Note: This is an original essay that I’m publishing for the first time here on my blog. This essay is dedicated to my father.
My father is smart to bring a sleeping bag for me. He is correct to figure that his nine-year-old daughter doesn’t share his eagerness for packing up the trucks before dawn to get in the first casts in at Oregon Inlet and Coquina Beach. In the morning dark, he rustles me from sleep, carries me to our old blue Wagoneer, and places me in the sleeping bag in the back seat. The gruff turn-over of the engine and gravel groaning under the tires sends me off to sleep again.
The first morning, I sleep in the backseat of the truck until the early sunlight pours in and my cousins Connor and Brian bang on the window. The fish aren’t biting much that day, so my cousins and I explore the beach, the dunes, and the wild surf, all foreign to us, then.
The second morning, my father shakes me awake just as the sun is cracking the horizon. He helps me into the chest-waders he bought for me—foreign objects then to my eyes and body. I stumble over the sand after him to where the rods stand vertical. He casts a rod out farther than I can see, and then he hands it to me to reel, over and over. We hook fish after fish, every cast a catch. We’re in a blitz. Bluefish.
All of this sleepless, sandy awkwardness for what?
“Are they good eating?” I ask my father over the howling wind.
“No,” he says.
“They’re just terrific.”
My father does eat the bluefish, though. Thick, dark, oily steaks cut from the fifteen-to-twenty pound chopper blues we caught that day.
Other days that trip we catch nothing at all. Sometimes we catch other fish: smaller bluefish called snappers; skates, which were kin to sharks but looked like albino stingrays; and small sharks called dogfish. We also catch more respectable fish: speckled trout, striped bass, or puppy drum.
Trout, stripers, and drum are good eating. Skates are a nuisance, worthless bait-stealers.
November the year I turned nine, my father took me on my first fishing trip down at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My father had gone the year before with my uncles. The following year, he decided to bring me. Back then, my uncles were tall, dark-haired strangers to me. My playmates on the trip were their sons: my cousin Brian, a year younger than me, and my cousin Connor, two years older.
I quickly learned the importance of our gear. Our trucks were second in importance only to our rods and reels. My uncle Morrow drove a brown Suburban that looked twenty years old when he bought it. My father, jealous, bought a fifteen-year-old, royal-blue and wood-paneled Wagoneer from an ad in the paper.
“It’s hideous,” my mom said the first time she saw it. “What is that thing?”
“It’s a my beach buggy.” My dad, like my uncles, was obsessed. He drove the Wagoneer fifty weeks of the year so he’d have a beach buggy for two.
Before our first fishing trip with the Wagoneer, my dad touched up its rusted spots with what looked like a tube of blue nail polish. The touch-up paint didn’t match because the Wagoneer’s paint was so faded.
“Doesn’t matter,” my dad told me with a shrug. “It’ll stop the rust from getting worse.”
Each beach buggy in our party was outfitted by its owner with rod-holders on the front bumper. The rod-holders looked like rocket launchers. My dad made his out of a two-by-twelve and some PVC pipe. In the back of the truck we kept giant coolers for cut bait, caught fish, sandwiches, and beer.
We had enormous tackle boxes that unfolded into palaces of reels, rigs, and lures. We used old ten gallon paint buckets to carry other equipment that was less fragile or that we needed swift access to. We hung hooks and lures along the lip of the bucket, and kept knives, pliers, and athletic tape inside.
Most important of all were the rods and reels themselves. Each rod was different; each had its own personality. The flounder rods were shorter, thinner, and lighter-weight so that you could feel the lightweight fish tugging on the line. The bluefish rods were much longer and thicker, like tree branches, and much less pliable than the other rods. But with a bluefish on the line they would bend like saplings in a hurricane. From a distance, all of the rods looked black or white, but up close the surfaces glimmered with metallic enamels.
The heavy, metal reels felt bulky and awkward to nine-year-old me, but when they were attached to a rod, my father could make them dance.
My father taught me how to fish when I was a little girl in the piedmont of North Carolina. As early as I can remember, we’d walk down from our house to Jim King Pond. For bait, we’d bring worms that we dug up in the backyard. Our tackle was my thirty-six inch rod, push-button reel, and a rig composed of a single hook and red-and-white bobber. Mostly we caught perch, silver-yellow fish with top fins that pricked like needles. My father taught me to take hold of the fish by sliding my cupped hand from the front to smooth down the fins against the fish’s back.
I first learned about death when fishing with my father, when we had to cut out a hook and the fish didn’t survive. And I learned about life, when I released a gasping fish into the pond, and it righted itself, and it washed water over its gills, and it flashed away.
Surf fishing seemed like a new universe. No more worms. The rods were taller than my father, who was the tallest thing in my life except trees, and some rods were as thick as my wrist. Placid Jim King Pond was small enough for me to run all the way around in five minutes. At Cape Hatteras or the North Point of Oregon Inlet, the ocean was endless, and the surf looked like a living thing.
Then there were the fish: they were giants. And they were dangerous, with razor teeth. And some of them were sharks.
And finally there was the endless magnificence of the land and sea when we stood at what seemed to be the eastern brink of the world. The Outer Banks was the wildest place that I’d ever seen. Sometimes the wind was so powerful that I could lean into it with my arms outstretched and it would hold me for a few moments before I would slowly fall to the sand.
Back then, hardly anyone knew what the Outer Banks was—it was still a wild place. There weren’t any resorts or majestic beach mansions. There was no highway to take you there, only strange little roads filled with tractors, tobacco trucks, and speed traps. In Nag’s Head, there were only two restaurants: the nice one and the not-so-nice one. At the end of every day, the parking lot of the not-so-nice-one would be filled with beach buggies like ours, most of them belonging to people who lived there. At the restaurant, my dad and uncles would talk fishing with men so grizzled by wind and sun you could stick a penny in their face wrinkles and it would stay put. I’d stay as quiet as I could so no one would notice me and decide it was time for me to go to bed.
My father taught me how to surf-fish with the same patience and zeal that he’d used at Jim King Pond. He taught me how to tie a lure onto a rod, usually a silver spoon, a four-to-six-inch-long oval of shiny metal with a triple hook on its “tail,” designed to mimic the small, silvery-scaled bait fish chased by schools of blues. He taught me how to cast, and he taped my casting fingers—the first and second of my right hand—with white athletic tape, just as he taped his own, to prevent the heavy line from cutting my skin.
Before he let me cast my first line, my father gave me two admonitions.
“These rods and reels are real expensive, Kate. Don’t drop them in the sand or the water.”
“Okay,” I said, “I won’t.”
“Even if the fish pulls hard, remember. Don’t ever let go.”
The second admonition was a little more scary, and it had to do with my chest-waders. My chest-waders were a miniature version of his: thick, heavy, waterproof overalls with suspenders to hold them up. The bottom of the waders were shaped into boots. Underneath we wore wool socks and long underwear.
My father warned me to never, ever go into water deeper than mid-thigh. If my chest-waders ever filled, the icy water would weigh me down until I drowned.
Every bluefisherman dreams of the bluefish blitz. It is our holy grail. Blitzes come in all sizes and are as elusive as any other wild game. In looking for bluefish blitzes, some principles apply. First, you look for birds. My father would adjust his binoculars to fit my small face and have me keep watch. I’d look for black specks darting in the sky above the water near the shoreline. North and south I would look, every fifteen minutes or so. The birds were the harbingers—the things we could see from a distance that would reveal the things we couldn’t.
The birds I was watching for hunted schools of small silver fish—the ones our lures imitated. These silver fish leapt from the water in unison, like one giant organism, and the birds swooped down and plucked them from the air. When I saw the birds, I looked down at the water and waited. There. I could just make out the small schools of silver fish leaping madly from the water, into the waiting talons and beaks.
Every time I found the birds, and then the silver fish, I got very excited. I knew what terror chased the little fish from the safety of the water and into the air.
Blues. Lots and lots of blues.
When we found a blitz, we’d cast our silver spoons into the thick of these birds and little fish, hunting the water for the unseen predators. In a blitz, any well-aimed cast could bring in a bluefish. When the real silver fish leaped into the air, the silver spoon stayed behind to be eaten.
My father calls bluefish strong, vicious, swimming stomachs. Their mouths are lined with razor teeth. They are pure predators, as pure as any shark.
The first time I saw a blue lying in the sand, still alive, my father gave me a warning.
“Watch your hands,” he said. “Those teeth can bite your fingers off, easy.”
When the fish weren’t blitzing, we used cut bait and bluefish rigs instead of lures. The rigs could be left out in the water, waiting for a small school to come along. For bait we used mullet fish that we bought at a bait shop in Nag’s Head.
Sometimes caught our own bait fish when the bluefish weren’t biting. My father got out his throw-net, a large circle of plastic netting with small, lead weights knotted around the perimeter like dull, gray beads. We walked through the tide pools searching for schools of small fish. When I spotted a school, I’d splash through the water, driving the fish toward my father. He’d throw the net, and it would splash in the water, a perfect circle, trapping the fish underneath. Then he’d jerk the rope, and the weights would pull together tightly, scraping across the sandy bottom.
On that first fishing trip when I am nine, during that first big blitz of chopper blues, I hook a blue on my own.
As soon as the fish hits the lure, I know I have a big one, a big one even for the choppers. I’m not certain, but I think that maybe my arms are getting ripped off. The fish is so strong.
I tuck the long butt of the rod under my elbow, squeezing it hard against my ribs. Then I grip the rod with both hands and lean back. I have no idea how I’m going to turn the reel. Then, the fish turns away from shore and begins to pull.
As the bluefish starts pulling me toward the water, I remember my father’s warning about getting into deep water in my waders, about drowning. My heels drag across the sand. I yell for help, but no one can hear me over the roaring wind and water. The surf in front of me looks huge, the waves the jaws of a monster.
My line snaps around in the water, but I can’t see my fish. To the left, my father stands behind my cousin Connor, helping him keep hold of his fishing rod and turn the reel. Connor’s rod is bent double, a fragile arc. A school of silver fish leaps into the air in front of me. The blitz is on, and I’m alone. All around me, my cousins and uncles are hooking fish. No one seems to notice that I need help. My rod, a rod I can’t bend with my hands even when I brace it over my knee, bends as sharply as Connor’s under the force of my fish.
Sand and shells slip under the boots of my waders as my fish pulls me down the steep grade of the beach. As my ankles sink into wet sand and waves splash to my knees, I remember my father’s other admonition: Don’t ever let go. I tighten my grip on the rod, determined not to disappoint him. My feet sink deeper into the water.
Suddenly, two arms reach around me from behind and grab the rod and me both. It’s my Uncle Connor, my cousin Connor’s father. Uncle Connor walks slowly back out of the water, and together we reel in my first chopper blue.
A little while later, two eighteen-pounders lie in the sand, watching me and my cousin Connor, their captors. The fish suck their final gulps of air, powerful jaws snapping. I wonder if the fish are afraid. Connor has a wet glob of sand in his fist. He drops sand onto his fish’s scales.
“Don’t drop that sand on my fish,” I say.
I love my fish. The bright sun slides down its luminous blue scales. It looks like water out of water.
As I got older, the fishing trips became less about the fish and more about family and the landscape. I became content to skip the chest-waders and sit in a chair with my feet in the sand. As the years passed, it became harder to put together trips with all of the uncles and cousins together. November meant missing school, something that became more difficult as we kids got older. Some of us moved away, some of us, like my Uncle Connor, died too young.
The last bluefishing trip I went on was just my father and me. I was in graduate school. I only casted the line a few times. Mostly, I sat in a folding chair and read, watching the sun rise while my father casted and reeled. I think he felt the same peace throwing out his line as I did with my books.
I will always remember him standing in front of me, his feet in the ocean, a tall, thin man in baggy, brown waders and a plaid shirt, casting and reeling like he’d been doing it forever, content to let the ocean give him what it wished to, content to wait.