When I was a teenager, I knew it all. I even knew everything there was to know about fishing and I also knew I was good at it. Dad took me down to the Ocean City Inlet and we fished with what we knew had always worked for us. Before long, I saw a young couple walking towards the inlet wall with a huge, brand new, shiny tackle box, rods and white plastic bags filled with fishing “stuff”. I kept an eye on them as they settled in and started to assemble their new fishing gear. After they had peeled off all the stickers, put together their rods, opened all the packages and assembled their rigs I walked a little closer to check them out. They had small top-and-bottom rigs with two bright green bucktails tied to each. I could not see what size pyramid sinker they were planning on throwing down into those barnacle covered rocks, but I was confident it was going to hold bottom.
I walked back over to Dad, very anxious to hear his comments on the ordeal. To my surprise, he did not seem very interested in my opinion of the angler’s methods. As a matter of fact, he did not even give them a second look as I described the details of their rigs. He just continued to stare out over the ocean and quietly said, “I wouldn’t knock it, Sam”.
It was many years later, and just as many similar events, before I even began to understand why Dad was so non-judgmental when it came to fishing. My Gramps had a very systematic way of fishing. He had learned how to fish back in the 1930’s with little knowledge and very limited resources. Gramps had fashioned surf rods from bamboo and did the best with what he had available. Eventually, through trial and error, diligence and common sense, he became an excellent and accomplished surf fisherman. I spent my childhood learning the same tried and true fishing techniques and never questioned them. As far as I was concerned, there was only one way to fish… The right way.
I was a fully grown man with a family of my own before I began exploring other fishing techniques. I am certain I would never have bought several conventional surf fishing rods or considered putting “beads” on my fishing line if I had not “surfed” my way right into a whole new world of fishing.
It was very uncommon for Dad to fish the surf during the summer. He was convinced the surf had been void of fish for the past several years. He would often tell me stories of the times he and Gramps would catch buckets of kingfish, trout, bluefish and blowfish. Occasionally, he would make comments about how guilty he felt for keeping those fish, even though it was a large part of their diet.
One hot summer afternoon, I must have caught him in a good mood because he wanted to head to the beach and try for some “whiting” (kingfish). Not long after arriving, we started catching what we had set out to catch using the same tackle and bait, the tried and true top-and-bottom rig with a three ounce pyramid sinker, small brass hooks just right for bloodworms.
While we fished, I noticed a young man consistently catching and releasing flounder from the surf. Then, as if he was bored from fishing, he would walk to the wash, sit down and dig a hole in the sand. It wasn’t long before curiosity got the best of me and I had to find out what he was doing different and why I did not know about it. Sure enough, he was casting out a rather funny looking, homemade top-and-bottom rig and he was using sand fleas for bait. He would slowly reel in the bait and repeat this process until he had to put more fleas on his hook or take another flounder off. If I had not seen him have such success, I would have thought he was only wasting his time and his energy. I mean, you are supposed to let your bait sit still if you want to catch fish, right? I think Dad was just as confused as I was, although he never said much about the bait. He wanted all those beautiful flounder that guy kept throwing back into the wash.
I was determined to figure out why flounder were in the surf eating sand fleas when they should have been in the bay eating minnows, so I began researching all about flounder on the internet. I read about their eating habits, water temperature tolerance, natural predators and much more. I began looking for more information about the Delmarva surf fishing scene, specifically what sort of crazy, sand flea eating flounder had migrated into our surf, when I found something that got my heart pumping. I had stumbled across a website with fishing reports and pictures that blew my mind. These incredible fishing stories had been written and submitted by local anglers, not 20 years ago, but within the past month. I was a little disappointed when I read about the striped bass annual migration and they were already north of Delmarva. I had to wait another five months before they made their trip south, however I soon forgot about catching striped bass altogether.
One evening on Assateague, I was just about ready to pack up after another good, but less than exciting day of fishing. It was getting dark, and we had never fished at night. As far as I knew, fish didn’t bite after the sun sets. As I started to pack up my gear, I remembered reading about a few anglers who were catching large red drum from off the Virginia surf. So, considering I was not too far from the Maryland/Virginia line, I grabbed the biggest hook in the tackle box, a snap swivel for a sinker slide and got out one of the kingfish I had caught earlier. I put the kingfish head on the hook and heaved my old rod as hard as I could. I was nearly finished washing off my cooler and chair when something unexpected happened. My rod starting bending over to the point, I thought it was going to snap in half. By the time I got to it, the line was peeling off that old spinning reel so fast, I hardly knew what to do.
When I tried to pull the rod from the sandspike, both of them came out of the sand. Then I felt the incredible power of the fish on the other end. I was addicted at once. All I could do was stand there, hold on and watch the line tear off the spool. Within what seemed like seconds, the line ran out and I discovered one of the strongest knots I had ever tied. Thinking back, it’s probably a good thing I got spooled. I would not have had the first clue how to handle anything that big.
After the loud “snap” of my line breaking I just stood there, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and barely even noticing them. I had just lost a very quick battle with a critter that I should have caught. I was confident that was not going to happen again and within minutes, I had foolishly convinced myself I knew exactly what I was going to do next time… I could not have been more wrong.
In my personal experience, when it comes to fishing, there are two certainties: If I want to catch fish, I have to get out there and put in the time, be prepared and expect the unexpected. The more knowledge I gain, the more humble I become.