When Jack Dickinson, operator of a resort just a long cast from famous Montauk Point, became addicted to surf casting he threw everything but his wife's tableware into the waves for two years. Then he hung up his tackle with a perfect record: no fish, no strikes. Wolff once knew a surf caster who caught no fish in seven years. Finally he caught a striped bass, whereupon he quit surf casting, deeply offended.
This paucity of fish causes rumbles on the beaches. When the North Carolina channel bass run is on, fishermen stand shoulder to shoulder, slinging their lures in whistling arcs and nobody is anybody else's friend. It is a convention of tomcats.
"Hey, Buddy, will you watch your aim? I only got two ears!"
"You're over my line again."
And that universal admonition: "Would ya mind?"
Surf Caster Bill Dillon, who runs a fisherman's motel at the water's edge in Buxton, N.C., remembers the dog that came wagging up to this frenetic conga line at the height of a run. Within seconds, the dog had a No. 4 hook in his ear. Down the beach ran the dog, barking bloody murder, with ex-Marine Dillon in pursuit. The rod bent into a perfect parabola, and the fisherman reeled frantically, the trace of a mad smile at the corners of his mouth. One hundred yards down the beach, Dillon tackled the dog, and removed the lure. Nowadays the question is still debated in Buxton: Should the fisherman have tightened down on his drag, or should he have given the dog free spool and played him a little? It is an intriguing angling question, but one which, alas, will never be answered; the dog has not returned to the beach.
Surf casters come from miles around, sometimes materializing out of nowhere, at the first signs of fish in the surf. Try this experiment. Go to the loneliest, most remote beach you can find, and begin casting. Suddenly you will feel the eyes—looking through sand grass, peering from the tiny beach shacks. Get a fish on, and the owners of the eyes will come barreling down the beach like a troop of Indians, shouting and zinging their lures through the air while they are still 50 yards from the water.
A man who makes outdoor movies brought three dead striped bass to Shinnecock, Long Island for a surf-fishing picture. With the aid of a skin-diver yanking and pulling at them from below, the dead bass were made to look like fighting stripers in the surf. None of this dismayed the avalanche of surf casters who rushed to the scene. They saw: a) a fisherman with a bent rod; and b) a striped bass fighting in the surf. Says the moviemaker: "It didn't do a bit of good to explain. I said, 'Look they're dead!' I said, 'Can't you see the skin-diver out there?' I said, 'This is all a fake!' And all those guys did was ask me who I was kidding. I swear, as soon as I moved a footstep, there would be one of those nuts standing in my old footprint, casting."
Off Cape Cod, a fisherman who will here be identified as Dick Dementia was skulking along the beaches looking for fish. On the end of his line was a rigged eel, an efficient lure for bass. Dick Dementia saw a fisherman hook a bass; he ran to the shore and flung his bait seaward. One of the hooks caught in the lip of the fisherman, leaving the poor man bloodied and eel-draped. Dementia, a gentleman, rushed the victim to a doctor, who removed the hook and took several stitches. After the operation Dementia asked the suffering fisherman: "Did you save my eel?" The victim handed over the bloody bait, and these two typical surf fishermen went back to the beach together.
It is not absolutely necessary to be so maniacal about surf casting. There are, here and there, fishermen who simply look for signs of feeding fish in the surf, and, if they see nothing, return home. In the shadow of the Hatteras Lighthouse, local fishermen sit on the dunes for days at a time. There is a man in New York City who sets his alarm clock for the morning tide, piles into his car wearing slippers and a robe, and drives up and down the Rockaways looking for signs of feeding fish. This wraith may be seen, like Hamlet's ghost, almost any night. If he spots action he slips into waders and casting shirt, and races down to the sea. Expert surf fishermen spend far more time looking for signs of fish—circling gulls, phosphorescent spurts of moving fish in the waves, schools of bait fish which will attract big prey—than they do in the actual fishing.