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Surf Fishing Novel/Memoir/First 2 chapters

- by Linn Barnes


Surf Fishing


The Beginning


Linn Barnes

I think my imagination was initially kindled by the picture of my mother, Alice Barnes, and Carolyn Hughes standing in the doorway of an Inn at Bethany Beach, ‘Journey’s End’,  called ‘Fort Maggie’, for ‘Auntie’ Margaret Hughes, the proprietor during the war years when the husbands were otherwise engaged in Europe and Asia.  The Delaware national guard was busy guarding against the possibility of a German invasion on the Atlantic coast, so the Inn had been, at least, partly,  ‘mobilized’ for the ‘duration’.  The two young women were dressed in semi military attire, grinning and saluting the camera.  It’s a great picture, full of life, humor and, maybe most important, a healthy dash of silliness.

My very first memories are of Bethany Beach, although I can’t really be sure, of course.  I was born during the war in 1943.  When my father, Ned Barnes, an officer in the OSS, shipped out to Burma and India, Alice, my mother, and a couple of other women in Washington, who were lucky enough to have been friends of Carolyn’s, discovered they could move to Journey’s End in Bethany with their infant children in a few cases, for a large chunk of the year.  They went from March to November.  Everything was cheaper there, war rations for everything went further and the companionship they shared in that lonely time was wonderful and rare.  Carolyn Hughes, who was married to Marcellus Hughes, a US Army officer who was taken prisoner by the Germans in North Africa in the battles against Rommel early on, was a sorority sister of my mother’s at The Western High School in Georgetown.  Their son, Christian, was almost exactly my age, and, from what I understand, my best friend…This all smoothed the way for extended and very inexpensive stays.  There was also Caroline Aitcheson, from Washington, everybody’s best friend, also from the sorority at The Western High School, and Betty Thompson and her son, Toby.  Her husband, Charlie, or Chic, was a doctor serving in the Navy, landing and dealing with the on going nightmare in the North African and Italian campaigns against the Germans.  We were all packed into dormitories, and apparently nobody seemed to mind.  We kids were a mutually guarded and reared semi-feral mini pack of infants at that time, crawling all over the place, on or off the beach.  Days were spent on the sand and in the water, eating and sleeping our way through the cool of Spring and the Summer heat and sometimes stormy weather and high seas.  While I don’t remember specific events, I have had strong impressions and deep associative feelings about Bethany, forever…  But I suppose that would have a lot to do with the fact that I have continued throughout my life to come to Bethany Beach as often as possible, both with my parents and brother and, later, with my wife, Allison Hampton.  When I look at infant photographs of me groveling in the sand with a bucket and a shovel, my mother sitting with her hat pulled down in the summer sun, grinning  and talking with her friends, it just plain rings a very true bell. 

My father returned from the war in late 1945.  From then on, until 1953, when we de-camped for Paris for three years, some portion of each summer was spent at Bethany.  But first we had to get there.  After carefully packing the car in Washington with every imaginable gadget that might be useful at the beach, including, one time, even the garbage, we would drive across the city to the Annapolis road.  The trick was going as early as possible.  That way we would be at the ferry dock across the bay before the lines began to form.  If all went according to plan we’d be among the first to board.  The five nautical miles over the water began at the spot the bridges now span and was wonderful and exhilarating for both adults and kids and took about an hour and half.  And, more importantly, the sea voyage drove home the fact that we were going to an altogether different land, the ‘Eastern Shore’, a land as mythic as ‘Xanadu’ for the small boys, and, for that matter, the adults, who were all spellbound by the glorious Chesapeake Bay, birds diving at the ship and fish leaping all around them, while the boat plowed through all manner of seas, calm or rough, until they finally landed on the far shore, the other place…  When you drove off the ferry, and especially if there had been any weather, it took  a moment or two to get your land legs, further driving home the indisputable fact that you were on foreign soil.  All things seemed instantly different, an anotherness.  The change affected everyone, including my mother and father, for whom there appeared to be a palpable relief at being now truly distant from all the things that the drama of Washington, DC represented.  Then, in 1952, the bridge was completed and it was goodbye to a lot of that…

It was the summer of ’47, when I was all of four years old, that I became a serious and lifelong surf fisherman, under the capable tutelage of my dedicated and obsessed surf fisherman father.  Our lives were all about bait, tackle, coolers, water temperatures and hunches about the tides.  At first, in my fourth year, I would be handed a light rod that had been successfully cast to what I perceived to be an unimaginable distance, well beyond the breakers to the sea beyond where the ‘big ones’ lived.  I anchored the rod in my leather cup belt rod holder which fit around my waist, after a fashion, although to fit me it had to be cinched impossibly tight.  But, it was sensible, even for a child.  If you got a strike, you had a solid post and grip.  And, then, if you set the hook properly after the strike, you could begin the retrieval of whatever unfortunate fish that figured your bait was his dinner who was now on his merry way to being yours…  We did really well.  It seems we always had fresh blues or croakers for dinner, or, maybe the occasional striper, which was a fairly rare gift.  Sometimes, and only sometimes, one of us would land a nice big flounder, the great delicacy of all the seas.  My very savvy mother, had somewhere heard about the famous French recipe for ‘sole meunière’, which had the fabulous fish fried whole in a large pan swimming in browned butter, filleted at the table by my father, first one side, then the center backbone removed, and then the other side, creating four beautiful and delicate fillets which were doused with a sauce of additional butter, a little very dry white wine, parsley and lemon slices, all of which was dazzling and maddeningly delicious.  This was a good part of the compelling impetus that got us back on the beach early each morning. 

Fishing on the beach in the surf became a way of life.  Everything about it drew me into the fold.  We rarely hired a boat to go ‘deep sea fishing’, or, bought day tickets on the ‘head boat’ out of Indian River Inlet.  My father instilled in me the love of the quiet, the wind and the crashing surf.  The waves lapping at and burying your feet, the birds diving for your bait, screaming and battling each other in the air when we occasionally threw a desiccated mullet head to them.  We really did not talk much, at least not until I got a strike.  Then, he went into action, coaching and encouraging me to let the fish have his way for a while, especially if he seemed large.  I began to learn how to play the fish carefully and not let the fish break the line.  He taught me how to use the star drag to make sure the fish could pull away from me, but also tire in the process.  My favorite moment was  ‘swimming’ the fish through the breakers to shore, and carefully getting control before he had a chance to spit the hook out.  It was tricky, and lots of fish were lost, but before too long, lots were taken.  When a good fish was caught there were congratulations all around.  But, it was done in a reserved manner, maybe a quiet kind word, a sincere smile or a handshake, that’s all.  He seemed to think that humility when taking a life was very important, and honored both the fish and the fisherman.  He further taught me to dispatch the landed fish with a short heavy club he carried with his other tackle which he a called a ‘fish priest’, never allowing the fish to suffocate on the shore, in the dry sand and hot sun.  Many mistakes were made my first couple of childhood years fishing, of course, but, because of the intensity of the experience, and, mostly, my father’s unwavering passion for the event, most were not forgotten and established the beginning of a kind of on going life’s log of these important experiences.

By the time I was six I was beginning to really get the hang of it.  I’ll never forget the first time I actually got a respectable cast just a little beyond the breakers, but good enough.  I looked over at my father who was fishing right next to me, with a big smile.  He responded with a smile and an affirmative nod.  A moment later I had a solid strike, bending the light rod in half, almost picking me up, he gave me a quick concerned look, but then nodded once again and motioned  for me to set the hook and fight the fish to shore, which after a while I managed to do, to my great delight and satisfaction.  It was a respectable blue, about three pounds.  After I landed him, and, with my father’s help, removed the hook, I gave him a final tap with the ‘priest’, which my father solemnly handed me with a serious nod.  Later on I scaled and cleaned the fish right there on the shore, in the running tide, the waves breaking just beyond me and the birds overhead swooping in for whatever might be left behind, which I would throw in the air for them.  There was never a better dinner than that wonderful, beautiful blue, the entire fish, the head left on, grilled over a very hot charcoal fire.  It was perfect, and remains an important and powerful memory.

The following year my brother, Ned was four, and it was his turn for the apprenticeship in the sand.  He had the advantage of witnessing my foibles and mistakes for a year or so.  He was a happy little kid when our father strapped him up with a rod holder, cast a line for him and went through the same set of instructions I had received a couple of years earlier.  Much to my dismay, he was a lot luckier than I had been at that stage.  He just plain had the knack for fishing, and even that young he was very strong.  The three of us on the beach with Marcellus Hughes, now liberated from a German POW camp, and his and Carolyn’s son, Chris;  ‘Chic’ Thompson, who was, by this time ‘everybody’s’ doctor, and his son, Toby;  Jimmy Masters, a USMC officer, who would eventually become a three star General and commandant of the Quantico, Marine Corps base, and his son ‘Champ’, were all a tight knit gang of dedicated surf fishermen never missing an early morning or an evening right off the south end of the boardwalk, opposite Journey’s End, where we always set up our camp.  The women, Alice and Carolyn, and her and Marcellus’s daughter, Marcie, ’Aitch’, Caroline Aitcheson’s nickname, Betty Thompson, Dottie Masters and many other families and friends would join the group and cheer on the fishermen when things got hot, when the blues ‘blitzed’ down the coast and we couldn’t get our lines in the water fast enough.  Those were the miracle days.  There would be great fish fry dinners after sundown, the adults having cocktails while we kids raced around telling wild tales of the sea, our sea, to any and all who would listen.  It seemed each miraculous fish you cooked and ate was an important and sacramental part of your life and subsequently, your history.  We celebrated each fish with its own elaborate story, who caught it, and, especially in minuscule detail, how.

While others body surfed,  splashed and swam, sun-bathed, paraded up and down the boardwalk, threw footballs and baseballs and set up badminton and volleyball nets… 

A small, but steadfast band of brothers, fathers and sons each wonderful day until the end, and then, again…and again… 

We fished.


Early Teen Years

In 1953, my father, a former OSS officer during the war, who now worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, was transferred to Paris, France.  We spent three very nice and very bewildering years there.  My brother and I went to French schools, at first in the countryside, in La Varenne, then the following two years in Paris, proper. 

When we returned, much of my ‘Americanism’ had either vanished or been effectively subsumed by the intensity of living so very much exclusively in French culture.  It was very odd, even shocking for me in the Spring of 1956, the year we returned to Washington.  I mostly wore short pants, I spoke English with a French accent, I had no idea who Bill Haley and the Comets or Elvis Presley were and I did not have a ‘coonskin’ hat.  I was a bit of Monsieur Camus’s ‘Stranger’, although less dramatically…and certainly way younger.  School, in Washington that Spring, was confusing and foreign.  The ties that bound my schoolmates were long established, while I had been uprooted at an important time for normal social integration when you’re a kid.  I was kind of ‘group-less’, I guess, and I felt out of sorts.  My parents, noticing some of this, decided I needed to learn to play the guitar.  I was not sure why, except that my uncle George was a fine musician and I idolized him very much.  Lessons were arranged with Sophocles Papas at the important redoubt of classical music on the guitar, The Guitar Shop, on M Street, in Washington.  I loved playing, and took it very seriously.  The focus you must bring to a musical  instrument is a sure fire remedy to a great many psychological problems, especially at thirteen, although I have found this to be the case throughout my life.

That August, we moved to Bethany for the entire month.  This changed things dramatically for me and for my brother who, while three years younger, was experiencing some of the same ‘malaise’.

Quite amazingly Bethany proved to be the exact panacea to whatever was ailing me and my brother, and I imagine, at least to a degree, my parents.  My feelings  of connectivity with the ‘Beach’ were so strong and immediate, that I felt quite improved after only a couple of days.  However, I’m pretty sure it was the fishing that really did it. I clearly remember walking with my father and my brother to ‘our’ spot just south of the south end of the boardwalk, opposite Journey’s End, and casting.  I had not fished in three years and I was shocked at how far my cast propelled my bait, and what a great joy it was.  The ocean was a little high that day, so we were using about five ounces of weight to secure us to the bottom.  Even so, there was some movement, but not enough to make much difference.  The tide was pouring in, which is what we had calculated for, and every few minutes we had to dig out of the sand which was drawing us in with the passing of every wave.  When I walked out to about chest level to cast, the force of the riptide made itself known and threatened to take me down.  This was, of course, happening to all of us, so we kept a pretty good watch on each other each time one of us went a little deeper to cast.  I remember the clear blue sky, the way it always is after some weather has passed.  It was mesmerizing in the warm and comforting August wind, slightly chilled by the remnants of the storm.

Then, while still in this reverie, I saw out of the corner of my right eye, my father’s rod all of sudden buckle over.  I watched him wait a second or two, then strike back, setting the hook firmly into whatever kind of fish had so forcefully taken his bait. The rod stayed bent almost double.  The fish, whatever it was,  was running full speed for the deep blue water out beyond the sand. His line was peeling off at an alarming rate.  I watched him tighten the star drag, which apparently slowed the fish some.  Just as he was about to run out of line, the fish turned parallel to the shore and began swimming towards me.  I pulled my line out of the water as fast as I could, as did my brother on his other side.  My father walked slightly to the north with the fish to try and recapture some of his line, which he successfully did.  Then, the fish turned again and began to swim full bore toward the breakers, trying, we all believed, to relieve enough pressure on the line to eject the hook.  This was a trick we all knew well.  But, it did not fool my father, who kept the line tight and focused.  It had to be a blue, and a very big one.  Once nearly into the waves, the fish turned south and, then, we all saw him in the crest of a breaking wave.  It was a very large blue, and he was tiring, his beautiful shinning body outlined and illuminated by rainbows of color spawned by the crashing spray from the breaking wave.  My brother and I stood silently witnessing this battle.  I showed my father that I had grabbed the gaff from our tackle, and he nodded his approval.  He was bringing the huge fish closer and closer to the point where the waves would work for him, to where he could ‘swim’ the fish into the sand.  The gaff I had was a short handled device, with a great hook at the end of a shaft of hard wood, which meant I had to be very close to secure the fighting fish.  When the fish finally appeared in the shallow water inside the waves, I lunged for him, planting the gaff firmly into his tail section.  Between my father pulling him with the line and me with the gaff, we finally landed this wonderful blue.  He weighed in at close to twenty pounds, and was the most beautiful fish I had ever seen.  Ned ran over to our father and handed him the ‘priest’,  with which he finished the fish with one heavy blow to the head.  We took the great fish further onto the shore, and, along with a growing crowd of amazed witnesses, took in the otherworldly beauty of this perfect blue.  We shook hands with my father, who remained quiet and pensive, as if he may have slightly regretted taking this beautiful mature fish.  But, that didn’t last for very long, especially when my mother and our many friends ran up to congratulate him on his great catch, after which he was all smiles, although it was clear he was still a little shaken.  It was all a bit overwhelming, but, more than anything else, infused with high drama and pathos.  My brother and I were lost in the glory of the moment, and proud, beyond all understanding, of our noble father, the great surf fisherman.

My brother and I cleaned the huge fish in the surf, one holding the fish by the tail, and the other cutting from the anus to the gills, and removing the insides, saving the heart, the liver and the roe.  It was a female.  The rest of the entrails we left in the wet sand for the eager gulls flying at arms length from us, crying out and fighting each other for the best position.

That night my father and mother cooked the huge fish, stuffed with herbs and olive oil, salted and peppered, with its head still on over an open fire trench, the charcoal banked to make sure the fish would cook through.  They oiled the fish on the skin to make turning on the metal grate, also lightly oiled, easier, without losing chunks of skin.  The trick was to make sure the first side had firmly charred so it would not stick.  Once we successfully turned the fish, we covered it with a couple of frying pans and sheets of tinfoil to create the kind of pervasive oven like heat, which would ensure, with the banked charcoal, a thorough cooking. It took a while.  And, it was worth it.

My parents invited everybody they knew for the feast.  People brought corn, tomatoes and green beans, all at the height of their season.  There were soft drinks for the kids and buckets of freezing cold beer for the adults.  There were toasts and praise for the fisherman, who, very generously, included me and my brother as his indispensable mates.  Life was indeed very good at Bethany Beach, in the summer of 1956.

Then I discovered the boardwalk.  I mean the boardwalk for kids.  And, of course, by that I mean the bowling alley on the boardwalk, the center of the known universe for teens of every age at the beach.  It was located toward the north end of the boardwalk and it faced right out on the ocean.  The bowling was the ‘friendly’ variety, that is, ‘duck pins’, not the larger, more intimidating, ‘professional’ type of bowling balls with holes for fingers to hold and release them.  Anybody, almost any size, could get a good grip on these smaller, much lighter hole-less balls.  They were great fun!  The prestige job for a kid was  ‘pinboy’, since they’re were no electronic devices to re-set the pins after a ball was launched and they were knocked down.  These were jobs almost impossible to get unless you were on the inside of something, somewhere.  It was hands on, and the pinboys, leaping around the balls and resetting pins with speed and grace,  were sort of celebrities.  Everybody played, young and old, and the competition was friendly, but fierce.  Families played families, and people just plain chose up teams, like you might for a pick-up basketball game. 

But for the young it was much, much more.  They had a built in social club at the bowling alley, which everybody belonged to.  I quickly got to know hordes of kids my age, and younger, and older.  Every evening after dinner, I would walk, usually by myself, although sometimes I would take my brother Ned with me, to the bowling alley.  Occasionally, I would play, and other times, actually, maybe most of the other times, I would just hang out with my new pals.  We’d drink cokes and listen to the ocean, in the dark, in packs on the boardwalk, on windy nights, the cold spray soaking the night air.  When there was very little light left, the breaking waves flashed momentarily, picking up the last of the setting sun in the west, silvery crescents rising and disappearing with the perpetual booming of the waves, the glorious orchestration of our timeless sea. 

The next morning at dawn we would be on the beach in our usual spot.  First light, when the tide is right, is the best time to see the Bottlenose porpoises ranging up and down the coast, sometimes well within casting range, although there was never any fishing them.  They would swim right past our baits.  My father explained their enormous intelligence to us.  He seemed to think they could have ‘shore fished’ for us, had they taken a notion.  They were, and still are, among my favorite shows.  I never tired of them, and they were always performing in some new and fascinating way.  Sometimes, it seemed, they would drive the fish we were after further out, when they were swimming close to the shore.  Or, when they would pass us at two hundred yards out, we got more strikes, it seemed, from the smaller fish fleeing in toward us to escape them.  I often wondered if they were playing ‘tricks’ on us.  I am pretty convinced my father thought so…In fact, he every now and then intimated that a proper prayer to the porpoise Deity would not be a wasted effort.  He used to joke that if we only knew their language, we could make a deal, and be up to our eyeballs in blues and stripers, croakers and flounders, weakfish and even sharks, day in and day out…Now that got some laughs.  But, I remember mumbling various spontaneous ‘mumbo jumbos’ just in case any aquatic critters might be tuned in.  Never seemed to ‘work’, but one time…

Watching the birds became an obsession.  One or two seabirds cruising overhead was normal and didn’t get our interest.  However, gaggles of gulls close to shore, either north or south of us was, as my father would say, ‘actionable intelligence’.  If the birds were diving again and again, it was not for sport.  The big fish, almost certainly blues, were driving the terrified bait fish to the surface, right into the voracious beaks of the diving birds.  The bait fish, the menhaden, mostly, got a very bad deal, but they told us a lot about where the blues were, and what direction they were taking.  All we could do was wait.  When we felt sure they were on a trajectory that would bring them within range, lines were quickly brought in and baited hooks were exchanged for buck-tails, spoons, Hopkins lures or any shiny lure to catch the fancy of the maddened blues, gorging on anything that moved.  Jimmy Masters, the Marine General, always advised a little ‘gypsy fish bait oil’  on anything, including cut up old shoes, during the blue fish feeding frenzies.  I  remember him once ‘anointing’ all of our bucktails as we waited for the feeding fish to approach.  Lure fishing was different.  There was no casting and waiting.  It was highly energetic, even athletic, casting the lure and immediately retrieving as fast as possible to imitate one of the panicked baitfish.  And then, casting again.  When they were in range and we were dropping the lures in their midst, we had a fish almost every cast.  We needed, and had, a ‘ground crew’ to deal with the captured  fish, while we ran down the beach along side them casting and catching them until they finally vanished, or, we simply fell down from exhaustion.  As when I was younger, before Paris and all of that, this was the crowning moment for we fishermen, as maddened by the out of control harvest as the voracious blues were about their unrelenting feeding.  At moments like these, time compressed and virtually stopped.  We were suspended in a ‘warp’ between the land and the sea.  Later, I wondered if this was anything like the experiences some of the medieval mystics described, the suspension of temporal reality, and the ultimate dissolution of the ‘Self’ into the vastness of the great and, in this case,  watery universe.