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An Ocean Runs Through It

Captain Paul Dixon, who works the waters of Gardiners Bay, knows how to think like a fish -- which makes him the Hamptons' most sought-after fly-fishing guide.

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Seven-thirty a.m. midweek at the east Hampton Point Marina off Gardiners Bay: This is the fishing hour. The ubiquitous Mexican landscapers rake the gravel in the driveways. The yachtsmen are fumbling together their morning cocktails of caffeine, Mylanta, and the business pages. Martha Stewart's $400,000 Hinckley "picnic boat," the Skylands II, lolls -- as its owner would loll if its owner were a half-million-dollar pleasure boat -- primly buttoned under a white canvas skirt.

Not fifteen feet away, a sun-blasted captain named Paul Dixon engages in the martial preflight check of his craft, a twenty-foot Hewes skiff so shorn of detail that it looks like it's been stripped for refitting: no cabin, no above-deck cleats, no seats with backs, no rail. Dixon is about to take a client fly-fishing for striped bass. The fish are unforgiving, subject to no law except their own electric, food-chain-driven logic, so the boat and every object in it have forthright, weaponly functions -- the half-dozen carbon-fiber rods that can punch a fly line out through a breeze, the gleaming $500 reels that can wrangle a juddering, 30-pound hog to the gunwales, the 200 flies Dixon has tied by hand, of which he will use at most four today.

"We need some light," Dixon says with captainly suspicion, squinting at a high cumulus front ranging twenty miles southwest of us. It's blowing in over us. He doesn't want to be angry at the weather without testing it out on the water; that's probably bad luck. Since we are going to be sight-fishing for bass, Dixon needs the sun behind us as we drift to the fish. We will be the stealthy marine iteration of fighter jocks diving in at our targets out of the sun. But we need the sun.

Dixon, 44, is a Newport Beach, California, native from a family of fly-fishermen. His maternal grandfather swept floors for Henry Ford, who took a shine to the young man and helped set him up as the first Ford dealer in California. His paternal grandfather's people were a big logging family in Washington State with a 100,000-acre hunting preserve, which is to say Dixon has a deep understanding of his clientele and their sporting proclivities. Out of high school in California, he spent the seventies fly-fishing in Baja and guiding for trout in Idaho, then gravitated east fifteen years ago and later managed Orvis's Madison Avenue fly-fishing department. It's where he met his first clients, former Goldman, Sachs co-chairman and recently departed Treasury secretary Robert Rubin and Annie producer Rodger Hess.

Over the past decade, sight-fishing with a fly rod in saltwater has undergone a revolution, in which Dixon approximates Che Guevara -- minus the death in the Bolivian jungle. The sport originated in the forties in the Florida Keys, where Jimmie Albright, Lefty Kreh, George Hommel and Joe Brooks took fly rods and began hunting down the ferocious bonefish in the Everglades outback. The fish fought like tigers, and the light tackle demanded blistering line control. As fishing, it was no less alcohol-soaked, but it was definitely not the trite, bloody, Hemingway-esque, strapped-in-the-chair-for-seven-hours deep-water thing. Ted Williams, an American blessed with a modicum of hand-eye coordination in his day, retired to Islamorada to do this sort of fishing. For decades, very few people outside the Keys even knew about it.

Dixon's role in the revolution was that of a proselytizer and prophet. He was among the first captains to apply Keys sight-fishing strategies to the cold-water species of the North. This was thought to be impossible. Bass, the East End legend went, were best fished at night with huge surf-casting rods, by trolling, or by chumming them up Chesapeake-style with bloody buckets full of bait. Fifteen years ago, by dint of hard labor and a lot of bad fishing days, nosing around the estuaries of Gardiners Bay, Dixon began to discover the flats and to study how the fish fed on them. By the mid-nineties, other fly-fishing captains had begun opening up Connecticut, the Vineyard, and Nantucket. Now, from the Chesapeake north to Maine, fly-fishing for bass, bluefish, and false albacore has become an industry. Four years ago, the torch was officially passed on Gardiners Bay when the American pope of saltwater fly-fishing, Lefty Kreh, a surviving member of the Florida generation, agreed to come north to be guided by Dixon. He came for a reason.

"Paul is witchy about fish," says Sean McCarthy, a Wall Street bond man who spent many of the early years scouring Gardiners Bay with Dixon. McCarthy is calling from London, taking a break from a meeting to talk about Dixon. "He can find 'em where nobody thinks they'll be. I mean, you're almost looking for the scales on him."


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