The tidal current was in a difficult phase. We were live-lining Norfolk spot for rockfish at the Bay Bridge, the water was moving fast, and my skiff was drifting as we swam baits deep along the bridge supports. At the helm, I had to avoid colliding with the concrete columns yet stay close enough to allow my partner in the bow, Randy Steck, to work his bait near the bottom of the structures.
The summer doldrums are here, but the fish don’t seem to mind. Trollers are doing well early in the am and late in the pm with medium-size rockfish on the Western Shore and bigger fish off the Eastern. Live-liners continue to do well around the Bay Bridge and in the False Channel down to Poplar Island, but getting small spot for bait has become more difficult than catching the rockfish.
As we reached the end of the drift, Randy lifted his rod, felt a suspicious resistance and set the hook. His graphite spin rod arced over double, and line screamed off the reel. His 20-pound braid hissed through the water as an obvious brute circled behind the nearest concrete piling and began a run, scrubbing the line furiously across the abrasive column. My friend grinned and leaned harder into the fish.
I tried to maneuver the boat to acquire an angle that would allow Randy a better chance. But he didn’t wait, putting maximum strain on the tackle right from the hook-up. I expected at any moment to hear the crack of disintegrating graphite or the snap of breaking line. But it didn’t happen. The fish gods would once again smile on my friend.
A Sporting Friendship
I met Randy some 35 years ago. Having just acquired a new Mako 17 center console and eager to try it out at some distant locales, I invited my younger brother Bill on a 10-day road trip to the Florida Panhandle to fly fish for false albacore.
Bill was tied up at work, but he said he had a friend his age who, he promised, was always eager for anything to do with fishing or hunting and also due for a vacation. Bill guaranteed I’d get along with him. On the basis of a brief phone conversation with Randy, I offered the trip and he accepted. It turned out to be a fantastic expedition, and we remain best friends.
He is also the most fearless person I have ever met. That was a good thing, because after our Pensacola sojourn — where we tangled with countless bonita (the local name for false albacore), amberjack, jack crevalle, Spanish mackerel and big ladyfish on the fly, plus one close encounter with a particularly large shark — we proceeded on to a number of other adventures.
For a ring neck pheasant shooting expedition, I dragged him and a few friends out to Kansas, where we were stranded for a couple of days by an intense blizzard (and compensated by hunting ducks diverted to our area by the same storm).
During subsequent years, we ventured to Oregon, chasing lightning-fast chukar partridge along the sides of tall mountain trails where a misstep could send you tumbling hundreds of feet down the steep rocky terrain.
We continued to fish, running the Mako offshore on three-day summer weekends out of Cape Hatteras for dolphin, tuna and wahoo on light tackle until finally spending one very uncomfortable overnight at sea in 50-knot winds when the engine failed. That experience brought us to our senses (at least partly) and put an end to risky offshore runs in a small single-engine boat.
We quickly bounced back with clapper railbird hunting expeditions on hurricane tides in the maze of tidal salt marshes on the Virginia coast at the mouth of the Chesapeake. Next came early dawn duck and goose hunting in the mosquito-infested wetlands of Dorchester County. During all that, we joined our collection of sporting friends in pursuit of grouse, rabbit, squirrel and deer on hunting weekends at Randy’s sprawling family farm in Pennsylvania.
Toughing It Out
Throughout the years, as crazy as it sometimes got, Randy invariably maintained a remarkable tolerance for discomfort plus a bold, gutsy attitude everyone admired. That also turns out to be a good thing, because on that day on the Bay my friend was not only fighting what would turn out to be a muscular, 12-pound rockfish. He was also struggling with a serious case of advanced Lyme disease.
Undiagnosed for years and only recently revealed by multiple infections from deer tick bites and his long-term escalating and extremely painful symptoms, he is undergoing the extensive antibiotic regimen necessary to cure the disease. The side effects of those treatments, exhaustion and nausea, combined with the extreme joint and muscle pain from the disease itself, would have most people bedridden.
Randy hadn’t bothered to mention he had been sick until we were on the water and bouncing around under the Bridge in the chop. I asked him why the devil he had accepted my invitation to go fishing, feeling as he did.
His answer: “I’m still working, and I’d just as soon suffer out here as in there.”
He got his limit before noon that day, both nice fish. As he hefted gear and rockfish into his SUV for a quick trip home then back on the road to his job in Virginia, he wanted to know only one thing:
“When are we going out next?”