My five-year-old granddaughter, Salem, got her first taste of fishing last week on the Pamlico Sound in northeastern North Carolina. Her father, T.J., got a friend of theirs to take them out on a boat and then sent my wife and me a short video of the outing.
They live in picturesque Edenton on the lower portion of the Chowan River, which really is just an arm of the Pamlico.
The expression on Salem’s face was priceless, the utterly unselfconscious joy of a child experiencing fishing for the first time. She squealed at picking up the bait and hopped around to avoid the fish flopping around her feet.
If you live on the Pamlico Sound, you need to learn how to fish. That’s all there is to it.
My father taught me to fish at about the same age, with our first outings being on W. Kerr Scott Reservoir. At that time, the reservoir had only been in existence about five years, having been completed and filled in 1962, the year I was born.
He showed me how to tie on a hook, crimp on a sinker several inches above, set a plastic bobber a couple of feet above that and impale an earthworm on the hook. That’s all I needed to start catching bluegills, and that’s all I needed to fall in love with fishing.
I can remember the excitement of watching the bobber being yanked below the surface by a fat bluegill and the feel of it fighting as I reeled it in. It was cheap entertainment, all-in-all, but it was utterly priceless.
When we went each year for summer vacation, it was always a week at either Ocean Isle or Sunset Beach in Brunswick County, the southernmost part of the North Carolina coastline. My mother sat on the beach while my brother, my sister and I played in surf.
My father brought his long rod out and did some surf fishing, typically catching panfish like spots and whiting. When I got a bit older, I started joining in on the ocean fishing, with my first excursions being at a nearby pier.
The only time we ever went out into the ocean was on a large head boat out of nearby Little River, S.C. It was simple bottom fishing: just drop your line down, wait for a tug and pull up the struggling fish.
I caught black sea bass, red snappers and the like. My father and brother vomited over the rail all day, miserable with sea sickness. I loved that outing. They did not.
In fact, sea sickness made such an impression on my dad that he never again ventured out to sea.
I also learned the hard way that everything we caught at the beach but the small panfish had teeth. The first bluefish I ever caught was only about 10 inches long. After hauling it up to the deck of the pier, I put my hand in its mouth to get the hook out, just like it was a bluegill or a catfish. It clamped down for a moment and I drew back a bloody finger.
That’s known as a self-correcting error, something that only the very foolish would repeat. Had it been an eight or 10-pound bluefish, which have powerful jaws, my parents would have been taking me to the emergency room with a severed finger.
One memory that sticks with me is an afternoon my father and I spent fishing under a bridge that spanned the very small Shallotte River, probably a mile or so inland from the ocean near Sunset Beach. It was blazing hot as we fished the incoming tide, trying to make sure our lines stayed free of the bridge pilings.
Using shrimp, we started catching some of the largest croakers I’ve ever seen. Atlantic croakers, members of the drum family, are popular panfish on the coast in terms of eating. True to their name, they making a croaking sound when you take them out of the water.
I tossed my line out again and something just knocked the fire out of it. My rod doubled over and I had a struggle on my hands. To my surprise, something snake-like in appearance had taken my bait.
It turned out to be an eel, a slimy creature with nasty set of teeth. Though we caught several more that afternoon, I’ve never caught another.
Since then, I’ve come to understand that eels were once commonly found as far west as the Yadkin River in Wilkes County. This ended when rivers began being dammed for electricity and flood control.