Out and About in North Carolina's Woods and Waters

In a recent post, I commented that some of my most poignant memories of Christmas and New Year holidays gone by had nothing to do with eggnog, mistletoe or midnight fireworks. The ones that I remember most vividly involved what an old friend of mine used to call a S.E.E. – a Significant Emotional Experience. By his definition, that was the kind of thing that, if you survived it, was part of your conscious being for the rest of your life. I had a S.E.E. on January 2nd one year that I can still recollect in minute detail a long time later. Ironically there are probably some strangers in a northern state who could say the same thing.

It all began with a conversation I had with a friend on New Year’s Day. He called to wish me a happy holiday and to say he’d heard that big striped bass were showing up on the west side of Cape Lookout shoals. That was big news. Those world-class game fish often make an appearance on the eastern side of the shoals in mid-winter but that area can get awfully rough when a cold northeast wind comes ripping down the coast – too rough for my seventeen-foot skiff. The west side of the shoals, however, are protected from those gusts by the east-west orientation of the cape and, as a result, the seas on the lee side can be glassy calm and clear as gin.

Given that the conditions seemed favorable, I informed my teenage son that there was nothing to do but head Downeast and do our part to help make the world safe from such piscatorial predators. In other words, time to go fishing. If we ended up with the makings for a fish stew in the process, that would be a plus and a suitable reward for our efforts.

Leaving home before light, we put in at the Harkers Island Fishing Center and proceeded out Barden’s Inlet and down Core Banks toward the shoals. We then spent the best part of the day trolling and casting every striper-tempting lure I had in my tackle box. As sometimes happens, however, even with expert anglers, we got skunked except for a couple of dogfish that apparently had suicidal tendencies.

Late that afternoon we finally conceded defeat and headed back in. Along the way I decided a stop at the Cape Lookout rock jetty was called for in case a few speckled trout were hanging around. My son lowered the anchor and, as I moved toward the bow, my feet somehow got tangled up with one another. Before I knew what was happening, I was overboard. In the next few moments, I learned a couple of things. One was it’s hard as heck to climb back into a boat in the ocean when you’re wearing heavy, waterlogged clothing and knee boots. Another was it’s an awfully long, cold boat ride from Barden’s Inlet to the other end of Harker’s Island in mid-winter when you’re soaking wet.

When we finally reached the ramp, the marina was closed and there was nobody in the parking lot. I had learned from my duck hunting experience years before to always carry a change of clothes (in my size) in the back of my vehicle. Since no one was around and knowing I had to get something dry on pretty quickly, I started stripping down. Just as I reached the naked-as-a-jaybird stage, a car pulled into the parking lot. I eased over farther behind my Jeep so I wouldn’t be exposed but the driver came directly toward me. I stayed scrunched down and tried to sidle farther toward the rear of my vehicle. The car kept coming, though, and finally I had nowhere else to hide. As it pulled alongside, I noticed it held two middle-aged couples. The man driving had his window down, apparently intending to ask me something. Instead, he just said “uh, uh, uh” and sped off. As he did, I noticed the car had a New Jersey license tag.

I told my son, based on the reaction of the folks in the car, you’d think they’d never seen a naked man in a parking lot in January before. On the way home, we contemplated what kind of stories they would have to tell when they got back to Jersey. I could just imagine it, “Gees, I’m not kidd’n youse guys, they run around naked down there in the winter time!”

Whatever they thought, it was a moment that is etched in my memory forever. Someday, if I happen to end up in old folks home with dementia, I may stop in my tracks and start chuckling. Those around me would never believe what I might be recollecting. The same thing may happen to our visitors from up north who happened by a deserted parking lot on Harkers Island at the wrong – or right – time. For them, it may also be a S.E.E.

Every striped bass, regardless of size, is a trophy catch. Many that are caught off our barrier island beaches are much larger than the one shown here. They may be 60 lb. or more – enough to tempt an angler to take an unexpected dip if he’s not careful.

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