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Strange Allure of Surf Fishing

We work our way along the inside of the elbow. A fast-moving shadow of fish churns quickly up the shoreline. (The shadow itself appears in the shape of a fish, making me wonder if I watched too many cartoons in my youth.) Paul quickly removes my plug and replaces it with a jig, a thin silver lure about four inches long. “Those are bonito, go get one.” For the first time, my casting is impeccable. But nothing hits.

“Let’s try South Beach. I heard they got some blues there earlier today,” Paul says.

As we head for South Beach in Edgartown, the skies quickly cloud, and the wind starts blowing strong and cold out of the east.

“That’s a good wind, it blows the baitfish closer to shore,” Bob says, watching a distant gaggle of birds swoop on the bay, well out of our casting range.

Again, we fish heavy surf. Again, nothing hits our lures. “If you want,” Paul says as we drive back to the Chappy ferry, “I’ll take you to the Gut tomorrow night and teach you how to throw an eel.”

The setting sun lashes the sky with tongues of orange as we drive south on the beach road. Paul caught seven bluefish earlier in the day: seven more journal entries. My journal is still blank. Paul is optimistic about the approaching storm. “I’ve caught my best fish on the worst nights,” he says.

On the dunes we run into quite a few people who want to pick Paul’s brain. He gives ambiguous answers — it is, after all, Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby month. We pull away; they follow. After 15 minutes of cat-and-mouse in the dunes, we lose our tail. “You get too many people at the Gut,” Paul says, “and it messes everything up.” During Derby month — the Super Bowl of the island fishing community — no fisherman is above subterfuge. “I know people who caught fish at the Gut and then drove 20 miles to Squibnocket and put them on display,” Paul says, grinning.

At the Gut, the water is boiling with fish! Splashes of all sizes, some astonishingly large, are erupting everywhere. Paul shows me the technique for hooking an eel, the favorite meal of the striped bass. As I wade in, phosphorescent plankton (Noctiluca) sparks like fireflies with every step. After a long stroll in waist-deep water, I cast into the deep current.

And nothing happens. Again and again.

Hours pass in the starry darkness. I hear fish everywhere. They taunt me, breaking the water all around me. They even bump into me, nearly scaring me out of my waders.

A chilling northwest wind blows in menacing clouds. My hands barely function in the numbing cold.

“Anything?” asks Paul. He’s been working the shore about 100 yards away. We haven’t spoken a word in hours.

“Not a damn thing.”

“Wanna call it?” he asks, as drops of rain start hitting my face. Another zebra splashes in the darkness.

“How about five more casts?”

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