You used to be able to count on three things in this world -- death, taxes and the wind blowing at Cape Hatteras.
Now it's two.
On Tuesday, June 16, 1981, the wind did not blow at Hatteras. Not a breath, not a whisper. From dawn until dusk it was what the natives call "slick cam" on the water. Not a cat's paw traced its eerie way across the blue Atlantic.
Most of the Hatteras fishing captains don't know what to do when the wind won't blow. They depend on it. They need a chop on the water to make their baits and lures look life-like when they troll the edge of the Gulf Stream about 20 miles offshore for marlin, dolphin, wahoo and tuna.
The flat calm had them scratching their heads.
Except for old Emory Dillion, the wizard of Loran. Dillon has a knack with this place-finding electronic gadget that has revolutionized offshore navigation over the last two decades.
With his Loran, Dillon can find wrecks on the ocean floor that few others can find. On a rare glassy day he can fish those wrecks.
Dillon pulled out of Hatteras in the deathly calm last Tuesday and put the throttle up. His charter boat, Early Bird, sped across the shiny ocean for 75 minutes, heading straight for a place that would look exactly like every other ocean place to the unpracticed eye.
When Dillon pulled the hammer back and stopped the boat, he was 30 miles from home. There was nothing but water in sight and he was within spitting distance from where he wanted to be.
"There it is," said Ross (Flash) Clark, the mate, pointing off the port bow. An acre-wide circle of spadefish was milling around on the surface, signifying that a wreck lay below.
Spadefish won't bite lures, but what lies under them often will.
Joel Arrington, his son Adam, Frank Sargeant and I grabbed surf rods and pitched chugging surface lures across the spadefish.
Instantly the water was boiling and all four rods bent with the explosive force of amberjack strikes. The big wreck fish acted as if they'd been waiting all morning for the Early Bird to arrive.
"That," Joel Arrington said later, "is a sure sign of a wreck that hasn't been worked to death. If you came here two days straight and did this, they wouldn't touch those lures."
Wreck fishing is a well-known saltwater phenomenon. On both coasts the fish-holding propensities of sunken boats are chronicled by anglers. But most folks content themselves with overfished, close-to-land wrecks that are easy to find by lining up shore marks.
Before the days of Loran, there was no way to find a wreck 30 miles offshore except to luck onto it. Today the Loran system, which calculates position by triangulating radio beacons from onshore, lets a skipper figure his exact position within 50 yards anywhere on the ocean.
"Blindfold me and take me offshore," said Dillon. "Anchor a 50-gallon oil drum anywhere you want and let me take a Loran reading there.Then take me 100 miles in any direction. In the dead of night, I'll take you back to the oil drum just using Loran and get so close I'll be afraid I'll hit it."
The same goes for wrecks, which are fish magnets on an otherwise barren ocean floor. The wrecks provide cover and food for tiny bait fish, which attract bigger fish, which attract bigger fish still.
Over the years Dillon has found some wrecks that no one knows about. He writes the Loran coordinates for them in a little book, scrambling the numbers so that no one else can figure them out if he ever loses the book. When he wants to, he goes right to the wrecks.
"He won't even tell me the names of the wrecks," said Arrington, who fishes with Dillon several times a year.
"That would be like picking up a hitchhiker," responded Dillon. "What good could it possibly do me?"
Three of Dillon's secret spots, he was willing to say, lie about 30 miles from Hatteras Inlet at a compass heading of 200 degrees.
The four amberjacks marked the beginning of a stunningly successful fishing trip to those three wrecks.
Hooking an amberjack is like roping a hog. It's fun the first few times. Even better is watching schools of these great saltwater lunkers, which run up to about 75 pounds.
Having captured and released the first four, we switched to deep-diving jigs and tried to lure up some other species. The jacks plagued us, striking at every third or fourth offering, rampaging through the lures.
In the crystal waters you could stare down 30 feet or more and watch a wild tableau of amberjacks battling each other to take the lures. Sometimes 50 or 60 heavy-shouldered brutes would be in pursuit.
Once an amberjack was on, flailing away to shed the hook, his plight lured in other predators, most notably cobia, shark, kingfish, wahoo and even one bull dolphin.
While one or two anglers fought amberjacks, the others would line up on the stern waiting for more desirable fish to appear in the water. If one showed, they cast lures ahead of it and tried to induce the fish to strike.
"Cobia, cobia," came the shouts. Or, "Wahoo off the stern."
By quitting time we'd boated 21 amberjacks, releasing all but one, four cobia up to 40 pounds and a kingfish. At least twice as many fish had managed to get away, overpowering light rods and 17-pound test line.
The technique we employed -- deep-jigging -- is something Arrington has tried to pioneer in Carolina, stealing the idea from Floridians who use it to capture grouper, snapper and other subtropical fish.
But it isn't exactly taking Carolina by storm. The wrecks are too hard to find, often unfishable because of heavy winds and current and so far offshore they are usually inaccessible to small boats.
Which makes it that much better the rare days you can get to them.
"Look at those cobia," murmured the people on the dock. "Where in the world did you find them?"
"Don't know," we said back, "and the man who does ain't saying."