Capt. Thurston Gaskill, 75, and as quick of mind and body today as he was when the Great Depression struck, knows a safe bet when he seen one.
"I've got $20 for anyone who beats my personal record for cobia," he said as he cruised out the dappled waters of the Ocracoke channel, readying tackle for an assault on these rambunctious bottom-feeders.
"How big does that have to be?" we chorused.
"Eighty-three pounds, one ounce," said Gaskill, chucking. "I guess it'd be safe to up that ante to $50 after all these years.
He probably could bet his house and escape unscathed. Cobia just don't grow that big often. But that doesn't mean you won't catch big fish and plenty of them when you buy a day with Gaskill.
Joel Arrington, a travel director for the state of North Carolina and a dedicated soft-water angler, thinks Ocracoke cobia fishing might be the most exciting small-water fishing on the East Coast. It's his job to think things like that, but in this case he's probably right.
"Where else can you practically guarantee catching 25-pound and bigger fish in a protected bay?" he asked. "I've taken a lot of cobia trips and I haven't been skunked yet."
Arrington kept his record intact last week as he, his son Adam, Lea and Ardie Lawrence and I worked the swirling waters of the Ocracoke inlet for two days and brought 10 cobia to the boat.
It takes no particular talent to catch cobia. The talent lies in getting where the fish are and having the patience to wait them out.
Gaskill found them; we outwaited them.
We left Ocracoke's sparkling harbor, Silver Lake, at 7:30 a.m. Gaskills habit is to circle the harbor once before heading out the channel. He's lived here all his life but he still delights in a daily look at the sunwashed shore and the neat shingled houses; the fishing dories nestled on their mooring posts.
Then he headed out to the two-mile expanse of shallow sandy shoals that separate Ocracoke from the ghost town of Portsmouth on the next sandspit south. There's Swash Shoal and Mullet Shoal and a hundred unnamed others, each a soft high spot between sloughs where the Atlantic trades tides with Pamlico Sound.
Gaskill liked the looks of Mullet Shoal as did 10 other boatloads of anglers. We anchored with them in the eight- to 15-foot waters, a motley collection of puddle-jumping skiffs and sturdy bay boats like Gaskill's 31-year-old Southwind.
The skipper dangled a burlap bag full of ground menhaden from the stern; shortly an oily chum slick streamed out in the rising tide to lure the fish in. We looked chunks of cut bait above four-ounce pyramid sinkers and tossed them into the slick.
Ardie Lawrence pondered the orgin of the sinkers."Are these Eastern or Western pyramids?" she wondered. "An Eastern pyramid is three sided; isn't it?"
Cobia fishing is a good time to muse about such nonessentials. The action comes slowly, but when it arrives, look out.
We'd been watching our lines trail off into the rushing water for an hour before Ardie leaped to her feet. The line spilled from her baitcasting reel. She'd left it on free spool so the fish would feel no pressure when it picked up the bait.
She waited, according to Gaskill's instructions, "as long as your nerves will stand it." Then she clicked the reel in gear, rolled up the slack in the line and ripped the rod tip skyward in three quick whipping bursts. The hook was set and line screeched off as the big fish made its run.
The cobia tore off the 25 yards, then made for the surface. Its dark dorsal fin split the water, then its gaping catfish jaw showed in the ripples 100 yards from the boat. It dove again and ripped off more line.
Ardie played the fish right, no small achievement for a neophyte. She let it run when it wanted to run, but as it tired she worked it back, pumping and reeling.
In 10 minutes she had it at the boat and Gaskill provided little lecture. "This fish doesnt know its own strength," he said. "He's got plenty of spunk left in him. Watch this."
He lowered the shiny end of the gaff into the water and barely touched the big cobia's tail. "Zing" went the line and the fish was off and running again. Ardie sighed and went back to work pumping and reeling.
Next time it came in it was whipped, and Gaskill lowered a huge net and gathered it in. He dislodged the hook, guessed the cobia's size at about 30 pounds and lowered it back in the water. With a flip of its tail the big fish disappeared in the deep.
We'd caught six the day before - all the meat we cared for - and row we were fishing for fun.
Later that day, with the tide slack at high, we hooked another big cobia. As I worked it to the boat Gaskill spotted a second, smaller fish following the hooked one. " Good gracious, it's her mate," he said, grabbing the nearest rod handy.
"Let's see if we can get 'em both."
So as I worked on the bigger fish Gaskill dipped a second bait off her tail. Before long the smaller male gave in and snatched the shiny cut bait, and we were onto a double. We hauled them in, took our pictures and set them free.
That evening we plied the same waters in search of red drum. We watched a full moon rise over mushrooming storm clouds, the white light shimmering on the sea. We fished four hours and never got a strike.
But we slept like babies that night, the sea winds washing over us, at one with the sea, the sand, the starry universe.