Chris Espenshade : One Many Casting: Fishing for Blues (memoir/essay)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: From the 7th grade through college, I lived in the North Carolina Piedmont. I worked for 12 years in Atlanta, and eight years in Greensboro, NC. I respond positively to a cold Cheerwine and a side of hush puppies.

One Man Casting: Fishing For Blues

Blues run in schools.  When they are running, they act like Angry Young Fish.  They strike out at just about anything moving through the water.  There is a lot of dead time in blues fishing, with absolutely no action, and then, WHAM, everybody is catching fish for five minutes.  Just as quickly, it is back to dead time.  If you are 16 or 17, fishing on a pier in North Carolina, you spend the dead time drinking beer in the morning (a double sin), smoking cheap cigars, watching people, and learning life lessons even though you are on break from school.

I had come on a community teen club trip to the Outer Banks.  The chaperones could not really be bothered trying to keep up with anybody, and my friend, Billy, had his own car with him.  In April on the Outer Banks, there is not a lot of swimming or body surfing to be done, so I had naturally brought my fishing rod. I purchased the Lure of Choice for that week at the pier store, and commenced to casting.  It soon became clear that casting, retrieving, and casting again got monotonous really fast when nobody was getting any bites.  I quickly learned the drill.  I loafed around while one dedicated guy (not one of my group) kept casting.  This guy knew that he would get the first bite when the next school moved through, and he felt that the advantage was worth all the extra casting.  A lesson in work ethic.  Everybody else just watched him.  When he got a bite, we all immediately jumped to the rail and began casting.  Otherwise, it was just one guy casting, waiting for the angry reaction.

Our second day, we were in a lull when somebody spied a flock of gulls diving on fish way off the end of the pier.  One guy out of everybody on the pier had the gear and the technique to cast to the boiling water, and he immediately hooked something big.  He fought the fish for a good 20 minutes, pumping and reeling.  As the fish tired, the man in charge of the pier came out with a drop net, a sort of collapsible basket on a long rope.  In fact, it may have been more a crabbing net than a landing net.   You could see the fish now, probably about a 30-inch tuna of some sort; broad sided with a split tail.  The whole pier crowd was watching – except for the one guy still casting for blues – as the serious fisherman led the fish to the net.  The whole pier crowd was watching as the pier man lifted the net.  The whole pier crowd was watching as the line rubbed against the rim of the net, emitting a plaintive whine before breaking.  Yes, the whole pier crowd was watching as the falling fish broke the bottom out of the inadequate net.  And, immediately, the whole pier crowd quietly found something else to do.  Such a practical demonstration of how life can sometimes be brutally cruel.  Such a reminder to be careful who you envy.

Blues fishing, I am told, can be very addictive.  This was demonstrated mid-morning of my last day.  A red-neck (physically and spiritually) man had been fishing the pier for the past three days, and he was thoroughly enjoying the catch.  He had with him his son, probably five or six years old.  The son was not fishing, but got to watch Daddy fish, and could touch the fish swimming in Daddy’s 5-gallon bucket.  On the morning in question, the father had jerked in an effort to set the hook on a blue, and his Lure of Choice left the water and embedded itself in one of the pier posts.  It was just out of reach of the rod, suspended maybe 10 feet below the railing and 10 feet above the crashing surf.  We can only surmise that this was Daddy’s last Lure of Choice, and that Daddy had no money to buy another.  He first attempted to get the lure off by tying a big weight to the end of a length of that green, plastic-coated wire of the type often used for clothes lines.  After about ten minutes of fumbling attempts, it became clear that he was not going to get his Lure of Choice in this manner.  At this point, Daddy grabbed his son and wrapped the clothes line around the boy’s belly two times, and prepared to lower the kid over the side.  This, naturally, resulted in much screaming and crying once the kid figured out the plan.  The kid was tough and established a death grip on the top of the railing.  His Daddy couldn’t hold the wire and break the kid loose at the same time.  Also, a number of us, including several adults, had begun to surround Daddy, and he finally realized that this probably was not going to get him any parenting awards.  He abandoned his recovery efforts, untied his kid, packed his gear, and left in a huff.  It was the live performance of a PowerPoint presentation on how any addiction can addle your thought process.  And we all sat very quietly there on the pier, except for the one man casting.

Years later I was pier fishing with my son, again on the Outer Banks, possibly even at the same pier.  I was hoping for a student becomes the teacher moment, but the blues were nowhere to be found.  Nobody was catching much, and we struck up a conversation with a local teenager.  He was casting only a large round weight.  No hook, no lure.  And he was only casting on the side of the pier where people were surfing.  He was quite good.  “I never hit anybody, but I come right close.  They’re not supposed to be with 100 feet of the pier.  I only throw when they get too close.”  We saw him land several within about 10 feet of the surfers, with his massive weight making a loud bloop and splash.  When I asked if the surfers didn’t sometimes get irritated, he allowed as how he could tell when they were getting really pissed, and then he simply called it a day.  “To the surfers, I am just a silhouette against the sun.  They can’t see my face.”  The things one learns.  One man casting, I thought, waiting for an angry reaction.