My brother says the fishing is off. We were talking Sunday morning, a habit dating back to when phone rates rather than news dictated when he called. He’s the captain of Miss Oregon Inlet, a 65-foot headboat that takes tourists out for a taste of Outer Banks, NC, fishing. The mates on the boat hand you a rod and reel, a bucket, and bait. All you have to do is drop your line in the water and wait. My brother knows where the fish like to hide. He watches the weather and the birds, and steers the boat to his favorite fishing spots. Hopefully, the fish are biting and his charges, mostly families with young-ish children fishing for the fist time, will have some photographs of a memorable summer experience and maybe something to fry-up for dinner.
But fish numbers are down, he said. It’s not because of the BP oil spill, at least not yet. The Gulf Stream, which may be bringing the oil along its current, is anywhere from 10 to 30 miles off the North Carolina coast. Apparently the stream dips and curves its way up the eastern seaboard. No one is sure what’s going to happen with the oil spill, where it will show up, or what effect it will have on the coast.
When I was a kid and the family vacationed in Nags Head, there was much talk about the Gulf Stream in relation to weather patterns, currents, and the habits of fish. I thought it was like a highway just at the horizon with road signs and speed limits. It sounded like a more upscale vacation spot than the Outer Banks, or at least a place that had more than one putt-putt golf course. The beach community seemed like the outer edge of civilization back then.
The problem on the Outer Banks, my brother says, it that it’s been over-fished. The big trawlers have scooped up all the fish – big and small alike – without any thought to the future. He’s probably right, but I keep thinking that we should take some of the blame, too. My family of seven was like a mini trawler back in the 1960s and ‘70s when we vacationed on the Outer Banks.
It was a vacation in name only. We were there to catch fish, clean fish, and freeze fish in half-gallon milk cartons we saved during the year. And this is why: my father loved fishing and he loved eating fish. He also loved the Outer Banks, and once he discovered it as a fisherman’s paradise, it was our paradise as well. It was expected that as a member of the family you would share his attachment both to the Outer Banks and the slimy, stinky creatures he sought. There are more pictures of the five children posing with fish than there are of our birthday parties or graduations. I like the pictures here of my younger brother kissing our catch, and my mother holding her purse and a fish -- very classy.
My parents’ honeymoon was a fishing weekend in upstate New York. That my mother was deathly afraid of water in any form (including the bath tub) didn’t seem to matter to my father. In the equation of fish or cut bait, fishing, my mother said, was more fun. She learned to love fishing although she never conquered her fear of water.
My sisters and I discovered it was more fun to fish, too. Sometimes we’d be let off fishing duty to play in the surf. But there were many times we were packed up for a day of fishing on a friend’s boat or at the pier. The pier house smelled of fish, the bathrooms smelled of fish, the cans of Coke we drank smelled of fish. The teen magazines we read to pass the time smelled of fish. The smell crept into my skin. My fingernails were stained from fish guts and bloodworms.
But at some point I came to really enjoy fishing. I wanted to fish, and as often as not would willingly agree to pre-dawn wake-up calls for a trip to the pier. I still think fresh fish for breakfast is a delicacy.
By the time our two-week Outer Banks vacation ended we had enough frozen fish to feed a small army. Friday nights during the winter my father would make Greek egg-lemon soup, his specialty, from our summer catch. I can still remember the taste, and the fish bones scattered across the kitchen counters stripped clean and opalescent under the florescent light.
I know the 12 years we vacationed on the Outer Banks didn’t put a dent in the fish population. It just felt like we had caught and cleaned every fish in the ocean. The big trawlers, and big development in the decades that followed, are really the ones to blame.
A few months after my father’s death, the family gathered on the Outer Banks. We built a shoe-box size raft out of sticks and lowered it from his favorite pier. It was filled with candles and notes and a few special mementos. We watched it as it nearly tipped, regained its balance, then headed straight for the horizon as if following some unspoken order. My brother said the currents might take it to the Gulf Stream. We ran to the end of the pier and threw rose petals, a final bon voyage, as it passed.
It’s strange how something as simple as a Sunday phone call can spin your thoughts in a thousand different directions. My brother and I were talking about fish and the next thing I knew I was off to the family’s summers on the Outer Banks, the raft we built and our father’s farewell, the last time my sisters and brothers and mother were all together – just us.
You can’t help where your mind goes sometimes. Oil spills. Gulf Stream. Fish. On this day my mind created a current of its own and I floated away with its memories.