When I was young, Dad loved to hunt and fish. On weekends in the fall, when the redfish were running through the bays, he would frequently take me fishing at Christmas Bay, near Surfside. When he was old enough, my younger brother Joe usually came along. Sometimes Uncle Marion or Uncle Adam would meet us there, other times it was just Dad and the boys. Dad wasn’t one to do things halfway and fishing was no exception. We would usually load up the station wagon on Friday night and leave for Surfside before dawn on Saturday. Dad’s favorite spot to fish was on the last of three oyster bars that jutted out into the bay. I think he liked that one because it was the hardest to get to and the least likely to be visited by other humans. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for us to fish for two or three days and never see another person.
Unfortunately for us boys, you usually couldn’t drive the station wagon close to the first oyster bar, never mind the third. Dad would get as close as he could and pick a high spot of sand to camp on. There was a good reason for this; I can remember a few times when the high tide came in and we were high and dry, but surrounded by water. If the high spot Dad liked was overgrown with salt grass and brush, he would check the wind, light a match and burn us off a spot to camp on. It wasn’t unusual to see large rattlesnakes scurrying across the sand fleeing from the smoke and fire. After the fire was out, Dad would drive the station wagon up on the high spot and we would either pitch a tent or put up a tarp for shade.
Then the real work began. In those days, before limits and regulations, Dad was a serious trot-liner. He would run the trotline a hundred yards or more out from the tip of the oyster bar, using 8 or 10 long poles with sharpened points that he would pound into the bottom of the bay. The poles were placed every 50 foot or so and a strong line was tied about 18″ above the water level, from the first pole to the last. Then he would tie an individual line and hook every two or three feet along the main line. The lines with the hooks would be tied with a knot that could easily be pulled free so he could go along and adjust the height of the hook as the tide caused the water level to go up and down. The idea was to have the hook just low enough for the bait fish’s head to be under water and his tail to be slightly above water. This kept the bait alive and caused a splashing of the tail that attracted redfish and trout.
Well, before I go any further, I left something out. How did we get this several hundred pounds of poles, lines, hook, bait buckets and other fishing gear to the third oyster bar? Well, we carried them for about a half a mile through mosquito infected salt grass that was over my head. It wasn’t so bad when Uncle Marion or some other adult was there to help, but when it was just Dad and I or Dad, Joe and I, this part of the fishing trip was pure torture. You have to remember that Dad started taking me bay fishing when I was probably only 8 or 9 years old.
Anyway, back to the trotline. Christmas bay was shallow so even us kids could wade out several hundred yards without getting even shoulder deep in the water. We would wade out with Dad and hold the lines with the hooks on them while Dad tied each one on. We wore tennis shoes and long pants and Dad taught us early on to shuffle our feet as we walked to keep from stepping on a stingray, so with the exception of an occasional crab bite or jellyfish sting, this part wasn’t too bad.
Now that the trotline was set up, all we needed was a couple hundred pieces of bait. Dad very seldom used dead or cut bait since that just attracted the crabs and hardheads. His bait of choice was live mullet, although sometimes we used live shrimp or even piggy fish if the mullet were scarce. Dad would catch the first bucket of mullet and head out to start baiting the lines. My job was to catch another bait bucket full as quickly as possible so we could get all of the lines baited before a school of redfish or trout came through. Dad taught me how to throw a full size cast net when I was just a small kid, so catching mullet wasn’t too big a deal. The only problem was that the mullet in that bay ranged in size from 1″ to 24″ long and Dad wanted his mullet to be a certain size, usually about 3 to 4 inches long. So to catch a bait bucket full of 50 mullet, I had to actually catch several hundred and cull through them, not to mention throwing away the shrimp, piggy fish and other trash fish.
By the time we got the trotline baited, it was time to head back to camp, eat lunch and rest a little bit. And although Dad never seemed tired, I needed the rest. My arms were aching from carrying the gear and throwing the cast net and my legs were tired from the long hike to the oyster bar and back. Not to mention the sunburn and itch from multiple mosquito bites. We usually had cold Vienna sausages, potted meat and canned pork and beans for lunch, all washed down with soda water.
By then it was early afternoon and time to go back and check the lines. Dad would bring some rods and reels along so we could wade fish while we were watching the trotline. Dad made several custom folding fishing chairs that we would sometimes carry out into the bay and sit on while fishing with a rod and reel. The chairs were made of two 8′ long retired Bell ladders bolted together to form a folding x shape stand. The top of one of the ladders was a little shorter than the other and a piece of canvas was nailed on the top rungs to form a seat. It was a little tricky climbing into the seat, but once there, you had a nice comfortable seat several feet above the water. Sometimes we used the chairs in the surf, but you had to anchor the base in the sandy bottom pretty good or the waves would knock you over.
Of course, we also had to catch more bait to keep all of the hooks baited. There would almost always be a few fish on the lines by early afternoon, but the real action came when the high tide peaked. When a good school of red fish or trout moved through the bay at high tide, the trotline would go crazy, jumping up and down with fish.
Now, after a full day of running the trotline and wade fishing, you would think we would settle down for a good nights sleep. No way. As soon as it got dark, Dad lit the Coleman lanterns and got out the flounder gigs. When I was too young to actually gig the flounders, my job was to walk along with Dad and hold the lantern so he could see the flounder. We would walk the bays for hours, usually until after midnight and I remember my arms aching from holding the lantern. After we finished floundering, we would check and bait the trotline one more time and then head to the sleeping bags. After a few hours of sleep, we got up and started fishing again. When it was time to go home, I was exhausted and we still had to take down the trotline and carry it back to the car. Fishing was fun, but it sure was nice to get home and get some rest.