Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Fitting Farewell for an Old Salty Fisherman

This past weekend we spread my father's ashes.

Only half of them actually. His wish was for half to be spread over his favorite fishing spot and the other half spread in his favorite deer hunting spot. That means he'll be split between the Chesapeake Bay and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's completely appropriate since that is how he spent his life -  split between two loves, separated by the seasons.

So, on the first Saturday of the Virginia cobia season, I boarded my dad's boat, the Alice Grace, for the last time. We sat the little black box containing what is left of my father's body in the Captain's chair while my uncle drove along Buckroe Beach standing behind the wheel and leaving my Dad to sit in his favorite seat. It was a beautiful day for fishing, with the wind turning mid-day to blow from the South West.

The old Buckroe Pier
When I was a kid on summer break, back before we had instant access to weather apps, I would religiously watch the afternoon news. Not because I was particularly interested in current events, but because I needed to check tides and wind direction.

When Daddy's truck came pulling up the gravel road in the late afternoon, I would meet him in the yard.

"South West at five miles an hour."

That was all I had to say. We'd throw the heavers and a bait bucket in the back of the truck and head for Buckroe Pier.

I can't tell you how many hours my dad spent on that pier. Some of the earliest memories I have are of me riding his shoulders out to the end or of my tiny body wrapped around his leg like a vise because I was afraid I would fall through the cracks in the boards.

I know he fished long before I came along. There are old black and white pictures of him with large cobia and the red drum that held the pier record for decades. But I know that half my childhood (the summer months of cobia season and the early bluefish run) was spent on that pier with him, watching storms brew up over the Bay, catching fish, getting sunburn, laughing at stupid jokes.

Most of the time we spent there wasn't spent catching fish at all. Fishing for big fish is a bit of a waiting game. You bait the hook, toss it out, and wait. We would go weeks without catching anything. But when a big cobia grabbed your line and headed for deeper water, the sound of a screaming drag would make your heart race as you rushed to grab your pole. You have to let them run just long enough to get a good hold before setting the hook and starting the fight.

Waiting for the cobia run
Photo Credit: Buckroe Fishing Pier
So, we scattered half his ashes, the half that loved to fish, just off of Buckroe Pier. It seems like a place he would want to be. It's a spot that must feel like home.

My father's sister has a bad back. For her, climbing into a boat was out of the question. Instead, she took her walker all the way out to the end of Buckroe Pier. She planned to watch from there as we spread his ashes from the boat. It takes time to launch a boat from a public marina on the first Saturday of the cobia season, so she got there long before we did. Which gave her plenty of time to chat with the cobia fishermen parked on the end of the pier hoping for a big one. Some of the older guys remembered my dad. There are still pictures of him up under the shack where you pay to fish.

It was pretty quiet fishing, not much going on in spite of the beautiful weather and favorable winds.

On the boat, I pried open the black box with a filet knife and sliced open the plastic bag inside. I had a moment of panic as I held the bag poised over the port side remembering that Daddy couldn't swim. But I dumped him anyway, figuring it was time, and his ashes floated on top like a good chum slick across the end of Buckroe Pier. Then he slowly dropped through the water and out of sight as we rode off down the beach.

Meanwhile, on Buckroe Pier, my Aunt watched from the railing. As the ashes hit the water, the lazy quiet of afternoon fishing erupted into excitement as people dashed for their poles. Because the reels that had been still and quiet all day were suddenly screaming with the first good cobia runs of the season.

And while you can chalk it up to coincidence if you'd like, I think it was probably something else entirely.  It was like a farewell 21-rod salute for an old salty fisherman. A fitting exit, don't you think?

Rest easy, Daddy. See you when I see you.

No comments: