The two beaches, more than 3,000 miles apart, are windswept, desolate and barren, at least to those who have never known the joys and despairs of a surf fisherman. The first is at Cape Point, hard by Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the Atlantic tides that have smashed their way over the Diamond Shoals churn through a narrow gut into the calm shallows of Pamlico Sound. There crabs and baitfish provide a fat living for the heavy-shouldered channel bass that come sliding in with the current.
The other beach is at Dungeness Point, hard by Dungeness Lighthouse on the southeast corner of England, where the Channel tides are constricted in the Strait of Dover and meet the Scandinavian Current swilling down from the North Sea. The confluence creates a huge tidal eddy close to shore that fills with crabs and baitfish, on which browse regiments of fat cod.
Two superb stretches of coast, one would think, for the surfcaster. Two perfect ambush points from which to intercept heavy runs offish. Two Edens. Take a closer look.
Cape Point, on a balmy fall day: The beach is so lined with RVs that it's hard to see the ocean's edge. It's just as well that roughly 75% of the humanity present is sitting on beach chairs, Willie Nelson on the radio and cold beer in hand, because there's no room for them in the sea, especially out there on the sandspit from which it's possible to cast into deeper water.
And the sandspit is a cutthroat world where the morality of the New York subway prevails. A good fish is hooked. In Eden anglers in the vicinity would reel their lines in so as not to interfere. Not here. The fishless ones move in on the lucky one. Lead weights whistle over his head, a dozen lines cross his. For every fish landed on the sandspit, three are lost.
Cross the Atlantic and head for that other demiparadise on the coast of Kent. It has one small advantage. No RVs; the beach here is steep, composed of shingle, a huge accumulation of tiny stones. To make up for this, there's a small city of tents along the high ridge, and yes, there are non-participants with beer cans and radios, though the music is punk rock rather than country. And at Dungeness Point, too, wall-to-wall anglers clog the best spots to fish from, leading to the same crossed lines, the same outbursts of profanity.
And here, just as at Hatteras, one finds a minority of serious anglers trying to cope with the ineptitude of the weekend cowboys. On the Outer Banks, though, dedicated surfcasters have the option of escape. They can settle for less productive sections of the coast, restrict themselves to night fishing, take ferries to more remote islands. Not so at Dungeness, a mere two-hour drive from London, where that magical eddy can be reached only from a limited stretch of shore. There the serious surf fisherman has had to find a better way to get at his prey or quit. The anglers' disgust with the mob scene is couched in terms almost identical with those you hear in North Carolina. "Some of the people on this beach would never be able to do anything" said one of them at Dungeness on a recent carnival weekend. "In a gym, they'd wreck the equipment. If they got on to any kind of team, they'd be slung out fast. Think of them in a golf club. They'd be booted right through the door. Swiftly. But because it's just good old fishing, they don't think they have to acquire any level of performance. They don't care who they screw up."
The man speaking is 35, broad-shouldered, apparently athletic. There's a gap, a memento of boxing, in his front teeth. But what one notices most is the almost-fanatical gleam in his eyes. He's a far-gone surf-fishing addict, one so deeply hooked by the sport that he lives in an old railroad car that rests permanently on the bleak, level shingle behind the ridge at Dungeness. From there he's always within five minutes' walking distance of the hottest section of the beach.
Terry Carroll is his name, and he believes—and he's probably right—that he's the second-best handler of a surf rod in the world. That's reason enough to indulge him in his passionate denunciation of the cowboys.
"Look at the way they wire their gear up," he goes on. "The knots they tie are incredible. I've got over a lot of the problems here, but I still get hung up in cracked-off tackle. Would you believe what I was hauling up here the other day? Old-fashioned toilet-chain handles! Old porcelain ones! Guy must have been a janitor or something, had a supply, used them as sinkers!"