A Fish Out of Fresh Water

by | Aug 14, 2018 | 52 comments

 

** Note ** This is an article from the summer of 2018. We’re about to go do it all again, and this story keeps coming back strong in my memory. This was one of my favorite times ever with the boys.

 

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.

Aiden. There’s a big smile behind that fish.

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.

Joey’s sand shark surprise at dusk.

— — — — — —

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.

“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.”

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!”

Probably the biggest fish any Swentosky ever had at the end of a fishing line.

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.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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52 Comments

  1. Great article….that memory will last forever

    Reply
  2. Welcome to the dark side! Fishing the salt is addicting, the weather is usually nice and sunny, the smell of the ocean and the warm water makes it a good time. I see bonefish, permit and tarpon in the future for the Swentosky family.

    Reply
  3. Welcome to the dark side! Fishing the salt is addicting, the weather is usually nice and sunny, the smell of the ocean and the warm water makes it a good time. I see bonefish, permit and tarpon in the future for the Swentosky family.

    Reply
      • Message me, I can hook you up on some good fly rod opportunities at Jersey Shore.

        Reply
  4. Thank YOU!
    This is what it’s all about 🙂

    Reply
  5. You’re a very lucky guy.

    Reply
  6. Wait… it gets better.
    Albies, Bluefish, Stripers, oh my!
    10 wt rods with anti-reverse reels, shootingheads, and stripping baskets.
    Half a chicken lashed to a 4/0 iron.
    Sounds like the boys have a bad case of biggerfishitis.
    No turning back for you, Dom.

    Reply
  7. Well written and well said.

    Reply
  8. This: “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.”

    Perfect. Wordsworth would be proud.

    Reply
  9. Great article Domenick. Once you get a little salt mixed into that fishing blood there is no turning back. I started fishing the surf more than 30 years ago and every time I hit the beach it feels like opening day of trout back here in PA on every cast. The thing about salt is you definitely never know what your gonna hook into on any random cast on any random day. I’ve caught everything from spots to a 7 ft sand tiger in the suds. Bluefish, flounder and stripers are what I mainly target but fighting a 90 lb stingray for a few hours can’t be beat either. You better know your boys will be chomping at the bit waiting for the next beach trip. That is a great experience for them. Tight line.

    Reply
  10. Wow, that takes me back as I grew up on LBI in the late 50’s early 60’s up north in Loveladies and learned to fish the surf and the lagoons. I rekindled my surf fishing skills in Sea Isle City in the past 10 years, but the beach replenishment projects after Sandy have altered the structure and muscle shoals as to effectively ruin and make such futile at present there. Glad to see LBI is still productive- especially for those two boys. You boys ought to run down in the fall, stick some clams on and anticipate some strippers.

    Reply
    • Nice. We are already planning a return trip for the Fall. Yes, Stripers are the next target!

      Reply
  11. Dom,
    LBI is a magical place…great story. I grew up going to LBI but i now live in California…still my favorite beach destination. Nothing like the Jersey shore.

    Reply
  12. My 4 kids learned to love to fish through our annual family beach trip in NC over the past 16 years. I really think saltwater fishing is the best way to introduce young kids to fishing because there are so many diversions & distractions to entertain in between fish. They LOVE to catch bait whether it is digging for sand fleas, chasing fiddler crabs, or netting finger mullet. Taught my 8 year old how to throw a cast net several years ago and this year he almost spent more time cast netting bait in the surf than fishing. We take turns reeling in the fish and they can all identify every fish that is brought ashore.

    Now they love all types of fishing but it all started in the salt. We live 30 minutes away from some of the finest native brook trout fishing in the state not to mention an amazing smallmouth river fishery but all of us would not hesitate to drive 5h to the coast any time we get the chance. There is just something special about fishing the salt

    Reply
  13. Loved this story. Followed a craving for saltwater last February in Corpus Christi area and fished, explored, and asked many questions. No fish this time but new answers for my return. Very satisfying.

    Visited Puget sound and wowed by tide changes.

    Love fishing river currents but tides their own unique challenge.

    Reply
  14. Sooo nice!
    Sometimes amidst the gear and technique we can forget what fishing is really all about. I have a cherished memory of my busy dad taking the afternoon off of work, clamping a 5 horse Johnson to a rented wooden boat and taking his 8 year old son fishing in the Florida Intercoastal. We lucked into a school of pompano which kept us busy and and bonded for an hour. Bait? Sand fleas!

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Reply
  15. I loved this story.

    Reply
  16. I loved this story. Great stuff.

    Reply
  17. This is the best one I’ve read yet. It may be due to being partial to surf fishing. Great stuff Dom.

    Reply
  18. Wow! Thank you boys, and You Tube and the shore and especially, Domenick, your way of expressing your feelings. You are truly blessed with a loving family and a unique gift of expression.

    Reply
  19. That’s really special Dom when your kids lead the way. Nice piece.

    Reply
  20. Loved the article- nothing better than seeing a kid’s excitement with success in something new! Really well written as well!

    Reply
  21. always fish with anything/everything you have in your hands … everywhere you are … anytime you have. sleep next winter.

    Reply
  22. Great writing lots of emotion conveyed , really like ur style m8ty

    Reply
  23. Love this story. Brings back memories with my Dad. Oh, and bring a fly rod to the beach. Throw clousers on a 6 or 7 weight and you will get fluke or anything else swimming by.

    Reply
  24. I absolutely loved this story. So true….

    Reply
  25. Out of everything you’ve put on the page for us, I like this one the best. Nicely done.

    Reply
  26. Thank you, Domenick

    Reply
  27. I felt like I was right there with you, beautiful family and post, thanks.

    Reply
  28. Awesome story bro! Brought a tear to my eye…great job!

    Reply

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