“Ya na gonna cetch anyting out dere tadey,” drawled the lanky ball-capped waterman loading his flat-bottomed net-filled skiff onto a trailer in the knee deep shallow takeout of Pamlico Sound near Rodanthe, North Carolina. “Ga oni a foo mullit in ma lon net set.”
After inquiring “What was going on out there?” while preparing my kayak for a morning of chasing spotted seatrout, the commercial fisherman informed me that the fresh water from too much rain had pretty much kept the “speckles” from seeking the inshore shallows. He continued, though, that they have been catching a few here and there in the hard to reach bays and creek inlets. Concerned that maybe these fish were disappearing like so many other species along the coast this past decade, I asked him how the fish populations were doing.
“Sti get som big uns in da deep ‘oles out in da Sound, but neva cetch ‘em awl sence dey live so shalla” rubbing his whiskers in a moment of distain, “but da govment fis guys cut ba our commercial allotment anyway.” After wishing him good luck he told me to “wetch out for da bull shaks” with a kind of hidden sneer under his bushy lip hair as I started to paddle toward deeper water. Later, in light of the aforementioned info, I felt very fortunate that a few “speckles” took my fly in a far off channel on the incoming tide.
So when Sharon and I were eating dinner and sipping margarita’s at a local Bar & Grill that same evening, a wild looking character with long hair, straggly beard and one-toothed sly smile grabbed a seat at our table and introduced himself. His name was Willy, and though slight of frame, he was definitely wiry and hard around the edges. Within a few minutes we learned that Willy lived in Rodanthe for his entire fifty-three years, his ex-wife was a bitch, he spent three years in jail, and the cops had just rousted him at three o’clock the previous morning. Oh yea, and we also learned that Willy was the “best damn commercial fisherman” on the Outer Banks. To hear him tell it, he was not well liked by other local fisherman because he worked his ass off and caught more “freakin’ fish” than anyone out there. Grabbing another beer he continued his story saying he sets eighteen hundred hooks per trip making five hundred to a thousand dollars every turn around. He almost signed on to National Geographic’s TV series “Wicked Tuna” but his lawyers advised against it, though he caught more five hundred pound-plus tuna then those guys ever dreamed about. And on and on Willy rambled. When he excused himself to get a smoke, I thought he was gone for the night.
Whether it be salt or freshwater, there have always been oddballs associated with any form of angling. Especially with fly fishing, there is an array of quirky anglers from West Coast steelheaders, Florida Keys tarpon chasers, Canadian Maritime salmon addicts, and even Montana trout bums who live on in the mythical traditions of the sport. Camping in their trucks and tents, fishing from sunup to sundown, surviving on baloney sandwiches and barely getting by, tales of these offbeat characters seem too tall to be true. Often more fantasy than reality, stories of their epic fish encounters and carefree lifestyles regularly fueled the fancies of mere mortals throughout the decades. And though Willy was no fly fisher, it got me to thinking about the tales he told. Already a legend in his own mind, he seemed more like a cartoon character than a waterman; but then, isn’t that what colorful fishing lore is all about?
After a bit, and to our surprise, Willy came back and apologized for taking so long. He got into an argument, he said, and four guys wanted to beat him up in the parking lot, but he gave them the slip. When he ordered us a few more drinks I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought about the state of the fish populations in the Sound. Willy blurted, “I still get ‘em, but da fish and game dicks are always on ma case fa cetchin’ too many. Ga a nine-pound speck last week. Ya just hafta know where ta look.” Again another evasive answer didn’t inspire confidence. About that time Willy wanted to take the Karaoke stage and sing us a song. After struggling through two verses of an unrecognizable Lynyrd Skynyrd tune, he staggered back to the table. At that point it seemed like a good opportunity for Sharon and I to take our leave before getting too deep into Willy’s world. We shook hands and he wished us safe travels. He then said it was time to kick some ass out in the parking lot anyway, so off went Willy.
And as we were heading back to our rental cottage, I thought about the state of our coastal fisheries and, for some reason, felt a bit guilty ordering fish and chips for dinner.