Call For a Tow

Light Wars in November

By Tom Neale, 11/30/2006


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We’d snugged up behind Cherry Point on the north end of Gwynns Island, and anchored for the night. The weather was settled, with a beautiful waning half moon rising late in the evening. We were southbound and anxious to put some latitude behind us. We thought this would be a great spot to make an easy early get away next morning so that we could get through all the bridges and traffic of Hampton Roads and Norfolk well before dark. We were right about all that. But there’s more to this story.

We were awake at 5:00 a.m. and decided to get away, even though the sun had around an hour to break the horizon. The moon took away the pitch darkness of the night, the air was clear, and we were familiar with those waters. Going out the broad mouth of the Piankatank into the Chesapeake Bay was something we’d done many times before. But not in the wee hours of a Saturday morning during rock fish season. Mel and I both love rock fish. We love to fish for them. We love to eat them. But we aren’t into dying for them. We were in the minority that morning.

Shortly after I got the anchor on deck, I noticed explosions of lights coming out from the shore that made me think—Oh my gosh…Shock and Awe. The lights were exploding from every creek. Every cove. Seemingly every inch of the shore. And they were moving, FAST. To make matters worse, they weren’t just moving, they were moving in our direction. And why not? We were heading out the river.

When you think of lights on the waters at night, you usually think of the customary hum drum of red flashes, green flashes, orderly and to a timed cadence of seconds that are specified on the chart. You also think of red and green bow lights, helpfully indicating a boat’s direction of travel and you think of stern lights, hopefully indicating boats going away from you. When I say we saw lights, I’m not talking about anything like this. After all, it was a Saturday morning during rock fish season.

It was like we were within the middle of a Christmas tree, but all the lights around us were moving. And there were some lights like I’d never seen on a Christmas tree. There were lights of all colors. There were, yes, red lights and green lights. But there were also white lights and pink lights and blue lights and blue flashing lights (wish there had been more of those) and amber lights and big BIG yellow lights—high up above the water—that glowed all around like small suns, lighting up the water in all directions. These yellow lights shined so broadly and brightly that they totally outshined anything like running lights on their boats, if indeed there were running lights.

About Lights at Night

1. A spotlight can be helpful or harmful, depending on how you use it.

2. Never aim a spot light in a direction or manner that will interfere with the vision of another boat operator.

I didn’t know what those yellow lights were, but the boats sporting them would alternate from moving fast, darting about in all directions, to suddenly stopping and sitting. Maybe these lights were supposed to be attracting fish, I thought, but they sure weren’t attractive to us. I thought that maybe the idea was that the people with these lights wanted to make the rock fish think that the sun was rising and that it would be time to come up for breakfast.

A few days later (yes, we survived) I asked a friend, who’s much more into fishing than we are, about those lights. He clued me in. He said he didn’t know for sure since he’d never done anything like that, but they were probably big construction site lights, like those used to illuminate a construction area in the dark. He said that people put them on top of their boats to do just what I said—see all around like it’s daylight. The reason for this, he opined, is that they’re chasing schools. They race about looking for schools on the surface in their light and when they see one they stop and fish. They keep the light on, of course; to be sure they can see the surface action. When the school moves, they race after it, glowing up the night to follow it. Well, I love fish just as much as anybody, and more than most. But you can’t eat fish when you’re dead—unless they serve it in heaven, and I have my doubts about that—about me getting to heaven, I mean.

Of course, nobody could tell who was going where, who was going in what direction, and how fast they were going. I don’t think many of the folks out there cared—especially about how fast everybody was going because everybody was going as fast as they could go. But there must have been a few folks who cared about these things, because they were the ones with the spotlights. Big spotlights. Spotlights of which they were obviously very proud and very fond.

Some boats had permanently affixed spotlights that blasted forth from the bow like car high-beams. They glared ahead where ever the boat was going. It was as simple as that. And if you happened to be in the way, hopefully the skipper saw you in time to dodge because you couldn’t very well dodge because all you could see were spotlights in your eyes and you felt like a deer standing in the middle of an interstate.

Then there were the folks who had spotlights that they could aim. And boy, were they having fun aiming those things. Every time one of these folks saw something that he wasn’t sure about, he aimed at the spot. Now, when you’re racing out in the dark to start fishing and you don’t head out in a boat every day, there are a lot of things that you’re not sure about. Obviously we were high on that list. We had our lights on and were legally lit in every respect. But that didn’t seem to make the slightest difference. There were obviously a lot of people who weren’t sure about us and why anybody would be burning red and green before Christmas. These people were hell-bent on finding out what was going on, so they didn’t hesitate to aim and take a look. I guess it didn’t matter that they blinded us. At least they could see, couldn’t they?

I mentioned all the lights. That was scary enough. But there was one thing that was even scarier. That was all the no-lights. I guess these guys had just been in such a hurry to get to the first bites that they forgot about turning them on. Or maybe they hadn’t been out since last rock fish season and for some strange reason the lights didn’t work when they turned them on. For whatever reason, the night was full of no-lights.

You may be wondering how we’d know that an unlit boat was there when the boat was unlit. It was easy. You’d be motoring along, hunkered down, hoping somebody was paying attention to your lights, desperately scanning all around you with your neck swiveling in 360s like you were that obsessed little girl getting ready to throw up green pea soup. When all of a sudden, from out of nowhere, a huge wake would roll into your beam like the Queen Mary had just passed you about 20 feet away, up on a plane.

So I’ve got a dilemma. I’m out here cruising about most of the time. I anchor most of the nights. I can’t afford marinas. It’s not that I’m tight; I’m just poor. But I think I’m going to have to pay the price and start taking a slip whenever it’s going to be a Saturday Morning in rock fishing season. I’ve seen the light.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale