Saturday, November 25, 2017

Matt's First Big Shark

Night on Ocracoke 10 years after Matt's First

Matt’s First Big Shark

The 13-inch croaker I caught would serve as bait, cut into large chunks. Trish winced as I tried to ignite a lantern with wind blowing 20 knots, no use. Surf wasn’t heavy. Wind drove at our backs as we faced the waves. In darkness exposing stars we could almost reach and pluck from the sky, I heaved two fish finder rigs and piped the rods in sand spikes. One for our six year-old-son, Matt, one for me. We sat ready.

A long afternoon and evening on Ocracoke Island had ended, and we called it fair play to rely on a flashlight for this stint at night fishing, another beam from Lowes forgotten at the rental house. Having caught plenty of small pompano and cooking them in a pit for charcoal dug in the sand, Trish and I enjoyed a couple of microbrews bought at a specialty store in Ocracoke Village, all of this activity legal and feeling just as it should anywhere.

We sat in fold out chairs. Matt and I positioned right behind our rods. The cut bait soaked for several minutes before Matt’s rod lurched from the spike. He leapt from his chair, grabbed the rod above the reel before it could crab-walk to the suds, and slammed the butt into the sand with total determination. “Damn!” I shouted. Both of Matt’s hands near the gathering guide, he held the rod near his chest, its bend like a palm suffering Hurricane Andrew. Sixteen-pound test mono raced over his knuckles, drag squealing like laughter, but he was dead serious. Trish shot a look at me. Help him, you fool!

Matt gave me the rod. “It’s too big,”

“It’s your fish,” Our eyes met squarely as I took the rod and reel with light, gray-toned mono from Japan I prided, but now seemed too light to stop this fish. To insist my son put up the struggle would have felt absurd. If I could stop whatever kept plowing out to sea, we might beach a great redfish, I believed all too wishfully. That’s what I desired and imagined might be on the other end, but this was an August night, not November when great schools of drum frequent surf. I knew in my shaking bones I was fighting a shark—probably a sand shark, possibly a tiger, blacktip, or even a bull shark. All of these species represent reasons we get out of the water before the sun goes down. I tightened the drag just slightly, keeping stress on the fish by a strong curve of the rod. It stopped shortly before the arbor knot would break. I anticipated a very long heave-ho, beginning to pump the rod and gaining on the fish.

“Matt, you hardly sat down before you hooked it!” Trish said. She looked at me, and I could just make out her face. “Do you really think you’ll get it in?”

“I’m getting it in.” I gave her a haggling look, surprised no second long run had ensued, losing very little of the line I gained.

“What is it?” Matt said.

“A shark of some sort.”

“I hooked a shark!”

“Big one.”

I got the fish just outside the breakers and could not budge it any closer. After a minute of stalemate, it began heading north along the beach.

“I’ll follow it up the beach and holler when I need the flashlight,” I said.

“How are you going to get a shark out of the water?” Trish said.

“That’s what we’ll need the flashlight for.” I tried to sound fully convincing. There’s good reason for beach gaffs applied to the dorsal fin area, or a thick rope with a slip knot looping around a tail. But I was going to—very carefully—just try and figure this out. I could have nodded my head as if in false agreement with myself. Sure I will.

The bruiser heading to Hatteras, I steadily paced to keep up. A long while later at even longer distance, I watched the fading light of our flashlight. Sickly yellow. Low battery. I watched a few minutes later the light go out.

After brief silence, I made out the voice of my son screaming. “Dad! Dad!” For a few seconds, I felt a solemn moment between me and the great fish. Then I placed my thumb on the spool and let the line break. I turned and sprinted to my son and wife.

“You all right!?” I said.

Trish was laughing. “He thought the shark pulled you in.”

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