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"Sure," I said politely and struggled a few feet farther away from him.
"I'm just trying to be friendly," he said.
"Sure," I said, with affable intent, "so am I."
The hell we were. We were just trying to beat each other to the fish. I gave up when a wave violently lifted me 10 feet toward shore. The ocean had nudged me with warning.
My big moment came in Turtle Cove. Others achieved their win the same dawn, at the small beach near the Ditch Plains coast guard station. At 4 a.m. that night the wind was in the south. I lay in the sleeping bag, watching the light's flashes sweep around, thinking, "What's the use? They're too hard to catch, and besides the netters have thinned them down to a stray school or two." This feeling in striped bass surf fishing converts itself into a hopeful sign. I have never caught them until after I have despaired of ever catching even one. The thought moved me. At 4:30, in a clammy surf suit, I slogged in the dark toward the light, then climbed down an eroded place in the cliff to Turtle Cove, a semicircle of beach extending at one end to the rocks at the tip of Long Island, at the other to rocks under the antiaircraft guns.
Did a big fish jump in the surf, faintly seen in the flash as the lighthouse lamp turned overhead? But no, that was too close to shore. The sight and sound must have been caused by a wave catching light and slapping. I went on past, made a few casts and then began working back, casting out into the darkness every few steps. Where I had disbelieved my eyes, I had a strike, a hard one. This, in the dark, always has a shocking effect.
The fish could not make a hard run. I had it in the wash and could hold it there. I meant to have this fish. I let a wave wash the white form up on the sand, and then had a free hand to turn on my light. It would go 10 pounds. Then I got excited, for there was suddenly enough dawn to see the swirls, and there they were, the surf full of fish, just in the heave of the waves hardly more than a rod's length away. I made another short cast and instantly another fish took the plug. This one was bigger. I beached and strung a 15-pounder. It looked three feet long. Now in the rising light I could see them everywhere, right in the heave and far out, too, a great school swirling, wallowing and slopping. If I should work fast now, with no mistakes, I could surely strike into a great one.
I cast into the school and a third one hit and missed. I reeled and another hit, hard. The line went slack. I had made a wretched mistake, rigging my plug with wire leader. Now I slowly and reluctantly bethought it: the plug turns end over in a cast, hits the water with a kink in the wire; a fish hits and draws the kink up, the leader parts. That lost plug was a darter, my only one. I stood there casting other lures into the school, learning that they would take no plug other than that darter.
THE FUTILE HOPE
A man in silhouette against the dawn light was working not 50 feet from where the fish were, not noticing them in the dim visibility. It was touching to see him so futilely casting so close to so many fish. The lighthouse bulked large above him. I called, and he came running.