Outer Banks, North Carolina, United States

Hidden Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

Sarah Gardner squints into the morning light, searching for an opening in the breakers. Crossing the Cape Lookout Shoals in late October is not for the faint of heart. But on the other side, lies a treasure of giant redfish - If you can find it.

On the radio, the familiar, robotic voice says there's weather coming, a Nor'easter that'll blow these shoals up into a nightmare. But for now, a few hours of grace, and somewhere out there, the mother lode. If we can just make it through...

Outer Banks
Cape Lookout Capt. Sarah Gardner Anglers cast into the flat light The blitz is on Sarah releasing a nice red drum

A brief lull to port reveals a narrow slot of green water surrounded by the chaos of waves breaking over shifting sand banks only inches deep. Captain Sarah turns the wheel and puts the hammer down, jumping onto plane then banking hard into a sharp dogleg turn. Here she pauses for a moment amid exploding waves throwing spray higher than her head, then spots the next opening and guns it. Carefully now, she picks her way across the Cape Lookout shoals, and in minutes, flies out the other side into the wide open sea. "We've always known they were here," she says, scanning the surface with predatory intensity, "but finding them consistently is a whole other story." She's talking about redfish, or red drum as they're known locally. But these aren't the skinny-water puppy drum or marsh cruisers. These are monsters. Fifty and sixty pounders. Big enough to pull like a freight train.

Big enough to break records. Big enough to put a little fear into you. The true giants here are fish of the open ocean-spooky, elusive, unpredictable. And yes, big. "Finding them was just the beginning," she continues. "Then we had to figure out how to get close without spooking them, and then we realized we needed new flies and new lines...Oh, and the weather's always an issue. And crossing the shoals..."

Nobody said developing a new fishery was going to be easy.

Fact is, a fifty pound fish with a tail the size of a broom swims fast even when lazily cruising along. These fish move. So you need industrial-strength flies and lines that get down quick. And even more nerve wracking, you have to be ready to cast them on short notice. From a moving boat. In the wind. You only get one shot before they're gone. That's the not-so-relaxing news Captain Sarah lays out before we've even started fishing. Gulp.

How do you find something hidden beneath the surface of a huge, featureless ocean? For starters, it isn't featureless to the practiced eye. Sarah climbs up on top of the console, steering with her foot, staring holes into the ocean, looking for impossibly subtle signs-a slight change in surface texture, a black-back gull or two, the brief flash of a leaping spinner shark-somewhere out there in the infinite sea.

An hour passes. And another. The wind shifts under darkening skies and the soft, easy swells grow sharper with building chop. Weather's coming. But on the new breeze, a faint scent, something unexpected yet vaguely familiar...cucumbers, maybe. Or watermelon. "Do you smell that?" Sarah calls down from the console. "That's bait being eaten by reds."

With a quick, calculating glance back at the shoals, she scrambles down from her perch, turns the bow into the wind and follows her nose. Up ahead, two large birds, starkly white against the charcoal sky, wheel around and hit the surface. Gannets. Redfish birds. "Get ready," she says, throttling down smoothly in the building seas.

Behind us, surf crashes against the shoals, driving shards of foam into the air. We need to go soon. Time is short. As we coast into range of the birds, the water around us flattens in a glossy slick and beyond that, endless rows of whitecaps stretch to the horizon. A glint of gold flashes through the waves and suddenly, there they are-a field of enormous red torpedoes moving silently forward. Bigger than you can imagine.

Big enough to put more than a little fear into you. "One shot," Sarah yells over the wind. "Get ready...get ready... Okay. Now!"

Big enough to break records. Big enough to put a little fear into you. The true giants here are fish of the open ocean-spooky, elusive, unpredictable.