“Had a really good day on the fish two days ago,” a colleague told me about a recent sortie chasing the early fall striped bass run in the Mid-Atlantic. After a few days of sparse action, he’d hit payday. “Twenty-five-plus stripers,” he said, then added a small detail that really got my brain swirling: “It was good to spend hours and hours and hours outside, in the wind and sun.”
I sat in my home office (read: kitchen table) in Gotham and thought back to those halcyon days of my youth, making the most of long summer days with my crew. I don’t remember who chipped in for the seasonal 4x4 beach pass — $125 was a lot of clams back then — but once Memorial Day came around, there was a solid rotation of us who would be part of these trips to the sand.
And let me tell you, we thought we were a well-oiled machine. A casual observer may think otherwise, seeing several long-haired men shoulder to shoulder in a primer black Jeep stuffed with surfboards, coolers, fishing gear, firewood and the required equipment we’d need to drive the 4x4 onto the beach. But we were men with a plan.
Or so we thought.
Our first trip was to a wild gem of New Jersey: Island Beach State Park, a 10-mile-long, narrow barrier island. That day ended abruptly when a patient but stern N.J. Department of Environmental Protection agent sent us packing at the gatehouse.
We had lined up behind big pickups with camper tops and Ford Broncos from the early 1970s that are now worth more than many new, luxe SUVs. The Jeep’s owner, Kevin, got out to deflate the tires, and when he asked the DEP agent for a tire gauge, our world came crashing down fairly quickly.
“I count five of you in the Jeep,” the agent said, his mirrored Ray-Ban Aviators reflecting off the Playmate cooler. (We prayed he didn’t ask us to open it, as it was filled with beer). “Only three fishing poles. Each person needs their own.”
“And where’s your jack?” When we showed him the model that’s similar to those that come with most new cars, he guffawed. “And how are you planning on supporting that thing in the sand?” We didn’t have an answer.
It got progressively worse. Out of the 10 required items we needed to wheel legally around on what is among the few remaining undeveloped barrier beaches on the North Atlantic coast, we had just a flashlight — no tow chain, shovel, fire extinguisher, first aid kit or trash bag.
“One more thing,” the agent said after a quick look at the Jeep’s dash. “You need to have more than a fifth of a tank of fuel. You boys don’t look like you’d want to pay for a wrecker to come get you off the beach. Or get caught when the tide comes up.”
We drove home with the sun still high in the sky, practically feeling the surf crashing in our souls, bummed out beyond belief.
Somehow, over the next several days, we cobbled together the necessary equipment for the Jeep. We were officially what the State of New Jersey considers a bona fide “mobile sportfishing vehicle.” The following week, made plans to return.
I don’t recall much of our first triumphant trip to the state park. That summer wore on, and we all got busy with the types of day jobs one does during college breaks, before internships in ice-cold office buildings seem to dominate one’s time.
However, I’ll never forget our last trip. We arrived just after sunrise and without fanfare, and we set up near the island’s southern tip, by the Old Barney Lighthouse, originally lit in 1859 and still overlooking Barnegat Bay today. The wind had shifted offshore after the previous day’s storm, gifting us with clean, chest- to head-high surf. Even I — the worst surfer of the bunch — caught some solid rides. I can still hear my friends’ shouts and whoops of enthusiasm echoing off the dunes.
We fished that day among the old salts in their waders. We were in board shorts, casting with beers in hand. They told us that old fishing yarn: “You shoulda been here last week. We killed ’em.”
“The birds were working from horizon to horizon,” one of the grizzled fishermen told me as he suggested some tweaks to my notably lame casting technique, holding out his arms to accentuate the breadth and depth of his knowledge. He made a few more casts, squinting into the breakers, and then, like the rest of the anglers, picked up his bucket and moved on.
Later, as my crew prepped food and the evening’s bonfire, I climbed into the back of the Jeep. I could see the setting sun over Barnegat Bay and a nearly full moon that seemed to be rising from the depths of the Atlantic. I was wind-whipped and sunburned, and should’ve been exhausted. Instead, I felt nothing but grateful.
It was the same feeling my friend had expressed about his day of fishing, and a reminder that no matter how old we get, the water always holds the potential to fill our souls with calmness and joy.
This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.