My father was a big fan of the waters around Cape Hatteras. And of surf casting.
We sometimes summered near Oregon Inlet or Ocracoke, and once even as far north as Nags Head, but we always seemed to return to Cape Hatteras at least once every two summers.
For a long time, surf casting was the only type of fishing that I ever knew.
I was not particularly fond of it, but it was what we did almost every summer, and in that way that children always assume that whatever their parents do is universal reality, I was always going to be along for the ride.
Often, I was really more like one of the boys with the baggage, as Shakespeare said. I would hang back with the fishing tackle – the rods and reels and lures – trying to amuse myself.
But by the age of 12 that had changed, and mostly because of one incident.
One of the things that I always had found most distressing about fishing was that all adults believed with an almost absolute metaphysical certainty that the fish must appear in coastal waters between the hours of 4 and 6 a.m.
One particularly bleak, wet morning, when my father had been assured that blues were running off the coast near Cape Hatteras, I was dragged from my sleep to lug pounds of fishing equipment to the beach.
Only a few, resolute fishermen were out for that gray dawn.
Besides, it was too wet to sit and play in the sand. Playing with the reel – throwing out the rig just over the first line of breakers and slowly tracking it back – was better than doing nothing.
There was plenty of room for me to set the hook with shrimp and then cast away.
To this day, decades later, I can remember the feel of the line over my index finger, feeling the gentle pulse of the surf in the taut nylon. That was the way my father had taught me to know when a fish was on the line; the pull on the line from a fish was ever so slightly different from the rhythm of the surf.
And eventually, there along the crook of my finger, I felt a gentle tug.
I jerked the line back, the way I had been taught to set the hook, and began to reel in the line quickly, never letting it get slack, lest the fish wriggle loose.
When I had drawn in the line enough, I could see a sparkling bluefish splashing in the shallow water.
“At least somebody caught something,” one of the men near my father said.
Apparently they weren’t biting that day.
But within an hour I had caught two more bluefish.
Later, on the return to our campsite, which for some reason seemed much shorter on the way back than it did on the way to the beach, we periodically would meet men on their way to the shoreline who would ask in passing, “How d’ya do?”
“Nothing,” my father would respond.
And I would hold up my three bluefish.
I don’t remember us cooking them, and I don’t remember even if we ate them. But I would pay $1,000 to be able to taste them now.
They would taste like victory.
As you read this, I will be at the beach on vacation. I will think every day about fishing, but I won’t go. I will be content to sit on the deck, watching the waves roll in and out, with an occasional shrimping boat slowly working its way up and down the coast.
My two sons are not that interested in surf casting, and at my age I don’t feel much like teaching them.
Both of them are right at the cusp of young manhood. Both are very successful at whatever sports they try.
If we were to go surf casting these days, I know who would come back with the fish. I see no reason to ruin my win streak.