Tackling the life of surf-rod guy


August 15, 1998|By Rob Kasper

FOR YEARS I had thought about becoming a surf-rod guy, one of the denizens of the beach who match wits with the fish of the Atlantic Ocean surf.

Every August when my family would go the beach for vacation, I would stretch out in the sand and watch the guys sitting next to their tall fishing poles. I like fishing but was reluctant, for a couple of reasons, to join the ranks of surf fishermen.

First of all, joining would require carrying even more gear to the beach. Already it seemed that when our family of four spent a simple afternoon at the ocean, we toted more equipment than a battalion of Marines. There were folding chairs, the beach umbrella, towels, an inflatable mattress, beach toys, books, beverages and food.

When our kids were small, I was the sole beast of burden at the beach. I was the dad who lugged the heavy stuff from the car while the towel-toting family members trailed behind. During that era, my goal was to lighten my load, not increase it.

But by the time our two boys became teen-agers, they were able, if not always willing, to share the load. Our recent family vacations at the beach have featured three load-bearing males, not just one. Consequently, the idea of adding a surf rod and a bucket of bait and a tackle box to our beach cargo has grown more appealing than it was back in the days that I was our clan's only pack mule.

I also had to come to grips with the question of whether becoming a surf fisherman would change the tone of my vacation. When I am at the beach, I like to do virtually nothing. The only activities resembling exertion that I regularly engage in are turning the pages of a book or inflating an air mattress.

For a time I was worried that becoming a surf fisherman might entail lots of movement and perhaps even some hard work. However, after spending many summer afternoons observing the habits of surf fishermen, I changed my mind.

After watching these guys sit by their rods for hours, getting up only to crack open a beverage, I decided that this is a work load I could handle.

So after years of study, I bought a surf rod. I got it last winter, just before Christmas. It was a gift to myself and to our youngest son, then 12. This kid loves to fish. As I walked out of the door of T. G. Tochterman and Sons sporting-goods shop in East Baltimore with the rod in my hand, the December wind was biting. Yet as I drove along Eastern Avenue with a surf rod tucked in the trunk of my car, my head was filled with thoughts of warm August afternoons spent fishing in the ocean surf.

It turned out the kid couldn't wait that long to test "our" new surf rod out. During the week between Christmas and New Year's, he cajoled me into driving him and another equally zealous young fisherman, Garrett, to the National Seashore on Assateague Island near Chincoteague, Va.

When we got the beach, the winter wind was so strong it almost knocked us down. The surf was so rough that as soon as my son tossed the line into the ocean, the waves tossed it right back. We didn't catch anything.

That was also the result of our early-August fishing expedition at Assateague. So far, our new surf rod has not reeled in a single fish.

Despite the fact that I didn't catch a fish, I liked becoming a surf-rod guy. Toting the fishing gear up the beach wasn't that hard. At first I didn't like the squid, the bait that is frozen when you buy it but thaws as you use it. When thawed, squid produces a strong odor and attracts thieving sea gulls. Yet after a few days, it seemed to me that smelling like squid was part of the whole surf-rod-guy oeuvre.

At the beach I was content to plant the rod in its plastic holder, to plant my rear end in a folding chair, and to watch the fishing line. The kid, however, took a much more active approach to surf fishing. He liked to reel the line in, to adjust the bait, to change the size of the weight, to change the size of the hook, then to cast the line back into the surf.

He was an advocate for trying a variety of fishing spots, and for fishing at a variety of times. We fished at high tide, low tide, rising tide and falling tide. Mostly we fished during daylight. Once we fished at night.

Somewhere in the stack of pamphlets the kid had picked up at various bait stores, he had read that it was possible to fish at night on the beach. Doing so required filling out forms and getting permits at the National Park Service information office on the beach.

The forms were free, but by signing them we attested that we really would be fishing -- not holding a beach party. Sure enough, at about 10 o'clock that night, park rangers shooed everyone who didn't have a permit off the beach, leaving only my son and me.

It was a glorious night. A full moon beamed down on us, and as the waves hit the shore, the surf looked lustrous. I watched as my son waded out in the glistening surf and cast into the Atlantic. It was picturesque, not productive. We used squid for bait. Then we used blood worms. Then we used creatures called sand fleas. Then we used frozen minnows. We caught nothing.

At about 11 o'clock, storm clouds swept in, cloaking the moon. My son and I reeled our lines in, picked up our gear and called it a night. We had not caught any fish, but we had landed some vivid ocean memories. And that, I think, is what surf fishing is about.

Pub Date: 8/15/98

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