• U.S.

Animals: Ocean Cicerone

3 minute read

Of all the men who have dragged their hooks in the sea for excitement rather than nourishment, slim, voluble Van Campen Heilner of Spring Lake Beach, N. J. is one of the most generous. With camera (still and motion) and typewriter he constantly shares his catches with less footloose lovers of fishing, and now he has compressed 25 years of expert sea angling experience within the covers of a 432-page book* in which he not only rhapsodizes about big ones caught and lost but gives an extremely tangible summary of his secrets for taking every American salt water species worth wetting a line for.

From the lowly flounder to the lordly broadbill swordfish, Angler Heilner loves them all. To each he devotes a chapter— weakfish, bluefish, striped and channel bass, sailfish, marlin, tuna, tarpon, and a definitive essay on the bonefish, wiliest of all—setting at the end of each chapter an extremely useful condensed guide for the handling of each species.

The book’s frontispiece presents Angler Heilner’s sporting credentials: a picture of himself and Zane Grey taken at Long Key, Fla. in 1916. If Mr. Grey, 62, is the senior prophet of ocean game fishing in America, certainly Van Campen Heilner, 37, is its junior dean. He is at dutiful pains throughout his easy-going pages to give credit where due to the men who have made game fishing into a well-defined national sport. Examples: To oldtime Charley Thompson, credit for guiding the first party to take a sailfish on rod & reel, in 1901, after an 87-pounder had jumped into his boat and nearly speared a lady.

To Guide Bill Hatch, credit for inventing the “drop-back”method of hooking sailfish (giving 20 ft. or so of slack after the fish’s first tap, before striking).

To Guide Tommy Gifford, credit for the outrigger and skipping bait.

All nature is Angler Heilner’s province. He has worked for the American Museum of Natural History; indeed it was while investigating a new finch, a rail and a wren for them that he discovered for sportsmen the tarpon of Cuba, in the Encantado (Enchanted) River. His fishing lexicon is shot richly through with biological side glances. It is interesting to know that the jutla (arboreal rat) of Cuba is that island’s only native mammal, discovered by Columbus; that the weakfish which spawn in Peconic Bay do so without issue, some cause aborting all their efforts north of the Delaware Capes though a primeval urge drives them still to run to Peconic in millions from their deep winter beds off Hatteras; that a flounder’s eyes are on the right of his whale-smashed face, a fluke’s on the left; that a hooked flounder will often jump like a trout; that muddying the bottom will bring flounders and flukes from fathoms around; that the bonefish grows up from its larval stage by growing more than 50% smaller until it assumes its adult shape.

Of all the ocean game fish, bone has Mr. Heilner’s highest regard. He salutes the world-record-holder, Burton Peek of Moline, Ill. (whose brother George had the lesser distinction of AAAing for Franklin Roosevelt). Bone-fishermen will marvel at his account of catching bone by casting with a feather. But more they will envy him his camp on Bimini (which a hurricane purified of the hotel growth that threatened it) and his “memories of days and nights spent in pursuit of that true king of all game fishes, the bonefish, the sportiest thing with fins!”

*SALT WATER FISHING—Penn Publishing Co. (Philadelphia) $5. With twelve handsome color plates by W. Goadby Lawrence.

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