And he said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19

Monday, October 4, 2010

I'll Have A "BLUE" Thanksgiving....

Surf fishing is not a form of angling for the impatient.  As one anonymous fisherman said, "There's fishing, and there's catching."  Surf Fishing is definitely more of the former.  Another anonymous fisherman said, "I go to fish, not to catch fish."  You have to believe in that statement, or you will never last as a surffisherman.  If you are truly looking to go "hunt" for fish, then buy a boat, get a fish finder, and cruise all over, looking for fish below or gulls above.  If you want to enjoy the peace and solitude that is the beach, with the sound of the crashing waves, the laughing of the gulls, and beauty that is where land meets sea, then come to the beach.  Come to the beach with a surf rod, so it looks like you have a purpose.  But it's not the only reason you are there.  Plop open a beach chair, stick your sand spike deep into the sand, put some bait on your rod and heave it out into the breakers.  Hold onto it, and wait.  And if you don't want to hold onto it, then stick the rod in the sand spike, sit in your chair, crack open a beverage, maybe light a cigar, and wait....  And while you're waiting, enjoy the beach.  Because, after all, you are at the beach, for crying out loud!  That is the essence of surf fishing.  The fishing is secondary.  The serenity, the solitude, and the sermon of the surf is why you are there.  The offering of fish is just a bonus.

Having said that, I had grown up hearing about these incredible, unbelievable bluefish blitzes, where vast schools of large "chopper" blues, literally miles long, would chase schools of baitfish or speckled trout into the shallow waters of the surf and even onto the beach, rather than facing the razor-sharp teeth of these 20 pound predators that color the ocean with a slick of "oil" as they feed.  Old men would sit on their barstools and recount how they would "stack up bluefish like a cord of wood", flinging their hopkins lures into the surf when the blues were blitzing.  My step-father-in-law has a story he likes to recount about how the blues were blitzing up in Sandbridge (the southern tip of Virginia Beach) once, and he was out there stacking them up, when a couple of gentlemen in tuxedos who were at some formal affair at a house on the beach came walking up, drinks and cigars or cigarettes in hand.  They saw Bob and his friend catching these fish, and Bob asked if they wanted to have a go at it.  They took off their shoes and socks, rolled up their pants, and grabbed the rods from them and cast out their metal spoons.  A few minutes later, they walked back to their party, pantlegs soaking wet, each holding a couple of 10 pound blues by the tail.  I'm sure they were the talk of that party.

Well, while I had seen several very small blitzes, and had caught numerous tailor blues (bluefish up to 5 pounds or so), after 30 years of my life I had never seen one of these historical events.  But about18 years ago, that changed....

Boys' Weekend that year came and went uneventfully, which was the norm at that stage.  We went on Boys' Weekend for the reasons I've already stated;  not so much that our wives expected us to come home with coolers full of fish; but we went to enjoy each other, have some solid male-bonding time, and enjoy the beauty that is surf fishing.  So, the angling events of that particular BW escape me at the moment.  Fortunately for me that year, my fishing season wasn't done yet.

We lived in Richmond back then, and alternated Thanksgiving between my wife's parents in Suffolk, Virginia and my own up in Delaware.  This year was to be in Suffolk.  We took the two hour drive to Suffolk Wednesday afternoon after work, and settled in for the evening, grateful we didn't have the I-95 corrider to deal with, with half the nation, it seemed.

One of the things I love about Thanksgiving is that there is no wrong time to eat the big meal.  I grew up eating Thanksgiving around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, after smelling the turkey cook all morning long.  Then, we would let the tryptophan from the turkey kick in, and we would lounge the afternoon away in front of the televison, watching football, or a bunch of friends and i would play a "turkey bowl" of football of our own out at the high school.  And then maybe we'd start picking on the leftovers around 8 or 9 that night.

My in-laws, however, had the tradition of eating Thanksgiving dinner at dinner time.  This left the whole day free.  This particular year, my wife blessed me by allowing me to get up early, take the two hour drive down to Oregon Inlet, and let me fish until 2pm.  That was my deadline.  I had to be back before all the cousins arrived, and social hour began in the late afternoon.  Fair enough.  The reason I wanted to go, is that I had heard that Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the best days to catch a bluefish blitz, since they were known to be around the OBX in late November.  I wanted to see if it was true.

I woke up before sunrise, and -- in that semiconscious state, still  cuddling next to the warm body that was my wife, wondered if it was really worth the effort to get up.  To not get any more sleep, get out of the warm, comfortable bed and leave my  beautiful wife, to drive 2 lonely hours in the dark just to get cold fishing for something that probably wouldn't happen was a tough proposition at that moment.  The comforter and the pillow were still so inviting in the quiet of predawn.  But, I decided that if I was ever going to do it, this was the year.  So I did.

A few hours later I was on the beach, in my chair.  I had stopped at the tackle shop on the way down, and bought some mullet which I had cut up and was using for bait.  My truck was behind me in the sand, and the sandspike was holding my rod in front of me, as I waited for a "rogue" bluefish to pass by and take my bait offering.  My eyes, meanwhile, continued to scan the horizons around me, looking for the telltale signs of diving birds over a large moving school of blues coming towards the shore.  My second rod was waiting, with its leader and spoon, for the moment the fish were nearby....

The morning on the beach at Oregon Inlet was beautiful, but quiet.  Nothing bit my line all morning, and there were no signs of activity anywhere.  Nobody was catching anything anywhere around the southern tip of the island, and the birds I did see were resting quietly on the shore.  The day was beautiful, I thought, just too beautiful, or warm, or something.  The fish weren't here for some reason.  I just didn't know why.

I looked at my watch, and watched the time tick by until it was time to go.  I was not going to abuse the kindness that had been given me.  When 2 o'clock finally arrived, I took off my waders, reeled in my line, threw the bait away, and loaded up my Isuzu Trooper to head back to Suffolk.  But it wasn't really over, I thought, until I crossed the Woohoo Boohoo* Bridge leaving the Outer Banks, and was back on the mainland.  I decided to bypass the Bypass and take the beach road north, and stop occasionally to look up and down the beach for any tell-tale signs of a blitz.  Hey, it could happen, I thought.  As I have stated, you cannot be a surf fisherman for any period of time without also being a hopeless optimist. 

*(It's called the Woohoo Boohoo Bridge, because when you cross it on your way to the OBX, you're excited that you are on vacation!  Woohoo!!!!  Then when you leave... well, you're sad.  Boo hoo.)

Once I was on the Beach road, I pulled over every so often, to walk and glance up and down the beach for the most obvious sign of a blitz going on -- a massive cloud of seagulls above the water, diving down into the surf for scraps and pieces of chewed up baitfish.  (Sidenote:  You always know if it is a school of bluefish blitzing - as opposed to striped bass - because seagulls will not sit on the water if there are blues below them.  Blues are known to bite the feet off seagulls.)

When I was almost at the end and had driven more than 20 miles up the island, I stopped one more time.  I walked over to the beach and looked north and south.  There was nothing to the south still, but to the north I saw it... a massive, moving tornadic, feathered, white cloud that went on forever.  The adrenaline hit, and I ran back to my truck.  I drove another couple miles closer to the mass, and found a place to pull over.  I didn't need to walk to the beach, as I could see the huge flock of gulls and gannets from the street.  Too excited to even put on my waders, I grabbed my second rod and my tackle box, and went running to the beach.  It was something I will never forget.
It's tough to see, but the dark slick in the foreground is nothing but bluefish as far as the eye can see left and right....

An "oilslick" was on the water in every direction, as it seemed to be alive with movement.  There was not much surf and the water was fairly clear, but all you could see was a dark moving slick in every direction.  It literally did go for miles in either direction.  Then I looked on the sand, and there was more glittering, shiny movement.  Small baitfish were all over the shore flopping around in desperation.  They had beached themselves trying to escape the predators  behind them in the surf.  This was it.  A true bluefish blitz of historic proportions like the ones I had heard about so often.  It was all I could do to calmly get a leader on my rod and then attach a 4 ounce silver Hopkins spoon.  I definitely didn't have time to go back and get my waders, because my experience in the past with small blitzes was that they could end very quickly.  And I was not going to take the chance this could be over before I got in on any of it.

I finally was ready, and I cocked my arm with my rod and reel, and I cast toward the dark slick.  I don't remember if I got a hit on my first cast or my second.  It really doesn't matter so much.  What I do remember is this.  There were people around, but it wasn't too crowded.  It had been cool outside, but I wasn't cold anymore.  The water temperature had to be in the low 50's but I don't remember being cold from that, either.

I had in my tackle box several 3 foot plastic-coated steel leaders, and a half dozen various silver spoons.  By the end of the day, I was glad I had every one of them.

When the first fish hit, it was unlike anything I had experienced surf fishing to that point of my life.  To catch a large fish when you are casting and reeling in a spoon-like lure - and not just baitfishing - is a very pro-active activity.  You feel the fish attack the lure, and it jolts you to your core.  Then you set the hook, which I'm sure jolts the fish to its core.  Then you begin a real-life tug of war, potentially to the death of one of you.  Hopefully, it will be the fish.  The battle between man and beast, separated by monofilament and steel, lasted several minutes as the fish ran up and down the beach, screaming line off my reel.  Then it would tire or turn back toward me, and I would quickly reel up the line again.  Finally the fish was worn out and was in the wash.  I pulled it up out of the water and smiled.  I had won this battle.
At long last, success.  The fish is beached...  And at least my shirt is still dry.

Now, how do you grab this thing and unhook it, without losing a finger....
 There's a saying that you only grab a bluefish by the mouth once.  Well, let me tell you this, ounce for ounce, pound for pound, a shark has nothing on a bluefish when it comes to the sharpness of its teeth -- or its aggressiveness, for that matter. 

During the course of the next two hours, I caught and landed eight large chopper blues, while losing several more.  But every battle was exciting, and I couldn't be upset when one did get away.  I kept two, and let the remaining six go to live and fight another day.  The tricky part with the ones you want to release, is to unhook them without hurting the fish, and without having them bite off one of your fingers.  You don't want to slide your hand too far in the gill slit for a grip, or you'll damage the fish's gills.  So you use pliers to unhook the treble hook, grab them by the tail, and wiggle them back and forth in shallow water until they shake their tail and escape your grasp to swim to the deep again.

When I had had enough action, I saw some people around me that had just been watching all the activity.  There were a couple of little girls desperately picking up the beached baitfish, and throwing them back into the ocean, so that the poor fish wouldn't die of suffocation.... (They just might die of being a lower rung of the food chain when they hit the water again, but I wasn't going to tell the little girls that.)

And there were also two couples that had rented a beach cottage for Thanksgiving week.  It was the first time they had been here, and were having a terrific time, and had never seen anything like this.  They had seen all the commotion from the window and come down on the beach to witness it firsthand.  I asked them if they wanted to give it a try, and I handed them my rod.

Several casts later, (and a couple of broken lines) each couple walked home with a nice bluefish.  I had done my good deed for the day, just like Bob had done decades before me.  It was now after 4 o'clock, and I knew I had to go.  This blitz had lasted over two hours, and was still going on when I left the beach.  I had one hopkins lure left, and one leader left.  And I was soaking wet from the crotch down.  But I didn't care.  I took my two blues, put them in my cooler, and headed home, blasting the heater as high as it would go.  This was long before the days of everyone having a cell phone, so when I got home, I had to just hope that my wife and family understood why I was late.

Fortunately, the women in my wife's family all run late.  And they are very understanding.  When I arrived back in Suffolk after dark around 6 o'clock, I hadn't missed much at all.  The various cousins and relatives had just arrived, and everyone was impressed with my story and my fish.  I cleaned the fish, bagged the filets, showered, dressed and joined the festivities for what was truly one of my most thankful Thanksgivings ever.
A happy me, holding one of the 2 unhappy, unfortunate blues that went home with me for Thanksgiving Dinner.

Years later when my son Parke was old enough, he and I went down to Nags Head for Thanksgiving for some father and son fishing time.  But that's another post for another time.

Until next time,

Fish On.

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