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An Ocean Runs Through It

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"The hot spell around the Fourth of July changed the water and put the fish down," Dixon explains. "The eating changed. Where there were 20 to 30 fish on each flat back in June, now we're seeing 7 to 15."

We put the motor down and move east toward Montauk, past the south end of Gardiners. There are magnificent flats all along the north coast of the South Fork, and the sun begins to break through the cover. Dixon cranks the outboard out of the water and begins to pole quietly from his platform. He starts to get fishy, to work the fish calculus of wind and tide and bait in a slightly more atomic fashion. He doesn't say much, but he's happier.

"It's like the Marquesas here," says lawyer Zemann, meaning that the bottom is flat and marled and hot like the bottom around the bonefish-filled archipelago off Key West. It also means that lawyer Zemann has spent serious money fishing.

Dixon sees the tell-tale football-shaped shadow, a bass, moving 200 feet off the boat, hopelessly out of range. Then three more in close. There are fish in here, and we are on them. No one speaks.

"Nine-thirty, 50 feet out, he's moving off, he hasn't seen us yet, twelve o'clock, moving off to one. Throw it, strip it, strip it, strip it, shit!" Dixon barks.

Zemann's cast is in good time, but the fish wasn't ready to eat. He saw the boat. We didn't spook him bad, though, which means we didn't spook the ones up ahead that we can't see, either.

"That was Mr. Toad," says Dixon with a wisp of longing. A toad, in the Dixon lexicon, means a keeper of a certain heft, a big fish we should have held and fought. Mr. Toad's escape did not flatten the fish so much as it flattened us for a while, as all screwed-up encounters with big nature do. Then there is a fish.

"Twelve o'clock, 40 feet," whispers Dixon. "Lemme . . . turn . . . the . . . boat."

This medium-short distance -- something like sneaking uninvited into a bass's dining room just as he's sitting down to a quiet dinner with the wife -- allows Dixon just one push with the broad, triangular foot of his graphite pole to get the boat right for Zemann, who will have time for just one cast. That is the thing about this sort of fishing: If you do it right, you get to watch yourself enter the food chain with your fly. Dixon turns the boat on cue, and lawyer Zemann shoots the line out with a nice tart loop. He hooks up and lands a young bass -- no toad, but it's a fish. We see a dozen more fish without hooking up, and then we stop seeing them. They've finished feeding on this flat. It's like the movie stars leaving the cocktail party -- there's no reason to hang around. We're off to Gardiners.

Gardiners is a fruitful ground because it stands sentinel at the intersection of its own bay and the bigger water of Block Island Sound -- there are enormous schools of bait (and thus bass) sluicing in and out around Fort Tyler, an abandoned nineteenth-century ruin on a small island north of Gardiners.

The fort was built to defend New York against an imagined Spanish navy, and abandoned after being commissioned in World War I. "Then the Navy decided that it would be a pretty good idea to bomb it for target practice during World War II," Dixon says, encyclopedic in his knowledge of his turf, "so there's a bunch of ordnance left on it. Which is why we can't pull up on the beach there. The rip we'll be fishing is actually a sunken road between the fort and Gardiners that was submerged in the '38 hurricane."

We have lunch in the lee of Gardiners, piss serially off the side of the boat, and, more or less immediately after urinating on his head, catch a six-pound bluefish. It's not a toad, but it's a fish with some fight in him. We throw him back and leave. The rip between Fort Tyler and the north tip of Gardiners Island is empty for us, so we move northeast.

Now the day is gray again. We've been engulfed by the front, and the water is bigger. This is where the Atlantic starts, the very edge of the wild country. We know we are in a different world: With people literally dying from the heat in the city, we pull on fleece for the six-mile run.

Dixon and a few other guides in the East -- Tommy Mleczko in Nantucket, Tim Klein and Jeffrey Cardenas in the Keys -- are considered the best of the second generation of saltwater captains. The way you recognize the best is in how they make the bad days seem good. And, entertaining as it is for lawyer Zemann and me, with just two fish in six hours, this is shaping up into a fairly bad day.

Geophysically, Long Island's North Fork peters out in a little archipelago stretching to the Rhode Island coast, consisting of Plum, Great Gull, Little Gull, and Fishers islands. All four islands are simply the outcroppings along the back of a great shoal separating Long Island Sound from Block Island Sound, with massive variations in depth and treacherous tide-driven current on both sides of the chain. But treacherous tide-driven current means great, uncontrolled schools of bait being herded hither and yon, and equally great numbers of bass and bluefish lying in wait.

"In a sense," Dixon explains, "we'll be casting blind, but we'll be sight-fishing the birds. The birds will mirror the action of the fish. The big fish will chase the pods of bait to the surface, so the birds will go after the bait from the top. Where we see the birds working hard will be where the big fish are chewing most aggressively at the bait from the bottom. The trick is to drift into the bait's path and cast into the boil."

In other words, the birds are the air-borne image of that which is taking place underwater. Dixon is particularly skilled at this sort of spotting. Alan Blumenfeld, a principal at AM Capital and a longtime Dixon client, explains it to me a few days later: "I've been with him and watched other boats work the birds, and Paul will go around them. I'll say, 'What's up?' He'll say, 'They're coming this way.' Then the boats that know him and know his boat will stop fishing and follow him -- not because they're not catching anything but simply because it's Paul. He's the Pied Piper. And there the fish will be."

We reach Little Gull, a gray, rocky, keening place, aptly named, it turns out, and covered with birds. There are hundreds of birds in the air. Some of them are down hitting the water in a frenzy, chewing at the pods of bait being forced up by the fish. Half a mile away, Great Gull Island is blanketed with bird life and guano as well, along with about 50 white bird-watching pillboxes mounted on stilts. Between the islands is a big ugly rip caused by the shoal, where the depth rises from 60 feet to 9 in a matter of yards. The maps of Little Gull show nothing but rocks coming up out of the shoal. The rocks are just under the rip. The water is clear. We can see them.

Dixon smiles his demonic little smile. "Gentlemen, the idea is not to hit the rocks while we catch some fish. Here's the rip. Get some line out. It's gonna come up on you faster than you think."

Fishing captains almost always try to tell you the truth, or if they lie to you, they lie for really good reasons. This is the truth here. The tide is moving fast, north to south over the rocks. Dixon cuts the engine -- rendering the boat officially out of control -- and as amazing as that is, as we rock through the current toward the rip, it's not the most interesting thing. Dixon turns with adroit and shocking facility into the original angling dictator, sort of a Stonewall Jackson at Antietam cut from affable California cloth.

"Goddamn it, boys, get some lines out!" he shouts over the roar of the rip and the birds. "We oughta be into them now!"

The boat starts to buck. Zemann hooks up. It's a big toad. We fight it through the rip, boat it, throw it back. Dixon guns the engine just before we crash into Little Gull, and we run back around and get in the top of the rip with no time to celebrate. Zemann hooks up again, has his hands full.

Dixon hands me a rod to throw from aft of the wheel, just below his poling platform. He's stationed in the middle of the boat, watching us, yelling "Strip it! Strip it! Strip it!," adjusting the boat, changing our flies, fixing lines that get snared and leaders that break. He's conducting a wild orchestra of the food chain, I realize, with really impossible instruments: the fish, the birds, the bait, the current, the boat, the rocks, the wind, Zemann, and me. I hook up but take a misstep as the boat lurches through the rip, jerk my rod to save my balance, and the fish shears off my leader. The belly of my fly line slithers out through the engine well and is sinking into the rocks.

"You can fish out of the engine well with a naked line, Guy," Dixon says dryly, "but I don't advise it."

I'm making casts on my downhill leg as the waves push the bow up. Zemann has released his second fish, hooks up a third. We throw it back, gun the boat around to the top of the rip again.

"You de behhhhsssst!" Dixon cackles maniacally as Zemann hooks up again. The orchestra -- Dixon's orchestra, the one he's tried to get going all day -- is finally playing the symphony it was made to play. We make a half-dozen passes through the rip, holding the wildness of the feeding fish near and tight in our hands.

Then we call it a day. A good day.

"Paul," Zemann says in a formal, lawyerly way, "that was simply amazing."

Dixon has about him a deep angling confidence tinged with a whiff of serious dry-day blues, and it makes him authentic. Most of the time, he's a good enough naturalist to imagine how the fish will be, but he's humble enough before the power of the ocean to not know how it's going to turn out, either.

"Basically," he says to Zemann and to me, "that's called pulling it out in the ninth."


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