A conversation and a nip with an old stoic

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Capt. Jim Nunes is one of the last of the old-time Cuttyhunk, Mass., fishing guides.

The foundry that for several generations forged these gruff stoics poured an original with Jim Nunes. He is tough, smart, hard-working, a bit hard-headed, perhaps. Independent and honest. A straight-shooter.

He came of age when it was still OK for charter skippers to give their clients hell if they felt they deserved it. Early on, Capt. Nunes culled the keepers from the throwbacks. “I was tough on them. I was,” he says. “I weeded them out. I had all good fishermen. Once I had them, I took care of them. I was good to them, and they were good to me.” He’s had some clients for 40 years.

Jimmy turns 80 this fall. His legs hurt and he wonders aloud sometimes how long he can keep at it. He has been guiding for almost 50 years. When it breezes up in the rips where he makes his living catching striped bass, these fast, rock-strewn waters can be a handful.

I first met the skipper almost 20 years ago on my first visit to the island. We have remained friends through the many seasons. I visited him on the island last Friday, where we sat outside in the lee of his guide shack on the Fish Dock and caught up on the news of the past winter, talked about his years on the water, swapped a few lies.

I am writing a profile of Jimmy for a new publication called Anglers Journal, which the Active Interest Media Marine Group is publishing later this summer. On this trip I was accompanied by photographer Jody Dole, who took the images that appear here.

The pace last week was still slow and decidedly off-season. The skipper didn’t have a party, and no one was in much of a hurry.

“I tell you, boy, it’s not like it used to be,” he said. In that one sentence the old skipper covered a fair piece of ground — from island life to charter fishing to the greater world beyond this westernmost high spot in the Elizabeth Island chain.

One thing that hasn’t changed much over the years is the striped bass, which continue to draw anglers to this unique little island and bestow it with its distinctively New England fishing cache. “With striped bass, you learn something every day,” Jim said.

The guide used to fish strictly nights for the nocturnal striped bass, navigating with a compass and a watch, working the lively Sow and Pigs Reef by “sight and by feel on black, black nights. If the young guys had to go up there with no electronics, they’d be hurting.” With the advance of time, he now fishes just during daylight hours.

I have admired Capt. Nunes’ boat since my first visit to the island. The 24-1/2-foot, black-hulled Rudy J is the last of the traditional wooden bass boats working these swift, storied waters.

She is the nautical equivalent of a piece of Shaker furniture — simple and functional, elegant in her purposefulness. The Enoch Winslow-built boat is low-sided, seaworthy and handsome. “She’s some boat,” her longtime owner is fond of saying. “It would lay in those rips, boy. It wouldn’t move. It would just lay there.”

The 6,000-pound Rudy J was conceived for the boisterous waters off Cuttyhunk and its environs. Powered by a 210-hp Crusader gasoline engine, she has a full keel, wide covering boards, fore and aft tiller steering, a low spray deflector and two aft-facing seats for charter guests. She is easy to look at.

The captain tells a funny story about an old client who promised him a half-gallon of Crown Royal whiskey in a special wooden cradle if Jim could put him into a 50-pound striper, which, of course, the skipper did. Standing in his fish shack several days ago, where a mostly empty bottle of Crown Royal rests in its cradle, Jim asks: “Want a shot?”

Jody and I oblige. The big man pours a little nip into three plastic cups, and we toast the good captain’s health.

“Let’s hope we’re all here next year,” he said.

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