The two beaches, more than 3,000 miles apart, are windswept, desolate and barren, at least to those who have never known the joys and despairs of a surf fisherman. The first is at Cape Point, hard by Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the Atlantic tides that have smashed their way over the Diamond Shoals churn through a narrow gut into the calm shallows of Pamlico Sound. There crabs and baitfish provide a fat living for the heavy-shouldered channel bass that come sliding in with the current.
The other beach is at Dungeness Point, hard by Dungeness Lighthouse on the southeast corner of England, where the Channel tides are constricted in the Strait of Dover and meet the Scandinavian Current swilling down from the North Sea. The confluence creates a huge tidal eddy close to shore that fills with crabs and baitfish, on which browse regiments of fat cod.
Two superb stretches of coast, one would think, for the surfcaster. Two perfect ambush points from which to intercept heavy runs offish. Two Edens. Take a closer look.
Cape Point, on a balmy fall day: The beach is so lined with RVs that it's hard to see the ocean's edge. It's just as well that roughly 75% of the humanity present is sitting on beach chairs, Willie Nelson on the radio and cold beer in hand, because there's no room for them in the sea, especially out there on the sandspit from which it's possible to cast into deeper water.
May 31, 1981
And the sandspit is a cutthroat world where the morality of the New York subway prevails. A good fish is hooked. In Eden anglers in the vicinity would reel their lines in so as not to interfere. Not here. The fishless ones move in on the lucky one. Lead weights whistle over his head, a dozen lines cross his. For every fish landed on the sandspit, three are lost.
Cross the Atlantic and head for that other demiparadise on the coast of Kent. It has one small advantage. No RVs; the beach here is steep, composed of shingle, a huge accumulation of tiny stones. To make up for this, there's a small city of tents along the high ridge, and yes, there are non-participants with beer cans and radios, though the music is punk rock rather than country. And at Dungeness Point, too, wall-to-wall anglers clog the best spots to fish from, leading to the same crossed lines, the same outbursts of profanity.
And here, just as at Hatteras, one finds a minority of serious anglers trying to cope with the ineptitude of the weekend cowboys. On the Outer Banks, though, dedicated surfcasters have the option of escape. They can settle for less productive sections of the coast, restrict themselves to night fishing, take ferries to more remote islands. Not so at Dungeness, a mere two-hour drive from London, where that magical eddy can be reached only from a limited stretch of shore. There the serious surf fisherman has had to find a better way to get at his prey or quit. The anglers' disgust with the mob scene is couched in terms almost identical with those you hear in North Carolina. "Some of the people on this beach would never be able to do anything" said one of them at Dungeness on a recent carnival weekend. "In a gym, they'd wreck the equipment. If they got on to any kind of team, they'd be slung out fast. Think of them in a golf club. They'd be booted right through the door. Swiftly. But because it's just good old fishing, they don't think they have to acquire any level of performance. They don't care who they screw up."
The man speaking is 35, broad-shouldered, apparently athletic. There's a gap, a memento of boxing, in his front teeth. But what one notices most is the almost-fanatical gleam in his eyes. He's a far-gone surf-fishing addict, one so deeply hooked by the sport that he lives in an old railroad car that rests permanently on the bleak, level shingle behind the ridge at Dungeness. From there he's always within five minutes' walking distance of the hottest section of the beach.
Terry Carroll is his name, and he believes—and he's probably right—that he's the second-best handler of a surf rod in the world. That's reason enough to indulge him in his passionate denunciation of the cowboys.
"Look at the way they wire their gear up," he goes on. "The knots they tie are incredible. I've got over a lot of the problems here, but I still get hung up in cracked-off tackle. Would you believe what I was hauling up here the other day? Old-fashioned toilet-chain handles! Old porcelain ones! Guy must have been a janitor or something, had a supply, used them as sinkers!"
Carroll shakes his head, like a revivalist preacher contemplating souls on the straight route to hell. "Then they get angry when they see you catch fish!" he says. "Had this club here the other Sunday, some group from London. 'You seem to be doing well,' said one of the members. And the next thing, the club secretary came over to make a formal complaint, because, he said, I was intercepting their cod before the fish could reach their baits!"
Carroll and other dedicated English surf fishermen have a definitely elitist term for run-of-the-beach anglers like the visitors from London. "Ditters" they call them. And truth is, in all probability Carroll and his friends do intercept the ditters' fish, because skilled surfcasters have overcome the congestion along the shore by pushing the techniques and technology of long-distance casting to their current practical limits.
The distances achieved by Carroll and numerous other English anglers, using production tackle under tournament conditions, are astonishing. Until he quit tournament casting in 1979 to attend to his rod-making business, Carroll was No. 1 in the world when it came to casting with the 150-gram (5¼-ounce) sinker, regarded as the closest to that used in average surf conditions. His best throw in a tournament was 693 feet; he did an unofficial 753 feet in a demonstration. And since Carroll's retirement, a 26-year-old engineer from Norfolk named Paul Kerry, the new No. 1, has hit 723 feet, in the 1980 United Kingdom Surfcasting Federation tournament.
All those distances were made, of course, without a bait aboard. With a baited hook, men like Carroll, Kerry, John Holden and Dave Docwra toss their rigs maybe 550 or 600 feet. More or less for the hell of it, in a recent tournament another leading caster, Peter Coull, threw a rig 495 feet with three baited hooks.
The news of such performances has percolated through to the U.S. in recent months and been received with frank incredulity. Not surprisingly. Professional guides on the beaches of the Outer Banks estimate that around 300 feet seems to be their limit, even when they are trying for as much distance as possible.
Carroll doesn't find the disparity hard to understand, given the tackle Americans use. "I used to drool over an American tackle catalog I had as a kid," he says. "Dated 1954, it was, and the gear looked good. But I've got another one now, 1979, and the only thing that has changed is the quality of the paper. How come the Yanks got stuck in the 1950s?
"Look at those short, stiff rods they use, only nine-or 10-foot! The grips like tennis-racket handles, the reel fittings that weigh a quarter pound, all the cosmetics, the varnish, the colored bindings. My God, they're still using metal ferrules. And nothing but guzzlers, guzzlers, for casting!"
Guzzler is the disparaging name used in Carroll's circles for a spinning reel, or fixed-spool reel, as the English call it. England's long-distance casters claim that a spinning reel goes guzzle, guzzle as one reels in. By some odd quirk, it's the older American-invented conventional reel that the best British surfcasters favor, while on American beaches one sees little but the British-invented spinning reel. Or guzzler. And in an even odder twist, as will shortly be seen, the guzzler is on the verge of becoming respectable again.
What baffles and saddens Carroll, who 25 years ago was a firm believer in the excellence of American technology, is why this state of affairs, why the stagnation in the development of U.S. surf-fishing gear? And he looks around for reasons. "Perhaps the beach fishing in the States is so much better than ours that the anglers there don't have to think of long casting so much," he says.
There's a partial truth in this, though the difference is not as marked as some Americans may think, and other factors would seem to invite the introduction of more sophisticated equipment. Especially along much of the East Coast of the U.S., where so many open beaches are within a day's drive of one large city or another, ever increasing numbers of anglers are chasing a seemingly ever decreasing supply of fish. The crowded beaches alone would appear to put a premium on gear that would enable a serious angler to break free of the mob. And the final, unanswerable argument in favor of having the tackle and skills to cast a great deal farther is that while a surf fisherman doesn't need the capability all the time, there will be occasions when he does.
But for whatever reasons, surf casting—limiting that expression to casting with a natural bait and a sinker—has been a somewhat neglected art in the U.S. No American versions of Carroll and Kerry have appeared. The art of angling never advances on a broad front. Innovators in any specialty are almost always a small group, and in recent years what has interested the more forward-looking among U.S. saltwater fishermen has been fly-fishing and various other light-tackle techniques. Also, unlike the case in England, where the opacity of the water is greater and different species offish are involved, much of American surfcasters' energy is spent on improving the throwing of plugs and other lures.
What, precisely, have the innovators in England come up with that enables an average English angler to cast farther than an Outer Banks guide?
Though Carroll himself would take considerable exception, the story is best told through his angling career. As early as 1960, there were English surfcasters who saw the need for improved techniques and gear, most notably a man named Leslie Moncrieff who preached the notion—modest as it seems now—that every angler could hit 350 feet if he tried. Moncrief was 6'7", and when he toured angling clubs, demonstrating his techniques (for free—all Monty wanted to do was help), they told him the only reason he could cast 500 feet or so was because of his height. So he'd get down on his knees and throw 500 feet from that position.
The young Carroll was a very early convert and had the perfect qualifications for a fishing innovator, first because he was a passionate angler and second because he had an engineer's training. He was an instrument maker for ITT and was no run-of-the-mill technician. He was one of a team of eight allowed to fool around in a back room and come up with ideas in their own good time.
One suspects that much of Carroll's good time was given over to rod design, and he was specially disenchanted with the tapered, mass-produced rods of fiber glass—blanks, as they are known in the trade—that were available for rod building. "Some of the Conolon tips from the U.S. were O.K.," he recalls now, "but they didn't suit long-distance modern casting techniques. They were basically slow taper blanks, easy to produce, simple to market. They set the standard in fiber glass to this day. They are still being marketed because there's so much investment in tooling and so on."
The first chance of a breakthrough that Carroll saw was when graphite came on the market in the late '60s. "I went to Farnborough," he recalls, "to the Royal Aircraft Establishment where the stuff was invented for the aerospace industry, and talked to the guys there. But it was very expensive and there were production difficulties."
Nevertheless, working then for a company called Morgan Crucible, Carroll helped produce the world's first batch of graphite rods, 200 of them, in 1970. The next step was for him to go to the National Research Development Corporation, a governmental body in England founded to help establish new industrial processes. There he was told firmly that such an expensive material had no future in the production of sporting goods—not fishing rods, golf clubs, vaulting poles, yacht masts, tennis rackets or anything. "So we came to a grinding halt," he says wryly, "and we sat back to wait for graphite to come on the market at a competitive price."
Other disappointments followed in Carroll's effort to build the perfect surf-casting rod. Finally, a year ago, he sold his house in Brighton, rented the old railroad car at Dungeness and a big shed a few miles up the road, which he equipped with a lathe, an oven, a press operated by a car jack and other bits and pieces. There, when he's not fishing, he produces about 40 blanks a week, all by home cooking, that retail at around $240 apiece.
Oddly, as casting distances have grown greater, rod building has turned into a kind of cottage industry in parts of England, with mass-produced rods being scarcely marketable. Even the ditters insist on custom jobs. Carroll says, "With carbon-fiber [graphite] sheets at $25 the small piece, there is no way you can use semiskilled labor on it, man, or you'd rapidly lose a lot of money."
So in the shed, Carroll works with only one assistant. "The breakthrough really came," he says, "when we put together a combination of the right ingredients, modern resins, modern tape that will take the stress put on it. Some of the stuff is American; my tape is from DuPont, my mandrel is from California. The graphite sheet is Japanese."
The processes aren't complex. The secret lies in the taper, the particular geometric shapes of the black graphite sheets that combine with the glass to give the rod its action. "The way we cast in England now punishes a rod," Carroll says. "If a tip isn't flexible, it won't last a big cast. The blank snaps. I want a lot of tip action and a stiff butt, 11'6" or 12 feet overall. That used to mean a heavy rod, but not anymore. My rods weigh 16 ounces—that's less than a normal reel."
He pulls a finished blank from a rack. It is mat black and unimpressive looking, except to those who have seen it in action. "That's my Barebones," Carroll says with pride. "No cosmetics—they don't exist anymore. Tape the guides on. Tape the reel on if you want. Or use the clamp that comes with it. Or, if you want to be fancy, one of those lightweight Japanese fittings. No varnish. What's varnish for?"
It was clearly time to give Barebones its fling, on the open ground behind the railroad car. The reel that Carroll tapes on is of the conventional American type—and even a short while ago, one would have added "of course" to that, because to turn up on a British beach with a guzzler would have been like arriving at a posh wedding in jeans.
There is still an esthetic argument to be made against the spinning reel; it is far pleasanter to cast or play a fish on a conventional reel. But the great gap in the guzzler's performance when it came to throwing surf-sized sinkers has dwindled considerably.
Last year, for instance, when Kerry made his monumental 723-foot cast with a conventional reel, a spinning-reel specialist named Richard Jacobs went more than 677 feet with his guzzler. There's still a gap, but it's closing.
Why so? "For a start, we threw away that ridiculous great butt ring you see on most saltwater spinning rods," says Carroll. "It does nothing. When we figured things out properly, we were left with just three guides, and the first one was seven feet—yes, seven feet—up the rod, the first guide being 40 mm in diameter, the next 25 mm and the third 12 mm. And then, of course, the tip ring. That way the line doesn't bite on the rod. It doesn't touch it.
"A while back I wouldn't even own a guzzler, and at that time, for sure, you couldn't have sold a spinning rod with only three guides. The angler would think he was being ripped off. And now, by golly, you couldn't sell one in England with more than three.
"Something else. Notice the way the line lies on the spool of a spinning reel when you've loaded it? That concave profile? No use. The line keeps catching on the next layer. We thought about that, too. What you have to do is build up the spool by hand, winding on backing line to the right profile so that when you come to wind the casting length on top of it, it's level. There's no dip."
All the same, it's a conventional reel he fits to Barebones for the demonstration. "Still really don't like guzzlers," says Carroll.
He goes through his repertoire. First, the classic pendulum cast (see drawings below), which starts with the angler's back to the direction of the cast and the sinker hanging down to about the same level as the reel. The sinker is swung like a pendulum, out to the left, to the right and back left again. The power compression starts at 270 degrees, Carroll will tell you precisely, from the direction of the cast, the sinker coming over his head, then under and round, as his powerful body begins a mighty pirouette. Then there's a swish! as if a giant Mr. Squeers is wielding his cane at Dotheboys Hall, and the sinker is traveling out at 200 mph. This throw measures 660 feet. "Meanwhile," Carroll says slyly, "a big wave has hit you in the butt."
Examine that sinker, by the way. It bears no relation to the lead pyramids sold to American anglers for surf work. Carroll's is as streamlined as a bullet, and in its fishing version, it has four wire prongs that hold it firm in the sand on the bottom, but that collapse to free it when the rod is jerked before the retrieve.
Then Carroll is into the Yarmouth cast, a kind of reverse pendulum, "The difficult one," he says, "in which you start and finish with your back to the sea." He throws 550 feet with the Yarmouth. And finally the South African, which begins with the sinker lying on the ground and which isn't a practical fishing cast unless one is on a flat, hard, preferably deserted sand beach. Carroll casts 575 feet using the South African method.
At this point, he stops. "Look," he says, pointing out to sea, "the long-lining boats are heading out. Got to be cod out there. Look at that smooth run of tide with the shimmer on the top. Perfect."
Carroll, it is warming to see, still has the compulsions of a fisherman, not an athlete. The demonstration is broken off, and he is sliding, skidding down the shingle ridge, scrounging bait from the other anglers and then sending it screaming out, who knows how far, well over the barren stones and into a submarine sand gully that's maybe 90 feet deep.
To reach the gully one must make a 350-foot-plus cast, but in less than 15 minutes the effort proves worthwhile for Carroll. The tip of Barebones, pulled hard over in the tide by the sinker anchored in the sand, suddenly springs upright and the line momentarily goes slack. Deep down, a cod has the bait and is carrying the sinker with it. Grunting and slithering, Carroll at first has to give ground to the fish, but he eventually has it ashore—plump, gray, yellow-speckled, maybe 12 pounds.
In the next half hour, two more casts follow, and Carroll looks up to see another angler advancing on him along the beach.
"Been here all night," the man says suspiciously. "Got nothing. What you using?"
"My head," Carroll says. The ditter is not amused.