Same ‘Ol, Same ‘OL
Of all my favorite places that I have been to Cape Hatteras is my favoritest of them all. Betsy felt much the same way or at least said she did, albeit for different reasons. Here, for her, was fresh air, sunshine and a beach second to none. At the tip of a long peninsula, or cape, out onto the water, we might just as well been on an island, so pristine and clear was the air. After living together for seven years, we had married. This was our honeymoon. With us was our first German Shepherd, Annie. The door of our motel unit opened on a close view of the Atlantic Ocean. You walked from your shaded front porch over some sand past a fish cleaning station, then up and down over a wooden ramp to the other side of the low dunes and you were on the beach. It was brilliant white sandy, but you could find a plentiful variety of seashells strewn all over the place.
The front of the motel faced the grocery store across the street, the then version of the only shopping center in town. Here you could get a full enough range of fresh meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables, as well as all the cans and jars and boxes of goods you might expect. No escargot, for instance, no caviar. To the left of this was a small boat and motor repair yard. Nearby was the Willis docks where you could rent boats and outboard motors, buy and rent fishing tackle and get bait including squid, shrimp, live minnows, peeler crabs and bloodworms. It was here I rented the small boat with outboard motor from which I fished.
There began the marina where the charter fleet docked. There was here a small building on stilts which housed the fleet’s booking office. Here on its porch sat old men, retired fishermen, survivors of some of the roughest seas along the coast. The “Graveyard of the Atlantic” was not an idle description of Cape Hatteras. The old men would like nothing better than to tell you stories of their experiences and adventures, which didn’t need to be tall tales; the truth in their memories would beggar the imagination of most. But most tourists were not likely to listen to old men talking, so they chatted and reminisced among themselves. Beyond this harbor lay the dock from which ran the ferry to Ocracoke Island; a road the length of it would take you to another ferry connecting to Cedar Island on the mainland and the road to Morehead City. An unpaved road beyond this dock took you to the sandy tip of the ocean inlet peninsula a couple of miles beyond, used back then by surf fishermen, but more than likely now closed to the public to protect the ecology. It seems certain to be a protected site for nesting sea birds.
On the same side of the road as our motel, the Seagate, ran other motels in both directions. Opposite the marina was a hotel of several stories, on the first floor of which was a good seafood restaurant. There were plenty of them sprinkled to Nag’s Head and beyond. Although seafood was the universally expected fare at all restaurants, you could get steaks and chops and ribs and chicken just like anywhere. It is hard for me to imagine anyone not preferring seafood in the land of the sea, but I’ve had some mighty good ribs down there. Here was also a sea food we did not get natively up home; shrimp were plentiful. Catch a boat just pulling into a roadside slough, and you could buy your bellyful of fresh caught shrimp, ready to take home and steam. Blue crabs were just as plentiful as in the Chesapeake Bay. Clams and oysters were abundant, though it’s wise to avoid oysters in too hot weather. The fish were much the same as at home, with a few more semi-tropicals and even some wayward tropicals thrown in. For the most part the charter fleet fished the Gulf Stream which was here not far off shore. They brought creatures of the deep sea: tuna, mahi-mahi, dolphin (not porpoises), swordfish, shark varieties, grouper, amberjack, Wahoo, Bonita, albacore, marlin . . .
Resident at our motel lived a black Labrador, a water dog older than our big puppy, more experienced and genetically disposed to love the water, even the surf. They bonded instantly, he and Annie; they fell in love and he became her mentor. Many Shepherds take instantly to the water and love to swim, but their ears are not engineered for surf. That didn’t get in Annie’s way; whenever Blackie plunged into the surf, she was on his tail as waves crashed over their heads, both breaking up through the waves as if it was the most normal sport. In and out of the water they played and couldn’t get enough of each other. He wore her out from time to time, but she never quit following him wherever and whenever he might lead.
Occasionally, Betsy would come out on my boat with me and occasionally she would fish, but her habitat was the beach. I have always fished for things I hadn’t yet caught, among other things, and on that list was speckled trout. One day out on the boat, she had leaned her rod against the side of the boat and laid back to tan. It registered a strong strike and she reeled in a speckled trout. To this day I have never caught one. This sort of thing has happened more than once.
Traditionally, the two best times to fish are early morning, and evening. I am not a morning person so one day, after a leisurely breakfast, I loaded my fishing tackle and coolers and went to the Willis dock. After getting bait and ice I got in the boat and took off alone. There’s a little zig and then a zag in the waterway and then you head out onto Pamlico Sound a short distance and turn left at the channel marker. Channels don’t mean much to a boat this small- 14’ with a 6 horsepower outboard pushing it. You can run aground, but then you just get out and push yourself clear. Worst case would be shearing the propeller pin, in which case you’ve got a lot of pushing to do, or you get help, a tow or somebody with a spare pin. Generally the water so shallow you can see bottom and gauge your depth by eye.
This takes you to the ocean inlet which can be smooth water at ebb and high tides but extremely fast and turbulent on incoming and outgoing tides, especially if the wind is bucking the tide. I’ve gone on the ocean in small boats and lived to tell of it, but I’ve taken some white knuckle flights in the process, feeling like a fishing bobber in a whirlpool. My plan was on this incoming tide to motor up to the inlet, with the peninsula on my left, Ocracoke straight ahead. I would go nearly to the island itself about to the ferry dock there and bottom fish, drifting back. Opposite the peninsula and parallel with it is a sand island with a curious landform on it, a large high sand dune much like the one at Kitty Hawk of Wright Brothers fame. It was close to this shoreline that I would drift back. The name of this game was flounder. I’d been catching a few bluefish here and an occasional gray trout or weakfish, but this was flounder city. On the first drift I caught five flounder of respectable size. Filleted and skinned, then sautéed in butter these melt on your tongue. Add some steamed clams and you’re in hog heaven. I cranked up the motor and repeated the tour, catching three or four more. The tide was running faster now which meant my drifts were quicker, over sooner.
On my third drift, magic happened.A pod of 50 or 60 porpoise came streaming into the Sound from the ocean and veered north, my way. They went by me on both sides of the boat. Feeling sort of silly about it, I started my outboard. I was thrilled, but I wanted to give it a try catching up with them. They let me. They could have outdistanced me in a flash, but they allowed me to catch up and then keep up with them. It’s almost the truth that I could have reached down and touched them; if my arms had been a little longer I could have. I was worried that my propeller might strike one and maim or scar it, but they were too savvy, and swift to let that happen. Before long, they turned west into a channel and I followed in their midst. They were all around me. I swear they were looking me in the eye the whole time. Occasionally a small group would break away in star drive and corral schools of fish into coves where they would gorge themselves. Then, burp, shortly after, they would rejoin the larger pod. Some of the coves and channels they hunted in were very small indeed. Following one of the breakaway groups, I did run aground. No harm done; I got out and pushed free. Was it my imagination or did my group hang around, waiting up for me.
They permitted me to stay with them while mostly in their midst as what- an honorary dolphin?- as they fished hither and yon for what seemed to me the better part of an hour, maybe more. Maybe less, who can say? I wasn’t looking at my watch and was unaware of the passage of time. It was magical time, electric time, timeless time. We didn’t exactly part company. Gradually, the herd thinned out with smaller breakaway groups going off in one direction and not coming back. Then another and another. I could still see some of them in the distance leaping out of the water and playing and hunting. When they were all gone I motored up and made it back to the channel to resume my drifting. Enroute to the inlet, I thought I could see them regrouping and heading out.
Fishing was going to seem an anticlimax after this. I had been halfway tempted to go right back to the motel to tell Betsy about this. My excitement just wouldn’t die down. I had had a mystical experience and wanted to share it with someone. But I also wanted to keep on fishing. By now the drift had slowed down and I wasn’t getting any flounder on high/low tackle with two hooks using squid and minnows. I was still catching small black wills (sea bass), white perch and spot and I caught two small bluefish. I changed over my tackle on one rod and fished whole live spot; you never know- you could catch a whopper. Then the tide stopped moving and the bugs came out. In my buggy doldrums, my reverie I wondered how I was going to tell Betsy about my experience so that she would get some idea of the wonder of it. It might be one of those I-guess-you-had-to-be-there kind of things. I hoped not; I wanted her to feel it with me. I practiced telling it to her while there wasn’t much else going on. I rehearsed it. I tend to tell the truth, as a rule, but I’m also prone to exaggeration. Here I had a situation that needed no enlargement. This was a bone fide phenomenon!
I told the story over and over to myself, trying to keep it simple and naturally dramatic without embellishment until I found that I was speaking it aloud. Oh well, no harm in that. I really wished she had been out there with me. Oh, to have missed that. For me, unforgettable. It had never happened to me before and it was unlikely to happen again. I kept recounting the experience keeping it concise without wasting words, and trying to keep the drama of it from boiling over into melodrama.
The my rod bent nearly double demanding my full attention. I had only my heaviest rod over the side. I grabbed it in both hands and knew in an instant I had something heavy on. I fancied myself a sporting fisherman, as opposed to being a meat fisherman. I didn’t use the strongest line or heaviest hardware I could have. I wanted to bring my catch in, of course, but I wanted there to be an element of surprise, of the unknown becoming known, as to what was on the other end of the line and how skillfully I could manage to get it to the boat and aboard. There was always the risk of the line breaking or a knot slipping apart or a leader or hook snapping. That was part of the excitement, the unraveling of the mystery. That’s where skill comes in, patience, experience. You have to play the fish to win while giving the fish a chance to remain free. That’s not as mystical as it seems; it’s very practical, especially back in those days when fish were more than abundant. I had already caught more flounder than we could eat for dinner; I would keep more if I caught them, but I didn’t need more. We would be taking frozen fillets home with us, but that was fair, too.
I had set a fairly loose drag on the reel, so when I pulled up to set the hook the fish ran with the line. I let it; I had plenty of new line on the reel. The fish was now towing the boat slowly; I knelt in the bow and let it. Let him tire himself out would be wise, then gradually gain line on him while setting the drag tighter. But always be ready to ease off on the drag if he makes a freshened or desperate run for it. From the action of it I had no idea what was on. There wasn’t much agitation or side to side activity; it just took off in a direction and kept going. As it began to tire, it swam in flurries: slowing down, then frantically speeding up, then repeating that pattern. Gradually the contest began to wear him down and I began to gain some line. There was one crucial to be alert to ahead; many fish, when they first see the boat, take off in a run with as much strength as they had starting out. But it usually doesn’t last long. They’ve become tired and they’re yours for the handling. If I had just set the drag and started cranking I’d have probably lost this fish.
Finally, when I could almost see it, it changed tactics and made a wide circle around the boat. That’s when its fin appeared. Shark! Larger than I wanted to deal with. I would bring it in just so close and no closer and then cut the line. I did not want to handle it and I definitely did not want it in the boat with me. It had to be about four feet long. It was blue gray and looked lethal. I can’t identify many sharks outside of an aquarium with picture signs, but I knew it wasn’t a dogfish or a hammerhead. To our mutual relief I cut the line.
I decided to use the same rig and bait again, this time on two separate rods. I motored down to the north end of the sand island and began a slow, but quickening drift this time toward Ocracoke and the inlet. I wanted to hug the island and not drift too close to the inlet current. Halfway there I got a strong hit on one rod and put some energy into reeling in a large flounder, caught on a live spot. Not nearly as large as the cooler but it looked very impressive in there. Then I brought in a nice weakfish, a gray trout. Next came a bluefish, large one. Then another flounder.
It was getting toward evening and I wanted to be clear of the boat and dock and home in time to clean the fish and cook dinner. I had a good bit of work to do before I could relax. But on the way back in I wanted to try the spot where Betsy had caught the spackled trout, and see if I couldn’t catch one. I didn’t, but I hung around trying far longer than I had intended. By the time I got to the dock all the other boats had come in. Dave Willis was there to be sure I got in safely and he helped me carry my coolers to the car. He didn’t worry about me; I had been coming here on and off for years, but he likes to have his boats off the water before dark. He asked how I did and I said great. I told him I had hooked a big shark. He asked me where it was. I said, “Back there.” I didn’t tell him about the dolphin.
Back at the motel, I didn’t tell Betsy about the porpoises either, or the shark. I had a lot of fish to clean and some crabs to steam. She volunteered to cook the supper fish because she had waited for me and was hungry. So was I. I scaled all the fish first. Then I filleted them. And then I skinned them. A whole lot of fish in their native state reduce drastically in mass once they’re in their prepared state. More than half of them gets thrown away. I threw the guts and schmutz away, washed everything off again and took my catch into our apartment. All the while I had been dealing with the fish, I was wondering when I should tell Betsy about the dolphin. What with all the other distractions going on I had gotten sidetracked, if not derailed for the time being. During dinner would be the best time.
As we ate, I asked her how was her day.
“Fine”, she said. “Nothing exciting. The dogs played. They’re so funny. I lay on the beach, took a little dip. Had a nap, read some. Same ‘ol, same ‘ol. Just the way I like it. How was your day?”
“I’ll tell you in the morning.”
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.