I was hoping for beginner’s luck when a friend introduced me to the rites of surf casting on South Beach one morning. It was a very early morning, by this retiree’s standards, anyway — barely rise and no shine. Are fish clear-eyed at this time of day? Would the early worm get the fish?
My friend makes a detour into downtown Edgartown to pick up a coffee. It’s supposed to clear the mind for what lies ahead: long hours — at least two — of attempting nothing less than to extract from this morning’s listless surf the highly prized bass, whether striped or unstriped, or at the very least anything bulkier than a minnow. But before we drive onto the beach, the clear, clean sea air has to be enriched with hissing discharges from the tires. The less air, the better the traction on sand.
Picking the right spot from which to wet a line is absolutely critical, I learn, and seems at the utter whim of the driver. Picking the right lure is no less critical. To select what will fool a bright-eyed and bushy-finned fish into thinking that there is a meal to be had just a few feet from the shore, is second only to picking a spouse.
The hooks in my friend’s collection have seen many a fish’s mouth from the inside. What about that oval-shaped, stainless-steel lure with the imprint Kastmaster from Acme Fishing Company? Since fish are illiterate, the imprint will do little to entice them to bite, or scare them away, though it could attract the intellectually curious. But that’s probably a tiny minority.
From all the feathery and torpedo-shaped lures with barely concealed hook implants, my friend decides on a shiny, slippery one for me. Then on to the casting. It requires the strength of a javelin thrower and the cunning of a con man. Add to that the element of split-second timing in letting go of the line. A few times my sinker hits the water just a couple of feet away, outside even minnow territory. But once I get the hang of it, I take pride in how far from the shore the lure makes splashdown.
Now comes the reeling, fraught with anticipation. Will the rod ever bend from the pull of a quarry’s bite? It does a couple of times and I feel resistance in the line. Could it be . . . ? I reel frantically. The hook emerges from the ocean festooned in seaweed. While this gift from the sea is not without nutritional value, it’s not the kind I’m looking for.
So I cast and reel, cast and reel, and as I do, I have enough time left to work on my philosophy of life. Isn’t every angler supposed to have one, finely honed during hours of turning his back on the world as he tries to land specimens of that cold-blooded life form? Or as he fights frustration while disentangling the line?
The angler’s philosophy — simply put, his ichthyological stoicism — can’t help but be one of patience and persistence, of applying bug spray as well as the tricks of the trade, of monklike loneliness and dashed hopes. In short, it’s all about the indomitability of the human spirit.
Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea comes to mind, also New England whalers defying the perils of the sea for years at a time in pursuit of bigger fish. Mammals, actually. There’s Captain Ahab and his albino whale. While I can’t quite match that zealot’s obsession, I would content myself with a mackerel, holy or otherwise.
After a couple of hours, we decide that we have exercised enough indomitability. We call it a morning and gather up our gear, holding empty buckets, and our heads high. After wiping the sand off our feet, we pack into the car. We may not go home with tonight’s dinner, but we’ve breathed the fresh, salty ocean air before everybody else. And before we leave the beach behind, even our tires will get replenished with a whiff of that air.
Peter Dreyer lives in Edgartown and Westwood .