Hanging in a weather-beaten bait shack on Virginia's eastern shore is a sign: I AM A SURF FISHERMAN, BUT THE REST OF MY FAMILY IS NORMAL. This rare and honest man not only knows himself, but he knows the entire breed of surf casters. All of us who fish the edge of the sea are a little daft. We may, ever so seldom, have our golden moments (left) when the wind and the sun and the tide are just right, and schools of bluefish or stripers come by, feeding so furiously that there is a strike on every cast. But most of the time we are engaged in orgies of masochistic misery.
Now there are bound to be some who will argue that all fishermen are unbalanced, and there is more than a whisper of truth in this. The dry-fly trout fisherman who spends all winter snipping and slicing at tiny bits of pheasant wing to produce the perfect imitation of the black-bottomed stone fly may be suspected of a failure to come to grips with reality. And the muskie fisherman who flails the water year in, year out, without a single strike, may be described as eccentric. And what of the black bass fisherman, prowling the churchyard at midnight, looking for night crawlers?
But the surf fisherman stands firmly and proudly at the pinnacle of disorientation. He is happiest when the weather is foulest. His pockets are crammed with aromatic delicacies of his trade: rigged eels, sandworms, elderly squids. He usually begins his activities in the black of night when decent people are abed. As a result, his eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep (among surf casters, this is called "bass eyes"). His disposition is terrible. Finally—rumors and even occasional photographs notwithstanding—he does not catch fish. What never? Well, hardly ever.
It is not fish that the surf caster is after, but rather a whole series of negative gratifications which may be summarized as follows:
1) The thrill of telling friends at the office how he nearly drowned in the surf last night.
2) The glories of reciting how a school of mackerel beat the surf to a froth, but "wouldn't touch my bait!"
3) The enchantment of confusing people with misleading statements and false information.
Sometimes it seems that the entire mission of the surf caster is to puzzle and bewilder anyone who comes into contact with him—especially other surf casters. On beaches like the outer banks of North Carolina, where channel bass sometimes come within casting range, fishermen will go to any lengths to obscure the truth. Suppose you are fast to a big fish, and you spot an enemy surf caster coming on the run. The standard procedure is to throw the reel on free spool, allowing the line to go slack, and to stand placidly as though waiting for a strike. The enemy will run up and say, "Anything doing?" Your answer is: "Nope, but I hear they're hitting down at the point."
At Provincetown, Mass., on the tip of Cape Cod, a popular practice is to bury the catch in the sand. To counter this technique, Surf Caster Matt Costa prowls the beach in his jeep, looking for telltale mounds in the sand. When the surf caster tells Costa that there is nothing doing but he hears they are hitting down at the point, Costa drives full-tilt toward the mounds. "Wait! Wait!" the fisherman shouts. "They're hitting right here! Don't run over my fish!"
There is a very good reason for such chicanery. A fellow doesn't want to share a good thing. Says Dick Wolff, fishing tackle executive and surf-casting enthusiast: "Surf fishing is probably the least productive method. I don't know why I do it."