It was still dark when I pulled up to the house, full of cheap coffee but short on sleep. I parked in front of a white truck with a mess of tree branches piled in the bed and hanging over the tailgate. It all made sense when I saw a gray-bearded man wearing a hunter orange cap open the driverâ€™s door and climb out of the cab.
I havenâ€™t seen much of Ron Littlepage since he retired from the Times-Union several years ago, leaving behind his long-standingÂ columnÂ â€” the most loved or hated in the city, depending on who you askÂ â€” to spend more time growing and hunting food on his farm. Thanks to Hurricane Michael, heâ€™s spent most of the last four months clearing dead trees from his property.
We shook hands and walked behind the house to go find Lou DeNicola, who had invited us to go offshore fishing that day with a couple of his buddies.
I met DeNicola, a retired critical care physician, a few months back after he took me fishing aboard the I Sea U, the 25-foot Wellcraft that he keeps on the dock behind his house. Littlepage met DeNicola 30 years ago at a hospital, where he saved his then 11-month-old daughter from meningitis. Aside from a quick conversation at aÂ country club a long time ago, the two haven’t seen each other since.
We loaded the boat, and Littlepage was read the rules of the road by Richard Fast, a regular crew member who in a past life piloted submarines for the Navy. Everyone must keep their eyes peeled for hazardsÂ â€” debris, other boats, kayaksÂ â€” until the boat clears the jetties. Everyone must stay in the boat. Everyone must let out a loud grunt when they hook into a big fish.
The water was as flat as ground, and the twin outboard enginesÂ roared as DeNicola drove us down river.Â I watched flocks of small birds fly just above the waterâ€™s surface and pondered long about why they do that.
When we cleared the inlet, the horizon was bright orange and the backlit clouds looked like mountains. The seas were as flat as promised. We had about 40 miles to cover, so I zipped up my rain jacket and sank into the beanbag on the deck and closed my eyes for the next half-hour.
We stopped short of our destination to investigate a small Christmas tree floating in the water, as floating debris quite often holds fish. Nobody was home that morning, so we kept on going until we arrived to our first spot.
There wasnâ€™t much going on there, so we made a short run to Elton Bottom, a well-known offshore fishing spot.
We dropped our cut bait down and immediately got bites, but all we reeled in were grunts, a menacing little fish thatâ€™s considered a worthy bait and not much else. We contemplated heading to another spot where we might catch more sea bass and bee liners.
I got another bite that I knew was a grunt, and I cranked the reel as fast as I could so I could unhook the fish and drop a fresh bait back down. The water was so clear you could see at least 30 feet down, and the small silver flash beneath the surface confirmed I caught another grunt. As I brought the fish closer to the boat, I saw two large dark silhouettes circling the bait.
â€śCobia!â€ť I yelled, along with a few French words.
I kept the grunt in the water, hoping the cobia would stick around long enough for someone to trick one with the plastic eel jig that was tiedÂ to the freeline rod. Instead, the smaller of the two cobia ate the grunt and was now hooked on to my rod. I tried to keep him close to the boat, but he made a hard run deep. The bigger fish disappeared.
It didnâ€™t take long to land that fish, which was well short of legal. With the cobia gone, we all went back to our normalÂ spots on the boat and carried on as usual.
Then Fast hooked into something big on the bottom. We all knew it was the other cobia.
Sure enough it was, and soon enough, the fish was boated, measured and put on ice. We’d all eat like kings when we got home.
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As the day went on, we darted around to different spots and filled the box with big sea bass and the occasional vermillion snapper and trigger fish. We left the fish biting, drank a round of celebratory Coronas and made it home without help from the Coast Guard. I like to think everyone went home with a few new buddies that day.
As much fun as I had, I had to remind myself when I got home that I didnâ€™t go outÂ to write aboutÂ catching fish. I had another story to tell.
After I wrote about my first fishing trip with DeNicola a few months ago, Littlepage asked me if I had an email address for him. He wanted to send DeNicola a picture of his daughter and her two children. I obliged and smiled. Itâ€™s funny how life is like that sometimes.
Two weeks ago, I received a text from DeNicola. He has been a fan of Littlepageâ€™s column since he started writing it in the early 1990s, although he never knew that he treated his daughter. The two had been texting, and with a window of calm weather approaching, DeNicola invited Littlepage to go fishing. He asked if I wanted to join them.
Iâ€™m a sucker for any assignment that requires getting on a boat, but I found their story to be remarkable, if not serendipitous: A man goes fishing with a doctor who saved the life of his baby girl, who survived the ordeal unscathed and is now grown up now with babies of her own. The doctor spends a day on his boat with a writer he had long wanted to meet, unaware until recently of the role he played in his life.
I ran the idea by Littlepage, and he and his wife agreed to let me write about it. I pitched the story to my editors, and they agreed to let meÂ spend Thursday on the water.
When we got on the boat, I wanted the story to unfold on its own, free of any prodding from an eager reporter hoping to create an artificial moment to bolster the premise of his story.Â
Littlepage thanked DeNicola for what he did, and DeNicola responded simply by patting him on the shoulder. And thatâ€™s all that was said about the whole thing.
I spoke to both men a week after our trip, hoping to learn more about how they felt about meeting each other.Â
â€śObviously, that was an extremely emotional time for Mary and I, and it still is when I think of it,â€ť Littlepage told me. â€śHe’s kind of like I remember him. He was a gentle guy, easy to be around. It was fun. … It was nice to reconnect 30 some years later.”
When he found out that he treated Littlepageâ€™s daughter, DeNicola said, â€śIt made me feel like Iâ€™m on top of the world.â€ť But there were other things he felt like talking about on the water.
â€śHe was the only person in the old days who wrote about things I was interested in. More progressive things,â€ť he said. â€śHe was the guy they used to make fun of in the letters to the editor, because he was the far-out leftist guy. And I melded with that. Even back then, I said, ‘Iâ€™d like to meet this guy.â€™ â€ť
Chris Hong’s Outdoors column appears every Friday.
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