I’d been to LBI at least a dozen times but never cast a line into the salt. Sure, I found the prospect of hauling fish from the surf intriguing, but I suppose I’d always stopped at the reality checkpoint — I live five hours from the ocean, so how often can I really fish water with tides? And while most people enjoy dabbling in things once in awhile, that approach is really not my bag. A short run with something leaves too many questions wandering around and bumping against each other in my brain. And without returning for a follow up experience, the questions remain frustratingly unanswered. I’m a researcher at heart, and I want those answers.
But my two boys are old enough now to be researchers themselves. And once they knew we were traveling to LBI, New Jersey for vacation, they looked into where to fish, what to fish and how to catch the biggest fish in the sea.
We were casting bobbers into a pond with spinning tackle when Aiden first brought it up back in June.
“Hey Dad, when we’re at the beach, we have to buy squid and bunker. We need bigger hooks too, because these ones are too small.”
I perked up and turned toward the small raspy voice of my seven year old son.
Aiden stared at me and held at arm’s length the #8 hook tied to 6 lb monofilament we were using for bluegill and small bass. Joey stood five feet behind his brother and nodded for emphasis.
“We need a big knife for cutbait too,” Joey said. “And a cooler. And a bucket. And we’re going to catch a shark.”
Aiden agreed. “Yeah, and really big sinkers like the guy on Youtube. These ones are too small,” he said, pointing his finger to the round grey shot on his line.
They both nodded some more and stared back at me.
So that’s how our family beach vacation became a fishing trip.
They wanted to fish the surf, right from the beach — to cast a line into all the breaking waves and just get after it.
I have to say, I was surprised by the first fish. I was prepared to fish the surf without catching a thing, and I’d been thinking about how to keep the boys’ spirits up when we struggled.
But I’d jumped on board with the boys back in June, and I dug in to learn what I could about saltwater fishing and specifically what our options were for the second week in August. We bought bigger rods, reels, lines, hooks and those big sinkers that Aiden wanted. And we bought a cooler. And a knife to cut bait. Joey picked it out.
I figured we’d start with bait because it might give us the best chance of hooking up with Jaws.
I have no pretense about being a fly fisherman. To me, fly fishing provides no greater challenge than other methods, once the casting is mastered. I fly fish because for the trout in my home waters it’s the best tool for showing the food they’re looking for.
So shortly after our arrival on the island, we bought squid and bunker at the local tackle shop just down the street from our beach house.
Turns out we didn’t need it.
Our first fish came Monday evening, about a half-hour in, when Aiden’s rod bent toward the sea from the weight of a decent fluke. His small arms struggled against the pull of a flat fish in the undertow. The drag peeled for a little while, but he just kept reeling.
Aiden caught the fluke on a sand flea. It’s a quarter-sized creature that looks like the front end of a crayfish. And as I removed the hook from a foreign fish with teeth sharper than expected, I saw his bait.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Sand flea! Aiden said, bouncing with excitement.
“From where, buddy?” I asked
He pointed to the ocean’s edge, right where the waves slide up and sink into the sand.
“In the ocean, Dad. Fish love ‘em.”
So the kid caught his own bait, stuck it on a hook, cast it out and crawled the rig on the bottom. He learned about that on . . . Youtube.
I think the boys had their own doubts about what we would catch from the ocean, because with that first fish their surprise and wonder doubled my own. Everything was multiplied by an excitement for the unusual. A fluke has two eyes on one side of its head. Tell me that’s not crazy.
After he released the fluke, Aiden ran and jumped up into my arms. Reality had exceeded his expectations, and that doesn’t happen very often for a seven year old kid. We hugged hard, and I felt his heart beating fast enough to keep up with the adrenaline.
— — — — — —
We caught more fluke, a few snapper and Joey caught a sand shark. On every outing but one, we landed multiple fish. After visiting all the tackle shops on the island, I learned that targeting fluke was the right approach. And we switched to lures — soft plastics and bucktails — catching even more fluke with every trip.
We got into a rhythm, of sorts. We fished the last few hours of daylight, starting around 6:00 pm, after most of the vacationers had left the sand. The boys then alternated between three rods with varying rigs, and when one of them wanted a break, I picked up a rod while they flew a kite or threw a Frisbee with Becky (my wife).
Halfway through our third evening, I heard Joey scream, “Fish on!”
He’d developed a habit of thinking (hoping) that the tug from strong undertow was a fish. But this time, there was no mistaking it.
Joey’s eyes were like saucers as the ten foot rod jerked with more power than he’d ever imagined. I ran to help him, but over the next ten minutes he was steadfast about landing the fish himself. He strained and he struggled to keep the rod tip elevated. The big fish took him south down the beach faster than expected. I reached over and tightened the drag on the twenty pound line a few times throughout the battle. But I wondered about tightening too much because I feared the fish may pull the rod from his hands.
Joey began to make up ground on the fish. He pumped and reeled just like he’d seen in the videos. Finally, Joey brought the fish to the surface of the last cresting wave, just twenty feet from the sand. And when it reached the top, Aiden was the first to say what we all saw.
“That’s a shark!”
It was a shark. And I’m sure of it. At least, I’m as certain as a trout fisherman from Central Pennsylvania can be about such a thing. For all the world, it looked like a larger version of the same sand shark Joey had caught the night before — four times larger and three feet long.
Because fishing is fishing, the hook slipped out. And when the line went slack, Aiden, Becky and I knew what happened. Joey was devastated.
I’ve honestly never seen such heartbreak in another person. He hurt with his whole body.
Joey’s strength is his capacity for strong emotion. Everything he feels is right there on the surface, and it’s big. For many years, I didn’t understand how much he feels, but I’ve grown to understand it. And now I envy him.
So when Joey lost the shark, I didn’t feel sorry for him. Becky consoled him, and he needed that. But I smiled. After some minutes I hugged and congratulated him — because Joey felt the strength of an emotion that matched the strength of the shark on the end of his line. I didn’t tell him about how time and age steal the power of those feelings away, that the experience of life dulls the raw edge of emotion into something that is never quite like what you felt as a kid.
And I didn’t tell him that when he does land a shark that size — and I know he will someday — it may not be as memorable as the one that got away.
Because everything was so different the boys couldn’t get enough. Neither could I. It took me all these years and the intense desires of my sons to finally fish the salt, and now it’s part of us.
Saturday, in the dark hours of the morning, we returned home with all the memories, the laughs, the accomplishments and the heartbreak. We brought back a new connection to a place worlds different than our own backyard. We’ll do it again. Now we have to.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N