An Ocean Runs Through It

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.”

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.

“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.”

An Ocean Runs Through It