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.
READ: Troutbitten | A Fish Out of Fresh Water — LBI, 2018
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.
READ: Troutbitten | Forget the Bottom — Glide nymphs through the strike zone
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
So much fun reading your posts when they involve the kids. My own are in their 30’s now and the memories of their childhood fishing trips are worth their weight in gold. We now have two twin grandsons who we hope will share many of the same opportunities. Glad you had a good time.
NJ is the land of “you should have been here (yesterday/ last week etc).” I swear I hear that every time I go! One thing that can make the salt much different than freshwater streams is how much fish can move. In the salt, its not always about presentation or lure/ bait choice…the fish just might not be there. At least that is my story and I’m sticking to it!
I certainly believe that.
Nice. My kids have kids have grown up fishing the surf with me and there is nothing better than being on the beach with them at first light with the surf rods in the water as the sun comes up over the horizon. Sometimes we throw artificials, sometimes we just bait up & place our baits strategically near fish holding areas on a circle hook and wait for the drag to start singing. I have helped my kids reel in red drum that were as big as they were and it is something special that just can’t be replicated even with the nicest big brown from a river (IMHO).
The key to fishing, as you know, is the ability to read the water and understand where fish will be holding. In addition to obvious structure like that jetty, fish will also hold near breaks in the bar (where the outgoing tide will wash bait out), along a dropoff near the breakers, etc. I have caught many flounder (south of you, but same principles apply) at my feet, fish the cast all the way in. That jetty area in the picture looks like a great place for an 8wt & a clouser deep minnow.
John Skinner is to surf bucktailing as George Daniel is to nymphing, he is a good resource if you are looking to up your salt game. He has a good Youtube channel and several good ebooks on bucktailing from the surf.
Thanks for the tips, Greg!
I found all the Skinner stuff last year after our August trip. I devoured it. Very good.
I like your point about the cuts and breaks. Toward the end of this trip, I was starting to see signs of those, even without low tide. I found reading the surf difficult at first. Still do. And it makes me appreciate how easily I scan a trout river and say, “they’ll hold there and there, but not here.”
Sounds like a great vacation. Makes me kinda miss living back east. I had a similar experience with stripers off long beach 10 or so years ago but not with my kids! keep up the great blog!
It was special.
Great story, great pics and great memories for you and the family. You’ve got your priorities in perfect alignment. Enjoy the present…the kids really do grow up so fast.
Try a flyrod in the surf next time for fluke, it will work
Great job again Dom. Don’t blink brother, they’ll be men before you know it. I’ll be doing my own surf fishing for the first time at Assateague Island, camping on the beach, in a few weeks. Looking forward to it.
I would bring about a gallon of 100% DEET in case you get an offshore wind.
Wow, that brings back memories! I lived in Loveladies, LBI from the age of 6 to the age of 12. Formative years those. I remember catching flounder by teasing a small Hopkins lure back along side of jetties on the out going tide. Lately I’ve been confined to Sea Isle City in southern Jersey, but I think the basics are the same. Find some structure- jetty or hole, lures are really hit and miss. Something has just got to be swimming along. Blues are episodic but prolific if you catch them at a time when there are ample bait fish in close. High/low rigs, the small ones with bloodworms and big ones with fresh clams. Throw ’em out there and wait for a hit. This seems to be the rig of choice for stripers. Just chuck it as far out as you can- #4 pyramid lead weight. Be sure to use a shock leader the length of your rod plus three to four turns on the reel or you’ll be throwing separated rigs out into the surf. LBI is a beautiful place. South Jersey has been big into beach replenishment which, according to a guide I used in Cape May, has pretty much ruined the fishing down there. I can confirm the dramatic lack of fish for the past 4-5 years.
They do grow up very fast. Now my son lives in Quantico and my daughter lives in Seattle – so at least I get to fish new areas!
It’s still tough with them so far away.
Cherish the times…
I see you were planing a striper trip at one time.I don’t know if it ever happened, but don’t over look Raritan Bay in NJ. Its well known as excellent striper fishing. Though I have never striper fished many people say in that area fly fishing for stripers is the ultimate fly fishing experience. Now as far as the boys growing up to fast its just unbelievable. They are men in a blink of an eye. I also carried my son in the back pack harness and remember fishing the rivers edge with him on my back. I used hand him mealie worms and he would toss them over my shoulder. I got a kick out of that. He was good about not trying to eat them. The thing I learned and hoped for is that my boys would listened with with their ” hearts ” when we talked or when I would teach them some thing. Hopefully I Accomplished that. The stories with your boys fishing, I believe you have also. That is all you could ask for. It truly makes them better people. Your stories bring back great memories thank you for sharing.