We had been talking about the beach fishing on the Jersey coast every day at work. It was late October and I had been catching fish in the surf for twelve days straight. Some days better than others, depending on the tides. It was Striper mania at night and the False Albacore were just starting to show up sporadically at sunrise. I had spoken to my co-worker, Jim, on Friday, and we planned to go early Sunday Morning with his son Shaun. Shaun is 9 years old, so it took a little convincing that a 2 a.m. meeting time was necessary.
I met Jim and 9 year old Shaun O'Brien at a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway early Sunday morning, for the hour drive south to Sandy Hook, NJ. Shaun had fallen asleep on the way down while I was telling him and his dad about the fishing the morning before. As we drove into Sandy Hook, a few light showers of rain started to fall. I had a feeling this was going to be a great night of fishing.
We parked our car and got ready for the 1/2 mile walk through sand to the area I fished the previous morning. Shaun was still sleepy eyed but seemed to get a second wind once we got to the water. With the few showers of rain we were getting, the ocean was like glass. The New York City skyline, which you can usually see on a clear night, had disappeared behind the fog.
After about an hour and a half of casting, Shaun put down his rod and became pre-occupied with the shells that were now starting to get washed onto the beach with the higher tide. I had caught one 33' striped bass, and a few small bluefish on large white deceivers. Other anglers had also caught a few fish, but this was not turning out the way I had expected. Jim and Shaun had not touched a fish.
We casted for another hour with no luck. We decided to pack up our gear up and walk a mile down the beach for a hopeful shot at some Albacore with sunrise quickly approaching. The rains came again, and the ocean started to get a bit rough. We came upon a line of anglers casting into a giant school of bluefish. Mixed in with the bluefish was an occasional striper but they were way outside the casting range of anyone with a fly rod. I was helping Shaun cast but we were not having any luck. We continued down the beach another 1/4 mile to an area with very few anglers.
The ocean was a little choppy from the approaching time of high tide and the light wind that was blowing over our left shoulders. As we were watching the surface for breaking fish we could see hundreds of baitfish in the waves as they broke near the shoreline. A group of three big waves came in and inside the curl of the last wave, I saw a few large fish racing through the school of bait.
I casted a crease fly out just past the breakers and handed my rod to 9 yr. old Shaun O'Brien. It was his first time with a fly rod. As I was showing him how to strip in the fly, the line started to rip out of his hands. Shaun set the hook and started the biggest battle with a fish, he had ever had. He held the rod high as the Albacore made its classic, line ripping run, straight out from the beach. After about 20 seconds of just hearing the drag, Shaun was finally able get his hands on the reel and start to gain back some of the 170 plus yards of backing this fish had taken. As the fish got close, it made its second run. Shaun was now struggling with this fish but there was no way he was going to let it beat him. What a sight! Getting soaked from a combination of rain and crashing waves, Shaun stood there in his sneakers, wearing a bright yellow rain poncho with his Yankee baseball cap turned backwards. He had attracted a small crowd of a dozen anglers who had gathered around to watch and cheer him as he fought this fish.
After 25 minutes, Shaun was finally able to get the fish past the breakers and into the wash water. He picked the fish up by the tail and came away from the water to the cheers of the crowd that had gathered to watch. He had the biggest smile I had ever seen on a kids face. Shaun held the fish high for a few pictures and then released the Albacore back into the ocean. Soaked to his shoulders and exhausted, he was done fishing for the day. I don't think he could have picked up the fly rod again if he tried. That one fish and the smile it brought to 9 year old Shaun’s face is a sight I will never forget.
We packed up our gear and made our way back to the car. During the ride home, we started talking about the catch. Shaun was sound asleep across the back seat of my car. I will never forget the smile that was on his face, and I'm sure he will never forget the battle he had with his first fish caught on a fly rod.
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