The Fingerling

Running and gunning on the Carolina Coast.

Saltwater Fly Fishing
February/March 2005

For two days the albies were everywhere and nowhere, crashing around our boat with a randomness that, by sunset each afternoon, had left us sore and swivel-headed. But we’d been hooking up, our drags whining amidst a cacophony of slapping waves and squawking gulls.

Blitz fishing can be competitive, so our strategy among the other boats was simple and effective. At the first sight of breaking fish, we’d rush off in a different direction, and then, head start established, turn and blast toward the action like our pants were on fire and only a distant flock of seagulls could put them out.

Truth be told, though, everyone was catching fish, a well-deserved blessing on an annual fly-fishing event that has seen some rather empty water in recent seasons. Yet even in slow years, fall albie fishing off Harker’s Island, North Carolina, is a fine time because even a handful of these explosive fish is worth the trip, and because the run attracts many fly fishermen of high skill and goodwill.

But that can change, especially when the fish are slamming and the ocean’s vast expanse seems reduced to a puddle of frenzied false casts and tangled lines. I’ve heard stories of northeastern blitz fishing that involve baseball bats, and of a territorialism on some south Florida flats that rivals gang turfdom.

Down East is a rather more genteel affair, where invading another boat’s space is just considered ill-mannered, not cause for riot. Everyone knows that the sight of breaking albies can turn even the most experienced captain’s mind to mush and render the anglers fore and aft capable of little more than administering each other a good flogging.

And so it was, in our excitement, we had just trampled over the edge of a breaking pod with another boat already in position.

“Man, that was bad. What the hell was I thinking?” the skipper asked himself, as three anglers in another boat stood staring at us in disbelief. We were relieved to see that the albies were less concerned. They quickly came up again, and the bow angler on the other boat made a sharp cast to hook up.

Any day on the water should scrub our souls a little and make us better people.

As we turned the boat to get out of their way, our man behind the wheel yelled “Nice job! Well done!” a tacit apology met with impressive dexterity from the toiling fly fisher, who was able to handle a raging 10-pound albie and give us the finger all at once.

If it hadn’t been so ridiculous, it would have been comical. So we shrugged and let it float.

But a week later I thought about the incident again. I was watching television and feeling mired in the present horrors of headline news. From incidental bombings to insane deer hunters, it was a bloodbath at home and abroad. And here I am, I thought, out fishing, that little pinprick of guilt I occasionally get for devoting myself to something that, in the grand scheme, seems to contribute little to a better world. Or does it?

The great American sportsman Fred Bear once wrote:

“Go afield with a good attitude, with respect for the wildlife you hunt and for the forests and fields in which you walk. Immerse yourself in the outdoor experience. It will cleanse your soul and make you a better person.”

The same is true of fishing. Any day on the water should scrub our souls a little and make us better people. So fish or no fish, I try not to place too much importance on something that is, in fact, pretty important to me. Presently, it’s my livelihood. But in the end, it is just fishing.

With spring coming, we’ll soon be back on the water in droves. And I, for one, hope you catch all the fish you want. Just don’t forget to enjoy the ride. ✦