board.