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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

And They Called It Puppy Love!

It's worth repeating that last year,2009, was the year of the puppy drum.  It started in the spring when I caught a few in the sound off the bridge to Manteo in the early morning hours.  Then later in the summer, we caught so many in our kayaks around Hampton Roads, that almost everybody I took caught at least one, themselves.  And there were times when Mike and I went and we limited out, catching three in the "slot", meaning, "keeper fish" between 18 and 26 inches for Virginia.  (The limit is just one, between 18 and 27 inches for North Carolina.)

They were everywhere....  Everyone I talked with, and every fishing website I looked at agreed.  But as late summer turned to autumn, and autumn got colder, I wondered, would they still be around and plentiful on Boys Weekend....  It was more important to me this year than in others in the past, because for the second year in a row, my brother was coming back down to join us -- after he had been gone several years on hiatus; and also Joel, my best friend from my youth, would be flying all the way from Alaska for his second B.W. adventure.  And that, my friend, is a  L  O  N  G  flight, to put it mildly.  (He had come down to join us in 2006, shortly after we had first gotten back in touch with each other, after too many years in between, and I enticed him with some of our stories from Weekends past.) 

Joel would be flying in on Tuesday, so that we would have the opportunity to do a little kayak fishing for stripers on Wednesday, when the tide was right.  Mike and I had already had excellent success with the stripers that fall, as well, so I felt fairly confident that we wouldn't get skunked.  In fact, if I remember correctly, I may have even "guaranteed" we wouldn't, I was feeling so confident about our knowledge of time, tide, and when the fish were biting -- and, what they liked to bite.

Ted was not going to be able to join us until we left to go to Nags Head on Thursday.  But he was excited to see Joel, as I don't think the two had seen each other since they were both ushers in my wedding more than two decades earlier.  It would be nice to fish with them both -- as well as, of course, with all my other fishing bro's.

The weekend before, however, the worst Nor'Easter Storm we have ever had, hit Hampton Roads.  It's a rule of thumb around here that a typical Nor'Easter lasts three days; well this one was more extreme in every way, with high winds, and lots of rain.  It also caused some extreme tides that flooded the whole region.  Downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth flooded.  Suffolk did too, as tidal waters went way, way above "flood stage".   Schools and businesses closed.  And three days later, it was still around....  It was so bad the animals around the area were starting to pair up in couples, looking for a big boat made out of gopher wood -- whatever the heck that is.
This photo of Randy, taken early in the week behind my father-in-law's house in his gazebo, can only be appreciated when you realize the Nansemond River behind his house is typically 25 feet lower, and  about 300 feet away.  Yes, the buildings across the river are underwater.  And that is Main Street, in Suffolk -- now only passable by boats, kayaks, and jetskis.

 Hundreds, if not thousands of cars were destroyed, and businessowners and homeowners that had never needed it before, were now wishing they had purchased flood insurance, as their houses and buildings were engulfed with several feet of water.  The flooding was as bad as, if not worse than when Hurricane Isabel had come several years earlier, knocking out power to us for 10 days.  Low-lying roads around the region were completely cut off during periods of high tide, causing severe traffic tie ups, especially when the tide coincided with rush hour.  Add to that, numerous accidents from vehicles following too closely or hydroplaning off the road or into each other, and... let's just say, it was not a pleasant period for several days.  Yet all I could think about was, "how is this going to affect the fishing for Boys' Weekend."  (At least I have my priorities straight, huh.)

Joel's flight arrived in heavy rain and winds Tuesday night, and when I greeted him, I watched the blood return to his face from surviving his landing into Norfolk.  On the way home I told him the latest forecast for the week.  The weather system would finally, slowly be pulling away on Wednesday and Thursday, so that the rest of the weekend should be beautiful, if not chilly.  I had no idea how the fishing would be, I told him, but we would try....

We caught up on each other's lives that night, and then I let him get some sleep.  The next day we drove to Northern Suffolk, and approached the public pier where we often launch our kayaks.  It -- as well as several of the nearby homeowners' docks -- was all torn apart.  The tides and waves had knocked out even those docks and piers that were supposed to be "protected" by most winds and waves.  Not this time....
Not only had the end of this pavilion been torn away, but the dock to the right was twisted and destroyed, and others that are not in view, were also ruined.  Jetskis were washed away, and boats were destroyed, too.  To top it off, we are still finding lumber along the shoreline of the river when kayaking, almost a year later....
Mike joined us, and we launched our kayaks.  The tide was still higher than normal, but we were out here, so we might as well fish.  We went during the incoming tide, and fished until well after it had turned.  Nothing.  Finally, we surrendered.  The water was too dirty, muddy, and filled with debris, and there were no fish to be found anywhere.  I'm sure the salinity was also way out of whack due to the amount of rain we had, but at least we had a nice time kayaking all around the river.
Fishing the shoreline Wednesday, but the shoreline is farther up the shore this day....  Oh well, at least we're not singing, Jimmy Buffett's, "Oh the wind is blowing harder now, 50 knots, or thereabouts."  No more whitecaps, either.
My "guarantee" of catching fish, would have to be extended to the actual B.W, itself.  Inshore fishing would still need at least a week for the water to clean up, before it would pick up,again.

But tomorrow Ted was coming and we would all be heading down to Nags Head for some surf fishing.  Hopefully that would be better.  It couldn't be worse, right.  And besides, this was an odd-numbered year.  That meant we were supposed to catch fish.  When Joel had come in '06, and Ted had come in '08, we caught squat!  The fishing (as in what we actually caught those years) was pathetic, but the camaraderie we shared was worth the trip, as always.  2007 was awesome for catching fish (as well as other experiences, as written about in a previous post), so  we were due to catch fish, again this year.  Right?  If only the massive Nor'Easter hadn't screwed up the ocean, too....

Ted arrived in Suffolk shortly after noon, and we transferred his gear to my Suburban.  The three of us then headed down to the OBX.  Mike and Jerry were already on their way.  Randy and Mark would be joining us Friday.  There would be seven of us this year.  We bought ice and bait once we hit the island, and after we arrived at the cottage and unloaded our gear, we headed to the little bridge to Manteo to try our luck there until dusk.  Once again, we had no success with the inshore fishing, but at least we gave it the old college try.  Back at the cottage, we got some pizzas and a twelve pack, while we did the usual first night festivities of cleaning tackleboxes, lining reels, and tying rigs, while watching ESPN's Thursday night college football game - as if it mattered who's playing.  The wind was dying, but the clouds and drizzle were still around.  Hopefully they'd clear out by the next morning.  Man, did this storm stick around forever.  It was six days and counting.  What would the surf fishing be like?  We'd find out soon enough....

The next morning, after our usual stop at 7/11, we went to Oregon Inlet -- our usual Friday spot, now.  The clouds were breaking up, the air was cool, but there were still showers around.  The wind wasn't howling, anymore, so it wasn't bitterly cold.  The morning started slowly, but as the sun began to rise above the ocean, we glanced behind us, and witnessed an amazing, complete double rainbow.  It was a good sign, I thought.  Surely, things would pick up, now.
Don't tell me this rainbow isn't leading to Paradise.  Of course, photos never do rainbows justice....  Still, the clouds in the back are pretty impressive, too, as the Nor'Easter from Hell finally moves on....
The low sun started breaking through more and more of the clouds, shining on the dirty, choppy surf, turning it into a shimmering, liquid bronze.  The conditions actually looked pretty good....  If only the fish thought so, too.  We each baited our lines with cut bait or eels, and cast out into the surf.  A sandbar was just at the edge of our casting range, and we had to decide if the fish were on this side of the bar, or the ocean side.  So we cast all around it.  When I caught the first fish of the day, a small flounder directly on the bar, I knew we would be catching more.  Thankfully, the fish were around, after all.
Ted getting ready to cast his heaver out to the sandbar beyond the silvery bronze surf....
Getting ready to release the first fish of the weekend, so it can grow up and become bigger and tastier....
Ted had never caught a drum of any size in his life, so when his rod bowed shortly after I released the flounder, I was thrilled.  I could tell it was a keeper.  He fought it well, and brought in the first pup of the weekend.  We would be eating fish tonight!!  And we had our first fish in the cooler.
Ted fighting the pup.  We knew it wasn't a hog striper or bull drum, because his rod wasn't bowed too much.  But it was a keeper, and it would be tasty.  And it was his first red drum he had ever caught.
It was a beautiful fish... and just the right size for blackening.  It would be delicious.
The bite was on.  Pretty soon, Mike had a strike and brought in his own pup.  A "dalmation" pup, with more than just the one spot on its tail, but several up and down the length of its body.
Now we would have enough fish for all of us that night....
Then I got in on the act, with one of my own.  But I felt bad that Joel, however, hadn't caught one yet.  Though he was getting a kick taking our pictures with his fancy digital 1,000,000 Megapixel SLR camera. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry though, as both he and Jerry each hooked up shortly after we all had.

When Joel brought in his fish, it absolutely made my day.  My guarantee was fulfilled, and I was more thrilled that he had caught one than I was for myself, or even Ted.  After all, he had come all the way from freakin' Alaska, for crying out loud.  We couldn't have let him go home a second time without any fish stories to tell, or he'd probably never be allowed to return.  And now he was already on the board, and it was only the first morning.

We all caught at least one pup that day, and we all relaxed, enjoying the weather as it finally cleared up.  There would be no shortage of fish for us that week, so our mood was only improving.
I was glad I caught one, shortly after Ted did, because I certainly can't let my brother outfish me....
The 3 Stooges of Jerry, Joel and Mike, with their catches.  It was a good day.  The strand of line coming out of the mouth of Joel's fish, was where the fish had been hooked once before and broken off.  Not too smart a fish, I'd say, if he hadn't learned his lesson.  There is no free lunch in the surf....  There are always strings attached.
Once we had some fish in the cooler, it was time to eat.  Mike had been given some baby back ribs from Jeff, our food wholesaler, who wasn't able to make it this year, and he grilled them right up for us.  They were definitely appreciated!  It's amazing how delicious food is on the beach, when you've been up since before dawn, been fishing, and have only had coffee and a bagelwich.  And Jeff is such a great friend to have -- especially for these situations....
When those ribs started grilling, they smelled so good, we could barely wait until they were ready.  Ted is burning his mouth in the background, having just stolen one from the grill. 
Randy joined us late in the afternoon, so that meant there could potentially be a sixth puppy drum caught, and taken home that night, to complete the day and make it "perfect".  Would that happen?  Well, just look at the bed of Mike's pick up truck, as we started packing it up to go.  It was a perfect day.
Six people, six puppies.  A perfect first day on the beach draws to a close....  Now let's go eat them up!

The day ended when the sun went down, and we returned to the cottage.  While Mark met us at the cottage, we were not about to let the old "Salty Dog", (or maybe he's the Salty Pup) Mark cook again.  I said I would make some blackened redfish, since I had brought along my cast iron skillet and the spices, if the others would take care of the rest of the meal.  Everybody agreed, and Mark did nothing.  That was a good thing.  It was an absolutely delicious, perfectly seasoned meal of blackened redfish, a nice pinot noir, potatoes and veggies.  Our wives would have been proud.
A tray full of blackened redfish.  Paul Prudhomme would have been proud of me that night.
The fine bourbon Mark brought this year was Wild Turkey's Rare Breed.  So after a delicious dinner was cleaned up, we retired to the porch with a glass of bourbon and a cigar, and enjoyed each other's company.  I must say, as I was surrounded by my brother and all of my closest friends, doing what we all love, that it couldn't get any better than this.  It was a moment to cherish.
A memorable day with the guys I love most.  ("I love you, man.")  A meal as good as any high end restaurant could serve, and now enjoying a Cohiba and sipping some Rare Breed Turkey.  The only thing missing was some Milwaukee's Best.  "It doesn't get any better than this."
The question was, would Oregon Inlet be just as productive on Saturday?  We decided to fore-go driving all the way to Buxton in the morning, because as the old adage says, "You don't leave fish to go find fish."  So we would start the day at O.I., and only if the fishing had dried up, would we head farther south and hit the Point.

The next morning, the sun was shining, but the wind was blowing... not unbearably, but there would be some good chop on the water.  The surf would not be laying down anytime soon.  That's a good thing.  When we hit O.I.  we drove to the exact same spot we had been before, having marked it previously with some driftwood -- or perhaps it was lumber from the neighbors' docks up in Suffolk.

It was close to where the inlet itself meets the surf, and it looked good again, today.  We set up our sand spikes, establishing our territory from other surf fishermen that may come and try to crowd us, and then cut up some bait.

Looking out just beyond the sandbar, a small boat was trolling for stripers right on the shoals.  It never ceases to amaze me when we see pleasure craft doing this.  First of all, the captain of the boat must be an expert seaman, and he has to stay alert at all times, as the waves can come crashing at him from any direction at any time.  Second of all, it can't be any fun for him or anyone on the boat.  You are being tossed and turned as if you were in a washing machine, and I've got to believe that the only thing more prevalent than overwashed seawater on the deck, is barf.  Thirdly, the water is cold.  If you capsize, you are in jeopardy of dying very quickly.  That is not an exaggeration.  And lastly, we have seen boats capsize out there.  A few times.  Fortunately, nobody died the times we saw the boats, but only because there were others around to help them.  Anyway, I'll stick to surf casting from the beach, thank you very much....
Would you want to be on that boat just beyond the first set of breakers?  Not me.   And knowing Mark, he's probably going to try and cast right beyond the boat.... "Because he can...."
Well, any doubt we may have had about whether Saturday was going to be as good as Friday, was quickly answered by me, when my rod bowed and a few minutes later I caught a nice pup.  They were still around!
"Second verse, same as the first."  Everybody sing, "Oy'm Ennery the 8th Oy am."  There aren't too many times when you can count on the fishing being just as good the next day.  This was one of them.
Shortly after that, I cast my heaver out again, and set it in the sand spike.  A few minutes later, just when I had wandered away from it, it bowed over quickly and sharply as line started running off the reel.  I ran over and grabbed it, however, but by the time I did, the 17# test line snapped.  Lesson learned was DO NOT EVER be too far away from your rod.  I'll never know for sure what hit it, but my guess was a random hog striper.  Oh well.  It happens.  You can't catch them all.

Now I'm not going to say I got bored, or anything, catching all these puppy drum, but when you're satisfied and you see that others are still trying, well, sometimes you get a little mischievous.  After all, part of the fun of Boys' Weekend is playing a few jokes on each other here and there.  And an opportunity presented itself to me that I just could not refuse.

The tide had gone out by the afternoon, and so some of us put on our chest waders to walk out to the sandbar, to cast beyond and into the next one farther out.  There was just one problem.  The sand was soft in the slough between the beach and the bar, and the water was still deep enough to spill over your chest waders unless you were careful about where you walked.  The path to walk safely, most of us discovered, was just down to the south of us, nearer the point of Oregon Inlet.  Several of us went out there and fished a while, but when I had to come in to rebait my hook, I decided to take a break, sit down, relax, and let the others try and catch some fish for a while.

Jerry came over to me, having finally put his waders on, and seeing some of the guys now back to the north and directly in front of us in the surf, he asked where the safe walking path was.  The little "devil dan" on my left shoulder didn't even give the little "angel dan" on my right shoulder a chance.  A solid uppercut knocked that angel senseless, and the "devil dan" spoke up.

"You see the guys straight out there, right."
Jerry nodded.
"Just walk straight out towards them from right here. Not to the left or right, but straight out from here."

Jerry turned and started walking into the surf.  I grabbed Joel's camera and prepared for a laugh.  I hoped I wouldn't jiggle the camera too much from chuckling, as he walked into the slough.  The water rose to his crotch as he walked toward Joel and Randy.  No problem so far....
I really should be nicer to my friends... Jerry doesn't know how deep he's about to get.
Joel and Randy were right there, less than 50 yards in front of him.  He was sure he'd be there in a minute.  So he kept walking straight towards them.
Jerry might be getting a bit suspicious at this point... but he's almost there, right?
He could see where the water was washing off the sand in front of him.  He was almost to the hill of the bar.  J u s t   a  f e w   m o r e    s t e p s . . . . and then up, and he would be in ankle deep water.  But first....
Almost there... Uh oh.  That big wave just went up and over his waders and down into his legs....  And it's COLD...  and WET....     I am not a very nice person.
A big wave came over the bar, and Jerry tried to jump to avoid having the wash spill over into his waders, and down his clothing.  Unfortunately, white boys can't jump.  And Jerry was a big white boy.  Correction:  a big, wet boy.  (Shrinkage Alert, I'm sure.)  He realized he couldn't make it up the bar without getting wetter -- and colder, so he finally turned south and found a better, not wetter way.
Finally wise enough (and wet enough) to head down south so that he could joint Joel & Randy.  "How'd they stay dry?"

He didn't know I sent him there on purpose as a joke until later when I confessed, and showed him the photos.  But at least he -- and everyone else -- was able to laugh about it.  I am not a nice guy.

Ted is a determined, if not patient man.   When the rest of us are ready to relax and socialize with a beverage, he is still a man on a mission until he catches a fish.  Sometimes we mock him for his stubbornness, and sometimes this behavior is rewarded.  It was this day, when he hooked into an even nicer pup out on the sandbar than he had caught the day before.  Plus, fighting it out on the bar added to the drama.  Because even if you fight it and bring it all the way to your feet, if you're not careful, it can get away with a quick flip of its tail.  Just ask Mike about the wrestling match he had several years earlier with his first big striper.  Ted was there then.  He saw it.  he wasn't about to lose this fish after he fought it all the way to him, He carefully picked it up at the gills, then walked it back through the slough to the trucks.  He was very proud when he brought that fish over to me for a photo.
This pup was well worth the effort to drive from Philadelphia.  It would be going home to Philly with him.
For the second day in a row, most of us limited out on puppy drum.  When Joel was ready to try something else, I suggested he try a little flounder fishing.  "Okay, but what do I do?" he asked.  This was the guy who had showed me how to fish for sockeye salmon and halibut in Alaska a few years earlier.  I was going to treat him right.  I want to go back there one day.

"Grab my seven foot rod with the small hook, and put a piece of bait on it, with a two ounce weight,"  He looked at me kinda funny.  "I'm serious," I said.  He went and got the rod, weight and some bait.
"Now walk to the edge of the surf, and just flip the bait about 10-20 feet out, just beyond where the last wave breaks."  He looked at me, I know, like he thought I was pulling a joke on him as I just had done with Jerry.  But Joel is quiet, and trusting.  So he turned away, and did what I said.

A few minutes later, he walked up to me, laughing, holding a nice 18 inch flounder.  The only one more surprised than him by his success, was me.  It's true, that is how you fish for flounder, alright, but the fact that it actually worked right then and there when I told him, amazed even me.
"Son of a gun, look what I caught?  A teeny, tiny baby halibut.  What you said, actually worked"  I'm sure this is what Joel was thinking when he was holding this fish.  This was his first flounder -- though he's caught numerous halibut up in Alaska.  But it was a good weekend for him.
When Joel wasn't fishing, we seemed to keep him busy at least once each day, earning his Ph.D in ornithology.  There were at least three occasions where seagulls got caught or tangled in our lines, one time even getting hooked in the beak, having picked up a hook with bait on it.  And each time, Dr. Joel came over while Ted or I held the bird, and he unhooked or untangled the patient.  And he never lost a finger -- which is impressive, considering one of the times was with a large herring gull.  You don't realize how sharp their beaks are, until you are staring at it, trying to get your hands near it....  What would we have done without Dr. Joel?  Come to think of it, on his previous trip, the first thing he did was save a cormorant from a similar fate....

Before the day was out, Randy also caught a nice flounder about the same size, and by the time we were all ready to head back to the cottage for a monster rib-eye dinner, the back of Mike's truck bed was almost as pretty as it could be with fish.  Five pups and two nice flounder.  But Mark had yet to catch a fish.  He was not happy....  He doesn't like to be skunked when everybody else hasn't been.  We, on the other hand, love it when Mark is upset....  (I've already said I'm not a nice guy... What do you expect.)
A good day's fishing looks something like this, again... except to Mark, who contributed as much to this truck bed, as he had the previous day, when he wasn't even there.  The only question that remained was, "Would he recover, and catch something the final day?"
That night we destroyed a 10 pound boneless ribroast that we cut up into rib eyes.  Some nice California zinfandel was opened to accompany the steaks, and we were set for the night.  We let Mark cut up the meat, but not cook it.  Once again, we got him away from the kitchen when it mattered most.
"Okay Mark, once you've cut the beef into rib eyes, please step away from the food.  And put down that salt!"
After dinner, it was time for a sip of some good "Rare" barley/corn water, and an ESPN football game.... Then bed.  A good day, again.  Could we possibly have three in a row???  And would Mark ever catch a fish again???

The next morning was sunny, a little calmer, and a little warmer.  Randy had to leave early, so we bid adieu to him, and the rest of us went down to Oregon Inlet and set up camp again.  We got our lines in the water, and unfortunately, you can't keep a good man down too long.  Mark, using some light tackle, finally hooked into a nice little pup.  His rod bowed in half, and he had a nice fight on hand.
Mark finally bringing in a fish... the hard, fun way on light tackle.
He posed quite proudly, showing everyone the smell of "skunk" had been washed clean off of him....
"I'm on the board... finally!"  Mark thought with much relief.

And then later in the day, he caught another on his monster heaver.  I don't think this fish, even though it was bigger, felt as large to him as the first did on the light tackle.  But it was a nice, keeper puppy drum.
If you can see Mark behind all the camouflage, he is holding up his 2nd pup of the day, this time caught with his biggest heaver.
The rest of Sunday was slower.  We enjoyed the day at the beach, but we all didn't have the success we had the previous two days.  Still we couldn't complain.  A relaxing day was fine with us.  One highlight of the day was watching a fisherman 200 yards up the beach bring in a hog-sized striper -- a good 30 pounder that when he picked it up from the surf, stretched from his waist to to the sand.  It made me realize that the previous day, when my line had snapped, it probably WAS a hog striper.  Dammitall!  I wasn't going to leave my rod alone again.
Me staying close to my rod this time, just in case another hog comes a'calling.... But while that boat is much bigger than the ones we had seen yesterday, I'm still happier on the shore.  It just looks like too much work in a boat.
The day was drawing to a close, so Ted, Joel and I returned to the cottage, cleaned it up, and headed back to Virginia.  With a cooler full of fish.  We love it when that happens!  A relaxing evening with my family, retelling the weekend's adventures, and we were all ready for bed.  We had to get up early one more day....

Sure enough, at 4 a.m. Monday, my alarm went off, as I had to get Joel to the airport for a 6 a.m. flight.  Ted decided to go ahead and hit the road then, too.  We said goodbye to him, before hitting the road ourselves.  He would be back in Philly by 10:30.  I just went straight to work in Virginia Beach after dropping Joel off at the airport.  Joel would arrive in Anchorage at about the time I got home that night.  And just that quickly, we would all be hundreds, if not thousands of miles apart from each other.  But as I sat at my desk in my office in the predawn light of a new week, my mind went back to the weekend.

We may be far apart from each other in physical distance, but the memory of an awesome weekend like we had just experienced would always keep us close.  As different as we all are, the love we share for each other and for being outdoors fishing together, is a bind that ties us together always.  And while neither Ted nor Joel will be able to make this year's Boys' Weekend, I know they'll be with us in spirit.  They both will certainly be in our hearts.  And you can be doggone sure, that should we catch any fish worth bragging about, they'll hear about it before the weekend is over.

I do expect them both back next year....

So until next time,

Fish on,

(PS:  A special thanks to Joel who had his camera and took so many awesome shots I couldn't even think of using them all.  Still, most of these are from him.)

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