Forever fishless

Tom Nugent

September 18, 1992|By Tom Nugent

Nag's Head, N.C. -- THE years come and go, and the tumbling surf crashes against the sand, and one mighty truth endures:

No matter how hard I try, I cannot manage to catch a saltwater fish.

Not one.

I can't catch a flounder, or a grouper, or a trout. I can't catch a needle-nosed barracuda, or a surf-leaping bluefish, or even a stupid-looking, shovel-headed shark.

Zilch. Nothing. Is it genetic? Was I cursed by Neptune at birth? Did the great sea god shake his glittering trident, and then boom from deep within his seaweed-tangled beard the terrible edict: "Know ye that Bozo here shall remain forever fishless"?

The heartbreak! Every year, it's the same story. First, I withdraw my life's savings, and blow them on a one-week cottage rental along North Carolina's famed Outer Banks. (I go after most of the tourists have left. This means also that fewer people will witness my futility.)

Next, I waste another $20 on a "surf rod" and a bucket of cut-up squid. Then, trembling with anticipation, I fling my squid bait into the nearest wave and settle back to wait.

Oh boy, do I wait!

Three hours . . . four hours . . . Nothing. The waves hiss placidly against the shore. Entire ice ages pass while I stand there, ankle deep in the boiling surf, drooling mindlessly.

Somewhere in the middle of the fourth hour, my spouse appears at my elbow. As always, her gaze is full of tender pity.

"Anything biting, dear?"

"Of course not."

"Not even a nibble?"

"Of course not."

She watches the surf roll along the beach for a moment. Then, in a voice full of gentle compassion: "Why don't you stop torturing yourself, honey? Why don't you just . . . quit?"

But she knows better. She knows that I can't stop trying, that I'm utterly addicted to this futile quest for the Finned Holy Grail. Sighing mournfully, she departs.

Five hours . . . six hours. Nada. I stand alone in the waves now, daydreaming, watching the faint smoke plume from a distant freighter. Floating along on a tide of nostalgia, I'm suddenly remembering all the fishless years. I'm remembering Cape Cod in September, and the bottle-green surf exploding against the jetty, and how I failed to catch any bluefish there.

I'm remembering the glittering coral world of Key West's legendary "Six-Mile Reef" . . . and how I couldn't manage to land a single barracuda, all that day.

Seven hours. Woozy now, and sunburned, I know that I should throw in the towel. But I can't. I can't accept another defeat! Just five more minutes . . .

Twilight. Shadows skim the wave tops, and the first stars are visible. "Just one more cast," I tell myself, "and I'll head on back . . ."

At that moment the tip of my surf rod begins to twitch.

Stunned, hardly daring to hope, I watch the end of the rod jiggle slightly . . . then stop . . . then jiggle again.

Can it be? "Please, God," I moan out loud. "Just this one time . . . Please let it be a fish."

KA-POW!

In a flash, the surf rod bends double, and the fishing-line begins screaming off the reel. Half delirious, I roar: "Strike! Strike! It's the Mother-Of-All-Bluefish -- stand clear!"

Then, while the nearby surf fishermen gape at me, I yank the rod madly, in order to "sink the hook" and launch the kind of epic, life-and-death struggle that Hemingway would have envied.

A moment later, however, I receive a nasty shock.

Although it's still bent double, my trusty surf rod has stopped jumping and twitching. And the nylon line has stopped zinging off the reel. What can it all mean? I stand there, blinking helplessly, as the realization sinks in.

There is no fish.

There has never been a fish.

Instead, I've hooked a weed tangle on the ocean floor.

And the only struggle I'm going to have is the struggle to free my snarled rig.

Doing my best to ignore the growing snickers from my fishing neighbors, I stumble through the surf, whiplashing the rod again and again, until -- Ping! -- the line snaps and the fiberglass pole goes dead in my arms.

It's over.

Tomorrow morning we will pack the car and head north. With the sound of that Ping!, yet another summer has gone into the memory scrapbook . . . and once again, I didn't catch diddly.

Limping back toward the cottage, I ask myself two of the most painful questions in the history of philosophy:

Why do men live?

Why do they keep going down to the surf with their fiberglass rods?

See you next year, Mother-Of-All-Bluefish.

Tom Nugent teaches journalism at UMBC. He also fails to catch

fish in the Loch Raven Reservoir now and then.

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