The pungent scent of his cigar carried me away on a whirlwind of possibilities. The soft whirring of the motor and the rhythmic lapping of the waves around us erased our cares and filled us with a sense of serenity and boundless freedom. The day’s fate rested in the palms of our hands and on the tips of our hooks, but we knew not what the bay had in store.
Seldom did the three of us venture past the bay’s threshold where it became one with the ocean’s choppy grip. But if no fish were biting, we would sometimes take our chances in deeper waters. Together we united as three generations in one tiny vessel, ready to share decades of advice and weathered tales of "the one that got away", or as my grandfather likes to refer to him, "Big Charlie". From the time I was a very young girl, my grandfather and my dad taught me everything about fishing, crabbing and boating that I would need to know for the rest of my life.
With the stogie hanging lopsided out of the corner of his mouth, the man pursed his lips and began to explain the routine to his young granddaughter – a task he very well could have performed in his sleep. As he had done many times before, my grandfather fastened a chicken neck to the hand line on which we hoped to catch a blue crab or two. A wooden basket by my feet awaited their arrival. As he tied the final knot in the thin white cord and lowered it into the depths of blue, he looked right into my eyes and commenced the day’s instruction.
"When you want to check on the lines, you have to pull them up real slow, like this," he said. Then he gently hoisted the bait within visibility just below the surface, revealing an unsightly creature unbeknownst to me as a "spider crab". Similar to the catfish found in many of North America’s freshwater lakes and streams, spider crabs and blue crabs feed from the bottom, thus why we attempted the hand lines.
Sporadically taking a swig of his Budweiser or a puff of his stogie, Dave D’Imperio, Sr. continued my lesson in crabbing. As his tanned skin glistened in the sun’s welcomed rays, he reveled in the moments we spend together out on my dad’s boat.
“When you pull the line up, if you see one on there, just turn to me and whisper, ‘Grandpop, get the net!’”
Eagerly, I awaited my first chance to alert him to a fresh catch. While my grandfather had been teaching me all about crabbing and fishing, my dad, Dave D’Imperio, Jr. lovingly guided his pride and joy – a 14’ Smokercraft fishing boat – to secret angling spots. My father and his dad explained to me that there were underground streams and ‘fishin’ holes’ that flowed throughout the bay just below us. If we were lucky, we could find ourselves amidst one of the best fishing holes on the southern Jersey coast.
Fresh air enveloped us as we cruised back and forth to each fishing spot in the bay, and the rides themselves were great fun. Every once in a while, my dad would let me steer the boat a bit as we neared our next fishing destination.
Later in the day, we drifted for flounder or trolled for “snappin’ blues”, as my dad and Grandpop called them, though better known as bluefish. As a child just learning the basics of boating and the ways of the waters, it never dawned on me as to why my dad always drove the boat when we trolled for blues. I always felt bad for him as his pole rested lonely in the boat pole holder while we careened along the bay’s surface.
It took years to realize that the fun of fishing and boating isn’t just the excitement of the catch, but knowing that you were the one to suggest that certain fishing spot! The boat itself and the driver ultimately control the day’s catch, as the fortuitousness of fishing rests on location, location, location. By steering the boat to all our “secret” spots, my dad ensured that all three of us had an enjoyable day. He eventually would get his turn to fish, but he and the boat served as the glue that held together our perfect day.
Because we lived rather far apart, the times we spent together always passed us by in a blur. During each boating adventure and search for “Big Charlie”, we would come home with our catch of the day, worn out and hungry, and me with sun-kissed cheeks.
Though he was a great fisher, my grandfather’s talents did not stop there. As he was also fond of cooking, he always prepared a special chicken recipe just for me, affectionately known as “Grandpop’s Chicken”. Hot or cold, morning, noon or night, the thought of Grandpop’s Chicken left my mouth watering for hours, days or months until I could once again sink my teeth in and enjoy the savory flavor of garlic and rosemary. This culinary delight became a quick favorite in my lunch lineup during our fishing trips. While those drumsticks were a lunch staple for me, Dad and Grandpop enjoyed sandwiches and the three of us shared fruit, pretzels and Chips Ahoy! Cookies as we awaited our next catch.
Even in my earliest days as a toddler, I found great fun spending time with my grandfather and his personal boat, a Duo. He sold it before I was big enough to accompany him onto the water with it, but what wonderful memories it allowed me to create! What fun it was pretending with the little blond-haired boy from down the street. Patrick and I spent many hours in my grandparents’ backyard playing in the boat, assimilating it to a clubhouse.
Looking back on all those memories warms my heart and paints a smile on my face. Boating and fishing are still among my most beloved pastimes. Boating trips with my dad and Grandpop restored peace of mind and a stress-free environment that one can only find once in a while, and the calming effect of being upon the water was unmatched by any other hobby I knew.
Sometimes we would journey upon the bay just us three, sometimes with a guest, but the magic, fun and excitement of sailing without a care became a feeling I knew I could not live without.
As the three of us grew in age, I made a point to share fishing adventures with other important people in my life. My friends, my younger siblings Sean, Susie and Michael, my mom Susan and step-dad Jim, their friends, my uncles - anyone who would give me a good five minutes to plead, beg and bargain was subject to a strong argument about the fun and excitement that awaited on the waters closer to our home in Pennsylvania… the inland freshwater lakes, rivers and streams.
Though we would not have an enormous ocean to enjoy, hand lines and crab traps to set, or a salty taste to the spray that kicked up as we trolled for blues, the ambiance remained the same.
A small motorboat or rowboat rented at a nearby lake’s marina would carry us across the gleaming water with the same anticipation, enthusiasm and camaraderie that brought together my grandfather, my dad and me for all those years.
With greatest intentions of carrying on the legacy of our trio, just this summer I convinced my long-term boyfriend Justin to join my dad and me on a party boat, fishing for sea bass and whatever else happened upon our hooks. My dad had long since retired his little boat, so party boats remained our most popular choice. Despite my boastful remarks and claims that I would be the breadwinner amongst the three of us, my dad caught the most and Justin caught the biggest.
I, on the other hand, had to return home empty-handed to relay to my grandfather that I had brought in no keepers.
Upon conveying my news of a fruitless day, my disappointment was contagious, and I could tell that my grandpop missed fishing as we had done so many times before. It has been years since we have been out together – the three generations worth of us. The feel of the wind in my face on any given day still takes me back to those fun-filled excursions on the Delaware Bay. Forging the generational seas was but a chapter in our memory log of uncharted missions. Everything I know about fishing and boating, I learned from my dad and my grandfather, just as I know the search for “Big Charlie” will never cease to be. Grandpop has grown in age, as people do, but every time that magical word - “fishing” - hits his ears, his eyes twinkle the same way they did that first time he taught me everything he knew as we sailed upon the open seas.