The sea surface
erupted regularly in a fine spray as though a shotgun had gone off underwater.
Then birds dropped to the water as though shot. They rose again with baitfish
wriggling in their bills. An instant later the same spot erupted again, this
time with heavier ammunition. Out of the water and into the air leaped fish a
yard long, missile-shaped, metal-colored, glistening: bluefish of 12 to 15
pounds. It was these that had driven the baitfish inshore and made them leap
out of the water in terror and desperation. The baitfish drew the gulls and the
terns. Now these were drawing other fishermen besides us.
Here was one of
the differences I was discovering between freshwater and saltwater fishing. One
of the principal charms of trout fishing, at least for me, is the solitude; one
of my disappointments in it recently had been the growing crowds on my favorite
streams. Now, expecting to find myself alone somewhere on the long Atlantic
coast, I found myself on one of its most inaccessible points fishing in a
crowd, at times even tangling lines with my neighbor on one side or the other,
and finding this a key element of the excitement. Just seeing so many fish
caught was exhilarating. There were times when every man on the beach was
tugging at a rod bent nearly double. To be one among them elevated the blood
pressure—not to be one among them did, too. Then you cast even faster, even
There was, I was
learning, a pattern, a rhythm to waves—a different one each day, even at
different hours of the same day, and even on adjacent stretches of the same
beach. I was learning, too, that you must observe this rhythm and conform to
it, else you may feed the fish instead of their feeding you. Even then you must
be alert, for the sea is capricious and can slip in a breaker out of step.
Already in my brief experience I had had unlooked-for waves take the sand from
under my feet, drop me in a hole, sweep me up and draw me in.
That morning off
Great Point it was twin breakers succeeded by the undertow. In tandem they
slammed the shore, then withdrew deeply to gather themselves for another
assault. By waiting out the breakers, then sprinting after the tow, I could
lengthen my cast by a good 30 feet. Then, while my plug was still traveling
through the air, I scurried up the strand, sandpiper-quick, to escape the
incoming breaker, meanwhile leaving open the bail of my reel and letting out
line. In effect, I was casting my lure in one direction and myself in the
other. I had to propel myself backward, for the wind was not to be faced. Such
was its force and the steadiness with which it blew that the sand was driven
into everything. It grated in the gears of reels designed to keep it out. It
spoiled a can of beer before I could down it. It had later to be shoveled from
the Scout. I was to find on returning home after four hours' exposure to it
that my pants pockets contained enough sand to fill a large hourglass. My hair
and scalp could have furnished enough for several egg timers. Five showers
later, I would still be picking grains from my ears.
I would backpedal
up the strand and retrieve my lure. That may sound like a leisurely enough
exercise to someone whose fishing has been confined to freshwater ponds. In
surfcasting for bluefish, using a big, long, heavy rod, a big reel, and big,
heavy plugs, you retrieve as fast as you possibly can. Seeing it done for the
first time, you will think those maniacs on the beach reeling so frantically
away are not trying to catch fish but to rescue their lures from them. They are
doing what you must do. When baitfish find themselves in the vicinity of
bluefish they flee fast; your imitation baitfish has got to do the same. So you
reel until you pant, until your hand is stiff, your arm trembling with the
strain. And as soon as you have recovered your lure you hurl it back out as
fast as you can get rid of it. As in all fishing, you will catch nothing with
your bait out of water, but in fishing for bluefish you cannot rest for a
minute. For, just as capriciously as they appear offshore, they are gone again.
You fish for them while they are there, before they consume all the baitfish
and depart. That does not take them long, for they are a gluttonous fish,
equipped with a mouthful of teeth that could shred a truck tire. They will
redden the surf with the blood of their prey. When they have gorged themselves,
they vomit and start all over again. Although it is grueling and you are aching
all over, especially on Great Point after that ride to get there, you are too
absorbed to notice.
You crank as fast
as you can, and with today's fast-ratio spinning reels, each turn of the handle
recovers nearly a yard of line: that will give you an idea of the speed of your
lure on top of the water. The first time it is stopped dead as though hooked to
a pier, you will have an idea of the speed of a big bluefish frenziedly on the
feed. Casting a minute dry fly to a finicky, mistrustful, one-pound trout is no
preparation for it. No caution in bluefish. They are greedy, undiscriminating
and seem never to have been warned against fishermen. My first one that day
nearly yanked the rod from my hands.
The fish and I
were both stunned and disbelieving to find ourselves connected by a line. The
fish did not panic and bolt. It just stopped where it was like a balky mule
with all four feet dug in. The fish was not to be budged from the spot where,
mistaking my lure for the real thing on which it had been feasting, it bit my
barbed plug and found itself being pricked and tugged at. I could feel its
bafflement and indignation through the line. I could feel it toss its head as
it tried impatiently to shake the hook. Then it made a run; the drag of my reel
was loosened to give it its head. One hundred yards it went before I could rein
it in. I was using 20-pound-test line, and the odds were long that my fish
weighed much less than that, yet, fresh-hooked and full of fight, it easily had
the power to break the line. I lowered my rod tip and pumped. I gained line,
the fish took it. For a quarter of an hour this tug-of-war went on. At the end
I was almost as spent as the fish.
I coaxed my fish
in at last on an incoming wave and beached it. I knew not to put my hand in its
mouth to free my plug. Its teeth can take off fingers. Nor did I pick it up by
the tail while it was still alive. Bluefish are limber, like sharks, able to
bend double and bite you. I beat my fish to death with a billy club.
fish, solitaries that drive others of their kind out of their territories,
saltwater fish school. Where you catch one you are apt to catch more. Bluefish
hunt in packs, like wolves. Sometimes these packs fill acres of water. (When
that happens you are in for an added sensation, unless, as we had that day at
Great Point, you have a steady, strong wind at your back: you can smell them.
The smell is that of a ripe melon.) It was plain that we were into such a
school, and, there being no legal limit on the catch of bluefish, nor any
prohibition against their sale, as there is against the sale of a few saltwater
fish and all freshwater game varieties, fish were now accumulating on the beach
behind each man. These were soon covered with sand.
There was no time
to put them in cars, no time even to shoo away the gulls that alighted to peck
at their gills.