Going sheepshead fishing with my father years ago may have been a rite of manhood. If so, I failed.
My father was an outdoorsman. He loved to hunt rabbits with beagles. He’d never missed the opening day of dove hunting season. He’d leave early in the morning before I woke up and return late that afternoon with shiny aluminium lard cans filled with black bream that he caught on his fly rod.
He’s rather eat a wormy apple off the tree than a shiny store-bought one and he’d go in the fields and scoop the heart out of a freshly broken watermelon.
He played professional baseball, was good enough at basketball to get some interest from Wake Forest University and was a high school football quarterback. I once saw him win a golf driving contest using his putter.
But mostly, he liked being outside. Into his 70s, he’d plow much of the day and loved to garden. As far as I know he never shot a deer, but he hated them when they ate his purple hull beans.
Daddy did most of his hunting with his friends. He never carried me hunting, but we did go fishing some, although not on his serious fishing trips.
He was serious about catching sheepshead. He’d get up before sunrise and go to the jetty on the Beaufort side of the Morehead-to-Beaufort bridge and catch small fiddler crabs to use as bait. Some fisherman preferred sand fleas, caught in the surf as the water receded, but Daddy never trusted sand fleas, considering them a lesser weapon in the sheepshead war.
The way he explained it, the black-striped sheepshead didn’t really goggle the bait. The fish would crush it and then sort of suck it off the hook. To catch one, you had to feel the fish when it did the crushing. You didn’t really feel a bite, more of a gentle tab.
Daddy would take the boat, tie up at the railroad bridge between Beaufort and Morehead and sit on edge for hours waiting for the that little tab. The fish could be up to 10 pounds and there were few prettier sights than seeing five or six of the fish with protruding teeth lying in the cooler.
I was summoned unexpectedly to go fishing for sheepshead one day and excitedly helped gather the crabs, which have one big claw and one small one. The boat ride across the sound was fun, but after hours in the boat, I needed to go. Really, I needed go.
I was told to walk on the railroad bridge’s crossties to the shore, buy some drinks and take care of business.
It was a little scary walking on the crossties, staring at the water far below and wondering if I’d survive the fall. The walk became petrifying when the train started across the tracks.
The boat was too far away to go back and it was a little tense until I realized there was plenty of place to stand on the bridge below the tracks. There the train wouldn’t kill me or make me plunge to my death.
Once the train passed, I continued my journey, obtained provisions and returned to fishing.
I didn’t bring much luck. We caught only one sheepshead and one black drum that day.
But I caught the one sheepshead.
I felt a little tug, jerked and wound in as fast as I could to keep the fish from slicing the line on the nearby pilings. When my eight-pound sheepshead flopped on the bottom of the wooden boat, the hook flew out of his mouth. The hook had barely penetrated his hard mouth.
If I thought I had passed my sheepshead fishing test, I was wrong. I was never invited back. Perhaps my asking pretty constantly was it time to go yet had something to do with that.