And when word is spread by sea-going grapevine that "they're murdering the bass" at Waves, or Salvo, or Buxton, or anywhere else along the 170 miles of the sandy Banks, there's no quicker way to get to them than by beach buggy, rods flopping in the wind, the sand churning smoothly under the wheels.
This fall, remembering the dismal spring, some surfers came down to Hatteras quite confident of disappointment. Those who arrived before November I almost surely were disappointed, for only a few bass, and those quite small, wandered into the surf during October. But then, just in time for the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club's fourth annual surf-fishing tournament, a horde of healthy bass, one of the biggest runs ever, hit the North Carolina surf. The heaviest taken by a contestant was a 50-pounder. Fifty-three others were beached during the competition, 11 of them going 25 pounds or more. It was the tournament's most successful meeting in its brief history. Moreover, outside the confines of the tournament fishing area hundreds of other bass were caught—in the surf, from boats and from fishing piers. The largest reported was a 61�-pound beauty landed near Salvo.
As a fighting fish, the channel bass—which is really not a bass at all but belongs to the family of drums, weakfish and croakers—conveys more of a sense of power than of speed and trickery. His first run is a relentless surge—just fast enough to keep a heavily braked reel turning, just strong enough to half-persuade the fisherman that he will run out of line before this muscled opponent can be stopped. Second and third runs are shorter and, finally, the fight resolves itself into a pumping operation in which the fish is slowly beached or brought to gaff.
Crustacean feeders by preference, with jaws so powerful that they crush oyster shells as if they were eggs, channel bass will, in fact, eat just about anything. The usual surf bait is cut mullet, fresh or salted, cast into a slough with a three-or four-ounce pyramid sinker. But when the bass are chasing schools of bluefish or weakfish in the sloughs the surfmen often take them on a flashing Hopkins lure.
New law for fish hogs
What fishy whim kept the bass out of the surf last spring and brought them into it in such startling numbers this fall is beyond knowing. It was, nevertheless, a superb run of fish, rivaling the spectacular showing of three years ago, when 500 were taken on a single Sunday. Many a maritime observer holds that at least part of the credit for the current fall run must go to Ed Fike of Ahoskie, N.C., a former outdoors writer for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. Fike was horrified a few years ago when he discovered commercial netters scooping up thousands of the big bass and selling them to cat-food canneries. And there was, at the time, no limit on the number of large fish an individual angler might take. This was a serious threat to the propagation of the species, since only the mature bass, about 30 inches or longer, are able to spawn. Confronted with what he felt might be the extinction of a noble game fish, one that is almost as important to the fisherman as the striper, Fike began a fight for regulation. Now North Carolina law forbids both the sports angler and the commercial fisherman to take more than two big bass a day. Virginia has adopted a similar law, and only commercial fishermen, fish hogs and cats can object.
There are, of course, many people who feel that the big channel bass is fit only for cat food. And it is true that as a table delicacy it would rate quite low on the Escoffier scale of greatness. However, some fishermen hold that the small so-called puppy drum, up to 15 pounds, is quite pleasant. Captain Ballance, now 77 years old but still fishing daily, says that a big female, fat with roe, is reasonably edible. The big males, however, are coarse and tough.
For such as these big ones, the dissident Captain Styron offers a recipe that, he insists, makes the big drum "as good as crabmeat." The dish, called a "Hatteras hurry-up," is a kind of chowder.
"You shred the meat of the big drum until it's like crabmeat," Captain Styron recommends. "Then you cook it with potatoes, onions and meat grease."
"Meat grease" is Banks talk for bacon fat. With it one might try a delicate Chablis.