I started writing this Sunday on the plane, but didn't get it finished in time for Father's Day, so here it is a bit late.
Some of you might think that I am crazy about fishing. That’s not completely true. I take pleasure in fishing, but I mostly enjoy being outdoors. My father, however, is crazy about fishing. Most of what he taught me about life came through the lens of this sport.
We moved “Down East” when I was nine years old. “Down East” in North Carolina means on or near the coast. My parents had always wanted to live near the ocean and when my father got an opportunity to transfer to the area, he took it.
My father quickly learned the art of fishing for flounder and taught by brother and me. We spent hours on rising tide, fishing for flounder at Masonboro Inlet. Although such fishing isn’t as graceful as using a fly rod, it requires at least as much skill. Dad taught us to tie our own rigging, using an 18 inch piece of light wire with a triple hook on one end and a one ounce torpedo sinker on the other. The rigging was attached to the line of a lightweight spinning rod. A live minnow, which we generally caught with throw nets (another acquired skill), was hooked through the lips. Walking in knee deep water armed with a light spinning rod we’d cast the line out into the depths, searching especially for holes where a flounder might be hidden. The line was slowly retrieved, the weight keeping the minnow near the bottom where flounders lay. You careful felt for tell-tell bumps on your line, indicating a flounder taking the bait. When that happened, you’d loosen the drag and give the flounder about a minute to take the minnow into its mouth, before yanking the line in order to set the hook. If you prematurely yanked the line, you’d pull the minnow out of the mouth of the flounder. From such fishing, we learned patience. Hurrying only caused you to miss fish.
A year after we moved to the area, Dad brought a 14 foot johnboat with a six horsepower Evinrude outboard motor. For years, that was the only boat he had and it was perfect for navigating the creeks running behind Masonboro Island, a nine mile long barren strip of beach that stretched from Masonboro Inlet to Carolina Beach Inlet. Soon we were fishing the barren beaches for founder on rising tide and for Bluefish during the fall run. The island became a second home. Since the creeks only have water in them on high tide, a fishing trip that was more than an hour or two committed you for at least half a day. Often, we’d make a two day trip, camping overnight. In the fall, at low tide, we’d collected oysters and in the evening roast them over coals. Breakfast often consisted of roasted bluefish.
On one of our overnight fishing expeditions, my dad hooked a huge fish on a heavy surf rod. For nearly an hour he fought the fish, as he’d get it almost up into the surf only to have it run back out into the ocean. Finally, he beached the largest Red Drum I’ve seen. The tide had already dropped and there was no way we could get the fish back to the mainline till the next morning. My dad knew the fish might be close to a record, but since he could get it to a weight station, and since our cooler wasn’t large enough to hold it, he gutted the fish, stuff ice in its hollowed cavity, and buried it in the sand. The next morning, we dug the fish up and headed to a marina where they had a weight station. Even after being gutted and drying out a bit overnight, the fish still weighted 47 pounds, just a couple pounds shy of the season’s record. My father stoically accepted fate. If he had been able to get the fish to the marina the day before, he’d probably set the record. However, if it bothered him, he never let on to it. Another lesson taught by action, you don’t complain about things you have no control over. This, by the way, included mosquitoes and sand gnats and the weather. There was no need to complain about the obvious.
My father seldom spoke of the beauty of it all, but the times I spent of the beach with him instilled in me an awe of creation. I’ve seen more sunrises and moonrises on the ocean that I can count. I've watched many sunsets behind the marsh grass of the Myrtle Grove Sound. I taught myself early the names of the stars, especially the autumn sky, since fishing was best in the fall. There’s nothing more majestic than watching Orion’s belt rise above the ocean on a moonless night. Enjoying the outdoors was something he taught silently.
For years my father continued to use that old johnboat, keeping the motor in tip-top shape. The motor still runs, my nephew uses it today on a boat he built in his high school shop class. Hating debt, he waited till he could afford a larger boat, a very utilitarian fishing boat. A few years ago he purchased and even larger boat that allows him to run out into Gulf Stream, in his search for the big ones. His patience has paid off and now he can spend us kids inheritance on gas, for for his new boat it cost as much to fill in fuel as that first johnboat cost. However, Dad never allows us to pay when we're with him. Being on his boat is his gift.
Patience and don’t sweat the stuff you can’t change were two lessons Dad instilled in me while out on or by the water. When I think back about how young my parents were, they’d gotten married three days after my mother turned 18, just a month after they’d graduated from high school and I was born a year and a half later. The following year my brother dropped in, and the year after that came my sister. For such young parents, they both did a great job. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!