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An Ocean Runs Through It

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Dixon guides for most of the year, June through October on the East End, and January through May out of the ritzy Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo, where he fishes for permit, bonefish, and tarpon. He uses a Keys flats boat, built to work on what guides call skinny, or shallow, water. Every other fishing boat in the world provides some sort of shelter. On Dixon's boat, you are in the ocean. It draws just twelve inches of water; amidships there are twelve short inches of gunwale above the waterline. The fish on the flats -- bonefish or bass -- are so spooky and the water is so shallow that the guides must pull up the engines and pole the boats, Huck Finn-style, when they hunt fish. To put the guide at a better angle to the water for spotting, and to help him control the boat without getting in the angler's way, the flats-boat designers have built a little poling platform as far astern as they could get it, above the outboard. The foredeck, more than a third of the length of the boat, is nothing more than a broad casting platform -- in a sense, it's an ultralight nineteenth-century whaling dory, with the fly fisherman wielding the metaphorical harpoon.

The angler's job, by the way, is to stand on Dixon's featureless foredeck, gripping the pebble-grain fiberglass with his toes -- bare feet being the only way to tell if you step on your fly line -- and throw a fly the size of a golf pencil 60 feet out into the field of vision of a foraging bass. A fly fisherman's main physical liability is that he has to strip his line off the reel before he can cast, which means that if his line gets tangled, as it often does, since it lies in a pile at his feet, he will cut his cast short. Hence, everything on a flats boat is either mounted flush or retractable; the gunwales and the foredeck are stripped of cleats and trim. The target radius for the fly -- in other words, the margin for error so the bass won't be spooked but will register the fly as bait -- is about twelve inches. This is tough enough in calm water, with no wind, on the flats around Gardiners Island. Out past Gardiners, in the rips and in the wind on Block Island Sound, it's like trying to repair a watch while standing on a sheet of plywood lashed to the shoulders of Bill Parcells's offensive line.

Dixon's angler this morning is lawyer Dan Zemann, of the midtown firm London Fischer. A lanky, mustachioed litigator with a couple days' vacation stubble and a couple thousand dollars' worth of excellent tackle of his own, Zemann is typical of Dixon's clientele: well-heeled, professionally accomplished, and ferociously loyal to one fishing captain -- namely, Dixon. To have earned a spot in Dixon's black book, either to be guided by him or to have been outfitted by him over the years, is to be in fairly heady sporting company: the Newhouses (Sue and Don, not Si), Ted Turner, Jimmy Buffett, Rick Hilton (yes, that Hilton), Sandra Doubleday, Minnie Driver, Tom Brokaw, the Wathne sisters, Howell Raines, and, last but not least, the ebullient gourmet (for this magazine) and New York Times fly-fishing correspondent Peter Kaminsky. Kaminsky has the distinction of being one of the few to have persuaded Dixon to let him keep a fish. Otherwise, the rule is rather strict: A perfectly legal and succulent 15-year-old, 45-inch monster bass, dripping with flesh, will be thrown back.

"I think Peter . . . ahhh" -- Dixon pauses diplomatically, grinning, trying to hold back -- "likes to eat. So he takes it to town and cooks it with, you know, Daniel Boulud."

We've got to get Zemann out to the bass just to get to the point where we can throw some back. The plan is simple: We'll scoot out of the harbor and then fish progressively more-distant flats and rips on the way out to Gardiners Island. At 8:30, poling us along from his platform above the outboard, Dixon spots our first bass, a lone wolf trolling down the beach.

"Nine o'clock!" Dixon barks at Zemann in his football-coach mode. "See it? Ten o'clock, throw it, throw it, ahhh, he's gone!"

Zemann had maybe five seconds for his cast -- but in terms of presenting an appetizing fly, more like three.

"Well," says Dixon, clearing the air with a drill sergeant's briskness, "we've proven they're here. Let's putter around the corner."

To putter in Dixon-speak means to blast two or three miles to fish somewhere else, which is the highly entertaining, drop-and-go advantage of this style of fishing. With a top end of 40 knots, flats boats are fast enough to rip the sunglasses from your face if you turn your head wrong, which affords Dixon and his clients less time between fishing holes without a fly in the water, which in turn means that the anglers can fish large, wild chunks of territory in a day, upping their percentages on the fish. So we putter around the corner to . . . another flat. The description of this flat is a delicate matter and as such is a paradigm of the cutthroat aspects of the East End fly-fishing avalanche -- it's one part closely and justifiably defended intelligence, two parts general and probably needless industrial paranoia.

It goes like this: The knowledge of the fish and their location is clearly hard-won. As the region's Meriwether Lewis, Dixon has been studying the movement of the bait and the fish off the East End for the better part of two decades. By now, the major flats and rips are known to captains as far away as Connecticut and Rhode Island and private fly fishermen alike. So it's not the location so much as the time of day, the position of the tide, and the movement of the bait at the location that mean fish, and that is the equation that captains protect when they get chary of naming flats.

We stumble over some fish on the Nameless Flat, but there is no way to get a line to them. One cheeky juvenile delinquent even lounges for a while under the boat, where a cane pole with a worm might have worked but a fly rod is useless. No one is gnashing his teeth, but it would be nice to hook up.


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