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The Fog / JD Clapp



The battered F-150 pulled onto the beach at 3:00 a.m. The air, heavy with fog, smelled of rotting kelp, salt air, and wet sand. It was a scent that he seldom thought of, but today it made him briefly reflective. “I took this shit for granted,” he thought. If a smell could represent one’s best existence, this sea-leaden mix of life and death surely would be his.

 

He killed the engine and headlights and sat for a moment, sipping his coffee. He tried to figure out how many mornings had started like this over the past twenty years. It was hard to believe that the environmental closures really happened, that those fuckers over at Fish and Game let the environmental terrorists and lame politicians win. Today was really the end of an era. 


Jack got out and slid his kayak out of the truck. He was going simple today—two rods, mask and fins, a speargun he built years ago, a small dry-bag of tackle, a life jacket, and some drinking water. He had grabbed his old Cobra touring kayak, the first ‘yak he started fishing on, for this last trip. He had two newer peddle kayaks, fully loaded with features that the OGs like Jack used to jerry-rig from household items. The older, more basic kayak seemed more appropriate today—“Might as well go out the way I started, ” he thought. There were no other trucks on the beach yet, but it was early, even for a die-hard like him. Jack wanted his last day fishing the kelp to be a long one.

 

After parking the truck, Jack pulled on a ratty wetsuit and dragged his kayak to the surf’s edge. He noticed, for the first time in a long time, the feel of the wet and cold sand between his toes. There was only small surf, “ankle slappers,” as the kayak boys called them. The fog was thick with almost zero breeze. Jack paddled easily out into the dark and fog.


The lights of the beach houses faded quickly into the dense night air. He could feel the gentle roll of the ocean beneath him. The only sound was of his paddle cutting the surface as he headed easily west. It was a bit eerie being out alone on the ocean in the dark and fog, but Jack had done this before more times than he could count. When he first began these pre-dawn trips, he was a bit spooked. Over time, they became his favorite adventure, and he quietly enjoyed the reputation he gained among the regulars for being “hard core.”


This morning, Jack felt a bit uneasy, something he hadn’t felt for a long time. He wrote it off as being upset about the closures. Thoughts gone wild when alone on the sea in a tiny boat typically lead to panic and panic leads to bad things. He pushed his anxiety aside and focused on the compass heading—south, southwest.


He paddled on past the buoy marking the soon-to-be old boundary of the marine preserve. In two days the new boundary would begin where his truck was parked. He knew this day was coming. He had gone to the public hearings. He had read all the articles and dutifully signed the petitions. Hell, he even sat down and wrote the governor. When they announced the closures (for an indefinite period, no less!), he knew it was a death sentence for these special fishing grounds. The kayak guys never really had a chance. The commercial guys had joined the environmentalists in exchange for some very limited commercial seasons and their regular lobster season. With all the appeals exhausted, Jack was now down to this last day. He was devastated.  


This was all he had left. His wife was gone, his job was shit, and his only friends were the guys he saw out here. Part of him knew it was all the days on the water that helped put him in this dismal state. He had made peace with that. 


Jack paddled for the next 30 minutes until he rounded the point, the place where the cove bent south toward Mexico. The old Cobra only had a compass screwed into the deck. He knew the headings from his old skiff days—there was something simple and comforting about navigating by the compass. Lit by the pale beam of his headlamp through the dense wet air, the compass was hazy. He looked at his old Seiko dive watch and figured he had another twenty minutes of paddling at this heading to reach the rockpile he wanted to fish.


He twisted the bezel and put the little lume pip on 4:25.

At 4:30 a.m., Jack stopped and drifted for several minutes. The moon was beginning to shine through the fog. Gray light was still 50 minutes away.. Jack could hear no planes or boats. It was oddly silent. The fog was far too dense to see land through the darkness.

Feeling another small pang of anxiety, he pulled his VHF from his safety bag. “Radio check the Point. Radio check the Point,” he called. 


Nothing. He switched to channel 16 and tried again. Still nothing. Finally, he switched to the Weather Channel. Static. Perhaps the fog was interrupting the signal. He’d try again later. Once again, he pushed the situation from his mind. He decided to focus on fishing rather than the odd conditions.

 

Jack shined his lamp into his plastic tackle container. He pulled a glow-in-the-dark heavy iron out and set it between his legs on the deck of the kayak. He reached behind his seat and pulled a 7’ custom rod from the rocket launcher rod holder. He had a new twin drag 2-speed reel strung with 100 lb spectra. Later he would “make bait,” tie on a florocarbon leader and a size 1/0 circle hook, and slowly troll a greenback mackerel. For now, he was content tying the iron straight to the braided line.


It will be a bitch if this hangs up on the kelp or the rocks, he mumbled to himself. He took off the headlamp and charged the glow in the dark iron. As the dense night gave way to a fog ridden pre-dawn, Jack saw he was 50’ off the kelp. He would start looking for bait in a few minutes, but for now he’d “yo-yo” iron. He might jig up a yellowtail or a white sea bass before the surface action began at dawn. 


Jack thumbed the spool, swung the rod over the side, and pushed the lever drag to free spool. He let his thumb gently off the spool and the glowing iron fell out of sight quickly. The iron hit bottom and Jack cranked up three times. He slowly raised and lowered the rod, dancing the iron up and down just above the rocky bottom. After a couple of minutes, Jack let the iron fall back to the bottom then began to burn the iron to the surface, cranking the reel handle as fast as he could. At the fifth or sixth turn of the handle, the rod loaded, and the iron slammed to a halt.


Feeling no head-shakes, Jack cursed, Shit hung up on kelp. $13 iron and 50’ of braid gone. Nice start.


Jack dipped the rod tip into the water and raised it again trying to free the lure. Then, slowly, line began to pay out. Jack, knowing the fish would try to run him into the rocks and cut the line, pushed the drag lever forward to full strike, and cranked hard. He felt a few head shakes and gained about 30’ of line. Then the drag began to sing. He was on a fish, a really big fish.


For the next 30 minutes, Jack pumped and wound, gaining, then just as quickly, losing line. He was sure that the fish was not a yellowtail, halibut, or white sea bass. His money was on a big black sea bass. Jack had three of these fish to the boat in his career, the largest tipping 100 pounds. Of course, these giants have long been illegal to take. Still, this would be a hell of a way to end his ‘yak fishing days in the local kelp.


One hour and twenty-two minutes into the fight, Jack had been towed two miles in a large circle. He figured he had been out over the canyon then back again to the point. The fog had still not lifted; he couldn’t be sure. He hadn’t seen another ‘yak or boat during the entire fight. He thought it odd since the “sporties” would normally be working the kelp by now. Given this was the last day to fish these grounds, it was strange. Jack was, however, occupied with more daunting things and the thought again quickly passed.


The fish had Jack in a stalemate. Jack figured he had 30’ of line out but he hadn’t gotten color yet. The fish was now heading toward the kelp. Jack needed to slow the kayak. He tossed his paddle, tethered to the boat by a long paracord leash, over the side for drag. He then straddled the kayak, his legs in the water, to add more drag. Even with the added drag, the fish steadily pulled him and the kayak toward the kelp.


One hour and forty-three minutes into the battle, the fish hung up on a kelp stringer. Jack had too much invested in this fish to lose it. He tried an old trick: he released the drag, put on the clicker, and backpaddled. He had done this with other “kelped” fish over the years and about half the time the fish would unwrap itself once it was free of the drag.


Unfortunately, this fish remained tangled. Fearing the fish would use the kelp to work off the hooks, Jack tied the kayak off to a kelp stringer, put the rod in the holder, and rummaged in his hatch for his dive mask and fins.He removed the dive knife from the scabbard bolted onto the deck. He slipped on the mask, grabbed the spectra, and slid over the side. He got into the water and loaded his speargun in the off chance the fish was something he could harvest. 


Jack hyperventilated for a minute. It had been almost a year since he free dove. 

At twenty-seven feet, Jack saw the fish for the first time. He gasped and nearly sucked in water. Slightly panicking, he quickly surfaced. It was massive, 300 pounds or more. With the poor visibility, he wasn’t sure, but the fish did not look like a black sea bass. “It has to be,” he thought. There were no other possibilities.


He dove. This time he eased up on the fish. It was several feet long and almost as wide. He looked at the massive mouth then the tail. He knew what it was before his mind let him accept it: a broomtail grouper. 


He surfaced. How? he thought. The first-generation local spear fisherman, the pioneers who developed the sport, had shot them out in the ‘50s; they didn’t know any better. Gaining his composure, he ditched his spear on the deck of the kayak. He had no idea if the fish was even legal to take. He had never seen a regulation for this fish. Even if he killed it, he had no way to get it back to shore. He decided his best bet was to get it to the ‘yak on the rod, snap a few “glory” shots on his phone and let it go. It would be a hell of a story. 


He dove again. The fish was deeper now—closer to 40 feet—and wrapped in two kelp stringers. Jack began cutting. For a perfect moment, it was him and the fish a few yards away. Nothing else. As the fish swam slowly free, Jack began to see stars. “How long have I been down?” he thought, followed by “surface.”  The massive grouper very slowly started swimming toward the rocks just beyond the surf. 


Sitting on his ‘yak now, Jack tried to clear his foggy mind. “How did I get back on the kayak?” he wondered. He noticed he was not gasping or gulping air, but rather taking calm almost meditative breaths. The exhaustion from the long paddle out, the fight with the beast, and the free dives was no longer there. His dive gear was stowed in the hatch as well. When had he done that? Oddly, he felt no anxiety over his confusion. He then noticed the kayak was moving, and the rod in his hands. Jack calmly engaged the lever drag, pushed off the clicker and resumed reeling. The fish was still there.


When Jack looked up from the fight, the fog had cleared. Now he was disoriented.  He was 15 yards behind the surf line. The shore looked familiar but wrong. There was scrub brush and dirt where there should have been grass and picnic tables. Jack gained some line as the fish dragged him parallel with the shore just behind the surf. Jack alternated between watching the surf, the shore, and pulling on the fish. He was becoming increasingly confused that none of the landmarks were totally familiar. He should have been looking at a break wall protecting the little swimming beach, but it was not there. The little cove looked correct but there was no wall. Through the lifting mist he could see no lifeguard station either. Jack’s mind slowly spun. He reasoned he had been pulled north toward the state beach during the fight rather than south. That would explain the lack of buildings, but the landscape didn’t look right—the cliffs were too low.


As his muddled brain struggled with the thought of being inexplicably lost, the fish ran hard toward some boiler rocks, almost jerking the rod from his hands. Jack instinctively leaned back and, in desperation, thumbed the spool. He knew it was both a last-ditch effort and a probable mistake. He felt the sickening “pop,” as the line went slack.


He sat quietly for a moment. It was calm and he smelled the sea. Oddly, Jack felt relief. All the anxiety of the morning and anguish of the closures were gone. He felt happy for the first time in a long, long time. A realization came to him in that moment. Jack understood. It was finally over.


He pointed the kayak west and paddled. Jack stopped paddling. He swung the kayak’s bow toward the virgin shores. He felt the warmth of the sun and a slight breeze. Bait began to boil and puddle around him. Splashes began to sound just out of view. He heard birds working. He smiled. Sleepy suddenly, he closed his eyes, and laid back. There was no hurry. The fish would be here when he woke. They would always be here, with him, for him, like the gentle rays of his memory’s sun.



Through the lifting fog, his son saw it first. 


“Dad, there’s a kayak over there with nobody on it.” 


It took the father a minute to see it himself, before heading the skiff toward the empty little boat.  No dive flag, not good… he thought. As the skiff neared the kayak, the father saw the body floating face down. He picked up the radio, switched to channel 16, and called it in. It took both the father and his teenaged son to pull Jack over the transom. His body was ice cold, skin bluish gray, eyes closed behind the mask, and oddly, a smile frozen on his face. They tried to revive him and so did the lifeguards who arrived on the spot a bit later. Jack was gone.


 On the way home, the father and son drove in silence. Finally, the father asked his son, “You alright?” 


“I think so. Dad, have you ever seen a dead person before?” the son replied.


 “I saw grandpa when he passed. He just looked like he was asleep. Damndest thing though…this guy, he looked different…he looked…happy.”


Originally Published in Sporting Classics Magazine (print)



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JD CLAPP writes in San Diego, CA. His work has appeared in The Milk House, Rural Fiction Magazine, Wrong Turn Literary, Revolution John, The Whisky Blot, among several others. He has forthcoming work in A Common Well Journal, Fleas on the Dog, and Literally Stories. His story "One Last Drop" was a finalist in the 2023 Hemingway Shorts Literary Journal, Short Story Competition.

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