It will be at least two hours before the sun comes up as we speed eastbound on State Route 404 toward Cape Henlopen, Delaware. I’m packed inside the cab of a cranky diesel pickup truck with one of my best fishing pals and a friend of his, all of us sipping coffee as I regret a foolish night of fire-pit drinking.
“What the hell were you thinking?” my friend, Tony Friedrich, asks. “You knew we were going to meet at 5 a.m.”
Shut the hell up and pour me some more coffee, I say to myself as I muscle down a convenience store bear claw. Folks who drive this route are generally beach-bound, with surf gear and bikes strapped to the tops of their vehicles, but not us. We’re driving through the early May darkness with waders and fly rods, timing our departure from Queenstown, Maryland, to arrive just as the Atlantic begins filling the flats behind Cape Henlopen’s grass-tipped dunes.
Schools of summer flounder ride in on the flood tide along with crabs, shrimp and baitfish, which the flounder consume with abandon. Well, that’s the story Tony has been telling me for years. “You’ll see,” he says, handing me a coffee refresher. “If the day is right, we’ll annihilate them.” This is one of Tony’s spring rituals, and I’m happy to be part of it.
An hour and a half later, we pull into Cape Henlopen State Park just as the sun begins to light up the dunes. As we string our rods and strap into our waders, Tony reaches into his fly box and hands me a pattern that resembles byproducts from a tying table. The hook is garnished with rabbit fur, small weighted eyes, some flash and six wiggly rubber legs. I tell Tony it’s one of the ugliest flies I’ve ever seen. He flips me the bird. We have that kind of relationship.
Tony and I wobble in our waders down a dune trail to the water. In the distance is a breakwater that protects the area where the mouth of Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic. To the east is Cape Henlopen. The tide is just starting to roll in across the flats. It’s moving fast, but the water is flat. “Let’s get out there,” Tony says. “But don’t wade too far out or you’ll end up having to swim back.” I roll my eyes. Tony has a way of exaggerating.
We’re in the shallows when Tony points out a lady crab paddling on the surface. The ornery little crustacean has a speckled shell and is about the size of a half-dollar coin. It comes straight for me when it notices my presence, clapping its tiny claws together to show me it means business. “They’re mean as hell,” Tony says. “They swim around like that chasing mud shrimp.” Tony hands me a shrimp fly to use as a dropper with the crab fly.
I unhook the homely flies from my rod and pulse the setup through the water. Tony looks at me, fishing for a compliment. “Not bad,” I tell him. “Now show me how this is done.”
Once we’re up to our waists, Tony begins unfurling floating line off his two-handed fly rod as if he’s fishing for steelhead. He launches about 60 feet of line out across the incoming tide and lets it belly out. “Just let it swing,” he says. “Now start taking tiny baby steps backward and make super-short strips.”
Tony repeats this routine a few times before I wade out farther to give it a try. “That’s far enough,” Tony yells. I ignore him and continue walking.
I’m only a few casts in when Tony’s rod bends. “Got one,” he says as he wrestles a nice fluke to the net and weaves it on to a stringer. “That one was 19 inches,” he says. “Hurry up and get one.”
I flash an evil look his way and return to casting. As the line bellies and I begin stepping backward, a fluke nails my fly. I bring it to the net in about a minute, and it’s a decent one — about 20 inches. I grab it behind the head and above the gills before unhooking the fly and releasing the fish. “Nice job!” Tony bellows as he hooks another.
I wade out deeper and away from Tony’s taunting and discover the flats behind Cape Henlopen are filled with life. I practice my backward steps and work on my flounder swing as a spiny dogfish swims by. Moments later, a horseshoe crab crawls along the bottom just in front of me. Out of nowhere, a fluke of considerable size darts by, locked on to a lady crab like a Sidewinder missile. A few steps later, a ray shoots out from under the sand. The scene is mesmerizing. I see why Tony loves this place.
It’s three hours into the flood, and the current is rushing past. The water is lapping the top of my waders, so I start moving toward shore. Tony continues wading east and picks up another flounder, keeping it for the table.
I make one last cast toward deep water and begin making gentle strips. A few feet away, I see my fly swimming beneath the surface with a lady crab in pursuit. The spectacle is too much for a watchful summer flounder. Taking aim, it launches itself from the bottom and shoots out of the water. Swing and a miss.
“Did you see that?” I yell to Tony. “That’s just plain crazy. Flounder don’t do that.”
We’ve been in the water for almost four hours and have each caught a handful of quality fluke when we decide it’s a wrap. I’m a reasonable distance from shore and have to feel my way along the bottom for an exit route. Fortunately for Tony — but unfortunately for me — there isn’t one. “I’m stuck on a mound,” I shout.
My friend laughs. “Looks like you’re in for a swim,” he says.
I toss a few expletives his way and tip-toe across the flats up to my chin and with my fly rod held high out of the water. “Why are you holding the rod out of the water?” Tony asks. “You look like an idiot.”
I start laughing. At least my wading belt is keeping the water out of my Underoos.
Back in the parking lot, Tony hoists his two-flounder stringer into the cooler while I change into dry clothes. “What do you think?” he asks.
“I think your hat makes you look like a clown, you tie ugly flies,” I say, “and I haven’t had this much fun fishing in a long time.”