Red Drum Moon
If you've ever been in a scary situation or if you enjoy suspense and a bit of horror, then we challenge you to read this and not tremble! Not quite Steven King but definitely not Mary Poppins, it's a story about tragedy, a full moon, the Atlantic Ocean and Drum fishing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Caution: Considered unsuitable for young children or sensitive persons due to graphic portrayals of some events. Please review it for suitability before sharing.
The wind was steady and brisk from the southwest, perfect for floating lines beyond the first waves of surf. An almost full moon was already well above the horizon and rising quickly. Its light shone through the high scattered clouds like a beacon that he knew would call schools of fish toward shore to feed. This is going to be a great night, he thought.
The massive and treacherous Atlantic spread out with deceptive smoothness as far as could be seen. With winds predicted to lessen after midnight, and the nearly full moon passing overhead about the same time, conditions couldn’t have been better for a good catch. How many anglers have ever seen this perfect combination? his thoughts continued. Fishing on ideal nights like these was rare, and he was glad to be there.
Up and down the beach, a few lights revealed where there were others who shared his goal. The seasonal southward run of fish – and the spotted Red Drum he wanted most of all – would hug the coastline all along the Outer Banks. Just a bit north of the Pea Island village of Rodanthe, where he set up his beach camp, had always been his favorite location. The bright yellow and orange flickers of beach fires showed that others had also staked overnight claims on this special part of the fabled coastal barrier, and he had mixed feelings about their potential encroachment.
Rarely, sharks came right to the shore line lured by a fisherman’s struggling quarry, and to be able to call for assistance could be a good thing. But even if you got just as caught up in the moment as your catch on the line was and dared go out much further than mid-calf depth, chances of being attacked were slim. Still, the dark and murky water always seemed dangerous.
But as Reds are very wary of their surroundings – and thus, anglers who splashed through the surf – he wasn’t concerned about sharks being a factor to his success. The biggest threat to his mission would be himself, and well-versed in surf fishing as he was, there would be no mistakes.
Though it was early November, the night air felt warm and reminded him of times many years earlier. Fetching a cold drink from the cooler he looked at the dune line behind him and decided to kill some time. He walked through the cool and soft, deep sand, carefully picking a path that wouldn’t damage the sea oats that protected the fragile mounds. Settling down on a high point in the dunes, he quietly gazed about as if in a dream at the seascape’s unspoiled beauty.
At beach level, the horizon was about twelve miles out. But twenty-odd feet up on the dunes revealed lights from a sparse, drawn out line of ships making passage well out of harm’s way of this area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Keeping well offshore was no guarantee of safety though. That thought reminded him of his friend, Ted, and how they had fished here as youngsters with some of the greybeards from local villages.
As they had grown older, they too had taught a few younger folks about the secrets of successful catches. He always enjoyed remembering the times he and Ted had spent working and adventuring along the coast and all around the vast reaches of the Albemarle area and Pamlico Sound. Ted was forever looking for new challenges and constantly improving his outdoor skills.
At the age of nineteen, Ted had been lost at sea in a tragic accident on his first voyage with a commercial shrimper. Returning from an already rough trip halfway to the George’s Banks off Newfoundland with a good haul, his boat ran afoul of increasing winds and waves. The worst of it came in the strengthening storm long after midnight as they finally approached Oregon Inlet, which all mariners knew was dangerous enough even on good days. In the disaster only one crewman was able to be rescued, and the tale he told was as frightening as any ever heard.
They had almost filled the ship’s hold and had the bad luck of heavy seas all the way home. The nonstop tossing of the aging shrimper had churned the normally stable mix of shrimp and ice into a thick slurry. By the time they approached the Inlet, gale force winds had all hell breaking loose.
Cables and other critical rigging had ripped loose the day before when the heavy main boom broke free. The aft area of the cabin and her deck were beaten severely. At least two men had been injured trying to cut the wildly swinging boom loose, one of them seriously. Cables and lines whipped across the deck and snapped with deadly peril through mid-air like a carrier’s catapults.
One hatch cover was bent and leaking but it hadn’t been noticed in time. The slow intake of cold seawater finally flooded the hold to the brim and together with the sloppy mix inside, the pendulous slow motion response of the hull became even more exaggerated. A heavy roll would leave one bow and its portholes facing skyward. Towering waves would either slam broadside onto her decks without mercy or push her further in the wrong direction. The men were being tossed to and fro in the relative safety of the cabin when she flipped for the last time within sight of the channel entrance. She porposed once and then disappeared in quickening descent.
The cabin’s heavily damaged doorway now held them captive against the pressure of the water, and after several moments of frantic struggle only one man had escaped. The exhausted captain, two others and Ted became part of the Graveyard’s accursed and never-ending legend. Looking seaward tonight, it all seemed so unlikely and surreal. It seemed impossible to imagine.
Brave men all, they’d had the very bad misfortune of encountering just enough of the things that can go wrong on a trip and paid with their lives. Even after a dozen years of recalling the fateful event, the loss of his friend was felt again as new.
He found himself realizing the moon was now almost directly overhead and he hadn’t rigged a single line yet. Gathering scraps of burnable driftwood from the highest tide line for a fire, he hurried back to his gear. A half-hour later three rigs were spiked 100 feet apart along the shore line in the sand. Three lures were set well past the outer surf break using a balloon flotation rig Ted had cleverly devised years ago. His attention then turned to building a fire high on the beach before beginning his solitary patrol.
Already, he could almost taste the smaller four to eight pound Drum, most often called puppy drum, he might cook over this open fire if one was caught early. The two bigger spotteds he hoped to get would be taken home and baked nearly whole, their sides slotted top to bottom and covered with pork cracklin’s and onion wedges. “Hatteras style” was what local folks called the method.
On his fourth trip checking lines, the drag on the middle rig suddenly whizzed its warning that something had taken the bait. Running quickly back, he was retrieving line almost before he had even grabbed the rod up out of the sand spike. Ooh, it’s a good one! he thought to himself.
The big Red ran south, but ever closer to the shore. His years of experience guided his response to the fish’s opposition to the hook as he hauled back on the rod, retrieving slack line quickly as he lowered the rod tip again. It’s not too big, he thought almost out loud, but it’s a definitely a bull. The other rigs remained silent as though they didn’t want to interrupt the night’s first catch.
It takes a while to regain a bit over two hundred yards of line, yet the pleasure of playing a big fish always seems to end too soon. Ready as he was to gaff the still-struggling coppery-colored fish if necessary as it was pulled out of the surf, he paused to appreciate its beauty. The single big, round brown spots on either flank near its tail identified it quickly enough. The moon reflected off its silvered belly as one bewildered eye seemed to be absorbing the shocking sudden view of night sky, stars and moon the fish had never seen before. At least, never before out of the waters where it knew life.
His thoughts flashed abruptly to Ted, his crewmates, and the terror that must have been in their eyes as they finally gulped water instead of the air above its surface where they had known life.
Mismatched scenes raced and chased in rapid succession through his mind in unordered fashion. Storms and calm seas, terror, stars, darkness, joy and satisfaction and more collided with each other separately and all together while he beheld the prize at his feet. The rush of unexpected emotions had momentarily captured his own breath, but exhaling he remembered his purpose. He beached the perfect forty-pounder and deftly removed the single hook from deep in its gullet.
Almost as quickly, he was overcome with the desire to set it free, to return to the sea. It would likely double in size at maturity and truly become a bull red, a prize worthy of the taking if its fate allowed. Why he should let it go, he didn’t question. That he would ever be able to tell anyone about it, he thought unlikely. What, after all, would Ted have said about someone considering such an act? Of all the dumb things anyone has ever done before….
Illuminated thin clouds drifted across the bright moon, diffusing its light and muting it over a broad area with pearlescent effect on everything showing on land and the windblown, slightly foaming sea. The air gave him an unaccustomed chill in spite of the decreasing wind. Behind him, the sea oats holding the fragile dunes together waved in their never-ending dance of praise before the sky. Little had actually changed in the night, but everything had changed in the way he was thinking about it.
He carefully moved the fish with its moonstruck and almost luminescent spotted sides a dozen feet out into the water. It floated just below the surface within the bounds of his hands, as if held magnetically and unable to be revived. Just as he wondered if he had kept it too long out of the water, the powerful fish suddenly surged forth and was gone in desperation to the relative safety of the only world where it belonged.
Alone again, he just stood in the moonlit waves as the splashing surf soaked him to the hips and worked to undermine his feet in the liquid moving sand.
“That one’s for you, old buddy,” he said out loud, somehow sure Ted would have done the same.
- The End -
Red Drum Moon / © L.L. Hamilton, Jr.
Was this The Very Best Story? Let us know please!
Email us at "Family@TheVeryBestStory.com" today. Thanks!