I’ve often been surprised by the people I’ve met when I’ve been fishing and didn’t realize who they were until we started talking afterwards. TV stars, millionaires, fly fishing gurus — the list is long and interesting.
Noted shark biologist, writer and scuba pioneer Eugenie Clark once said, “Sharing the fun of fishing turns strangers into friends in a few hours.” If you’ve been surf fishing in the Wrightsville Beach area there’s a chance a future Hall of Fame high school lacrosse coach was standing right there.
Paul Gilbert has been coaching lacrosse at Cape Fear Academy for 29 years. In that time, he has sent many young men along to play college lacrosse and his current team has a few who are being recruited to play at the highest levels. He has impacted their lives forever with his family based coaching philosophy, and along the way winning two North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association Division 2 championships including, “… last season with a win over our arch-rival Forsyth Country Day School in Winston.”
Gilbert’s been teaching history at Cape Fear Academy the whole time. He, his wife, Rachel, and two daughters, Sarah, 28, and Molly, 21, live in Wilmington.
“I moved to Wilmington from Washington, D.C., in 1993 when my first daughter was on the way,” he said recently, adding that the lobbyist life wasn’t for him. He says he “escaped.”
Coach Gilbert loves to fish and has been fishing and involved with lacrosse his whole life. He credits his father and uncle with getting him started.
“I grew up in Armonk, New York. My first memory of fishing was walking through the woods with my father (Tom Gilbert), uncle (John Gilbert) and brother (Greg) to a lake they called Popes Pond in Wilton, Connecticut.”
It wasn’t any high-tech thing either, he explained. “We were using cane poles that they used to give away when you bought a rug.”
Vacations to North Carolina got him the saltwater fishing bug.
“We would go to the Outer Banks during spring vacation when I was little and throw squids (old-timey molded lead casting spoons) that my grandfather made,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert got serious about the sport of lacrosse soon after. He played at noted Long Island lacrosse powerhouse Byram Hills High School in Armonk, New York, where they captured the Section 1 Class B championship his senior year in 1986.
Gilbert has his coaching scheduled around fishing.
“Fall in Wilmington is fishing season. I used to coach fall sports, now fall is reserved for fishing,” he said.
His fall favorite is surf fishing for sea mullet.
“We hit the surf for Virginia mullet after the tourists leave and the holes start to form at the south end of Wrightsville Beach.”
But it’s not just fall. Gilbert stays away from basketball season too.
“In the winter, I mostly fish from the surf for speckled trout with Mirrolures.”
The big surf red drum also get him on the water.
“I will collect oysters and clams in the winter and will walk the surf, chasing the big schools of reds that often congregate,” he said.
Lacrosse season gets going in February, which ends his fishing for a while and marks the beginning of the winter doldrums. But the timing is perfect as the season winds down.
“Lacrosse ends around the third week of May, when the water is starting to warm. The bonito bite is usually on fire and the first Spanish mackerel are starting to show up,” the coach explained.
Gilbert doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. When I talked to him he was telling me about some big flounder he’d caught around somebody’s dock.
He also usually has a bass fishing tournament for his players one day near the end of lacrosse season. They will fish residential and golf course ponds for bass and send him mobile phone pictures. They’ve been doing it for six years. It’s called “Hoist The Harpoon,” and the winner gets to carry the harpoon that is the team symbol for the Cape Fear Academy Hurricanes.
The combination of fishing, family and lacrosse pulls it all together.
Summer will find him offshore.
“My brother-in-law, Steve Wright is my fishing partner. We go out to the 23-mile rock in the summer to do some trolling and bottom fishing.”
The duo does pretty well on deepwater bottom-dwellers.
“He’s the captain and puts us on the fish. I’m the mate and rig the baits,” Gilbert said.
Pier fishing is another bit of fun he indulges in, and he loves to throw Gotcha lures off Crystal Pier when the Spanish are around.
Gilbert also offers a pretty decent bit of coaching to all of us anglers: “Gotta fish where the fish are,” he advises. “A full box is always good, but a nice day on the water with a friend or two is what it’s all about.”
That philosophy was formed through years of teaching and coaching, and Gilbert doesn’t see himself slowing down quite yet.
“I think I have a few more good years in the classroom and on the lacrosse field. Probably keep doing what I’m doing.”