Every so often, it’s worth remembering that life is a limited-time-only offer.
Last December I found myself worrying about all the things I’d been putting off all deer season. There were the leaves on the lawn, now 2 inches thick and the consistency of Red Man Chewing Tobacco. Bills that had begun arriving in specially colored envelopes with notices reading, “Your lack of response to our repeated inquiries in this matter has left us no choice but toÂ¿Â¿Â¿.” I was just about to give in to my guilty conscience when the phone rang. It was Link, my sometime fishing partner, a self-employed carpenter who, unlike most of mankind, has never let the necessity of making a living interfere with the luxury of living itself.
“Hey, man, less go down to Hatteras, see can we bang us a coupla red drum. Purtiest fish you ever seen, color like a hot penny with a black eyespot on the tail.”
I explained why I couldn’t go and reminded him that in any case Cape Hatteras was 400 miles away. “Why we gotta leave now,” he answered. “Have ya back by tomorrow night. Surf stick and chest waders. Pick you up in 45 minutes.”
Long story short, an hour later we had cleared town, heading south. Guilt was not along for the ride. There are few things in life that rival flying down the highway with a Thermos of hot coffee toward the promise of big fish in the company of a friend you’ve known so long that neither of you feels compelled to muddy up the silence with conversation.
Red drum are vampires, extremely wary of the sun and best pursued in darkness. You never know if or when they’ll show up, even during a so-called run. And, they’re uncommonly finicky as saltwater creatures go. While a bluefish will tear into anything that doesn’t bite it first and flounder are so gullible they can be caught on bottom-fished hankies, red drum will delicately mouth only the freshest, juiciest baits.
By dark we are on the beach in four-wheel-drive. All ruts lead to the Point, an ever shifting spit of sand that narrows into the Atlantic. Link and I get out, struggle into waders, rig up 6-ounce pyramid sinkers and heavily baited hooks. There must be 60 of us crammed shoulder to shoulder on the last bit of sand. You stagger a few yards forward into the surf, heave your bait up into the night, and return to take your place. Then you stand there for hours, shifting your feet so the surf doesn’t dig you into a hole.
After a couple of hours the cry of “Fish on!” comes a few yards away. A man moves forward into the surf, rod bent as the fish takes line on its first run. Five minutes later he has brought the copper-colored animal onto the sand. Tiny flashlight in mouth, he kneels in a circle of light, one hand on the fish’s belly to keep it from injuring itself. Great fish out of water are fragile creatures, their organs suddenly vulnerable to gravity. He gently removes the hook and measures the fish. Then he lifts it carefully in his arms and moves into deeper water, resembling a groom carrying his bride over some strange threshold.
By 3 a.m. I’m out of bait. Link and I have agreed to meet back at the hotel if we get separated. As I’m walking out, I hear a truck engine sputter to life. I knock on the window and ask, “You guys mind if I ride in back?” The passenger looks up from a beer. “Hell, no. We can use the ballast.” I roll over the side and wedge myself in tight, spread-eagled on my back, staring up into the night sky while the truck bucks over the sand. Suddenly I’m smiling, completely alive in this moment and more than a little amused that I could ever have been worried by leaves on my lawn or the silly pieces of paper in my mailbox.