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

Monday, November 8, 2010

In The Beginning.... (The Genesis of Boys' Weekend)

(Don't worry, Mike and Mark.  There are no close up photos of us in this post; because nobody wants to see Mike's 80's-style mullet hairdo and "porn star cheesy" mustache, and nobody needs to know that twenty- something years ago, Mark was about 50 pounds lighter, and I had more hair.)

IN The beginning, there was darkness.  And the darkness would lead to light.  And during this period of transition between darkness and light, and then again, between light and darkness, the beasts of the waters feasted near the surface where the firmament separates from the waters and the dry land.  And the beasts of the air called out and showed their location, flying above the waters where the beasts of the sea were feasting.  

And there were three young men of different tribes, and they heard about the feasting of large, voracious blue leviathans longer than two cubits.  And they said, "Let us go fishing at this place below the firmament, where the waters separate from dry land.  And let us be there as the darkness turns to light, so that we may partake in this festivity, and admire God's Creation until long after the light turns to darkness again."  

And they drove down to "Eden", and cast out their lines to capture the large, scaled creatures of the waters.  And they saw that it was good.  (Actually their skills were pathetic, their knowledge was almost non-existent, and the fishing stunk; but they would learn, and they did enjoy themselves.)  And they drove home with nothing but the memory of a good time.  And they made a covenant with each other to do this again.  And again.  So there was morning, and there was evening.  And that was the first day.

My recollection of our first couple of Boys' Weekends has gotten a little hazy with age.  After all, we're talking about events that occurred in the spring and fall of 1987.  And there may have also been a little alcohol involved in some of the events....  But here goes.

After graduating from college in 1986, I moved to Richmond to find a job, and lived with one of my former roommates and fraternity brothers, Mark.  Mark had lived in an apartment complex for a year already, and while there, had met some of his neighbors, Mike and Jeff.  When I moved in, the four of us did many things together.  Pool parties and volleyball at the complex are just a couple of events I recall; but all of us became close friends.

After I got a job, I bought my first new car -- a 1986 Isuzu Trooper, II.  Navy blue with four doors, it even had air conditioning --something my '78 diesel Rabbit didn't have....  I thought it was the best thing I had ever owned.  It was 4WD, and it even got decent gas mileage -- about 20 MPG.  I had added driving lights to my Rabbit, so I added them to the Trooper, too.  They made it safer, I told myself.  Actually, I thought they made it look cooler and sportier, too.  I loved that truck, and couldn't wait to take it four-wheeling.  Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long, as we had plenty of snow that winter, and the truck performed beautifully.  Now I was ready for the beach.
My First New Car:  A 1986 Isuzu Trooper II.  It was my first car with A/C, too.  And cruise control.  Man was I in style with this truck, or what!  With 4WD, I got the largest tires I could get on the wheel, added driving lights, and later made a custom rod rack for the front to hold my surf rods.  I loved this truck, and drove it until it had almost 200,000 miles.  It was the Original Boys' Weekend Vehicle, and never let us down... well, almost never....

During that first year, Mark and I moved to another apartment complex, across the street, but we kept in close contact with Mike.  Jeff, who is his nephew even though they are of similar age, ended up moving back to Ohio.  (But we would see him again, in future years....)

I'm sure during the course of some of our time spent together and conversations, we all talked about our love for fishing.  Having grown up in Ohio, Mike was familiar with freshwater fishing, especially fishing for steelhead with a "noodle" rod with Jeff and his best friend -- soon to be brother-in-law Johnny.  Mark had grown up in Williamsburg, was one of four boys, and was familiar with both freshwater and saltwater fishing -- but primarily inshore fishing or fishing from a boat.  While both of us were in college, we did our share of trout fishing in the Shenandoah National Forest, or fishing Newman Lake on the campus of James Madison.  But those may be a post for another day....

I, on the other hand, had grown up for the most part in Delaware, where I had gone fishing in fresh water most of the spring, summer or fall in nearby ponds, streams and rivers.  And two weeks every summer, my family would rent a cottage in Stone Harbor, New Jersey.  It was there where my brother and I would go surf fishing in the morning or evening for bluefish or "weak fish" (grey trout).  Then at night, we drove to the sound in our '74 Gremlin, and would go shark fishing off a short pier. That was especially exciting after the movie "Jaws" first came out.  We'd be out there until late at night, with just a few other diehards, fishing for large toothy critters.  I have some very fond memories of those times....

The summer after I graduated from high school before heading down to JMU, I lived down in Stone Harbor, working in a hardware store during the day.  I was head of the sporting goods section, which thrilled me.  The 8 a.m. clock-in, however, didn't.  Anyway, in the evening when I got off work, I would often go fishing or crabbing for dinner.  Flounder, bluefish, weakfish, or a dozen crabs were greeted warmly by my two roommates when I came home.  So I thought I knew a thing or two about surf fishing....  Ha!

Mike, Mark and I had heard about how in the spring and fall -- especially in April and November, schools of large, chopper bluefish, 15 to 20 pounders, would storm the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and often blitz the beaches as they fed on various baitfish, chasing these baitfish into the shallows, and even onto the shore.  None of us had ever experienced anything like this, as I had only caught random, lone "rogue" bluefish up in Stone Harbor.  We wanted to give it a try, and see if we could witness and partake in this phenomenon.  It sounded amazing.

This is a Bluefish Blitz on the OBX; ironically filmed later, on my 30th birthday, which I spent hunting and celebrating with Mike and Mark and other friends....  But this is what we had been looking for, for 5 years by the time this guy filmed this.  I guess we should have gone fishing this day, instead of hunting and partying.  Oh well.  Click this & Enjoy.

We decided to wake up extra early one April Saturday morning, and take my "Super Trooper" down to the beach, to Oregon Inlet, to give it a shot.  And that's what we did.

I dug out my old 10' fiberglass surf rod, that I had bought when I was maybe 13 years old, and Penn surf reel (I still have both, and they both still work great), and put on new line.  I got my surf fishing tackle box, and sorted through it.  We were ready.  We didn't do much planning then.  Heck, we were all in our early to mid 20's, so we didn't think about a lot things.  But we hit the road well before sunrise and headed southeast from Richmond to the OBX.  (This was even before "OBX" meant anything to anybody yet.  The trademark oval  bumper stickers hadn't been created yet.)

We all had basic fishing equipment, and the clothes on our back, and that was about it.... Food?  We'll pick some up when we get hungry.  Drinks?  We'll stop and get some beer on the way down.  (There was no need for any other type of beverage, right?)  Bait?  We'll see if we need any when we get down there.  (We were expecting these blitzes to be so prevalent, that we just had to make certain we had enough steel leaders, poppers, silver spoons and hopkins lures to keep casting at the blues, while we stacked them like cord-wood behind us.  I believe the limit (if there even was one back then) was 14 big blues per person, and we were probably both dumb and naive enough to believe we would all limit out.  After all, every one of us knew how to fish, already.... How hard could it be, when you go to the "fisherman's paradise", which is the Outer Banks....

I have two recollections of the way down.  First, that after a few hours driving, we stopped somewhere in North Carolina to buy beer at a 7/11, and the lady at the counter told us that we couldn't buy it until after 6a.m.  That should give you an idea of how early we were on the road.  Secondly, some time around sunrise, we were driving the two lane road (it's now four lanes, with a fifth, center turn lane) towards the bridge to the island, and I saw a bird, a robin in the road ahead of me -- perhaps getting a worm that had crawled onto the road during the cool, wet night.  I kept the cruise control on, knowing that the bird would certainly fly away any moment, as it saw us approaching.
Fly away!  Fly away!  Oh well, nevermind.  My cruise control works just fine, though....

It never did.  I ran right over that dang bird, and for the rest of the day that was all we kept talking and laughing about.  How that was one early bird that did not get the worm.  How it does not always pay to be the early bird.  How the birds that were still sleeping in, were all still alive.  Perhaps there were some words of wisdom in that for us, as we had absolutely no luck whatsoever.  I mean none.  I already told you the highlight of what we talked about the whole day was a dead songbird, and how I killed it!

We didn't see the first fish.  We didn't see anybody catch the first fish anywhere.  But I guess somewhere during the course of the day, we had enough fun to decide that we wanted to try it again in the fall -- we would plan a whole weekend trip in November.  Now we just had to wait seven months.  And that was the first Boys' Weekend.  Well, it was really just a Boys' Day, as we drove all the way back to Richmond that night when we were done.  The Super Trooper performed admirably on the beach, and I couldn't wait to go back.

November finally rolled around, and my world had changed greatly.  I was now a happy newlywed, having just gotten married the first Saturday in October (the 3rd), and my beautiful bride and I now lived on the other side of town.  Susan allowed me to plan this weekend with the boys, so we were excited to go.  In addition to Mike (who was also newly married in August) and Mark, a fellow coworker of mine, "Finny" was going to join us, too.  We were all going to pile into the Trooper and head to my In-Laws' cottage for the weekend.

The cottage was an older, one story frame house in Nags Head, raised up several feet from the earth, which kept it dry in times of flooding.  It was not winterized, but had a massive brick fireplace exposed in the middle of it.  Located one block from the beach, it was very basic in design, but still had a lot of charm.  We loaded the entire back of my Trooper with firewood, knowing if we got a big fire going, the heat would eventually emanate from the bricks of the hearth to the surrounding cottage, to keep us warm through the night.  You have to remember, this was long ago, during the last great Ice Age, so November was definitely cold.  What luggage and coolers we needed were packed around us and the wood.

I had made a "rod rack" out of PVC pipe and a 2X8 piece of salt-treated wood, for the front of my truck, and we put our surf rods in that.  We hoped the telephone lines on the way down to Nags Head were all high enough that they wouldn't clip off the tips of our rods, but there was no room anywhere else.  We had to cross our fingers and hope.  (Truth is, we had seen other trucks driving the same way, so we suspected it was okay, but only breathed easily, after we had done the trip once ourselves.)

So, with Mike and Finny in the back, and Mark riding "shotgun" next to me, we headed down Friday after work.  When we arrived at the cottage we unloaded our essentials:  beer, bourbon, cigars, and firewood, and went in the cold cottage.  We got a big fire burning, and set up a card table in front of it.  For the rest of the evening, as the cottage finally started to warm up, we played poker, smoking cigars and drinking beer and bourbon.  Big spenders that we all were, it was penny poker, and the overall winner may have won a couple of bucks.  But Poker Night during Boys' Weekend was a tradition we would always have at that old cottage. 

Then, when we were finally tired enough, and warm enough to venture into the recesses that were the bedrooms, we'd go to sleep for a few hours.  We left the four bedroom doors open to capture the heat from the fireplace radiating outward; but it was then that we realized the only thing worse than Mike's never-ceasing, passing-of-gas (which, truth be told, was kind of humorous), was his rock-concert-loud-decibel-level snoring.  From that point forward, we all fought to be on the other side of the cottage from him.

Early the next morning we woke up before sunrise, got some bait, and then hit the beach that was a block away from the cottage.  The choppy cold water looked promising, and there was always a nice drop off into a slough there before the sand bar, so we figured it was filled with fish.  We scanned the horizon, looking for tell-tale signs of a bluefish blitz:  birds flying above and diving, and a change in the coloration of the water where the fish were.  Nothing.  So we'd fish with bait for the occasional, wandering "rogue" blue, while we waited for the inevitable "blitz" to materialize....  Hours later, we had caught nothing... but maybe a buzz from a few more beers.

We went back to the cottage for a bite, and then decided to hit Oregon Inlet for the late afternoon and evening.  We drove down to the south end of Oregon Inlet, and stopped in an area where the inlet runs, about half way between the Bonner Bridge to our west, and the main beach and ocean to our east.  We cast out our rods, and waited again.  It was late afternoon, and Mark was tired.  He lay down in the sand, in a flat "bed" he had carved out, rolled over onto his side, and in no time fell asleep.  He had been bragging about how his Cabela's "Mr. Fancy Pants" Waterproof, Insulated, Camouflaged, $1000 Hunting Coat and Pants Ensemble were the best money could buy, and when we were sure he was fast asleep on the sand, we decided to test them out.  Well, I did.  (This was the beginning of me not being a nice guy.)

The beach on the south side was very flat then, and while we were parked above the tidal line, the tide was coming in.  Mark was dead-to-the-world passed out, and that little "devil dan" made his presence known on my left shoulder.  I've alway enjoyed playing in the sand, making sand castles, sculptures and digging moats, and the like.  Well, I decided to dig a moat. Okay, it was more like a canal.

I got a large shell and proceeded to dig a path from the surf all the way to where Mark was soundly resting.  It took a while, but the tide was coming in, and I still had time on my side.  The fish (still...) weren't biting.  Mark wasn't moving.  And Mike and Finny laughed when they finally realized what my goal was.  They didn't laugh too loudly, however.  They didn't want to wake up Mark....  (Which, in a court of law, I figure, makes them guilty of the sin by "omission", if not "commission.")  I dug the channel all the way to the concave "bed of sand" where Mark was snoozing beyond my truck,  At last, it was complete.  My work was done.  Now we just had to wait for the next large set of waves....

It didn't take long.  The first wave of a new set came in, and the water corralled into the channel, and veered towards Mark.  But the first wave is never the biggest, and it fell short of its goal.  Then came the second.  Closer still, but not quite.  Then the third wave broke and started up the course of the smooth, flat canal.  It had the power and the volume.  It was going to be the one to do it.  Our eyes twinkled with malicious intent as we watched the waters move toward Mark's bed.  Finally they reached the end of my path and flooded the bed.
Inspired by the Panama Canal, I dug my own PanaMark Canal between the Atlantic and Mark's Cabela's outfit.

It is amazing how quickly someone can wake up, get up, and run away when they are greeted with cold water engulfing their body.  Mark never moved so fast in his life.  And for some reason or another, he didn't kill me.  I'm glad.  Although I almost died laughing.  We all did.  I am just sorry I didn't have a video camera back then; but the memory of the "PanaMark" Canal has lasted well over two decades.

The sun went down, and we were still fishing down on the inlet.  We put our cutting boards and bait at the front of the truck, so that we could turn on the headlights when we needed to cut bait.  Then we sat on the beach (I don't even think we had beach chairs back then -- we didn't have room for them, because of all the firewood... and beer ), and waited for our rods to bow down with a fish, any kind of fish on the end of the line.

With "fireball" rigs, that had an orange styrofoam ball above the hook to make your bait float, you need to have a little more weight on the line, or your line is more likely to drift.  Especially with a current.  Well, our lines drifted with the current of the incoming or outgoing tides, and would wash up on the beach.  We noticed that sometimes when we brought in our lines we had caught "trash fish" that didn't fight much, compared to our large surf rods.  These "trash fish" were copper and silvery in color, about a foot long, and we could tell were bottom feeders, by the low position of their mouth on their head.  We had no idea what they were, however, other than the fact that they weren't bluefish, so they were considered "trash".

When Finny fell asleep on the beach (you think he'd a learned somethin' watchin' Mark earlier) we played a joke on him.  We reeled in his line, put two of these "trash fish" on his double rig, and then cast it back out.  When he awoke, relieved he was still dry, he brought in his line, only to be pleasantly surprised that he had two fish.  Oddly, they were both dead... but hey, he caught two fish!  He threw them back in the ocean, where we had thrown the other few "trash fish" we had caught.  I think to this day, we never have told him we put those dead fish on his hooks....

The joke would ultimately be on us, when we later realized these fish were "sea mullet" or "king fish", a delicious cousin of both croaker and drum, that fry up quite wonderfully!  If only we had known that then, we could have had our first Boys' Weekend with a fish dinner.  As it was, we just got another good laugh out of them.
Little did we know how tasty these fish that stay close to the shoreline are....  Now we know.

The evening wore on, and all the other fishermen with trucks on the beach had left.  We'd see headlights turn on a few hundred yards away, and then watch the headlights leave to the east and then go to the north to the entrance to the road.  We decided to pack up and head back, ourselves, for a hot fire, some more poker and maybe some more bourbon.  When the Trooper was loaded, we all climbed in and I cranked the key.

Nothing.  I turned the key again.  Click.  Silence.  Darkness.  The world seemed colder all of the sudden.  We all just sat in silence, and said in unison, "Oh $#&+!"  I guess we had cut too much bait with the headlights on, and now we were stuck on Oregon Inlet, late, late at night with a dead car battery.  In the cold, and the dark.  Alone.  And now we were hungry.  And we all wanted to go home.  And we got scared.  And we all wanted our mommy.... We were pathetic.  What was that story about the Donner party and the airline crash in the Andes mountains in 1972?  We weren't that desperate yet, were we??  No, but we were alone....

First of all, you have to remember this was long before everybody had cell phones.  And from where we were it would have been at least a two or three mile walk through the sand, to get to the nearest road, so we weren't thrilled with that prospect.  But the thought of spending the rest of the bitter night on the beach was even bleaker.  So there we were.  Four young men, away for the weekend.  Alone.  Isolated from the world.  Nobody would miss us for at least 24 if not 36 hours.  And all we could think about was the theme from "Deliverance"  We just needed a red-neck, oversized pick up truck to pull up with a few inbreeds with bad teeth, holding banjos.  Then, we were sure, we would all have to do our best Ned Beatty impression of a pig squealing.... Our bodies shivered at that thought, just as a set of headlights turned on to the west of us, close to the Bonner Bridge.  Someone else WAS out here.  We weren't alone.  We suddenly weren't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.  But they were heading our way....

We summed up the last of our courage, and walked towards where their headlights were shining, to intercept them so that they would see us.  It was a pickup truck.  And it stopped.  "Dueling Banjos" opening few lines started plucking in the back of our minds....  We told them our dilemma, and they drove over to our truck.  The guitar part answered.  Burt Reynolds and John Voight were nowhere to be found to help us.  The banjo played again, as they got out of their car.
We did NOT want to see this guy in the back of that Pick up truck driving towards us....

I don't even remember if I had my jumper cables that night.  I usually do, but I may have taken them out to make more room for firewood and beer, for all I know.  Ya gotta keep your priorities straight, you know.  Regardless, they had a set too.  I bent over the open hood of my Trooper, self-conscious of what part of my anatomy was exposed to them, and quickly hooked up the cables to my battery.  The bigger guy got out of the truck and smiled.  We saw one tooth. The driver got out, too, as the guitar echoed the banjo, and the duel began.  "SQUEEEEAL!"

Actually, they hooked up their side of the cables, and then they jumped us.  Well, they jump-started my truck, I mean.  My engine roared back to life, we thanked them, offered to pay them a few bucks, which they politely declined, and then we finally made it back home to the cottage.  But the imagination is a powerful thing, and we vowed that night, that from that point forward we would have whatever we might need, to never have to count on outsiders again.  And we have lived up to that vow, learning as we go through the years.

When we finally got back to the cottage, we started up another big fire, drank a lot of bourbon, and were very thankful to be back in that cold cottage.  I went to bed that night, never having been so relieved to be in a bed, and not still out on the Inlet.

But by sunrise the next morning, guess where we were... Right back at Oregon Inlet again.  Albeit with a fully charged battery, but there we were again.  Still waiting for the blues to start blitzing.  Waiting... but not turning on the car until we were ready to leave.
In the beginning, there were some young men, and their Isuzu Trooper.  And they went to the beach to fish.  And it was good, even if the fishing wasn't any good those first few, early years.  The fishing has changed a lot since then.  Our expertise has increased, and our techniques have changed through the years as we've adapted and learned.  But one thing remains constant:  Boys' Weekend is a time for all of us to enjoy being together, regardless of how the fishing is....
We ended the day back at the beach close to the cottage, where we had begun the weekend, and never did catch the first blue fish.  The truth of the matter is, we were clueless.  We didn't know what we were doing, and we were so clueless, we didn't even know that we didn't know.  Yet still, we fished....

When it was time to finally head home, we cleaned up the cottage, leaving any leftover wood for the next venture, and drove back to Richmond.  By the time we made it back to our homes and loved ones that night, we had forgotten about how scared we were Saturday night, and only remembered all the good times we had.  We knew that we wouldn't be able to go twice a year anymore, but vowed to go every fall -- when the fishing was supposed to be better, anyway. 

It is a tradition we have continued every year, without exception.  There has been a year or two where Mike couldn't make it, and there has been a year or two when Mark couldn't make it, but the fewest we've ever had was three of us show up.  And we've had as many as 10 or so.   Unfortunately, Finny stopped coming in the mid-90's, but we picked up my brother our second year, and we've picked up others along the way.  Mike got a Trooper a year or two later, and Mark got a 4Runner.  And these vehicles each made the B.W. trip a few times in the early years, so we quickly went from just driving my Super Trooper to having two, three or now several SUV's and pickups caravanning down to the beach.

While we now laugh about our youth, inexperience and naivete those first few years, we also realize we inadvertently started a tradition that has become important to all of us.  And it only continues to grow.  This year, for the first time, my son (with my nephew) hopes to join us when he gets home from college for Thanksgiving break.  It occurs to me that he is now much closer in age to me when we began this tradition, than I am.  And I've also realized that nothing would make me happier than, in my old age, to be the one riding down with him - and maybe his son, to join Old Mike, Old Mark, and the rest of our old cronies, and their sons, and sons-in-law in a 50 year tradition.  We just have to keep the beaches clean (and open to vehicles), and the fish populations healthy to make that happen.  So hopefully, for many more decades we can all continue to say,

Fish on!

Until next time,


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