It wasn’t enough that Bill had caught an almost 28-pound lingcod that afternoon: It had a head the size and shape of a bulldog, and he strained to hoist it above his shoulders for the cheesy, but required, photograph of a grinning hunter and his vanquished prey. Instead, he kept thinking about the fish he almostsnagged, the one that got away.
In a slow drift around Wash Rock # 3 on the calmest day of the year, in sight of Trinidad Head, Bill hooked a real hog. The two wrestled blind, without ever looking into one another’s eyes — Bill on deck, straining his pole to the breaking point, and the giant lingcod down below in the dark water, regretting his thoughtless decision to gobble up a small, motor oil-colored fish with golden flecks that was somehow sharp and chewy all at once.
Bill pumped his pole as he struggled to reel in the line. The fish slid under the boat. Bill tried to maneuver around the motor. His usual cigarette, poking out from his weathered face like a crooked chimney stack, wasn’t between his lips anymore. I don’t know if he spit it out into the brink when the fish hit, reflexively, or if he was so frustrated, after the last three lings jerked off his lure, that he’d simply forgotten to light up again.
The veins on his neck bulged. He knew, and we knew, that the fish was huge — ancient, too, probably. How many times had it been angled before? How many hooks hung from its scarred, mottled-brown jaw like a warrior’s battle gear?
Bill could have answered these questions. But his line went slack. “Son-of-a-bitch bit off the lure!” he yelled. That lure had been getting hit all day, and he had a large, silver-colored jig on the line too so that it would sink straight and fast. Now all he had was a piece of tattered line —it had dragged across the monster fish’s rough head and snapped.
On the way home, Bill showed off the fish he didcatch every chance he got. He pulled the 28-pounder out of the cooler for the guy working the boat launch. Then again for a guy in the harbor parking lot who took a picture of Bill grinning with the ugly, sharp-toothed son-of-a-bitch. He took it out a third time at the gas station for a blonde in a BMW. But each time he brandished the fish, he told the story about the hog that got away. It must have been twice that size, at least, he said. (Like all fish tales, it grew with every telling.)
But there was something wistful in Bill’s eyes when he spoke: It wasn’t the first time he’d lost a big fish. He’d been fishing out past Trinidad Head since he was a kid. There was no telling how many long and ultimately hopeless battles he’d fought to control the uncontrollable. There must be a handful of lures and jigs around Wash Rock # 3, too far down to reflect any light, cast there unintentionally by countless other fishermen— like coins at the bottom of a wishing well, the wish wished for and unanswered in the same instant with a dull snap.