It was like the reel for an old-fashioned kite-string. A hand line looked like a small ladder with only two rungs. Side pieces held two six inch dowel rungs about a foot apart wound with thirty fathoms of tarred linen cord. A sash-weight hung from the line. A tubular ingot of cast-iron weighing nine pounds. A two foot wire-leader ran to a three-inch long Mustad hook. From this shapely and aggressive hook dangled a morsel of sea-clam, a large quahog, or sometimes, a chunk of squid or a slice of mackerel.
The hook and sinker were dropped to the bottom. Sent down as fast as the line would go, a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty feet down. The frame spun, bounced, and rattled against the floorboards. It jumped about between the fisherman’s feet like a thing possessed. The line run out hand over hand, slipping quickly between his fingers, No time to waste.
Once the weight touched bottom, the fisherman raised the sinker a fathom, two arms lengths. He would pin the frame under the arch of his foot and hold the line across the palm of his hand over his forefinger as he pumped his arm up and down. The dory’s drift set it beam-to the chop. Its roll helped keep the bait moving, Up and down.
Twenty fathoms of tarred line, nine pounds of cast iron. Quite a load. The dory drifted with the wind. The tide streamed the line away. Or, it might hang straight down. All he could see, peering down into purple depths was a shadow of his head, haloed by the sun, Clouds of plankton drifting by. With a wind against tide the current carried the line under the dory, Best to lead it around to the other side. Keep it streaming away.
The rig was so heavy it seemed like there was always a fish on the line. With practice he could feel nibbles. Distinguish them from bites.
To put on fresh bait the line had to be rewound onto its frame. Turned over and over in a pantomime act of climbing a ladder, Over and over.
When a fish did strike the line might go slack. A sharp pull at the right moment to set the hook. The line digging into his hand cutting a new fissure or opening up an old one, Thick calluses. Endless wet. Cracked skin.
With a fish on the line had to be hauled in hand over hand. For a big fish he had to wrap the line around his fist and pull upwards with his legs and back in a long series of deep knee bends, taking frantic grabs for slack, Sweating. A grim fight. Tired muscles shooting pain through his hands and in his back. His legs, belly, and chest pinned against the side of the boat.
The Cod might have swallowed the hook along with the bait in a great gulping inhalation. This was how they hunted, engulfing their prey. It might only have snagged in an accordion pleat of skin at the cheek after a hesitant inspection of a morsel half-seen, half-felt. Or the jigging motion might have impaled the hook in its belly or on a fin. One way or the other, decades of free-swimming was rudely interrupted. Control over where and how deep to swim now commanded by a pain and pull and pressure in the jaw and in the gut.
The fish panicked. It thrust downwards seeking escape. Its broad, soft-finned tail, the size of a dinner plate, swung sharply from side to side. Dorsal, pectoral and ventral fins spiked outwards in an instinctive gesture of defense against being swallowed by a larger predator. A primeval reaction. We experience this same reflex when the hair crawls on the back of our neck and goose bumps rise.
The fine-grained milky muscles of a Cod’s flanks made it an attractive meal. They evolved for slow, constant effort. Not suited to fast sprints or long endurance. After the first charge, the fish was quickly exhausted. The unrelenting pull on the hook hauled it backwards and upwards. The strain on its jaw turned its head until it was moving upwards, face first, exhausted. It struggled on in a growing panic. Tried repeatedly to turn back, Go down. Get away. Each attempt weaker than the last. More desperate as the surface got near.
A searing pain. Rising from four atmospheres of water pressure, almost sixty pounds-per-square-inch, to the surface’s fifteen pounds-per-square-inch generated a tremendous release, expanding the swim-bladder. Inflated to four times its normal size in the moments it took to haul the fish to the surface. A balloon tucked in just below the spine, just above the fish’s vertical center of gravity, this organ sat at its longitudinal center filled with air. It controlled balance and buoyancy, maintaining an equilibrium with the pressure of the surrounding water. Swimming normally, a fish only changed depth within a range, and at a rate, its swim-bladder could accommodate. All that was gone, Pull! Pull! Up and up!
Surrounding membranes, tissues, and blood vessels unable to contain the expanding bladder it displaced the other internal organs. The skin of its belly, naturally flexible to allow the Cod to take in great orgies of food, reached its elastic limits. The bladder continued to expand. Blood pressure spiked. Its heart and major blood vessels crowded by the liver and stomach and spleen its gills began to bleed.
The gases of digestion in its gut expanded too. Yards of coiled intestines tied in knots like a balloon animal. With no possible release, the total pressure in the abdomen forced the anal vent outwards, cutting off the release of a stream of feces shot out as a reaction to danger. The Cod arrived at the surface in deep shock. Capable of no more than feeble spasms.
This lack of “fight” in the fish didn’t mean it was easy to bring aboard. Forty, fifty, pounds of fish. The weight of line and sinker. The hydrodynamic drag of hauling a body with the diameter of a basketball through the water. The fish had to be raised quickly, A long way up. Large predators nearby.
Its struggle sent out pressure waves of distress. Feces and blood spread scent through dark, murky water. Sharks, from four foot-long Spiny-Dogfish to ten foot Blues were never far away. If our fisherman has been hauling in Cod as fast as he could work his line the alarm would already be out, Dozens of thieves around.
As a fish broke the surface it had to be gaffed. Its sharp hook punched in a belly or deftly slipped behind the gills, No matter.
Swung aboard. Its tail slapped the side, slipping and sliding up over the rail and into the boat leaving a slimy mucus trail.
Looking down he might see a ring of shimmering teeth loom out of the depths behind it. A wide snout breaking the surface, Whoa, just in time!
Or the line might get lighter and lighter; punctuated by a series of jerks and tugs; as he hauled. All that would finally come into sight, a shiny head with a furry rim of bright red gills in a cloud of blood and guts.
Or, the steady weight of a Cod might suddenly increase to a hand crushing resistance. The wire leader no match for a large shark’s powerful bite. The line parted. Resistance released so suddenly it sent him staggering. Relieved of his catch. Relieved of a decision, How could I handle a thousand pounds of trouble on my line?