NORFOLK -- Pete Bregant, bearded, born-again grandson of an immigrant Italian commercial hand-liner, has a refreshing outlook on fishing.
"I figure if I catch one of whatever I'm after, it's a successful day," he said.
That's heresy for a charter skipper. These guys are paid to produce, and the success of trips is gauged by numbers, as in, "We got 63," not, "We got one."
But Bregant would rather go after one of something hard to catch in the rich waters near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, like tarpon on a fly, cobia on live bait, king mackerel slow trolling or red drum with a surf rod from a deserted barrier beach.
And while he's no expert at these difficult techniques in this, his second year in the charter business, he'll take a shot if you will.
"If a guy wants to try something, let's go," he said. "When they say, 'You can't do that,' that's what I want to try. With me, it's not just fishing, it's an adventure."
Last week, Bregant's challenge was bluefin tuna in the ocean blue, which wasn't all that unusual, June being the brief season during which these delectable table fish pass on the way north to the summer feeding grounds.
The difference was, while his colleagues in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach charter fleet filed out to sea in sturdy 50-footers, Bregant crashed along in a 26-foot outboard boat, tiny and insignificant in 18 knots of wind and six-foot seas 26 miles offshore.
"Good, there's another idiot out here," he chuckled, pointing to one other small boat rising and disappearing in the towering swells. "Idiots love company."
By this point, after a kidney-jarring, 2 1/2-hour journey from the marina, your correspondent was struggling valiantly to hang onto his breakfast. Bregant cut the outboard back by about half and announced, "This is trolling speed." The 26-footer lurched dizzyingly in the troughs. It was going to be a long day.
The mate, Chip King, tied cigar-shaped cedar plugs onto the lines and tossed them overboard. The plugs skipped along on whitecapped crests.
"Now, let's see if we can't get covered up with tuna," said Bregant, explaining that "covered up" is Norfolk talk for all five lines going down with strikes at once.
Ten minutes passed.
ZZZZZZZZZZ! went the left outrigger.
ZZZZZZZZZZ! went the flat line.
ZZZZZZZZZZ! ZZZZZZZZZ! ZZZZZZZZ!
"We're covered up!"
Behind the boat, the water boiled in a predatory frenzy. Each rod danced at the tip.
I grabbed the nearest one and Bregant raced out of the cabin to snatch another, having dropped the motor back to idle speed. King had one rod in hand but the line went limp, so he dropped it and grabbed the next, engaged the drag and the rod bowed with the weight of a fish.
That left one rod unattended, which I took up quickly after my line went slack, as well, another fish having escaped.
It was all great fun until a horrible thing happened: Fifty yards back in the wake, one of the hooked fish leaped clear of the water, lean and silvery. "Nuts," said Bregant, which is as close as he comes to swearing. "These aren't bluefins. They're bluefish."
Jumbo bluefish they were, up to 15 pounds or so, but the size did nothing to placate the skipper, who hadn't come 26 miles north and 26 miles east in a little boat on a rambunctious, windy day to catch blues.
"Let's go," he said when the three fish were on ice. "Let's get outta here."
But at the next stop, it was more of the same. And the next, and the next. We were covered up, all right, in something ummentionable.
The radio offered little hope. Rival skippers prattled to each other (they often won't talk to Bregant, an outcast for his unorthodox tactics and views), but they were finding no tuna, either.
At noon, your correspondent was slipping into a blissful snooze, flat on his back atop the cooler, eyes clamped shut to bar the whirling world, when the rod nearest his hand went down hard, and all by itself for a change.
"Tuna," shrieked the skipper.
And it was -- strong, deep-running, hard fighting and sinfully delicious the following night, cooked lightly on the grill.
When Bregant put the bluefin in the box, a light came on in his eyes. "We've got our one," he said.
A few minutes later, he was back at the controls and the little boat was plunging through the swells again. And the silence of the sea was broken by a howl from the cabin.
"Yee-Hawwww!" he hollered. "Bluefin tuna!"
Norfolk is a long way to go to fish, but the rewards are considerable. There is rich territory to explore off the barrier islands of the Eastern Shore and along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and ocean species available here, like cobia, tarpon, amberjack, tuna and red drum, are rarely, if ever, available elsewhere in the Chesapeake region.
Bregant's 26-footer is a compromise boat, just big enough to handle the ocean on good days, yet small enough to get into shallow water in the fishy sloughs and backwaters near shore.
Bregant, who is listed in the Norfolk phone book, charges $300 to $400 a day, depending on the itinerary, and carries up to four fishermen. Bigger, more conventional charter boats are available out of Virginia Beach Fishing Center at Rudee Inlet. They carry six and charge $600-$750 a day.