The term waterman is used quite a bit. In the tightly controlled clique that is the surf media it means someone they really like. In the group of men and women who may be the subject of such lore it means seniority and guts. In the group of men and woman who are watermen it means nothing. Just some made-up term so that us folks can have something to write and we can have a model for product companies. Still, we know it when we see it. Men and women salted, crows lines at the corners of eyes from squinting against the sun and glare, a range of ability on or in the water, which along the east coast is a necessity as much as a convenience of the west coast.
Let’s face it, there just ain’t all that much surf over here from day-to-day. Still, there is plenty of ocean and plenty of fish. Ask the Hobgoods or Malloys or Currens or… In taking a note from the pages of those in the stories or those we know locally, A few guys I know have been in and on the water while we wait out the flat spells.
April and May have been quiet for surf. Though there has been some decent groundswell and clean winds, there have been far more days of nothing. When it has been there my youngest brother has been on it, making up for lost time.
When it hasn’t been there he has still been on it-fishing. My other brother has been out in his own boat, drifting the rock walls and steering with his feet or skimming over sandbars and fishing low tide drum holes. And we’ve gone together, chasing Spanish Mackerel, slaying Bluefish, and recently hoisting a few flatfish.
We put all this water time together and all three brothers and our father entered the Fisherman’s Post Spring Inshore Challenge. Normally a flounder and trout tournament, this year’s dead period for trout chased out the division and ushered in the Drum division. While we were in it for the flatties, some of our same spots hold good sized drum. We ponied up the dough and entered, made things interesting on the boat with a friendly wager among us, and made ready.
Tournament fishing is tense. As any captain will tell you, there is always the pressure to put your boat on the fish. And, as any captain will tell you, there is the very real possibility of getting nothing, which is why the call it fishing, not “catching”. Add in the limited time frame, 80 some odd boats all hunting the same thing you are, plus the money and you can be certain that words spoken on the boat are few. This year the dawn greeted the fleet with an east wind, late rising tide, uncooperative bait and a slow bite. Three years ago The Sonny Days placed third with a 4 lb fish. The same weight won this year as well with 1st and third being separated by 1/100th of a pound. At the captains party Dennis Durham, a local waterman and world-class flounder fisherman, barely made the board with a 2.77lb fish.
This year The Sonny Days came in with a 2.34lb fish which fell for a peanut pogie 50 minutes before the deadline to weigh-in. While the fish didn’t make the board, we did make the weigh-in and the party. In fact, Sunday afternoon beer on the beach was courtesy of the boat wager for biggest fish. Ryan took home the winnings for first fish and Chris took home the prize for most fish (2). Ryan and Chris are timely, experienced and certain on the boat. I am lucky to go to sea with them. My father is as patient a teacher and soul as I could know. I will always go to sea with him (he also knows a wide array of singing material; 1950’s television ads, folk songs, ballads, rock classics). Though I couldn’t put them on the fish as well as I would have liked, I can say with certainty that they are all fine watermen. Next year fellas.
Now, how about some damn surf. sheesh.
The days and hours leading up to the arrival of new swell are rivaled by little else. Like Kaiser Sosa, you need only whisper its arrival “and like that, [it] is gone”. You are left with only the promise of what might have been and the swell report that changed so unfavorably overnight now looking you in the face as if it had told you all efforts to clear your calendar and call in favors were futile from the very beginning. Too bad birthdays are not the same. As far as just disappearing anyway. There is no warning or forecast. You just sort of stumble along till someone reminds you that “your birthday is Wednesday”. Crap. This year was different though. There was cake. Two of them. One chocolate chip cookie and one double fudge, chocolate heart attack special. In fact, as things go, the time around the 34th birthday here at “the notes” was not so bad. Just before June really started laying on equatorial type heat, there was a solid Nor’easterly swell which broke on a local barrier island as well as it has in a long time. Since the camera is still somewhere in California or crossing the country, “the notes” only had to negotiate a strong head wind aboard the Sonny Days and then surf without guilt. And it was worth it. The outer shoals of the island were breaking at head high to 3 feet overhead.
When “the notes” made its home on Whiskey Creek, a solid Nor’easter was easy to note since the sea buoy would ring and the direction of the wind carried it back up the creek and into the still neighborhood. I told my brother that once as we sat around his fire drinking beer. He thought that was the kind of thing I should write about-there ya go man. Now, down here on the river it takes the right conditions and wind and you can still hear the buoy at this end of the barrier island. Before this swell rolled in the buoy could be heard all day. A faint reminder to get my plate clean and have the boat at the ready. Sitting in the line-up, the sets would show on the shoal, toss around some of the SUPs or longboards and then slide back under water. From there you only had to wait as it jacked up over the inside bar. Clear blue-green water and solid overhead and clean surf.
My brother joined me for the third evening and we ditched work leaving from the trusted old dock. By then the swell had dropped and the crowd increased but we stayed till the last light disappeared and the crowd dwindled back to school or to jobs. We rode home in silent exhausted satisfaction.
Then the Bermuda high steamrolled in with its 11o degree heat and the surf has all but disappeared. A few mornings on summer time shapes or longboards have kept us sane but basically its been a good time to go fish. Some good trout and a couple solid flounder made it to the boat as a recently-turned-12 Sonny joined “the notes” for a birthday fishing excursion. On top of that there was the birthday loot. My daughter gave me a pirate costume for rescuing her when she is a princess. My parents gave a similar gift, a costume, pirate playing cards and a pirate themed painting. Either Jimmy Buffet is right and I’m just discovering it too late or my family believes I’ve taken a wrong career path and are encouraging a change. Hopefully there will be rum. It is said to embolden the spirit when rescuing princesses. The eye patch stayed at home for the fishing since the squinting was giving me a headache and makes tying and baiting hooks while at sea a bit precarious. Good thing too as it might have encumbered the fight with the shark we caught (check the video below. All apologies to Hemingway and Hans Zimmer). Really not a bad birthday.
Now we roll into July. In the spirit of new changes, the site now has a new look. Let me know what you think. The pages for the wall of fame can be found at the top (more additions coming soon). And, hopefully, you will find a little more regular posting here at the notes (next up a late, but heartfelt, follow-up on the UNCW surf team, perhaps an interview or two. And if the camera ever returns from the left coast, more pics. For a review on the Digital Wunderland Ding Repair DVD by yours truly, grab a copy of the new ESM.) But not this weekend. On the same weekend that everyone in the country from the midwest and east is driving to the coast, Mrs “the notes” has us travelling to visit friends in Ocean City Md. What? Traffic worries no pirate. Avast ye minivan-lubbers or I’ll run you through. Arr.
It started little by little. Each time Sonny came with me we went a little further out on the shelf. Actually it started well back when the first boat arrived.
The first boat, the Mad Fish aptly named for the bottle wine to celebrate its maiden voyage, was smuggled down to Wilmington from the north in pieces. It traveled some 600 miles from a lake in Pennsylvania to taste salt water in the Intracoastal Waterway. Finally getting the trailer, boat, motor, registration, titles and all conceivable “to-do’s” out of the way the small 9 foot pop-rivet Sears v hull row-boat made its maiden voyage.
I took my wife Amy, my parents and our dog Sonny from the Wrightsville Beach boat ramp to Masonboro as a pleasure cruise. The Mad Fish was under gunned with the old 9.9hp Evinrude pushing that much weight (4 people, 1 dog, 2 coolers, and three chairs). The next day she was christened after the trip was declared a success. All clothes were dry.
In fact, our intrepid little crew made it back with only one incident. Sonny abandoned ship at the first sign of rocking from a large Hatteras that cruised by. After the flailing, thrashing and awkward heave back in the boat, he has never bailed on me again. Although, when in a tight spot – there have been a few – he does give me a look as if to say, “alright, but if it does go down, I’m out of here man.” He rides in the wind at the bow but ever on the lookout, wary of my seamanship. When he gets back behind the console, that’s when I know that “things have begun to go badly” as they say.
Several boats later and adventures big and small, expected and not, we made our first trip to big water. The Sonny Days we named after our long-suffering and loyal first mate and since the days aboard her are the dog days we live for. For the first time in open water I chose a good offshore breeze and calm seas. The boat ramp was clear. Only a few worn crab boats and the men working. Heading out the channel, the sun was far below the ocean line and its light just began to touch the sky above. The surface was a slick dark glass that changed from the swallowing of color to morning blue, teal and then blue and crisp. Out that far you feel very small and tend to talk to yourself as if others can hear. Sometimes you just think you have been talking. That first morning, and others since, I startled my first mate and myself when I actually did speak aloud. You’re used to having others there to hear. Now just silence and the dog listen. That is if anything you thought you said was actually out loud. Cut the engine and feel the silence settle in as the hum of the engine dies away. It’s big, quiet, piercing and blue. With any luck, the next sound is the singing of line and reel as you hook that first catch.
April has been warming up the water and with it the fishing. One or two little evening attempts had netted only a small flounder and one bluefish. This weekend would be the last chance. There has been no surf to speak of and we’ve all had our heads down, grinding away at work. Saturday morning looked favorable, but as it is when you work like that, you’re bound to blow off steam. With both brothers in town, we met at the bar for a drink and to make plans for fishing the next morning. They continued on with their planning at a few more pubs while “the notes” called it an evening.
In the dark hour that is neither morning nor night, Sonny and I loaded the boat and headed out the Cape Fear River to catch bait before gathering my brothers at the dock and heading out to the ocean. The 3/4 moon shown a full silver light on the water. The spoil area and sandbars that plague the Cape Fear stayed in the shadows however, so when my brother called to say they had planned too hard and too long and would not be fishing, “the notes” was wading around working The Sonny Days off a shoal and putting off thoughts of alligators. Sonny was behind the console waiting for the situation to improve.
We managed to work free and fished for trout along the islands in the river till the sun made the horizon, joining the moon in a mix of silver and orange. A light zephyr kept the surface smooth and I turned the boat for open water. We fished a reef or two with little result. Just as the tide neared full we found schools of menhaden beset by frenzied bluefish on some shoals. With 10 oz. line on a light graphite rod armed with a casting jig, Sonny and I fought and landed several good bluefish.
The Sonny Days made one last waypoint before the wind came up and the chop increased. A glance from Sonny and a full ice box, we called it a day. Back at home the catch was cleaned and rested brothers were called over for a family fish fry. Fresh made salsa, chips, beans and flour tortilla shells and more fish than we could comfortably eat. Here is to a season of the same. Fair winds, calm seas-wishes seconded by the first mate-and tight lines.
–Chris, glad you’re here…