A Special Fish
November, 1997 

    The timing couldn't have been better.  The cold front pushed through earlier than predicted, and the strong northeast wind fell out and shifted to the southwest on Thursday afternoon, a day before the weekenders would descend on the beach. 
     Anticipating this setup of weather conditions, a few days earlier the fisherman drove this narrow beach north of Avon, prospecting for a drum "hole."  He found a good place with a steep beach, a deep slough and an outer bar with a narrow opening to deep water. 

     When he felt the wind shift to the southwest that morning he knew tonight would be the night. The tide would be right at 3 a.m., an ungodly hour on the graveyard shift.  The surf was still choppy, lit by a full moon partially obscured by clouds. The wind shift had knocked down most of the waves and slowed the current enough for 8 ounces to hold bottom. "Perfect," he said when the sinker settled to the bottom and held at the end of a long cast to the edge of the bar.

       He was alone in this place, where he often fished for drum alone.  His friends weren't willing to devote the time, at this god-awful hour for a fish. Occasionally the interior lights of a truck a hundred yards to the south would flicker on and off.  A group of vehicles was clustered together up the beach, but there was no other activity.
     On the take, he knew it was a drum.  As the fish picked up the piece of mullet and moved toward the beach the line went limp in his fingers, then tightened, pulling his rod down hard, making a hook‑set unnecessary. But he jabbed the rod back several times anyway, from reflex. The fish responded.
     "This is a good fish," he muttered out loud.
   Line snapped from the revolving spool as twenty five-pound test mono moved deliberately through the guides and down the beach with the current.  The fish was strong, and could not be turned.  He crab-walked sideways, trying to keep the line in front of him.  When the line stopped moving south, the fish stopped, changed and steamed eastward out to sea, searching for the break in the sandbar.  He felt the fish's tail slap the line, then it changed direction again moving toward shore.
     "Fifteen minutes," he said, glancing at his watch, marking the length of the fight.  Habitually, the angler noted the time of the hook up, and would record it in his log book at first light.  
     "This is a really good fish, " he spoke to himself again, almost breathless from excitement, but trying to stay calm.  His hands were shaking, but red drum always made him that way, even though he had beached hundreds.
     The fish was closer.  The deep water in the slough kept the shore break waves from pushing the fish over the drop as the angler cranked the knot from the shock line onto the reel.  With two turns of the fifty pound mono shock line around the spool, he could apply a bit more pressure. He pulled the drum's head up, just as a wave caught its massive body and lifted the fish suddenly, high and dry on the sand. 
     "Whoa . . .oh, man. . . ,"   His voice trailed off in disbelief, but there was no one close enough to hear.  The broad tail, big shoulders and full belly of this very big red drum took this seasoned angler by surprise.
     The last drum he caught that was maybe this large weighed 59 pounds exactly. One pound shy of the largest red drum registered in North Carolina for that year. Twenty three years ago he killed that fish, for photos and dinners of boiled drum, something he later felt guilty about when he realized how old that fish might have been.
     Not this one.  This fish wasn't going to die.  He was fifty yards from the measuring tape in the truck so the angler laid the rod down on the sand next to the fish for a visual reference that would be verified later by the tape. 
     Now his hands were shaking because he didn't want this fish to die, and he couldn’t move fast enough.  The 9/0 hook was deep in the bony corner of the jaw, and seemed like it took forever before the pliers wrestled it free.  The rod was leaning over the man's shoulder, but he didn't want to take the time to run it back to the truck, so he leaned it against a piece of drift wood at the edge of the water, risking sand in the reel so he could save this fish.
     He cradled the big fish in his arms and looked into its large, eye in the moonlight as he carried the drum back into the ocean. He knelt down in the surf, water up to his elbows, so the fish could breathe.  A wave slapped him in the face, and trickled down the front of his waders. 
     The cool night air, chilly water and patience of the angler helped to revive the fish, but it was five minutes before the drum was able to float upright on its own, five more before it swam out of his arms, back into the dark ocean.
     The fisherman's back hurt, he was soaking wet from sweat and ocean water, sitting ass deep in the breaking surf but he hardly noticed.  The discomfort was a small trade for an opportunity to share some time with a magnificent fish, a fish of a lifetime. Every time he caught one of these beautiful, bronze colored specimens, he appreciated that moment for what it was, a very special time.  And every one might be the last.