Brandywine Light winked its warning across the water, and the lights of Cape May and the Jersey shore hung low on the horizon 10 miles beyond. The wind whooshed in from the southeast, cold and damp, and whitecapped rollers rolled away and disappeared into the night.
It was not quite Memorial Day and the sea trout were not quite biting, but Bob Manganello had his trophy in the basket. His blood pressure even had dropped back to normal after sudden success set him dancing on the worn deck of the fishing boat Keena Dale.
"I love it, I love it, I love it!" Manganello howled after boating his first trout of the year, a 10-pounder. "How sweet it is!"
A huge bear of a guy who drives a forklift in Philadelphia, Manganello did a pretty fair imitation of Jackie Gleason's and-away-we-go routine, then shook and shimmied and yelped and hollered and tossed his dirty old fishing hat in the air until some folks near the bow wandered back to see if everything was all right.
Manganello is the hard-core sort you expect on a headboat on a cold night in rough water. And last weekend, while throngs mobbed the nearby Delaware ocean resorts and tolerated a breezy, overcast holiday weekend, the hard-core fishing throngs were mobbing resorts of their own -- the Lewes and Cape May fishing boats -- in pursuit of the top prize in Delaware Bay, big sea trout, which had suddenly and finally arrived.
When I called Fisherman's Wharf in Lewes on Friday, the news was not encouraging. "Plenty of bluefish," was the word, "and the trout are down underneath. You can see 'em on the meter but they're not biting. Maybe if this water temperature warms up a degree or two we'll start to get 'em, but it hasn't happened yet."
By Sunday morning, everything had clicked into place. "We got 'em Friday night, big-time," said the fellow manning the phones, "and last night was great, too. The secret is the night trips. At night, they really come on."
It didn't take long for the information to reach Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington and points beyond. By 4:30 Sunday, a queue was waiting to board Keena Dale for the 7 p.m.-3 a.m. trip and the harried mate was hustling to get the diesel topped off before being overrun by the swarm of anglers eager to claim the prime fishing spots.
By 6:30, so many had assembled that Capt. H.D. Parsons called for a backup boat, Pappy's Lady. Half the mob quit the Keena Dale and shifted over, but more came to take their places and before long both boats were nearly full.
I turned to my neighbor and asked where his loyalties lay. He said in a lilting accent that he'd stick where he was.
"Where you from, anyway?"
"London," said Gareth Davies, an international economist for Coopers and Lybrand on brief assignment in Washington before heading off to New Zealand. "I'm quite mad for fishing, as you can see."
Beyond him sat Manganello, already jiggling with excitement, and on my other side sat a tired-looking Oliver T. Mitchell of Turkey Creek, Ky., who was mad enough for fishing he'd driven 700 miles to try these trout, then wound up so weary on arrival Saturday he caught one and wandered off to the cabin to sleep the rest of the trip.
Long distances these men had come to taste the pleasures of big sea trout, which invade Delaware Bay each May to spawn and feed. The fishing stays good all summer, but the big fish only stay a few weeks, to be replaced by smaller kin as the weather warms.
To catch a big trout in Delaware Bay, the rule always has been to fish in May. But this year, May came late. "The cold put everything off," said H.D.'s father, Capt. Dale Parsons. "I figure we're three weeks behind normal schedule."
Which made it doubly sweet when the cry came up, shortly after H.D. Parsons cut the engines and began drifting in the night: "Fish on in the stern!"
It was Davies, it turned out, who hadn't dropped his bucktail to the bottom three times before a sea trout grabbed hold and gave a heavy tug.
Manganello was next, and when the excitement died down from his triumph, Tommy Erby of Columbus, Ohio, chimed in with his "Fish on!" and tugged and battled until he had a 14-pounder.
It could have gone on all night, and frankly that would have been nice, but fishing is a fickle sport and you never know. The wind came up, which might have had something to do with it, and it did get cold, which couldn't have helped. For one reason or another, the fishing got hard and then got harder. A few blues came aboard and the occasional trout raised a ruckus, but it wasn't like it was yesterday. Is it ever?
Up in the wheelhouse, H.D. Parsons hung over the color TV-style depth-recorder that maps the bottom and watched and watched and watched. "They just aren't bunched up like they were," he said. "You can't get a pattern out of 'em." Skippers from other boats, which came and went like gaily lit carnival ships on the dark sea, commiserated over the radio.
The longer it went, the harder it got. Mitchell, the man from Turkey Creek, gave up around midnight and found his sleeping spot. At 1:30, Manganello moved his considerable bulk indoors and collapsed on a hard bench. Davies never quit. Quite mad for fishing, he was. And I plugged along to the bitter end with but one bluefish to show for my labors.
Needless to say, the following night the trout went ape again. Some things never change.
Nighttime trout trips on Delaware Bay should be productive for the next month. It's a beautiful time to go to sea, but it's no trip for the casual angler. The fishing technique using bucktail lures is demanding and the hours can wear you down. Parsons runs a boat out of Fisherman's Wharf at Lewes at 7 every night through July 6, as long as enough customers show to pay for fuel. Cost is $30 a head.