Follow-ups are tough. That’s what I told the boys as we prepared for this year’s family beach vacation. The sequel to last summer, I assured them, would host its own wonders. Wishing too hard for a perfect repeat might get in the way of enjoying the new moments — the unexpected things. That’s a good lesson for young boys. It’s a good lesson for anyone.
The house changed everything. My wife found a gorgeous beach home just a couple blocks away from where we stayed last August. Frankly, the other one was small and dreary, with barely enough space for a mom and dad. And it certainly wasn’t big enough to hold the energies of two eager boys. But last year’s house forced us outside — and we fished the surf every chance we got.
This year, when we raised the garage door of the new home, the boys flew up four flights of stairs. And it was immediately clear that this house, with a huge kitchen and bedrooms to spare, with its endless decks and terraces, would be the feature of the week.
Having that kind of space and such comforts changes things. I think we all sunk in and relaxed in a way that we hadn’t for a long time. No Little League games, no school, no work or business calls. We took a vacation the way it’s supposed to be. And I saw each of us unwind. We settled in easily. We rested.
The boys found their own avenues of enjoyment. They discovered routines that suited each of them. We walked a lot, road bikes, explored the island, spent loads of time on the beach . . . and we fished.
I now understand why I love the surf. Because it’s like a river.
Sure, the bays and inlets have their flow. The tides and currents pour in and retreat, carrying life along with them. And perhaps if I had a boat, I would enjoy the open water more. But like my Pennsylvania rivers, I would rather wade than float. I like to be immersed in the currents, pushing my body into the crashing waves and undertow. I love long walks in and out of my favorite hemlock haunts, and I find fulfillment in the solitary steps along wet sand after fishing well into the dark hours. The surf suits me.
We fished for fluke. Building upon the success of last year, and looking ahead to some fall striper fishing, I narrowed the gear choices to enough bucktails and rubber baits to fit in a small sling pack. (It still cracks me up that my terminal leader for saltwater is the same diameter as my butt section for trout fishing.) This year, we upgraded to a new spinning rod and reel, some rust-proof pliers, braided line and a bunch of other stuff that shipped to the house, day after day for two weeks leading up to our launch date. Each item was carefully considered and perused by the boys. Fishing stories were fabricated around the unusual things we added to the sling pack and the backup tackle box.
Our fishing was slower than last year. There’s no doubt. But multiple visits to the local island bait shops had me appreciating the fish we did catch. “You should have been here last week,” was the line, accompanied by some hocus pocus talk about weather fronts and colder ocean tides.
We did well enough. We had our moments.
Overall, I learned to fish bucktails in the surf pretty well. I like them. They’re a lot like some of the flies I fish. I like making the lures too. And strapping a 5/0 hook into the vise before lashing on hunks of bucktail is fun — just a little different than splitting the wings on a #24 Trico.
On the second evening I finally realized something: leveling a bucktail in the surf is exactly like finding the strike zone in a trout river. I don’t need to scrape the sand all the time. In fact, when I found the right depth, that glide through the strike zone was the same feeling as I have on a fly rod with heavy flies. If I closed my eyes I could almost imagine stripping a sculpin on my favorite large limestoner.
In the end, it’s all fishing.
Joey and I had one amazing morning that will stand out for a lifetime. Up before dawn, our bare feet hit the sand as the sun glowed brilliant purples below the watery horizon. The sand was cold. We fished just north of a jetty that we’d scouted the day before. And it all came together for us. Catching fluke in the surf for the next few hours, with the sound of Joey’s laughter mixed into the wash of the waves, was pure joy. It was a reward for our efforts, for our preparation and follow through.
Past and Present
When you do something once a year, the comparisons stand out. And while the daily changes in my boys may go unnoticed, juxtaposing their place in the sand this year with the vivid memories from last year made me realize the truth in every parent’s words: “They grow up so fast.”
They sure do.
From tentative to confident: this process identifies their lives. Watching the steady ease that has grown in both boys and seeing the way they carry themselves makes me feel the speed of time to my core. Life moves. And once it a while, I wish I could hit the pause button. I’ve never felt that way before. I want to set aside everything that I must do, and enjoy my sons for who they are right now, for what they are today, before we all move into tomorrow.
Our vacation, our rest, reminded me of that. I’ll take snapshots and keep them in memory. I’ll stay out past dark and stare at the moon as it hugs the horizon. Whether over saltwater or the mountains, it’s a good life.
Fish hard, friends.
** NOTE ** If you are an LBI regular or a NJ surf fisher, please get in touch. The salt is a mystery to me, and I’ll take all the guidance I can get.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N