Friday, August 24, 2018

Broken Line

Matt was just somewhat better prepared than last night. He double and triple checked his knots. I helped him with nothing but the first cast...which resulted in the rig he created breaking off before the forward arc reached high point. Now he knows he must make sure to know if the line on the spool of the reel is not tangled and knotted. I could have thought of it myself, since I reeled in the slack last night, but I'm an old man now. He has to pick up on his own.

Which he says he will begin doing tomorrow at 7:00 a.m. When Tradewinds Tackle opens. Strike three or score tomorrow night. If the surf is doable. It was beautiful again tonight.

Earlier in the day, I had noticed he had one circle hook left. I could have told him so. Last night, the problem was essentially the same as what unfolded again tonight. He needed another rig. But the less I tell him what to do, so much the better. The only way to learn, when you really get down to it, is not by sitting in classrooms and getting spoon fed information; it's by getting confronted with the denial, not of a parent or anyone else just saying no, but that of existence itself. Boy, was he ever frustrated tonight.

Actually, last night, as I reeled in that slack, I felt the stirring of a rejection of the reel he chose to use. Old as I am, I forgot all about it a second later, but I remembered tonight. It's his reel. That's OK. I got the idea in the first place of mounting it on my slightly longer rod, because he didn't want to use my reel with the broken anti-reverse. But the spool is larger, mine is. So now that he screwed up again, I told him about my reel compared to his. I had us compare the exact specs. His reel--280 yards/12-pound test. Mine--440 yards/12-pound test. That's a critical difference when fishing sharks.

We switched out the reels. He will hold the rod in hand. What's more, he discovered while sorting out the tangle of his spool--successfully--that I had tied a braid blood knot (not the same as with mono). Forty-pound test. That's OK for little striped bass in the surf, but I felt uneasy right away in our situation.

That Penn he owns I bought at a fishing flea market very shortly after I began writing for The Fisherman again, I guess about 12 years ago. Brand new. Half price. Beautiful. And I told him after we got back here tonight that I remember as I reached for the reel I had already made up my mind to buy for him, I told myself I want this reel to last him into his college years.

So here we are. We haven't fished the surf together in years with the heavy tackle, but have a look at this tangled situation we're in now, and it involves a curious twist of fate. Had I been reasonable and seen right away that he's better off with more line and my reel, his own reel would have got no use on this trip, shortly before he returns to Boston University as a Sophomore physics major. It's all a learning curve for him. And more than that. What is 12 years? On some level, it must have some sort of equivalence to one second's duration. What I saw as I reached for that reel included these two nights. I bet it did factually. But not as an ordinary linear sequence.

I got into how a fish on a long run not only builds torque on the spool as it empties, thus increasing chance of breakage, but the line in the water takes on weight. "It's physics," I said, "I can't explain it in an equation, but maybe you should tell me."

"Oh, yeah," he said, airily. "I see what you mean."

"When you can apply your physics to practice, then I will think its smart," I said.


Preparation and Rethinking the Situation

I like it when an excessive mood takes me by surprise, inspiration flares, and I perform daring feats on paper with a pen, or by type and a screen, but it seems as if more often than not, my readers feel put off. There are really more exceptions to this rule than of the rule itself, which I merely assume for the sake of making my point. I always feel timid about actually going public with my performances; even when I'm feeling as bold as a lion, that uncertainty waits in shadow. As many as 90-some "likes" for a post almost overnight, just to give one example, and many others that balanced well and instead of having offended readers, these that remain as sure evidence I create posts that make readers feel good about themselves for reading what I have to relate, these at least make me feel that maybe I'm into something so much flare can compensate for. (It would be nice if every post did that.)

Anyhow, experimentation may be wise if in earnest, though I don't always know when I go astray. (That's what edit function is for. But even so...)

Let's get to the extended point. Here on Ocracoke in 2005, we had a beach afternoon and evening, and as the sun set, I caught a nice 13-inch croaker, which I cut up for bait. Naïve as I was, I was thinking of a big bull redfish. Darkness fell, and I cast two lines rigged fish-finder style, set the heavy surf rods in holders. No more than three minutes passed when Matt's rod went airborne. He caught it, and slammed the butt into the sand.

Matt was six-years-old. The line would have dug a groove into the top of his hand, as it ran over his skin at high speed. Whatever he had hooked was huge and headed for Spain.

"Take it," he told me.

Critical juncture. What an opportunity to make my little boy a hero, had I said, "No. It's your fish."

Nuts. This fish would have worn him out very early in the game. My skill at stopping the run before getting spooled amounted to some 20 yards leftover. I had made up my mind. I wasn't going to break the fish off. But to make a long story short, a half-hour later and about 200 yards down the beach, I saw my wife's flashlight go dark in the distance, and then I heard my son screaming for Dad. I put pressure on the spool and let the shark break off. I ran back to them. He thought the shark had pulled me in.

Thus began Matt's fascination with catching sharks.

At age eight, he did finish off a good one. A bonnethead from the bridge to No Name Key in Florida. With flashlight beam on the exhausted fish, I estimated its weight at 25 pounds before--together--we broke the line.

Back at the cottage, Matt got out his Florida Fishes. We both had agreed it looked like an odd hammerhead. Bonnethead. World record: 18 pounds and some ounces. So his mother and I had to do some fast thinking. We could have hoisted the big shark with a snag-treble attached to heavy cord. But the result of whatever Trish and I said was a lot of laughter among the three of us.

Now the record is over 33 pounds, but Matt could have held it a little while....

Last night, the moon was nearly full and lit the surf and the beach nicely. We built a big fire. Matt had prepared his own rig. That sentence is correctly in the singular. All of these years, I've done the bulk of the preparations, so Matt really has a lot to learn, because so much of what fishing is about, is how well you prepare before going out. As yet, he can't even cast a surf rod.

The surf was very light, wind form the northwest. Three years ago, last we were here, it was ridiculously rough, a southward flow carrying our seven-ounce sinkers like salmon eggs drifted for trout. Matt's the only rod we took and I cast, I popped the set-up into a surf spike. We started making smores. Five minutes later, the rod falls over, I pick it up, test for a bite, and sure enough, a shark, I assume, had taken the bloody cut bait. I lowered the rod tip, about to hand the rod over to Matt, when the shark lunged and the line broke as if it were four-pound test.

He needs to test his knots, too.

He was devastated, and started talking about driving home to fix another rig with wire and circle hook as he had for this fish he blew. But we had a six-pack of Big Two Hearted (after Hemingway), and he had already finished his second. His mother disallowed his plan, of course, but I said nothing, and instead, I fell back on deep thoughts about the situation.

Finally, I said, "Matt, it's not really a defeat. You just missed one hit. You could have caught two or three sharks on a night like this. Check the weather for tomorrow night. It's all one process from now until then."

It will blow from the east, but not by much, so it's quite possible he'll hook one tonight, as unlikely as hooking a trophy always might seem.

In the interim, we did our Portsmouth trip this morning and afternoon. Austin Tours. The proprietor told us up front that the tide was unusually high, and the wind from the north too heavy to land on the beach there were the inlet empties. So Trish and Matt revisited the village proper, though I kept at the fish there by the dock pier.

I caught a kingfish nearly a foot long; Matt caught another later, but what interested me most, besides the 18-inch or so gray weakfish a boy lost when trying to haul it up on the boards, were six good-size croakers I caught. I also caught a fluke, a pigfish, and innumerable pinfish (like sunnies) we call bait stealers.

Once I was privileged to fish--because given a handful--a menhaden-like baitfish about four inches long, getting no hits on slow retrieves. So I resolved to put the bait out there, weighted by a 3/4-ounce steel slip sinker, and fix the braid so neither the current pulled it off the spool with bail open, nor would the rod get pulled in by a fish. Five or ten minutes later, while reeling in another damned pinfish on Matt's abandoned rod, the tip was bouncing, but by the time I had the hook undone from the bait stealer's mouth, my hand in slight pain from the dorsal fin pricking it, whatever took that big offering, had really taken it right off the hook.

Pigfish. And sounds like that.

We call these fluke in New Jersey. Here they have to be 15 inches to take, this one short.

Atlantic croaker. They don't quite sound-off the same as pig fish.

Mr. Austin said he's astonished after every hurricane to see this house stand.

Portsmouth was last occupied in 1972, (if my recall of the date is correct). Now Park Service is a staying presence. No roads or ferry lead onto the island.

In Mr. Austin's memory, Beacon Island was 11 acres, now worn away to only three, although some 1200 brown pelican hatchlings emerged this past spring.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

300th Anniversary of Edward Teaches' Decapitation

It's the 300-year anniversary of the decapitation of pirate Blackbeard here at Ocracoke, and the celebrations go on by the minute and the hour. We sacrificed a mess of fish to the honor of the Virginia Governor, Alexander Spotswood, who ordered Edward Teaches' death, sending a ship south and ending, among worse acts, the unholy collusion between the pirate and some of the ancestors of people here today. I would only be joking, since none of us invoked Spotswood by any intent or recollection, if not for correlation between the anniversary and some thoughts of mine about two ways of looking at life.

All that about a pirate and a little island with so much better going for it is deep in the past and the collusion between the murderer and some of the early island residents is as shrouded in mystery, perhaps, as the location(s) of Blackbeard's treasure. My son says he buried silver bars somewhere or other, never found, and probably never to be found. Blackbeard is marketed on the island today, but the best of the attractions offers admission to a small museum portraying an objective account by featuring displays allowing visitors to infer that it was real and came to a gruesome but just end. Surely none of the island's early residents had any real need of him. I can only imagine human sympathy got taken in, and likely also an element of fascination for an awesomely bold man with great personal courage, though on the wrong side in a world of good and evil, who began his seamanship as an aboveboard sailor, and is said to have possibly come from a wealthy family.

I don't know as much about Ocracoke as I should. Its history. But I do know the fishing village is resilient. I've purchased some books and have read a couple of them, hoping to find time to read more, all the while knowing that no matter how many hurricanes lap up against the sand here vulnerable to these storms, when evacuations get called, a stronghold of residents won't budge and the social life of the island will go on just as it has for hundreds of years. The O'Neal family, among others, has roots here in a time when people spoke a very different English, Elizabethan or Shakespeare's English, difficult to understand, and the only dialect spoken here not very long ago. A little of the brogue remains, it's said, though I've never heard it besides getting captivated by a recording, unless I have a vague memory of overhearing speech in 1969. My first visit was not very long after the time Ocracoke emerged from more than 300 years of isolation. Now we have wifi here.

We met Ryan O'Neal going on 10 years ago. He was the youngest charter Captain to get his license here in the Southeast. He's had clients since age 18, but most are one-time deals, I believe. Before we left the dock on Thursday, he urged me to call if we needed anything during the remainder of our stay. Offhand, I can't count the number of times we've fished the inlet and just outside together, and each venture offers something different.

Especially today, gray weakfish, or as they call them here, trout, made the difference. That's Matt with one of his in the photo above. Before we got into these fish, we began fishing as we always have, by trolling, catching blues and Spanish mackerel on Clark spoons getting five to maybe seven feet deep by use of planers. Trolling is for the birds. Those birds are always the aim. The baitfish schools rove and dive, and wherever they come up the terns and gulls seem to find them first, but there's no telling by so obvious a sign as congregated and diving birds that the fish we're after stay on them most tenaciously.

In 2011, as we caught sheepshead, I asked Ryan about trout, and he said he puts clients on them sometimes, but I felt left to an aura of mystery. So today I felt skeptical about us catching any. And as events unfolded, we drifted using squid for bait a long quarter mile or so before either of us got a hit. Ryan invited Trish to fish, but she declined the offer. How anyone can deny the fun, once a fish gets on, is more of a mystery to me than trout, but I recall an incident years ago when Trish hooked a striper in the surf. The look on her face was despairing rather than thrilled. She just held the rod and refused to reel. Once I got by her side, she gave the rod to me.

There are two ways of looking at life. (Don't ask me how many other ways.) It's one big festival or else it's mass panic. According to the latter view, every living thing is always ducking for cover. We humans have the moral responsibility to aid. Of course, the realism involved in the festival feeling would seem perverse to prevailing moral sentiment among us. Creatures everywhere devouring one another and having a great time at it. As gray trout eat little fish with abandon, we put them on ice to fillet and eat for lunch. (That lunch was delicious, by the way. We had killed the fish about an hour prior.)

It's really not so simple. We humans do have a moral responsibility to aid where we can, such as releasing fish in healthy condition. I think in my wife's hands, the rod with a striped bass on could have felt disturbing. I feel plenty of empathy for this. But I don't take the view that a fighting fish is "terrified." In pain, perhaps, though nothing like pain I would feel with a hook set in my mouth and a line pulling. The world of nature is pure competition. So a fish on a hook sort of expects a struggle. And gives it! We humans make the best of life through cooperation. Anyone who has to compete all day at work to make nickels and dimes as profit margin....not a whole lot more...knows that the stress isn't very good for him. Go on vacation and if you don't feel things come together--cooperating--you've failed your visit. And you know your success is as human life should be. Coming together and feeling good about what you do.

Suddenly--our baits began to work their way up a drop-off from 26 feet towards shallows--we were into fish. In addition to two Spanish of about 18 inches and a bluefish on the troll, I caught two more blues (these fish about 14 inches), two fluke, and three gray weakfish. Matt caught three grays, some blues, whiting...he lost count but caught more fish than I did. One of his gray trout was too small and tenderly released by Ryan.

"What are we after today?" I asked him when we met before leaving the dock to enter three-mile-wide Ocracoke Inlet.

"I was going to take you out for red drum. I can't get the bait."

"I read in one of the fishing reports there're a lot around."

Red drum have been on my mind for awhile. Forty, fifty, sixty pounds. Maybe next time.

From the beach this afternoon, in-between reading Chris Dombrowski's Body of Water, I caught a kingfish, a member of the drum family smaller than a croaker, mine about nine inches. It took an eighth-ounce jig tipped with a piece of shrimp fished on my light St. Croix rod.

Back home, preparing for shark fishing tonight, Matt took off to get bait, finding a number of new Pamlico Sound spots, scoring four bluefish on that Hopkins Shorty in the process. That's bait. He also asked a young woman about his age, described as beautiful, for a few of the fish she caught on bait and would have tossed back. So he's prepared.

Preparing for lunch and more meals yet. (Some of our catch.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

On Ocracoke

Matt tried for sharks at the launch

We got on the road Saturday morning, running into a turnpike standstill near the Delaware Memorial Bridge, getting to Exmore, VA, before sundown, where we stayed the night. Some stops along the way to Ocracoke Sunday helped make the trip feel leisurely; we got here at about 6:00. It took me a few days to get my pressured job off my mind, and now that Thursday is almost here, I'm still not completely free. Watched a movie last night we found surprisingly good. Arrival. That especially helped me get over the rattled feeling, which petty concerns like filling customer demand for turkey meatloafs leave me to contend with. It's awful I have to limit most of my time to getting nickeled and dimed, but unless I find another job, it's not as bad as living without the income.

So far, we've fished at the boat launch a few times. To begin with, things seemed to shape up very well, because the killies out in back of our house in the tidal creek are abundant and big, filling our pots in no time. We managed to fish the launch the morning and evening of our first full day, but besides one 10-inch bluefish, all we got to hit are pinfish, a sea robin, and a few lizard fish until this evening. Matt tried for sharks Monday evening, after he sacrificed a pinfish on the boards by use of my Spanish war knife. Twice something hit and got the bait, but maybe they were wily eels taking the meat off the hook. Just an hour or so ago, I caught a 14 1/2-inch bluefish on a big killie fished on my medium/heavy Lew's Speed Stick, and that blue put up a pretty big fight. Matt caught a 10-incher on his Speed Stick while casting a Hopkins Shorty. So despite a slow start, our favorite little spot (which has become very popular, crowded) yielded some pretty good fish as it continues to reward us consistently.

Nothing from the surf. Here on Ocracoke, it's a flat shallow surf, which doesn't mean there are no pompano in close, but since we couldn't find any sand fleas to bait them, we don't really know.

Matt and I got up at four this morning, boarded the ferry at five, and arrived at Avon Pier north of here at about 6:20. I've never before witnessed a pier fish as slowly during summer. We couldn't even get a single spot to take shrimp, nothing at all that would bait our pool cue rods with a lively offering for king mackerel or whatever else big might take. Ideally, a bluefish about as big as I caught this evening might work.

Heavy wind made the wooden structure sway and the water murky. It's always better fishing when water is clear, but we've fished from piers when water was just as bad and at least caught a few blues. We tried and tried to catch a sizeable bait, but eventually my fish sense drew me back in the direction of the pier's entrance, to fish closer to the final line of breakers than anyone else. I figured a fluke might take my killie. On my first cast, I hooked something enormous, which I assumed was a ray, not a big black drum, but it ran with increasing speed before I broke it off. I got another killie, hooked another enormous fish on the next cast, broke that off, and then the third big one I hooked gave itself away. Certainly a ray, though I could never lift it to the surface with that relatively light Speed Stick and get a thrilling look at the fish. It just hunkered down and stayed in place. I couldn't budge it, so I broke it off. Uncharacteristic behavior of any fish but a ray. Matt enjoyed playing yet another one, and someone else got the notion, hooked up using squid for bait, and eventually got the fish to the surface by lifting it with his heavy rod. The fish was about seven feet wide, easily a hundred pounds, if not more.

Maybe fluke were there. But the rays so many, we just couldn't tell.

At the launch, we fished well into dusk.

Potting killies behind our rented house.

Matt fights a big ray.

The boards are just below foot level, the ray about 25 feet down below.

Trolley Rig tackle we never used. Notice the anchor weight at the bottom center edge of the picture. Cast by the surf rod, it keeps a tight line to slide the Trolley Rig, with the likes of a live bluefish for bait, to the water's surface, where the frisky fish possibly attracts a king mackerel of perhaps 30 pounds. We've witnessed it.