Great Barracuda - Sphyraena barracuda

Great Barracuda - Sphyraena barracuda

August 27, 2010

Fishing with Norman

I don't know if I can paint a picture in your mind as vividly as it appears in my mind. But, here goes...

Each summer we trek it down to Ocracoken (yeah!), and we go fishing with Norman. Usually twice. He and I also find other fishy things to do: seining, swapping stories, insights, experiences.. Last summer he dropped by the house to school me on cast-netting. It's fish fish fish and more fish. The boys like fishing with Norman because he never treated them like kids. He treated them like people. He answered all of their questions (ad nauseum!), until they had no more questions to ask. He had infinite patience with them. He never grumbled. He never belittled. If they'd miss a fish, lose a rig, he may rib a little, but he'd teach some more, and set up again. No biggie. Fishing with Norman is joyous. We find awe in the biggest barracuda, and awe the smallest juvie pigfish.

Anyway, Norman is great. He's lived on Ocracoke some 30-odd years. His hands are big and gnarled and brown. His neck is deeply lined and his t-shirts tout no big-name logos. He's happy, opinionated, and hardworking. Norman grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, and will tell you without hesitation, "I had the BEST childhood EVER!" He fished and hunted and ran around wild. His mother just let him loose. He decided, well, if he had to work, why not make his work his play? Gotta work anyway, right? So he became a professional charterman. Inshore, offshore, wreck, reef, inlet, day, night.

When we arrive, and I call him up, the conversation will go something like:
"Norman! We're here."
"Welcome! Welcome!"
"How's the fishing been?"
"We l l l l l, a bit slow. Catching some Spanish, some drum. Some... What kind of fishing do you want to do?"
"A little bit of everything."
(Chuckle) "A little bit of everything. OK. A little bit of everything. Can you be more... specific?"
"You know. Same deal. Variety."
(Norman repeats. But I talk to myself, so, we're even.)
"Variety. OK. Well, you want to go offshore or stay in?"
"I don't care. Just want to catch fish."
"Catch fish. OK. Well, what time do you want to meet at the dock?"
"Not too early."
"Not too early!"
"Hey! I'm on vacation! And I got these kids you know."
"Yes, I know. I know. How about 7:30?"
"Sounds great. 7:30."
Tides matter, but not as much as having a good time. At least when I'm the charter...

So, the boys and I arrive at the dock at 7:30, and Norman greets me with a big big bear hug. The kind you get from your brother or sister or father after a years passing. The kind of hug that's real - not some fake tap-tap ya-ya thing. After the hellos and handshakes and my-you've-growns, he goes back to rearranging gear, and checking gear, and packing ice...and the boys go about trying to catch every manner of critter under the dock and we don't leave until 8. But when we leave it is SO happy! It's like the lights turn on and we jump right back into the conversation we left twelve months ago:

"So, you said you were having problems finding photos of some goby?"
"Yeah. But, check it out: this scientist from VIMS came through and I was able to illustrate the male."
"Ah. The male...."

And so it goes through catching bait in Teach's Hole and until we are well offshore. Bantering back and forth back and forth up above while the boys bob down on deck. Rocking and rolling our way out to the reef or wreck. Past the place where Pamlico Sound mixes with Atlantic Ocean. To the place where the water turns deep deep blue and the flyingfish zip across the surface.

This summer, we had a particularly hysterical exchange. I'll set it up for you:

We're on the reef and we're catching lots of Seabass. I've cut one finger on a gill, and another on a spine. It's "swelly" in Norman's words (read: rough and windy). My son is sea-whoosy, his friend is toughing it out, and Norman's stepson is silently fishing fishing and breaking them off. Then, his stepson catches a nice sized Atlantic Sharpnose shark. Norman grabs it around the head, takes the hook out. I snap lots of pictures. The shark is bleeding.

So, Norman, still holding the shark turns to me and says, "Did you have spaghetti for breakfast this morning?"
I pause, drink in the scene, smile wide and say, "Uh, yeah!"
"Yeah. Spaghetti."
(Pause) "What did you put on it?"
(Pause) "Butter."
(Norman is laughing, bending over. Bleeding shark still in hand.)
"Butter! What else?"
"Do you really want to know?"
(Pause) "Ketchup."
Norman loses it. He starts howling. Still holding the shark. I'm pinching my fingers to stop the bleeding. The blood is sticky. I run my hand under the pump water and laugh...
"Heinz Ketchup!"
"Ketchup?? Ketchup!! HAAAAA!! Ketchup!"
We are both hysterical now. The boat is heaving. The boys are staring down into the water at loose lines. My fingers and the shark are bleeding. And Norman and I have just gone back to a conversation from... one year ago? 'What does Val have for breakfast?' Norman tosses the shark back in the water.

We can't stop laughing. Is it because it's so ludiacrous, so disjunct? Fish. Blood. Spaghetti. Ketchup? Or because it is somehow, for fishermen, for us, so... normal?

Later, on the way back in (the wind has built and it's more swelly), we get on butterflies:
"Butterflies make no sense."
"I know. They defy physics. They are not supposed to fly."
"No! Not supposed to fly."
I can't imagine going to Ocracoke and NOT fishing with Norman. Fishing with Norman is much more than just fishing.


  1. Anonymous8/28/2010

    Very interesting to read. But ketchup on spaghetti!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Gross!


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