The Temple of Doom
Ken gave Terry ten extra minutes. Terry was usually early, and he’d said he might not make it, so Ken took an extra ten minutes to tack things down then just sat, drinking coffee, trying not to be edgy. The foggy, soft morning was calling clear, the first good sight fishing day of the season, and Ken hung there in Meetinghouse Pond exactly ten minutes past the time Terry had said would be the last possible minute. Ten minutes seemed reasonable. They ran slowly by, and no Terry, so he turned his back on the landing and accelerated out of the moorings.
The fog peeled away as it tended to do on the Cape, thinning into nothing. Ken knew that it could reappear at any time or at any point in the complex of bays and inlets. It was late May but still very cold, and everything was delayed, so Ken knew he might never even reach the places he hoped to fish. He had his GPS on the seat, just in case. No partner, poor visibility, cold water, and a weak tide—not the best conditions, sure now, but it was May after the worst winter since Pilgrim times and Ken was going fishing.
Visibility improved through the creeks and he was able to throttle up after the no-wake zones. Pleasant Bay was calm and the fog lingered only as confusion of horizons; the channel markers stood out plainly at flood tide angles. The water was clear and cold, but the boat ran dry and swift. He dropped into the Strong Island hole for a moment, marked nothing, then began poking along the beach, looking for fish against the last of the flood.
The sun made headway against the mist, and he got increasingly good visibility against the sand and grass. At the first really good bar he saw shadows but no sure fish. He got a good drift along the beach and blind-cast for half an hour, then felt things pause and lean back outward toward the ocean as the tide turned.
He was even with the cabins when he saw his first striper of the season. It’s always a strange moment, recognizing that first fish. There would be July days, he knew, when he’d be sure of a fish off just a hint, a flicker of motion fifty yards out. But every spring it had to be relearned. Not even learned; more a confirmation of some pattern in the mind. No matter how many times you pick up a fish on the flats, you still have to click in. Once you’ve seen it, you can see it; before you’ve been sure, you’ve never been sure.
This one was lovely, a moment of delicious uncertainty then a heart-thump when he knew it was a fish, pushing right to left and too close to the boat to hope for a shot. Ken just stood and watched it wobble to life and zoom away, white eye, ghost grey flank, underslung mouth, distinct bassy undulation, acceleration into the blur. He laughed out loud.
But it wasn’t the first of many. He had two other glimpses and one quality shot—like a lot of Cape flats shots, he saw the fish then cast in its course, seeing nothing further and feeling nothing either.
And so it went through the first of the ebb, bumping up on the outer beach where the sun gave him an increasingly clear angle to the sand and weed edges. He expected some fish around the new inlet, but the disordered chop gave him nothing and the blind casts less. He poked over the shoals there, still shifting and new, and let the tide gather him up and pull him toward the cape point opposite Chatham. Even with the new cut farther up Nauset beach, the old Chatham inlet offered his best shot for the bigger fish migrating up the coast and choosing the bay for its warmer water and tantalizing scent of bait. Twice he was on the verge of picking up and running the two miles down the beach to the big sandbars that marked the inside of the point, and each time he saw a fish and decided to wait. The second time he waited he was rewarded with a bundle of smaller bass that positioned themselves perfectly against a dropoff and his clouser made no more than six inches before a fish darted over and pounded it. The fish was a sea-bright schoolie of 25 inches, flecked with sea lice and pissed off enough to extract the maximum modulus from his 9-weight. The fish was wonderful all out of proportion to its size and Ken loafed under the curving rod, feeling the winter lift from his back.
As he dropped the fish from his thumb Ken noticed that the wind was up, sharp and cold off Vineyard Sound. It had pushed him a hundred yards out into the bay.
Five minutes later he saw a pair of big fish. The water out on the deeper edges of the bar was riffled by the wind, so they were uncertain, and also so large that his winter-weary eyes doubted the data for a fatal five seconds. By the time he had an ID his shot had turned into a long upwind deflection cast, and it fell short and left and the big shadows moved on, leaving Ken sag-jawed and thumping. The wind was pressing now, and he was zigging against it, running in to the beach then drifting downtide and downwind at an angle across the shallows. He considered briefly dropping his hook a long cast from the sand to keep the fish in front of him, and before he putted in again he pulled out the anchor, hanked up the line and rode, and plunked the big Danforth down on top to keep it all orderly. That two-minute housekeeping job saved his life.
He got a shadow from a nice fish on his next drift, and missed a hit on a blind-cast on the drift after that, then came to a new feature on the stretch of beach. One of the radical winter tides and blows had cut a set of three angled bars out of the beach where last year there had been a featureless flat. Ken had heard talk of these cuts at the spring gatherings of local anglers, and when he saw them he agreed that they were a mighty improvement. As he noodled up on the first flat, the wind swirled him right and forced him to throttle up for headway so he missed a pod of fish eight or ten deep followed by another pair of big cows. He veered off and pushed well uptide, back the way he’d come, and put her right on the sand and waited ten minutes for more to come through.
This time Ken found himself in mid-cast without a conscious decision to pull the trigger. From the beach the sun angle and chop made visibility poor, and the fly was on the way before he realized that he did indeed see a bluish blob tracking along the farthest limit of pale water. The fly flew, wind-assisted, and fell well in front and Ken froze all systems, waiting for everything to come together. His left hand itched, then twitched, but Ken willed it to wait, and wait, and finally to make a single sharp strip to pop the clouser out of the sand. The fish was no longer visible but he had the prickle-necked certainty that it was tracking the fly and he gave another long, steady strip then stopped the fly again, burning at the water’s surface with his eyes.
Four feet uptide of where he was watching, a cupping swirl and flicker of silver appeared and was gone, and the flyline did nothing more than tense slightly. He turned the line hand and responded with a long sweeping strip set. The line came tight and he had the sensation of hitting a tree with an iron bar. Then the line was going out unstoppably. The same spot became a swash of foam and Ken saw the big head thrash once, twice, then turn and angle down and out toward deeper water.
Ken lost the fish at the boat, a few moments after he began to wonder whether he wanted to handle a 25-pound striper without help or a cameraman. He tried the jaw twice and was twice overpowered, then sat back on his haunches, looking at the broad flank and piggy little eyes. The fish decided for him. It made a precise little nod of his head and the fly popped out and stuck neatly in the bill of his Filson cap. For a three-count the big cow lay there in the waves and then it righted itself and disappeared. Ken settled back on the bench seat of the skiff and took what felt like his first breath in fifteen minutes. The striper had run twice, well into the backing both times, then had just stayed out there so long and so solid that Ken had begun to wonder if a sea lion had taken the fish and eaten it like an ear of corn. It had then dawdled under the boat in a steady thumping swim against the tide in twenty feet of water for ten minutes before responding to the rod’s backbone and coming to boatside.
Ken cuddled in the afterglow a moment in the swash of waves, then realized that he had drifted well down the beach with tide and out into the bay with wind. He was almost to the big riprap bank on the mainland side at the narrowest point of the mouth of Pleasant Bay. He detangled his flyline and popped the barbless hook from the bill of his cap then turned to look at the Point.
Half a mile away big surf was clawing at the falling tide, tall, humping ocean waves hooking around the sand and stacking high and random in the collision zone where waves and tide fought it out. The falling tide was smooth, but the rips boiled into sudden twisting, dumping ten-foot waves that didn’t so much break as burst. Pressing up from the chaos was the top of the hooking endmost tip of the South Beach point, which would at low tide be ten feet high but was now a spit cut by wash channels and studded with foam and spray from the big breakers lashing it. The spit took a smooth curve so waves bent around, breaking in long smooth continuous tubes, and a quarter-acre triangle of churned but flat water marked the dead zone where the tide didn’t yet push and the waves could no longer reach. Out beyond the edges the big waves marched in steadily before the wind.
Terry Maloney, Ken’s usual fishing buddy, called it the Temple of Doom, the Church where Last you Breathe. Four years ago a charter skiff had somehow bungled into the same scenario at the tip of Monomoy Island; the captain and one sport drowned and the other spent a cold day and night on the sand before the Coasties picked him up.
Whenever wind and waves contested with the tide in an inlet such chaos developed, but it was not so much the chaos which attracted and appalled Terry, it was the strange fascination that the spot held for small boaters. When the tide was on the flood, the swells would swerve around the hook and roll up into Pleasant Bay, but they would be regular and manageable, defanged by the water moving their way, and even shallow 19-foot skiffs could ride them without much risk, if they had some reason to. But when a Temple tide was running against a heavy swell, it took little imagination to picture a boat dumped or swamped then chewed to trash against the shifting sands.
Ken had no interest in the area, especially with the hot ache of a heavy fish still throbbing in his winter-flabby shoulders. The tide would withdraw across the flats for three more hours and his day was already gravy. He ran up the outboard and drove prudently around the bars and blizzard of foam and wave and back up the bay toward the Triple Flats, as he was already calling it in his mind.
In the next hour he took two more schoolies and an all-head bluefish of nearly twelve pounds that hooked itself dead between the eyes, reminding Ken of the same fly dangling from his hat-brim. The blue ran off twice the line that the big stripe had, and took nearly as long to tame. By now the wind was up and the big waves were ringing on the outer beach like a bass drum. Spindrift and invisible spray were riding the wind a hundred yards of dunes and plover-nests, making a misty ground fog. The wind was heady and heavy anywhere away from the beach, and Ken was distracted by the prospect of running the four miles from Strong Island to the river mouth in the big chop.
He had the land-stink out of his lungs, and a big fish on the board. It was probably the first big fish any fly-guys had taken in the neighborhood. It was a fine time to go.
Only problem was he kept seeing fish. As the tide intensified, and even as the wind impeded visibility more and more, even as the sun faded for good into low nasty bars of scudding cloud, he kept jumping pods of schoolies and plenty of bigger fish. He was tucking the boat right up onto the sand, using it as a platform to get a look; when he saw nothing he blind-cast and hooked up twice or three times. The fish were fat and aggressive and willing, and with the wind at his back he was in a dream-groove, casting at shadows and sticking fish.
So he kept chipping up the tide, creeping closer to the point then motoring back, always staying in the vicinity of the Triple Flats, and all would have been well if the tide hadn’t done what the tide does. But after 90 minutes of hot fishing the Flats were dry and the fish took a line further out, in deeper water that might as well have been marble for all he could see. As anglers do, he opted to make one more try. He idled the boat in reverse against the wind and let the tide draw him down into the inlet. The contour was more gentle, and as he passed over each bar he scanned up and back then back toward the beach where the visibility was best, swatting at the outboard’s control arm to keep her backing against the wind.
Perhaps it was because the wind was much heavier and made its own sound while muting the thunder of the waves. Perhaps because the chaotic surf zone moved up the bay as the tide fell, or that the riffled water surface took that much more of his attention; most likely it was all of those things together. Probably it was the blind greed of a hot bite, sucking on the cracked bones of his common sense. Certainly it was the sudden window of clear water, placid for a moment as a knuckle of wind countered itself out to stillness and gave him a glimpse at the clean sand. Definitely it was the pure voltage when the oblong mass insisted against reason that it was all fish, not a seal or a stone or a lobster pot or a nuclear submarine. It was all fish, a huge cow striper, though Ken’s orderly mind shouted a handful of alternate species once it had accepted fish for certain. It was all of that kept his head down, eyes flared, mouth open and dry, but arms and back in the practiced motion. He hacked out a crude upwind cast, powered it into an ugly lunging flank shot at the gigantic shadow, saw his fly, which now seemed tiny, plop a dozen feet ahead of the fish.
He arched himself over the outboard, extending every inch of rod and arm and legs to slack the system enough to get that fly down, because it had to get down quickly indeed and any drag would give it a fatal lateral yard and keep it above and left of the spot he knew he had to hit. He could see and tell nothing for a long moment, during which the fish became nothing but a disordered spot of water he stared at, rapidly estimating swim rate, tide, drift, all the little things that conspired against him. The fish was gone, and he groaned into the wind.
Then it was back, impossibly long and broad and turned toward him just enough to give a dim outline, some bare minimum of visual input of angle and color and line. And Ken lifted his rod the barest inch, giving his fly some motion, line bellied out below, rod in the wrong position, body twisted left, bad footing, all wrong. But through it all, wind, space, sand, water, the line said, “tunk” to his fingers and hand and he flopped back, searching with his ass for the seat, clutching at the stripping line, slamming the rod but under his right armpit while stripping line popped up in a coleslaw clump from the basket but he had it in hand left, right, left he hauled and it came snapping, knot-clicking tight, the line springing out straight and the fish exploded upwind, uptide, thrashing away and the idling motor died in the moment a big snarl of salt-sticky line popped up out of the basket and jammed in the stripping guide.
There was a weird singing moment as the line tensioned up and the boat seemed the focus of an arc of energy and there was nothing he could do, it was all there in front of him; he gave a pull with the slack in his hand and before his eyes the snarl melted away and the stripping line and everything else yanked away and flashed liquidly outward and he nearly tumbled backwards into the center well of the boat as the tension was released, but he had the rod high and the flying line hit the reel hard enough to backlash it but it didn’t backlash, just bucked and juddered then spooled up smoothly and the backing knots went tapping out and the fish was on the reel, running smoothly, and Ken had a chance.
And just as suddenly his chances changed. The boat rose sharply and then seemed to quiver as it was gunwale-deep in a well of foam. Just as sharply it hopped right and then rolled left, and Ken turned around and found himself in the Temple of Doom.
The outboard hit on the first pull, always did; not this time, of course. Ken one-handed it a second time, even weaker, and as he drew back the pull-cord the entire boat corkscrewed out from under him and water somehow went upward from under his left arm and on past his head and he was lifted free a moment before returning to the seat, now sideways and jammed against the gunnel and thigh-deep in moving foam. But the outboard was running and he lunged at it and clutched it like a lover, punching the shifter backwards and gunning it backward into a little clear space, backing hard, continuing even as a wave leapt under him and left him looking downward eight feet at eight inches of water over flat white sand. Then the bow rose and the boat seemed to stand on its stern a moment and he got through the single word “pitchpole” three or four times as she accelerated backward and upward then downward, or someward he couldn’t tell in the swooping moment, but somehow the stern kept enough up and the screaming cavitating prop caught real water and she lunged backward, angled left for a moment toward a hump of water that seemed as big as a house but then just disappeared, and then magically he was in soft flat water, all foam but level, lumbering backward, with more water in the boat than out and more coming in into his lap every second. And he was aware of a weird rythmic bumping in his left hand and it was his flyrod, held in the same white-knuckle grip as the transom, reel handle banging wood as the big fish peeled out backing.
He nearly let it go. It would have been easy, just make a palms-up “hey, no problem” gesture, fair is fair, here’s my reaper fee, thanks for letting me breathe another day. But he held on, raised the rod against tension a moment and turned the butt to see that it was half a second away from resolution anyway; there were maybe twenty turns of backing remaining.
He throttled back again, then nearly gunned it as another wave fought through and rolled him hard. It was sickening how slowly she responded. He stayed sane and kept a steady backward grind, making way against the tide, taking less water over the transom, glancing back at the nightmare waves. The last of the backing ground out and the rod came tight and, in spite of himself, he throttled up slightly. The line tension built, built more; he tried dimly to remember what his tippet strength was. He added a touch more throttle; the line held. A bit more; it eased. The rear of the boat was riding upward slightly now as the tremendous water load shifted toward the bow. Objects were floating; a fly box, cooler lid. He gave it another touch of gas and a bulge of water rose and poured out over the bow, taking a sunglasses case with it. Enough.
Steering with his knee, he began recovering line. At the arbor post he was earning about two inches per rotation of the reel. The line went everywhere, uptide but sideways, slacking then yanking, but he didn’t change; he needed breathing room. The fish was optional; he had to turn the boat forward so he could begin to discharge water. If she was going to remain hooked, she would; line in the water, line on the reel, all the same. He had to have room to turn her uptide or risk a slow roll-and-swamp.
He was suddenly stiff with cold. His bibs and jacket were not meant for total immersion. The seawater was brutally cold, which he supposed was partly due to adrenaline rush. He backed on, cranking madly at the reel, steering in gingerly little taps with his knee. The backing was bellied down to his left now as he backed uptide and up the bay, but was being pushed outward by the wind. He sneaked another look back at the surf; maybe two hundred yards of clearance. The bay was choppy and the tiny remaining freeboard spooked him. He decided to try the turn.
First he slowed the backward movement, and almost immediately got a slosh of water that ran up his sleeves and hit his solar plexus with an icy punch. He turned the tiller left and the boat lagged heavily outward, leaning slowly but responding. He continued to idle it around, getting the bow uptide, gaining confidence.
That changed when he dropped the shifter into forward and tried to change momentum. The water came driving backward, the bow began to rise, and before his eyes the transom dropped below sea level; for a moment he was under water. He slapped the shifter back into reverse and gunned it, now accelerating with the tide back toward the waves. Panicked, he released the flyrod and watched it disappear into the welter of water and gear in the front of the boat. He throttled back to idle, still in reverse, and looked horrified at the waves, which if anything had increased. But he had some freeboard back.
He thought. The momentum shift was inevitable, necessary; it was his only chance. He wasn’t losing freeboard; the outgoing water would contest with the incoming, and win—just as it did at the Temple of Doom—if there were enough energy behind it. He had the energy, too: under his hand, forty four-stroke horsepower. It had to be done.
He shifted back into forward and picked it up, past idle. Felt the boat respond, seem to slow down and hold a moment, then the water in the boat joined the water outside and once again began to pound backward, run up his belly and arms, press the aft end of the boat, weighted with motor and man and water, inexorably downward toward the bottom—but out, out of the boat, none coming in and much going out despite the scary angle and the leaden, sinking feeling. He felt his heart twist, had to will his hand to stay on the throttle grip as water poured up and across the transom. The flow was breaking powerfully against the face of the outboard, pressing into its mechanism at unnatural angles and forces, and he shifted his body to take the force of it so the motor would continue to run. But that impeded it, caused it to pile up in front of him, pushed the back of the boat lower. Shouting into the wind, he added throttle, more, and more, felt the boat continue to lug downward, the bow continue to rise. A flybox bumped past his arm and out into the bay; a lifejacket went swirling by--convulsively he grabbed it, resisted the temptation to roll out and abandon ship. He added more throttle.
Suddenly the boat seemed to press forward, to lift, to waddle right out from under the water, to shed it and shake it off and rise right up out of the sea and he was moving smartly up the tide. He held it steady a moment and the water resettled itself, stopped flooding over the transom, much lower now, below the seats; still a lot but half, a third of what he had been carrying. He breathed again, after what seemed a very long time, and kept her running uptide another moment until he suddenly realized that he was running up on a belly of white backing—his backing. At that moment the motor stopped.
Ken was shocked stupid. The boat coasted a moment then began to turn and settle downtide again, and like a doorbell in the sudden silence he heard a double roar of breaking waves. He couldn’t look, swiveled his head uptide again, hunching his shoulders against the punch. Then it passed, and he didn’t have to think long to remember what one did in this situation.
He left the motor, waded to the front of the boat. The anchor still rested neatly on the ordered hanks of line and rode, as if nothing had happened. Ken snatched it up and dropped it over the uptide bow quarter, feeding the line in hasty little tugs and pushes. It ran out smoothly, hitched as it hit bottom, then began to speed out again as the boat drifted swiftly downtide. Ken nimbly thumbed the line across the port cleat then took the last eight feet of slack and bent it around the cleat. It came tight sharply and the anchor, with plenty of scope and a heavy chain rode, bit immediately. Another great slug of water punched backward and broke over the transom, flooding another half dozen anonymous objects overboard. Ken sagged forward into the point of the bow, clutching his lifejacket. The big waves thudded and grumbled a hundred yards away. He knelt, belly on the seat and his legs in the slosh. He didn’t have time to wait; had to get the motor going, pick up the anchor, get the hell up the bay and away from the nightmare Temple; but he couldn’t move.
And he was sitting when he became aware of a tension across his chest, an odd linear twitching, and he looked down and found that gel-spun backing ran across his arms and chest, cutting little bubbles out of the goretex fabric and sliding in little skipping twitches from right to left before bending around his left arm and heading out into the bay. He sat up, against the tension, then put a thumb under the line and pulled it away from him. At that moment he heard a bump to his right and the tip of his flyrod rose above the gunwale, curved itself into the boat, and prodded his right bicep. He reached back, grabbed it at the midsection, felt it bend intolerably but hold, then he had the grip in his hand and he was fast to the fish again. He laughed, an incredulous bark of release and astonishment and fear. He knew it was wrong, but he did it anyway; he turned his body outward, raised the rodtip, and leaned on the fish. It was so far out he could feel nothing but a dead inexorable weight. “Break,” he said to his tippet. “Break!”
It didn’t break so much as fade the way the weight of the drift sock melts away when you lift it from the water. But that was enough, and Ken cranked up backing as fast as he could. The boat rode solidly against the tide, bow low but plenty clear, and Ken thought of the salesman talking up the bow flare and how it managed waves, kept the boat dry. He cranked.
But was suddenly exhausted and shivering. The boat was full of water, but he had his flyrod back. He worked up the last of the backing and cranked in the flyline, numbly thumbing even courses onto the spool. The tippet was broken cleanly, no pigtail; he got good knot credit, or maybe the prize went to the big bluefish who’d left a nick.
The fly bag was waterproof, and made a passable bailing bucket. The exercise warmed him. Once the boat was tolerably empty, he collected the junk from the transom well and under the seats. He had no idea or even concern about what had been lost. The sandwich was a sodden salty wreck, but he ate it anyway.
The Temple of Doom was gone. Some vagary of tide had spread the breaking waves out southward, and they no longer focused their celebration in a single area. He sat anchored in a curved, protected cove of sand in a moderate tide and about six feet of water; the anchor came up easily and the motor kicked on the first pull and started on the second. He got planning speed along the beach, pulled the plug, and ran out the last of the water, and was banging home in the chop opposite Ryder Cove when he felt a weird buzzing in his chest.
It was the cell phone, perfectly dry in the bib pocket. It seemed to Ken like a relic he’d stolen from a church. It was Terry.
“Hey, man—how’d it go? Sorry I missed the boat…way too much happening here. Ken? Ken?”