Fishing for the Future: Essay for Salt Magazine

I hope this essay is as fun to read as it was to research, because I had a splendid time kayak fishing in the mouth of the Cape Fear River, angling for a Sciaenops Ocelata, the Old North State Fish known as the Red Drum. It was a beautiful day, and there I stood on a oyster-shell-covered sandbar, line in the water, pole in hand, when… well, you’ll read about it soon enough.

I also gained insight into the controversy surrounding a ban on destructive fishing gear such as inshore gill nets and shrimp trawls. On this topic I was guided by my friend Dan, master angler and the Kayak Liaison Officer of the local branch of the Recreational Fishing Alliance. Net bans are, at best, a prickly subject to broach with the fishermen of the Carolina Coast, commercial and recreational alike. Yet despite the salvos and spats between the camps, I believe there is room for compromise and discussion. Both sides ultimately want the same thing: more fish. How best should we manage our fishery? Who gets to use what gear? Why is all this important for the health of our waterways?

Click here, or scroll down for the full text, to find out.

Fishing for the Future

Out to preserve recreational angling for tomorrow, eighty local card-carrying members of the Recreational Fishing Alliance are the workingman environmentalists of the Cape Fear region

By John Wolfe

At an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning I paddle south, following Orion’s Belt above and the dim silhouette of the man in the kayak ahead of me, across smoked-glass waters of the lower Cape Fear River near Southport. I am going fishing, and to fish a place you must first learn that place, know it better than the face of your lover. You must anticipate what happens there during all phases of the tidal rhythm, or in the murky aftermath of a rain storm, or under the light of a full moon. You must adapt to life’s dynamic conditions if you are to catch the fish that swim in those secret waters.

Of this I know nothing. I am a visitor in this place, which is why I am following the man in the kayak in front of me: Dan George, a wiry, deeply tanned, squinting, Marlboro Light-smoking waterman, true and to the blood. Dan, who moves like a great blue heron across the flats, stalking bait mullet with his cast net hung over his shoulder like a cape. Dan, who possesses the true, tangible knowledge that only comes from many days of sun and wind and salt out here, waist-deep, seriously angling. Dan, who catches enormous, prize-winning fish, who has the trophies to prove it. I’m paddling in one of them now, a blue kayak he won in the Oak Island Classic tournament two years ago. He’s won every kayak he’s ever owned.

As we paddle, Dan tells me about collecting clams in Hewlett’s Creek when he was 13 and selling them for a dime apiece, making more money in one day than most grown men he knew. A pier rat at the tender age of 10, he spent his summer days with “Wilmington’s drunkest,” trading fresh-caught bluefish for Cokes with the anglers at the pier’s end. They used the bluefish he caught as bait for king mackerel, the monarch of inshore sport fishing. This, he says, is where his addiction to fishing began: He witnessed a king strike with such force that it catapulted out of the water and arced through the air, tail still flapping, leaving a shimmering misty rainbow over the surface of the waves. That was it, he said.

Now, Dan serves as kayak liason officer on the board of the Recreational Fishing Alliance of North Carolina (the ostensible reason I’m out here today, to get a better understanding of this group). Today, he is my spirit guide. He has promised to lead me to the state fish of North Carolina: a round-headed, armor-scaled, bulldog-shouldered copper-red-and-cream-colored Sciaenops ocelata, one black lonely spot at the base of the broad tail. A fish as tough and stubborn and beautiful as the Old North state herself, the red drum. It is a fish that must be caught to be believed. We arrive at Dan’s favorite sandbar, cast our lines out, and wait for the strike.

* * *

The North Carolina chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance incorporated in 2015 as a 503(c)(4) statewide political action organization. They define themselves as a group of recreational fishermen who have come together to lobby, educate and persuade our city, county, state and federal governments to act in the best interest of the fisheries and related industries that support recreational fishing. That’s recreational fishing, importantly distinct from commercial fishing. The RFA is careful to emphasize they have no problem with commercial fishermen — they simply want to see the resource managed in a way that benefits both sides. More fish, they say, and everybody wins.

The RFA’s membership consists of around 80 card-carrying anglers, and a dedicated elected board of eight men. Many board members are professional fishing guides, although some, like Dan, make their living elsewhere. But they all know fish and are invested in fish. They are workingman’s environmentalists, volunteering their time to try to save what they love for the next generation to enjoy. They look to the future, remember the past, and act in the present.

I attended a board meeting at a local barbecue-and-beer joint. Everyone else at our table had sun-bleached hair, deep tans, and the hard-eyed look of somebody who knows exactly what lives in the water, and has caught and eaten it. I was surrounded by apex predators, saltwater hunters at home on the sea and the flats. Most of these men have been on the water longer than I have been alive, and between them have probably caught enough fish to fill an ocean.

Their names are often heard around our region’s docks: Capt. Charlie Schoonmaker, a patriarchal white-haired wizard of a fisherman, full of happiness and the patience only the sea can give. His son, Capt. Robert Schoonmaker, red of beard and doubtless handed a rod and reel by his father at a sunrise age. He is now an enormously accomplished guide in his own right, and the group’s unofficial leader. Our friend Dan George (of course). Capt. Jot Owens of Wrightsville Beach, black hair slicked back. Capt. Owen Sewell, the group’s information officer and “one of the integral heartbeats of the entire association,” according to Dan. Capt. Dave Timpy, whom Dan calls with a wry smile the brains of the group (Capt. Dave has a master’s degree in oceanography), and one of several Democrats at this table (let it be known that the RFA is a bipartisan group, both in membership and in lobbying. Some issues transcend mere party politics).

Capt. Dave holds records for cobia, and has caught more fish than you can shake a rod at, but honestly, he’s over it. Except for king mackerel, catching fish is just not exciting for him anymore. The reason he is doing this, he says, sipping his sweet tea, is not for himself, but for future generations. His grandkids need fish to catch. And the timing is critical, he tells me: We are on the brink of collapse of many inshore species. The fish that is in the most hot water, so to speak, is that two-eyes-on-the-same-side-of-its-head steamrolled beauty we love to eat but hate to fillet: the Southern flounder. The Division of Marine Fisheries website warns: “There are concerns about the sustainability of current harvest levels due to coast-wide trends in juvenile and adult abundance and the high percentage of immature fish in the harvest.” Dan tells me he has yet to catch a keeper flounder this year.

* * *

When a red drum encounters a lonely finger mullet — a circle hook secreted away in its little head, dangling by hardy monofilament from a neon-green bobber — the drum attacks like a prizefighting boxer taking a swing. The only warning you get (you, the first-time drum fisherman standing in thigh-deep water, pole in hand, nervously scanning for jellyfish and bonnethead sharks) is the vanishing of your bobber. As you wonder where it went, something tries to wrench your rod from your hands with a ferocious tugging jolt of pure aquatic power. The braided line on your reel sizzles seaward. The rod bends nearly in half. You hold on, brace your feet against the oyster shells, dig in, lean back. The line peels off your reel at a worrying pace as still the fish speeds like a Ferrari toward deep water, swimming farther and faster than you ever thought a fish could go.

Time slows down. Its movement is primal and instant-by-instant, how I imagine our ancestors’ whole lives unfolded – a real, in-the-moment intensity. After what seems like minutes, the fish slows, fatigued from its initial burst. Here is your chance. You crank your reel madly, the rod against your forearm like an arm wrestler, and you gain on him, fighting for every inch. He runs again — another bolt into the blue, the relative safety of the brine, away from whatever unseen force is pulling him where he does not want to go. All you can do is hang on, trust your equipment. You are aware now of your fishing rod’s fragility, the lever which you use — humans and their tools — to tame the wildness of the fish to a manageable level.

* * *

Solving the cradle-robbing problem, claims the RFA, begins with more enforcement of the catch and size limit laws already in place. Policing on the water is notoriously poor, they say. The hardworking NC Marine Patrol officers patrolling this corner of the state are spread too thin, and mostly patrol during the daytime — not at night, when some unscrupulous giggers are pulling into the ramp with an undersized catch. “We’re asking for more policing on ourselves,” says Capt. Robert Schoonmaker.

The main issue, however, is the use of “destructive gear”: gigging, inshore trawling and inshore gill nets. Gill nets are vertical panels of netting with floats on top and weights on the bottom. They hang like spectral curtains in the water, ensnaring whatever swims through it by the gills. North Carolina is the last state in the union to allow the practice. Proponents — mostly commercial fishermen — claim to rely heavily on gill nets for their living during certain seasons of the year. “Net bans in general are disruptive to the fishing community,” confirms Dr. David Griffith, senior scientist and associate professor of anthropology at East Carolina University.

The RFA points out the obvious problems with using gear that indiscriminately catches fish and sea turtles and whatever else happens to be swimming around inshore, in the marshes and in the shallow bays that serve as the ocean’s nursery. Many saltwater fish migrate inshore to lay eggs; once the babies hatch, they mature in relative safety, as there are hiding places amid the oyster reefs, plentiful food, and fewer predators. Both gill nets and inshore trawling can catch and kill juvenile fish before they get the chance to breed, disrupting the life cycle in a manner which the RFA claims the fisheries just can’t handle.

“Once a fish is caught in a gill net or shrimp trawl, that fish is dead,” says Dan. A fish caught by a hook and line has a 98 percent chance of survival after being released, according to a NOAA study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. But fish caught in nets are often injured by the equipment, or are left out of the water for too long. “People think the fish aren’t biting — they’re just not there.”

* * *

Your mind is with the fish, and you try to anticipate him — what will he do next? How will I respond? Slowly you reel and walk backward to shallower water, the high ground of the oyster shell pile where your kayak sits. Dan shouts encouragement. You are playing the eternal game of life and death, of predator and prey. As you bring the fish closer he tries to slug his big round head around toward deep water and escape, but you have him now, and all he can do is splash with his black-spotted tail, reveal his coppery scales and his cream-colored belly.

You marvel at his size. He is simply enormous, the biggest thing you have ever caught on a rod and a reel, by far. You knew, of course, that fish got that big, but to see him up close is heart-pausing, mind-focusing. At the orders of Dan, who has done this more times than you can imagine, you lead the fish into the shallows, his shadow growing larger against the white oyster shells. With a final throe, he heaves onto dry land. And you yell. You whoop. You sound your barbaric yawp across the wave-tops of the lower Cape Fear, a grin consuming your face, victorious joy bubbling up from a previously untapped well deep inside you. This, you realize, is why people fish.

“Damn,” says Dan, raising an eyebrow, “That’s a monster. Thirty-three inches.” Not bad for a beginner. Dan shows you how to hold the fish: slip your index finger under the slimy gill folds, cradle him near his tail. “Hold him up,” says Dan, “we’ll take a picture.” The fish is docile, now, placid. You feel his weight, his mass of animal muscle and scale and fin. He is the most beautiful thing you’ve seen this morning in the already-overwhelming beauty of the river: soft pastels of dawn sky, the water’s quiet tranquil clarity, sublime solitude, green cordgrass and white oysters and the river’s tannin-browned blue as the tide rolls in slow. Low horizon clouds with peach bottoms and cotton-ball fringe. Life moving around you, close and heavy.

* * *

Despite the RFA’s relatively recent incorporation, they have worked diligently to accomplish their goals. In their mission to ban destructive gear, RFA members have met with many other fishing groups, including the NC Fisherman’s Association, and lawmakers, including NC State Rep. Jimmy Dixon.

Capt. Dave points to Florida as a success story. Five years after Florida banned inshore gill nets, he says, the fish population exploded, prompting recreational fishermen to visit the state. If fishermen come to North Carolina to fish, he says, not only do they support the local tackle shops and fishing guides who get them out on the water, they also stay in hotels, eat in local restaurants and purchase gasoline. Recreational fishing is a $1.5 billion industry, one which flows through our coastal economy in channels that run deep.

* * *

After the picture, you release your fish; he is too big to keep. Drum are a slot fish, legal only between 18 and 27 inches from round head to tail’s tip. You hold his tail until his gills gulp water, and he regains his strength. With a sudden pulse he knocks your hand away — the duel is over — and glides off into deeper water. You are glad that he is free again. You know this fish, now. You have fought him and won and loved him for the fight. Then you wade back out and cast again.

You do this over and over for the rest of the day. It is the only thing you have to do. That day you catch eight drum, each a thrilling, primal prizefighter. By three o’clock your wrist aches, you have been stung by a jellyfish (and it hurts), and your legs have turned a worryingly-deep hue of sunburnt pink you’ve never before seen, but it has been a happy, happy day. For a rare moment in time, nothing else mattered: none of the usual creeping worries, no arguments, no nagging dread or remorse. Here, on this oyster-covered sandbar, you had one purpose. It was simple, and it filled all the space in your mind and erased the peripheral black edge of worry. Today is about catching fish.

You are (forgive the pun) hooked, a lost cause; you are going to sell all of your possessions and buy a kayak and a fishing pole and you will be out here every day from now on, hunting for that feeling of joy, that primal squirt of endorphins, the meditation of total occupation. Dan knows just how you feel, says it all – “This is what makes the rest of my life possible” – and you finally understand what he and the rest the RFA are trying to protect.

John Wolfe is a regular Salt contributor. When he’s not on the water, he wishes he was.


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