Surf Fishing on Cocoa Beach
Cocoa Beach, Florida is my second home. I first began making the journey here from my birthplace in West Virginia when I could barely walk. In those days, the beaches were nearly deserted and the now famous Ron Jon’s Surf Shop was a one story building with a handful surf boards on the walls. Long before I arrived on the scene, Cocoa Beach was a tiny port and fishing village. In the early years of the twentieth century, flatboats and steamships making their way along the east coast of Florida stopped there for a night of rest and to resupply. There were no tourists, no condos, no lines of chain restaurants on A1A like a fortress wall of fast food, and no guys with flowered shirts playing Jimmy Buffet songs beside resort swimming pools. It was a quiet little secret by the sea. Then along came the Cold War, then NASA and Kennedy Space Center, and everything changed. The tiny village became a thriving community. Soon thereafter, highways allowed easy access to the beach and thousands flooded the area with their station wagons and lawn chairs. The tourist invasion had begun. Although it has shown no signs of ending, this summer has not been as crowded as in recent years. I have noticed empty spaces in the resort parking lots, lonely tables in the seafood joints, and the Merritt Island Mall, which used to be constantly packed, felt like an indoor ghost town – all signs of a floundering economy. But if or when the economy bounces back, I’m sure the tourists will return in great hordes. I guess, in a way, I belong to this tourist invasion, but I have family here and I like to think of myself as a guest rather than a tourist.
The only way to get a sense of how Cocoa Beach felt in the old days is to hit the sand in the early morning before the clutter arrives. And so, to get a taste of the deserted beach of my youth, I head out to do a bit of surf fishing in the morning while everyone else is still asleep or just sipping their first cup of coffee. Upon reaching the end of the wooden walkway that stretches from the resort to the beach, I say hello to Smitty, the lawn chair rental dude. He is the only one out at this hour and he stands by his stack of rental chairs and umbrellas getting ready for the day. Smitty, who is about my age, has been operating his own one man rental business for several years now. It’s actually pretty lucrative. He rents out one umbrella and two chairs for twenty bucks a day. On any given day Smitty will rent out around twenty sets, netting four hundred dollars cash. His business operates seven days a week from March 1st to the end of November every year. Do the math and you’ll find that Smitty probably makes more money than you do… and all he does is set up chairs on the beach. During the winter months he heads for the Keys and spends his days sailing. Not a bad life at all.
“Gonna catch supper, chief?” He asks me as I approach. Smitty refers to everyone as either “chief” or “boss.” He is shirtless and wears a big, straw hat, sunglasses, and shorts. Smitty has no need for Casual Fridays. I tell him we’ll need a couple sets of chairs in a few hours. “Sure thing.” He says. Then he lifts the shades above his eyes and squints at me. “Hey, I remember you. You’re that professor guy from West Virginia.” I tell him that he is correct. He asks if I’m writing any more books and tell him I’m working on it. I find it amusing that I’m the published author and I probably remember him more vividly than he remembers me. “I’ll have to check out one of your books when I get the time.” He says. I smile. You and everybody else.
“Good luck, boss.” He tells me as I head out onto the sand with my fishing rods and tackle box. Behind me my seven year old nephew is carrying a bucket full of live shrimp for bait. Mornings on Cocoa Beach stand in sharp contrast to the Appalachian Mountains, where long shadows prevail and thick mists cling to the hills well after sunrise. Here the sunrise is facing me strong and hot at eye level and its rays reflect like flashing glitter off the choppy surface of the ocean. In places the sea is brighter than the sky and if I lift my sunglasses the light stings my eyes. The waves crash lightly and I can taste the salt on my lips. Sand crabs dart in and out of their holes or scurry across the dunes looking for a bite to eat. I set down the equipment and take off my sandals at the water’s edge. Immediately my feet sink into the wet sand. I take a deep breath and smell the Atlantic. Good to be back.
I have been surf fishing nearly all my life. There is nothing to it, really. I open the tackle box, set the rig with two small hooks, put a two ounce weight on the end, and grab a couple of shrimp. My nephew watches me and I show him how to properly hook the bait. He listens intently and with immediate understanding. I’m amazed with him at times. Most adults don’t know how to listen, much less a kid. This one is blessed with his mother’s sharp mind and his father’s temperament. With the advantages he has he will accomplish anything he wants in life, so long as he keeps his nose clean and doesn’t take his advantages for granted. As I wade out into the sea he follows me and by the time I’m knee deep I feel the first cool splash of saltwater hit my stomach. Then I cast out, watching the rig sail up into the blinding white sky and then dive into the waves. A good cast is a beautiful thing to watch.
The only real trick with surf fishing is learning to distinguish between the tug of the tide and a bite. You don’t use any cute, bright bobbing floaties; you go on feel. When I started out as a kid I needed to watch the end of the rod because the tide pulls on the rod differently than a fish. After doing it for years, though, I can simply tell when I’m getting a bight. So, I stand in the cool water and face the early sun and relax. Within minutes I feel the familiar tap, tap, tap so typical of a whiting nibbling on my bait, pull the rod, and reel it in. Whiting are a good, mild fish and they are the most common species you catch on the beach in these waters. Occasionally you might get a baby hammerhead or some type of small bait fish. But mostly I catch whiting. Within ninety minutes of the first cast, we nab three whiting and a pretty feisty sheepshead. Not great, but not too bad, either. About thirty minutes in, my nephew nearly catches his first fish in the ocean. He is standing about fifteen feet away from me and getting bored when something strikes his rod I watch his eyes light up like Christmas morning. He reels with all his might but, unfortunately, the fish escapes at the last minute. Afterwards he kicks the water in disappointment but I tell him not to worry about it. He’ll catch one sooner or later. Besides, if you are smart, you can learn more from the fish you don’t catch than from the ones you do.
We aren’t the only ones fishing on this morning, and we certainly are not the best. About twenty yards out, I spot a pelican searching for his breakfast thirty feet or so above the waves. He moves from my right to left, flapping hard against the wind. Then suddenly he stops flapping, allows the wind to stand him upright, turns, and dives straight down into the sea. A second later he emerges with a fish in his mouth. The pelican floats on the water and finishes his meal before heading flying off and disappearing into the sunlight.
In short, the morning went as about well as it can go. Nothing too exciting happened and that is just fine by me. We caught a few fish and enjoyed our time in the surf. I feel sorry for the poor saps who miss out on this vibrant world around them and only come to the beach for a tan.
..... taken from my personal journal entry of July 20, 2009