Surf Fishing by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

All day long you see them stand thigh-deep in the surf, fishing. Up on the beach each one has a large basket containing clams for bait, extra hooks and leaders, a little can of oil for the reel, and any particular doo-dads dear to the heart of the individual fisherman. And an old newspaper, all ready to protect the anticipated catch from the rays of the sun.

Some of them wear bathing suits; others rubber hip-boots, or simply old clothes that won’t mind getting wet. If they are very full of swank they will have a leather belt with a socket to hold the butt of the rod. Every now and then you will see them pacing backward up the beach, reeling in the line. They will mutter something about a big strike that time, and he got away with the bait. With zealous care they spear some more clam on the hook, twisting it over and over the barb so as to be firmly impaled. Then, with careful precision, they fling the line with its heavy pyramid sinker far out beyond the line of breakers.

There they stand. What do they think about, one wonders? But what does any one think about when fishing? That is one of the happy pastimes that don’t require much thinking. The long ridges of surf crumble about their knees and the sun and keen vital air lull them into a cheerful drowse of the faculties. Do they speculate on the never-ending fascination of the leaning walls of water, the rhythmical melody of the rasp and hiss of the water? Do they watch that indescribable beauty of the breaking wave, a sight as old as humankind and yet never so described that one who has not seen it could picture it?

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The wave gathers height and speed as it moves toward the sand. It seems to pull itself together for the last plunge. The first wave that ever rolled up to a beach probably didn’t break. It just slid. It was only the second wave that broke–curled over in that curious way. For our theory–which may be entirely wrong–is that the breaking is due to the undertow of previous waves. After a wave sprawls up on the beach, it runs swiftly back. This receding undercurrent–you can feel it very strongly if you are swimming just in front of a large wave about to break–digs in beneath the advancing hill of water. It cuts away the foundations of that hill, which naturally topples over at the crest.

The wave of water leans and hangs for a delaying instant. The actual cascade may begin at one end and run along the length of the ridge; it may begin at both ends and twirl inward, meeting in the middle; it may (but very rarely) begin in the middle and work outward. As the billow is at its height, before it combs over, the fisherman sees the sunlight gleaming through it–an ecstasy of perfect lucid green, with the glimmer of yellow sand behind. Then, for a brief moment–so brief that the details can never be memorized–he sees a clear crystal screen of water falling forward. Another instant, and it is all a boil of snowy suds seething about his legs. He may watch it a thousand times, a million times; it will never be old, never wholly familiar. Colour varies from hour to hour, from day to day. Sometimes blue or violet, sometimes green-olive or gray. The backwash tugs at his boots, hollowing out little channels under his feet. The sun wraps him round like a mantle; the salt crusts and thickens in his hair. And then, when he has forgotten everything save the rhythm of the falling waves, there comes a sudden tug—-

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He reels in, and a few curious bathers stand still in the surf to see what he has got. They are inclined to be scornful. It is such a little fish! One would think that such a vast body of water would be ashamed to yield only so small a prize. Never mind. He has compensations they wot not of. Moreover–although he would hardly admit it himself–the fishing business is only a pretext. How else could a grown man with grizzled hair have an excuse to stand all day paddling in the surf?

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