Rudy Austin, bearded like General Grant and built like a scaled-down Hulk Hogan, eased back in his chair and gave the matter further thought. "Mostly," he said judiciously, "we call it Drum Shoal. But it has been called Vera Cruz Shoal, on account of a boat sunk there, the ol' Vera Cruz. But the original boat that went down there was the ol' Albatross."
Austin was talking on a mild, black-velvet midnight in a cottage on Ocracoke Island, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the later it got, the more Rudy's voice took on the rich, creamy burr that is the inheritance of more than three centuries of Austins on the island. I dragged him back to the subject at hand—the youngest island in America, Verz Cruz Shoal, where I had just enjoyed the finest surf-fishing ever. "When did it first come out from under the water?" I asked him.
It wasn't Austin who answered me, but his friend Peter Nelson Stone. "It was always a shallow place," Stone said. "That's why all them boats wrecked on it. Just misread your chart a little and you was right up on it. Even in '75, when I first got here in the Coast Guard, there was a shoal abuilding and we was always getting calls from boats that had bottomed out on it.
"But it never come out of the water till '79," Stone went on. "And it'll disappear again just as fast. Last June it was as big as ever I seen it, half a mile long, like a big, long hook jutting out. But it's starting to go now. That Hurricane Gloria really did the damage, sliced it in two. Now we don't know if it'll build up again or wash away. If it does go, though, it won't be forever...." Brigadoon Island, I thought.
June 1, 1986
"Hey, you really hit that little island hot, didn't you," said Austin. "You caught them real high tides coming off the new moon, big run of fish and you had it a few days all to yourself. What was it you got? More'n 50 drum? That was great."
It was not only great but something of a miracle. These days the two biggest runs in the American angling year consist not offish but of fishermen. In April and then again in November you'll see them converge, from every part of the nation, upon the coast of North Carolina. All of them are in search of the handsome fish called the channel bass in the Northeast, the red drum in the Middle Atlantic states and the redfish from Georgia on south. The Southern usage is gaining in popularity, thanks to the growing taste across the country for Cajun cooking and one of its premier dishes, blackened redfish. In the spring and fall, long convoys of 4 X 4's, surf rods mounted over the front fenders like strange weapons, roll down Route 158 from Kitty Hawk to Hatteras Island. It makes it seem as though this part of North Carolina is being invaded by guerrillas from the People's Army for the Liberation of the Outer Banks.
There are about 75 miles of beach on, the Outer Banks, but only a fraction of them are fish-attracting spots, and these bear the brunt of the invasion. As you fight to find fishing room, you notice how the whole migration seems to have taken on the aspect of a paramilitary operation. It's impossible to fathom why, when they are seeking a fish that swims in turbulent, cloudy surf 100 yards off the beach at night, many anglers feel the need to wear camouflage coveralls, and even harder to figure out why there is a growing fashion for camouflaged vehicles.
So, considering the population influx, I was not expecting great fishing on the Banks. I planned to spend several days fishing off Ocracoke before heading for the Georgia coast, where, I had heard, there would be less-crowded fishing. Because Ocracoke is accessible only by boat from Hatteras, I assumed I would find much smaller crowds there than elsewhere on the Banks. At least that had been the case in the past.
It was not so this time. The 3 p.m. ferry was boarded by a horde of camouflaged guerrillas who leaned their elbows on the hoods of their 4 X 4's, chomped on gum or tobacco and stared across the water at the low profile of Ocracoke. Though it is about 17 miles long, Ocracoke has only two real drum hotspots, and even 20 anglers would overwhelm them. That left me with just one possibility—a boat.
That evening, after settling into the cottage I had rented, I walked to Ocracoke's fountain of fishing knowledge, the Lakeside tackle shop, to find a boat and skipper. The shop is run by Sharon Miller along the lines of a rustic general store. All you have to do there is sit and listen, and you will find out as much as anybody on the island about where the fish are. On this evening, it wasn't very much. That is until the door opened and Sharon's husband came in.
Norman Miller is not your typical easygoing Ocracokian. He comes from a harder line, having grown up on Chesapeake Bay, and the silences into which he sometimes lapses are strange, introspective and uncomfortable. Not comfortable, either, is the way he fishes his 36-foot charter boat. Rascal. The Atlantic off Ocracoke is a crazy pattern of white water, with steep seas breaking unpredictably over shallow banks, and it is in the midst of this that Miller likes to anchor. Still, he has earned an unassailable reputation as the best red drum skipper in the U.S. There is never any shortage of people waiting to sign up to go out with Miller. Indeed, you have to book months ahead, which was why I knew that my best shot on Ocracoke—to fish with Norman—was a feeble one.
Extraordinarily, I got lucky. Miller said he had a cancellation for the following Wednesday. That left me with two days to fill. I asked Miller if it was worthwhile to fish the surf off the island.
"Don't know nothin' about the surf," he said characteristically.
Sharon gave him a look. "What about the sandspit?" she said.
"Sandspit?" I asked.
"It's a tiny little island," she said, "that came out of the sea a while back."
"Don't know if anybody goes out there now," said Miller. "The last load of guys got into trouble, sank their boats."
"I could ask Rudy if he'll take you," said Sharon. She reached for the phone.
And so it was that the following perfect, opalescent morning I slid over the side of Rudy Austin's little boat and waded ashore on the sheltered side of Drum Shoal or Vera Cruz Shoal, an islet too young to know its own name. It briefly occurred to me that I could end up in some kind of Robinson Crusoe fix. To the east, the next landfall would be some 3,000 miles away, roughly, at Casablanca, Morocco. To the west, a mere 20-minute boat ride away, was the low silhouette of Ocracoke.
I looked around. It was low tide, but at high water on a rough day, I thought, the sea must break over the bank. Sweating, half-trudging, half-trotting as fast as my clumsy chest-waders would let me, I made my way across the spit to the seaward side, where the surf roared.
Surf? I wondered what surf was doing out here, with no wind to build it and the island beaches so calm. But then I realized that these waves were not the offspring of local wind but were engendered by ocean swells that hit the first shallow ground of the continent here. I moved into the turmoil cautiously, wading 30, 40 yards out as the water rose knee-, waist-, then chest-high. Then I waded crosstide until I found myself knee-deep again. I was standing on a sand ridge that gave me casting command over a corridor of water that the smooth, green and unbroken swell indicated to be deep. It was what surf fishermen call a slough and pronounce "slew," a fish-holding trench. It was just what I needed.
I moved into the familiar pattern of surfcasting—legs straddled against the push of the tide, shoulders rocking to let the streamlined sinker swing behind me in a pendulum motion until enough power had built to compress the carbon fibers of the 12-foot beach rod into a mighty spring. Then I released that spring, sending the sinker and cut-mullet bait far into the green water of the slough.
In orthodox drum fishing, this is the point at which the bait is allowed to settle, the rod is placed in a plastic sand spike and the cooler, probably camouflaged, is dragged out for lunch. Instead, I carefully reeled in my slack line, taking up the tension on the sinker. For some reason, from the very moment I had landed on the island I had convinced myself that I would hit a fish on my first cast. And after no more than three or four minutes of looking out over the heaving gray sea, brown pelicans flapping low over the water, there came, in glorious affirmation of my hunch, a brutal wrench on the line. My rod had taken on a battle curve, and 100 yards away I could feel the beginning of the courageous, head-down, slugging resistance that a redfish of even eight pounds, which was what this one turned out to be, can offer. It was two battles, really; the second one started up the minute I thought I had won the fight, just as the fish rolled at my side, defeated. It was at that moment that it changed its mind and decided to head for Casablanca.
That fish was the first of many. Through flood and ebb tides over the next two days, the surf around the new island was full of eager war parties of school drum, some of the fish weighing as much as 15 pounds.
By the second morning I had scaled my tackle down from the standard heavy artillery used for drum—the 40-pound-test line and eight-ounce sinkers—to 14-pound-test and three-ounce sinkers on a limber rod. This rig wouldn't hold a 40-pounder, but it was perfect for the fish I wanted. By the end of the second day, I had landed more than 30. Only a couple ended up as broiled fillets; the rest I released, and they kicked away to liberty in an explosion of sand.
The third day was the one I thought I had been waiting for—the day I would go out aboard Miller's Rascal. Normally, that would have been a royal treat. But after the superb fishing out on the young island, it was merely an interlude I was eager to have done with. We took the same route to sea I had with Austin, for Miller had elected to anchor and fish on the seaward side of the surf that broke on what I now regarded as my island. I kept a lookout as the barely perceptible shadow of the island began to show.
What I saw reminded me of the scene from an old Western, the one where the wagon train moves into the gully and, one by one, Apache warbonnets break the smooth pattern of the horizon. As we swung by the island, I saw, gradually revealed, a line of surfcasters staked out across my beach.
Although my fishing diary for that day shows that all five of the fish I took from Rascal were bigger than anything I had landed from the island beach and were topped by a 40-pound-plus specimen, I can barely recall catching them. All I could think of was that my island had been invaded. Later, hanging his head a little, Austin would semiconfess, "I told a guy over to Buxton, and he must of passed the word around."
I knew the invaders would be back the next day, and I couldn't hold the whole island. But I could defend my slough, the best piece of beach, which was no more than 20 feet across, if I got to the island early. I set it up with Austin. And the next morning, for a couple of hours at least, it was like old times—just me and my island. Indeed I had landed my fifth drum before I saw the raiding party swarming ashore on the sheltered side.
It seemed to be highly organized. A beachhead was quickly established with a pile of multicolored coolers, sand spikes and rod cases. Then the faster-moving among them headed for the surf.
But they were moving to the wrong end of the islet. I knew that because I had earlier investigated that area. There was a sweep of tide there, and they wouldn't be able to hold ground with their sinkers, or not for long, anyway. As I watched them, I again felt the hit of a red drum and my rod doubled over. I doubled over, too, my back to the invaders. If I was lucky, I thought, they might believe I was hauling in a bunch of seaweed.
I wasn't lucky. I saw that immediately. Arms were raised and fingers were pointed. And now the entire line began slowly shuffling toward me. The nearest angler was still 50 yards away, but I could foresee how a small party might detach itself and move in on my far side to complete a pincer movement. So steaming hot was my paranoia that I didn't realize until much later that my actual fish score that morning was proving to be even better than that of the previous days.
Nor did I notice that the wind had begun to shift to the east and the sky to darken. What did register was that the fishing began to slow up, which proved that red drum were better at forecasting a sideswipe from Hurricane Kate than was the All Weather Radio from Hatteras.
In the meantime, Austin's Ocracokian weather antennae were at work, too. Our arrangement had been for him to pick me up at 4 p.m., but three hours earlier than that I saw the white hull of his boat approaching. I also noticed that at least half of the guerrillas had quit fishing and were gathered around the two boats that had brought them across. I started to pack up. Rudy would not have come over early just for fun. I trudged across the island. On a dropping tide, it was a 300-yard trip.
I would never have thought I could feel sympathy for the interlopers, but I did now. One of their boats was already high and dry, and its crew tried desperately and uselessly to haul it into the water through soft sand. I lent them a shoulder, and when I looked at their faces I discovered that they were not depraved storm troopers on the rampage but actually quite ordinary people. Some weren't even wearing camouflage.
Now, though, Austin shouted to me to wade out as far as I could in the increasing chop. I made it to the stern, threw my rod in the boat, and wriggled over after it. We pulled offshore a little ways, then both of us uttered the same thought: "What should we do about these guys?" One of their boats was now afloat and loaded. But the other guerrillas—no, fishermen—stood disconsolately around their stranded craft. "I can take just three of you with your gear," shouted Rudy over the wind. Holding their rods clear of the water, a hastily selected trio boarded our boat. The others faced a night on the island waiting for a new tide to lift off their boat. I savored no victory, as I might have a day earlier. I just hoped the marooned ones had bait.
By now, the normally calm waters inside Ocracoke Sound were a maelstrom and the rain had arrived; visibility was down to a few hundred yards as we started to cross. On the way home, we took two more small boats into our convoy. It was Rudy's moment of glory. "If you want Ocracoke, fall in behind me!" he roared majestically across the turbulent ocean. Less stirring remarks have become naval history.
That night in my cottage, as the winds of Kate beat up on the island, I savored the thought of my catch—close to 50 fish by the end—and talked with Austin and Miller about the miraculous little island, its birth and probable fate. For a while my paranoia had dissipated. When word got round of the stranded fishermen, I might even have the island to myself again next year. Unless, magically and mysteriously, on a full-moon midnight, Drum Shoal slips under the waves before I can return.