Rudy Austin, bearded like General Grant and built like a scaled-down Hulk Hogan, eased back in his chair and gave the matter further thought. "Mostly," he said judiciously, "we call it Drum Shoal. But it has been called Vera Cruz Shoal, on account of a boat sunk there, the ol' Vera Cruz. But the original boat that went down there was the ol' Albatross."
Austin was talking on a mild, black-velvet midnight in a cottage on Ocracoke Island, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the later it got, the more Rudy's voice took on the rich, creamy burr that is the inheritance of more than three centuries of Austins on the island. I dragged him back to the subject at hand—the youngest island in America, Verz Cruz Shoal, where I had just enjoyed the finest surf-fishing ever. "When did it first come out from under the water?" I asked him.
It wasn't Austin who answered me, but his friend Peter Nelson Stone. "It was always a shallow place," Stone said. "That's why all them boats wrecked on it. Just misread your chart a little and you was right up on it. Even in '75, when I first got here in the Coast Guard, there was a shoal abuilding and we was always getting calls from boats that had bottomed out on it.
"But it never come out of the water till '79," Stone went on. "And it'll disappear again just as fast. Last June it was as big as ever I seen it, half a mile long, like a big, long hook jutting out. But it's starting to go now. That Hurricane Gloria really did the damage, sliced it in two. Now we don't know if it'll build up again or wash away. If it does go, though, it won't be forever...." Brigadoon Island, I thought.
"Hey, you really hit that little island hot, didn't you," said Austin. "You caught them real high tides coming off the new moon, big run of fish and you had it a few days all to yourself. What was it you got? More'n 50 drum? That was great."
It was not only great but something of a miracle. These days the two biggest runs in the American angling year consist not offish but of fishermen. In April and then again in November you'll see them converge, from every part of the nation, upon the coast of North Carolina. All of them are in search of the handsome fish called the channel bass in the Northeast, the red drum in the Middle Atlantic states and the redfish from Georgia on south. The Southern usage is gaining in popularity, thanks to the growing taste across the country for Cajun cooking and one of its premier dishes, blackened redfish. In the spring and fall, long convoys of 4 X 4's, surf rods mounted over the front fenders like strange weapons, roll down Route 158 from Kitty Hawk to Hatteras Island. It makes it seem as though this part of North Carolina is being invaded by guerrillas from the People's Army for the Liberation of the Outer Banks.
There are about 75 miles of beach on, the Outer Banks, but only a fraction of them are fish-attracting spots, and these bear the brunt of the invasion. As you fight to find fishing room, you notice how the whole migration seems to have taken on the aspect of a paramilitary operation. It's impossible to fathom why, when they are seeking a fish that swims in turbulent, cloudy surf 100 yards off the beach at night, many anglers feel the need to wear camouflage coveralls, and even harder to figure out why there is a growing fashion for camouflaged vehicles.
So, considering the population influx, I was not expecting great fishing on the Banks. I planned to spend several days fishing off Ocracoke before heading for the Georgia coast, where, I had heard, there would be less-crowded fishing. Because Ocracoke is accessible only by boat from Hatteras, I assumed I would find much smaller crowds there than elsewhere on the Banks. At least that had been the case in the past.
It was not so this time. The 3 p.m. ferry was boarded by a horde of camouflaged guerrillas who leaned their elbows on the hoods of their 4 X 4's, chomped on gum or tobacco and stared across the water at the low profile of Ocracoke. Though it is about 17 miles long, Ocracoke has only two real drum hotspots, and even 20 anglers would overwhelm them. That left me with just one possibility—a boat.
That evening, after settling into the cottage I had rented, I walked to Ocracoke's fountain of fishing knowledge, the Lakeside tackle shop, to find a boat and skipper. The shop is run by Sharon Miller along the lines of a rustic general store. All you have to do there is sit and listen, and you will find out as much as anybody on the island about where the fish are. On this evening, it wasn't very much. That is until the door opened and Sharon's husband came in.