Hope Springs Eternal

Fishing is the finest pasttime known to man and one reason for this is that your enthusiasm for it can quickly be “re-set” if it ever becomes dull. The people I’ve met who have given up fishing over time usually describe years of going to the same places and fishing for the same things, imagining that this will be as satisfying as it was the first time that maybe their dad took them there.

There’s always a novel adventure waiting out there though, sometimes very close to home, sometimes further afield, maybe in another state entirely. In western Pennsylvania you might try fishing for the ever-larger catfish of our three rivers, you might try fly-fishing for gar with rope flies or you might turn in another direction entirely and fish some of the smallest local streams with micro-tackle for unique minnows, darters or sculpins. If you like to travel, have you fished for lake trout from the shores of New York’s Finger Lakes yet? Have you been to the New Jersey shore for striped bass? Have you ever fished the mountainous forest of Maryland for brook trout? What about West Virginia’s Monongahela River for muskellunge?

Dad and I headed to Delaware earlier this fall, simply to fish salt water for a bit, something I hadn’t really done since graduating high school. Dad had often mentioned over the years how much he’d like to get back out on a fishing pier or beach for surf casting but I’d never expressed much enthusiasm for this. The U.S. east coast generally looks to me crowded, expensive, built up and over-fished. I could name about a hundred places I’d sooner go than the Atlantic coast.

I’d originally looked at the Chesapeake Bay near Baltimore, which was even closer but after collecting information on this fishery, had found that there was little diversity, lots of swamp and eel grass and dirty water. People reported catching two things in abundance: channel catfish and white perch, two primarily freshwater species that can tolerate some salt. There was no good reason to travel for these though, we could catch better in the Pittsburgh area. Delaware Bay lay just a little further east and seemed to offer more of a genuine saltwater experience.

So, Chesapeake Bay was out. Nonetheless, here we were exiting the state of Pennsylvania near Harrisburg and getting our first look at tidal waters. We’d thought that after Labor Day and especially during the year of the covid, we might be dealing with reduced crowds. I hadn’t picked out a particularly desirable destination, just an almost random section of shoreline with some (largely vacant) hotels not far away.

It was all very new. There was no shortage of water but where to start? And the water didn’t flow the same way it did back in Pittsburgh but seemed to change its depth and direction constantly. There was some beach-like shoreline out there, we felt sure, but what we could see at first looked like a maze of channels through endless tidal marshes. Still, we were here to learn. We had to proceed as though bringing home a cooler with fish in it would be a bonus – icing on the cake. This would give us a preview, an idea of how to proceed next time and where to go, or whether to come back to the State of Delaware at all.

Over the next few days we did a fair amount of driving back and forth from the local Best Western to various inlets, piers and beaches. We ate sparsely due to the raging pandemic that would surely kill us if we sat at a resturaunt table. We waded in muck and navigated treacherous rock breakwaters. We saw fine weather and some cold rain too. We cast out huge lead weights with droppers bearing crabs, cut bait or blood worm. And by the end, we’d caught black drum, striped bass, spot, bluefish, toadfish and black sea bass.

We honestly caught all of these but if we were to be completely honest, we’d have to go on to admit that none of them exceeded twelve inches. These were obvious “nursery waters,” places where the young of oceanic sportfish found shelter and food, at least at this time of year. We hooked no Marlin, redfish or grouper but if we had, somehow I’m sure they would have been weighed in ounces.

Our final outing was made to a breakwater where we’d seen signs of fish life on our first day and thought we might be able to catch something to add to the six small fish in the cooler. The tide was still rising and approaching its peak and the water looked a dark gray, turbulent and lifeless. I didn’t miss any strikes, there just weren’t any. We hooked shellfish and other people’s old severed fishing lines.

A very undistinguished-looking young man joined us, fishing with stumpy pool cue of a rod and four ounce sinkers. After a bit, he cranked in a sad little shark with underslung grimace which he showed us, about 22 inches long, but he usually did better here:

“Once in a while I catch one of these but I usually catch a lot more here, a couple hours after high tide. Last week I caught twenty one day. All cats and white perch.”

Dad and I took a walk down the beach, just to walk a beach along the ocean like we used to long ago before giving it up, I guess.

“Well, I had a good time and we saw a lot of good places too,” said Dad, trying to put a good face on it.

“It was nice to get away from Pittsburgh for a bit,” I rejoined, also looking for any silver lining available. There was a long pause as we surveyed the wind-swept swamp shoreline, the breakers, heaps of eel grass and dead horseshoe crabs.

“I don’t imagine we’ll be back,” I finally just had to say. “There are just a lot of better places to go than Delaware Bay.”

We went home and I cleaned fish and rinsed salt-coated tackle and put stuff away. Dad called and I sat outside on the steps and the conversation went back to Delaware quickly. We’d both been thinking about the place and spots on the map we didn’t try but should have. We found out where to catch bait when there. We’d learned something about the tides and had gotten an accurate picture of the strength of tidal currents and the ways the fish were responding to them. We’d seen feeding frenzies nearby at certain times and places though we hadn’t been able to capitalize. It would not be true to say that there were no fish there.

“Well, it sounds like we’re headed back to Delaware before long. Maybe the stripers will be running in late March. I think we need to get ready.”

Hope springs eternal.

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