When a trip to coastal waters is planned, I always have an internal debate.
The debate centers on these questions—do I want to secure a saltwater fishing license from the appropriate state, do I want to haul all of the necessary equipment with me, can I withstand the teasing taunts of the fish who like skilled acrobats jump within feet of me, but who elude being caught?
So far, my answer has been— yes.
But, I know there is a trip in the future, where my brain will say to me—forget it you old fool. You can’t do this any more. You’ll do something unwise. My brain will advise—park yourself in a chair on the beach. Nap and occasionally chuckle at the fishermen and their attempts to catch fish.
After all, that’s what people did while watching your attempts to catch fish. But, they didn’t quietly chuckle. They laughed so hard that they cried watching your incompetence.
From July 3-10, 2021, our family was going to be on Topsail Island, North Carolina. This would be our first trip to Topsail in the summer. Years ago, my wife and I attended a winter wedding. That weekend was beautiful and unseasonably warm on Topsail.
Topsail is one of the many barrier islands along the spectacular North Carolina coast. These islands were really intended to be barriers to help protect the mainland’s shoreline.
But, a long time ago, a curious soul left the mainland in a boat and came ashore on a barrier island. Clearly, this person thought what a place to get away.
That was the beginning.
It started simple with a seasonal fishing or hunting shack, then a wood framed cottage, more cottages, relators/developers/legislators conspired, infrastructure expanded, swing/draw bridges from the mainland were replaced with towering multilane bridges, high rise condos sprouted, and pretty soon what was once a tranquil, pretty creation of mother nature is now a cookie cutter beach town.
Topsail is a long island almost 26 miles in length, and we were going to be in the town of Surf City.
Our house faced the main road with the beach and the Atlantic Ocean across the street. Thanks to the developers of this section of houses, we also had easy access to the sound behind us. For a fisherman, this is heaven—two options for casting a line— ocean or sound.
I secured and printed my North Carolina saltwater fishing license on-line. I properly used scissors to clip the license and placed it in a small, sealable sandwich bag. The license could now travel safely in my shirt or shorts pockets. In all my years of saltwater fishing, I only have been asked to show my license once.
For this trip, I brought two light, spinning rods, and my fly rod. My level of comfort is with the spinning rods. Tying a lure or using cut bait with a hook and a weight is a set up I can handle.
With the fly rod, I am still a novice. No expertise at all. I bring the fly rod just on the chance that I can practice using it on a wide open space along the sound.
I picked up some frozen shrimp at the longstanding IGA grocery store that is easy access when you come off the Surf City bridge.
While we were on Topsail, I fished the ocean and the sound, but I had more fun on the sound. Plus, I actually caught two tiny fish—a pinfish and a croaker. The croaker true to form actually croaked when he landed on the grass turf, and the pinfish’s delicate coloring sparkled in afternoon sun rays.
The sound access was ideal. The creators of this development had an inlet cut between two sections of houses. The inlet was wide enough for docks to be built on either side, and they also at the east end constructed a ramp for seasonal loading in or out of boats.
One morning after fishing on the sound side, I decided to go for a run on the beach. The tide was still out, so the packed sand was perfect for an old goat to lift his legs.
I headed north, lathered in sunscreen and wearing a hat. Shell searchers, walkers, and a few fishermen were out. When I passed fishermen, I carefully studied their set ups, but I was also being careful to stay behind their berths.
This was quite a change from my neighborhood runs in Richmond. I was enjoying the whims of the Atlantic beside me while also scanning the houses on my left. I noted that milepost markers were staked out along the sand dunes. At some point, I decided it was time to turn around. The sun, the humidity, and the dew point were conspiring. So I made a u-turn to head back.
On that way back, I came upon two fishermen that I had earlier passed. My brain was somewhere else. I uncharacteristically started to run under their taut lines.
Suddenly, they saw my approach, and with lots of urgency they shouted and waved me off.
I quickly navigated behind them while at the same time apologizing for my blunder.
I was just a few steps passed them when I heard a kaboom. I looked back to see that the fishermen had fired a homemade cannon. This straight piped cannon was loaded with a baited hook, a weight, and enough line to traject it out way beyond the breakers.
I marveled at their ingenuity and wondered if I might had been wounded by stinky bait, a weight, and a gnarly hook if they hadn’t shooed me off.
In David Halberstam’s book The Teammates A Portrait of a Friendship, he describes the internal debate he has within himself before sitting down to conduct his first interview with Ted Williams. Not only was Ted Williams a very gifted hitter of baseballs, but he was an accomplished fisherman too.
Halberstam grades his own fishing skills, and rates himself about a C+ with a fly rod. Knowing that Ted Williams prefers fishing with a fly rod, the author decides not to bring up fishing. He reasons that the purpose of the interview could be lost to a different Williams’ passion.
At the end of the interview, Halberstam quietly confides to Williams that he enjoys fishing. Of course Ted Williams chastises him for not speaking up. Williams asserts—“we could have spent the day fishing, and done the interview tomorrow.”
At that moment, David Halberstam was thankful he had listened to the wisdom of his internal voice and focused on the interview. Because he listened to his inner reasoning, Halberstam assessed his day with Ted Williams as “magical.” He felt like he had witnessed Ted Williams’ “joyousness and zest for life.”
If I were to grade myself as a saltwater fishermen, I would give myself an A+ for letting fish and smart crabs steal my bait. Yet, in the end that’s ok—because there is something more magical than bait bandits going on here.
From this tiny point of land that gently juts into the waters of the sound, I without distractions see the sun inching up in the East. In that solitude, I wonder why the sun wants to rise on such a troubled world?
In that quiet morning light, I witness undisturbed water, flat like a mirror reflecting a still calmness, and I want to know why we struggle to still our souls with kindness in our interactions with each other.
And in a blink of my eyes that reflective surface is broken by the energetic leap of a fish. I want to know do have the energy and courage deep inside my soul to change not for myself, but for the good of the people I encounter.
Back at the beach house, four little cherubs are probably up by now.
Upon my reentry to the house, I will offer them a sweaty, stinky shrimp bait hug.
They will shout “no papa” and scurry away.
In a blink, those little angels will be grown.
I pray I don’t let them down.
All photos Bill Pike Topsail Island, North Carolina July 2021