Hanging in a weather-beaten bait shack on Virginia's eastern shore is a sign: I AM A SURF FISHERMAN, BUT THE REST OF MY FAMILY IS NORMAL. This rare and honest man not only knows himself, but he knows the entire breed of surf casters. All of us who fish the edge of the sea are a little daft. We may, ever so seldom, have our golden moments (left) when the wind and the sun and the tide are just right, and schools of bluefish or stripers come by, feeding so furiously that there is a strike on every cast. But most of the time we are engaged in orgies of masochistic misery.
Now there are bound to be some who will argue that all fishermen are unbalanced, and there is more than a whisper of truth in this. The dry-fly trout fisherman who spends all winter snipping and slicing at tiny bits of pheasant wing to produce the perfect imitation of the black-bottomed stone fly may be suspected of a failure to come to grips with reality. And the muskie fisherman who flails the water year in, year out, without a single strike, may be described as eccentric. And what of the black bass fisherman, prowling the churchyard at midnight, looking for night crawlers?
But the surf fisherman stands firmly and proudly at the pinnacle of disorientation. He is happiest when the weather is foulest. His pockets are crammed with aromatic delicacies of his trade: rigged eels, sandworms, elderly squids. He usually begins his activities in the black of night when decent people are abed. As a result, his eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep (among surf casters, this is called "bass eyes"). His disposition is terrible. Finally—rumors and even occasional photographs notwithstanding—he does not catch fish. What never? Well, hardly ever.
It is not fish that the surf caster is after, but rather a whole series of negative gratifications which may be summarized as follows:
1) The thrill of telling friends at the office how he nearly drowned in the surf last night.
2) The glories of reciting how a school of mackerel beat the surf to a froth, but "wouldn't touch my bait!"
3) The enchantment of confusing people with misleading statements and false information.
Sometimes it seems that the entire mission of the surf caster is to puzzle and bewilder anyone who comes into contact with him—especially other surf casters. On beaches like the outer banks of North Carolina, where channel bass sometimes come within casting range, fishermen will go to any lengths to obscure the truth. Suppose you are fast to a big fish, and you spot an enemy surf caster coming on the run. The standard procedure is to throw the reel on free spool, allowing the line to go slack, and to stand placidly as though waiting for a strike. The enemy will run up and say, "Anything doing?" Your answer is: "Nope, but I hear they're hitting down at the point."
At Provincetown, Mass., on the tip of Cape Cod, a popular practice is to bury the catch in the sand. To counter this technique, Surf Caster Matt Costa prowls the beach in his jeep, looking for telltale mounds in the sand. When the surf caster tells Costa that there is nothing doing but he hears they are hitting down at the point, Costa drives full-tilt toward the mounds. "Wait! Wait!" the fisherman shouts. "They're hitting right here! Don't run over my fish!"
There is a very good reason for such chicanery. A fellow doesn't want to share a good thing. Says Dick Wolff, fishing tackle executive and surf-casting enthusiast: "Surf fishing is probably the least productive method. I don't know why I do it."
When Jack Dickinson, operator of a resort just a long cast from famous Montauk Point, became addicted to surf casting he threw everything but his wife's tableware into the waves for two years. Then he hung up his tackle with a perfect record: no fish, no strikes. Wolff once knew a surf caster who caught no fish in seven years. Finally he caught a striped bass, whereupon he quit surf casting, deeply offended.
This paucity of fish causes rumbles on the beaches. When the North Carolina channel bass run is on, fishermen stand shoulder to shoulder, slinging their lures in whistling arcs and nobody is anybody else's friend. It is a convention of tomcats.
"Hey, Buddy, will you watch your aim? I only got two ears!"
"You're over my line again."
And that universal admonition: "Would ya mind?"
Surf Caster Bill Dillon, who runs a fisherman's motel at the water's edge in Buxton, N.C., remembers the dog that came wagging up to this frenetic conga line at the height of a run. Within seconds, the dog had a No. 4 hook in his ear. Down the beach ran the dog, barking bloody murder, with ex-Marine Dillon in pursuit. The rod bent into a perfect parabola, and the fisherman reeled frantically, the trace of a mad smile at the corners of his mouth. One hundred yards down the beach, Dillon tackled the dog, and removed the lure. Nowadays the question is still debated in Buxton: Should the fisherman have tightened down on his drag, or should he have given the dog free spool and played him a little? It is an intriguing angling question, but one which, alas, will never be answered; the dog has not returned to the beach.
Surf casters come from miles around, sometimes materializing out of nowhere, at the first signs of fish in the surf. Try this experiment. Go to the loneliest, most remote beach you can find, and begin casting. Suddenly you will feel the eyes—looking through sand grass, peering from the tiny beach shacks. Get a fish on, and the owners of the eyes will come barreling down the beach like a troop of Indians, shouting and zinging their lures through the air while they are still 50 yards from the water.
A man who makes outdoor movies brought three dead striped bass to Shinnecock, Long Island for a surf-fishing picture. With the aid of a skin-diver yanking and pulling at them from below, the dead bass were made to look like fighting stripers in the surf. None of this dismayed the avalanche of surf casters who rushed to the scene. They saw: a) a fisherman with a bent rod; and b) a striped bass fighting in the surf. Says the moviemaker: "It didn't do a bit of good to explain. I said, 'Look they're dead!' I said, 'Can't you see the skin-diver out there?' I said, 'This is all a fake!' And all those guys did was ask me who I was kidding. I swear, as soon as I moved a footstep, there would be one of those nuts standing in my old footprint, casting."
Off Cape Cod, a fisherman who will here be identified as Dick Dementia was skulking along the beaches looking for fish. On the end of his line was a rigged eel, an efficient lure for bass. Dick Dementia saw a fisherman hook a bass; he ran to the shore and flung his bait seaward. One of the hooks caught in the lip of the fisherman, leaving the poor man bloodied and eel-draped. Dementia, a gentleman, rushed the victim to a doctor, who removed the hook and took several stitches. After the operation Dementia asked the suffering fisherman: "Did you save my eel?" The victim handed over the bloody bait, and these two typical surf fishermen went back to the beach together.
It is not absolutely necessary to be so maniacal about surf casting. There are, here and there, fishermen who simply look for signs of feeding fish in the surf, and, if they see nothing, return home. In the shadow of the Hatteras Lighthouse, local fishermen sit on the dunes for days at a time. There is a man in New York City who sets his alarm clock for the morning tide, piles into his car wearing slippers and a robe, and drives up and down the Rockaways looking for signs of feeding fish. This wraith may be seen, like Hamlet's ghost, almost any night. If he spots action he slips into waders and casting shirt, and races down to the sea. Expert surf fishermen spend far more time looking for signs of fish—circling gulls, phosphorescent spurts of moving fish in the waves, schools of bait fish which will attract big prey—than they do in the actual fishing.
There is, however, no surf fisherman, experts included, who is proof against the ultimate insanity: wading into a high surf after dark. Some fishermen go to the beach by daylight, snap on a blindfold, and simulate surf wading in darkness. But the fisherman can never really prepare for the surf, because the surf is never the same. Even so experienced an angler as Bill Dillon occasionally finds himself reel over teacup in the water. "I can't understand these waves," laments Dillon. "Here they are, the most powerful force on earth, and yet they have to be sneaky. You wouldn't think such a powerful thing would have to be sneaky, would you? You watch and watch and watch, and then you take your eyes off the surf for a second, and wham!" At his motel he often meets the victims of the tricky surf. "They lose their glasses, their watches, their rods and their reels. Once in a while somebody will lose his false teeth. They come running up to my office from the beach, their mouths all puckered up, and they say, 'May I use your phone?' "
The best surf-fishing spots are points of land where wind and tide cause crosscurrents and rips. Little fish get knocked senseless and big fish come in to gobble them up. But such spots pose extra problems for the fisherman. The surf caster often imagines that he has a fish on, when in fact his bait is only being buffeted about by cross-rips, or by a load of sargassum weed. Ed Zern, another surf caster, was fishing off the New York coast when he felt the line going out. "I couldn't stop it," he recalls. "I tightened down on the drag and started backing up the beach; but still it kept pulling me out. I played that thing for 15 minutes before I discovered it was a safety rope put there for swimmers." A surf fisherman recently threw his bait out for three hours without a hit. He discovered at dawn that he had been casting it onto a sand bar exposed by the low tide.
At least once, a surf fisherman has hooked, and landed, a large specimen of homo sapiens. The angler, Arnold Marko of Brooklyn, was fishing off Manhattan Beach when he heard the cries of a sinking swimmer. Marko snapped a cast just beyond the man, and reeled him in. To some anglers, this catch would have been a disappointment. But not to Marko. It was all he caught that evening.
Indeed, nothing is a disappointment to the surf caster. He asks for little, and little is exactly what he gets. And if you inquire, he will swear that he is enjoying himself. This bliss, unfortunately, does not always extend into the surf fisherman's home. The golf widow is a sadness; the surf-casting widow is a Greek tragedy. She is left alone at nights. Her husband smells, and so does her refrigerator. "There is nothing worse for a woman than what we do to her icebox," Dick Wolff says. "She opens it up, and what does she find: two boxes of bloodworms and a can of live eels. Now live eels are bad enough, but eels that have passed away in the icebox—they will test any marriage."
Many such marriages have been tested and found wanting. Matt Costa tells" of a Cape Cod surf fisherman who left his wife to pace her widow's walk for weeks at a time. One night she announced that he had to choose between her and the striped bass. "He stayed home for four days," Costa reports, "and then he came to me and he said, 'Matt, I can't stand it any more. Let's go.' We went surf fishing, and when he got home, his wife and two kids were gone for good."
There was a Provincetown surf caster who kept going out at night for bluefish. While he was roaming the beaches, his wife was roaming the bars, and one night she ran off with another man. Coming home for a new supply of rigged eels, the fisherman discovered his loss. He grieved for several minutes, then trudged sadly back to the sea. Now he has become a sort of beach bum, living a life of aloneness, whipping his plugs and eels into the surf, sniffing the ripe satisfactions of low tide, fighting death battles with seaweed and cross-rip, dreaming fitful dreams of giant bass and tugging blues. Some of the natives point him out as a sad case, but if this is true, then why is he always smiling?