It was a lovely September afternoon, and I’d taken the school bus to my father’s seaside store. He was standing behind the counter as I breezed through to the back room, where I stripped out of my school duds for fishing clothes and pulled on hip boots before fetching my surf rod and bag from the barn out back. I then raced up the hill behind the old fish market, headed for Watch Hill Lighthouse.
In those days I was trying to catch my first striped bass from shore, and I’d cast for hours, lost in a long, slow-motion daydream. The endless repetitive act of heaving and retrieving lulled me into a preteen stupor. My feet were on the rocks, my head was in the clouds, and time moved like an old tide.
I was persistent but clueless. I fished alone, mentorless, just trying to figure out what in tarnation the puzzle looked like, let alone how the pieces fit together. I had grown up catching cunners, tinker mackerel and snapper blues from the town docks, but learning the ins and outs of the harbor fishery didn’t prepare me for reading the surf and tossing large plugs for migrating bass.
I had landed a 15-pound striper that summer trolling a sandworm and spinner from a family friend’s boat, but in my mind, that fish didn’t really count: When I grew up in the southwest corner of Rhode Island, catching a striper from the surf had the real cachet. The old gaffers preached, One fish from the shore is worth 10 from a boat. And I believed them. I just happened to be holding the rod when that first striper struck off Sugar Reef. The boat and skipper caught the fish; I just reeled it in. Twelve might be a funny age, but I knew that truth in my bones.
Back then, casting for stripers felt a lot like sitting beside my parents in St. Clare Church and mumbling prayers. A lot of rote and repetition, but nothing ever happened. Prayers and casts sailed off on a one-way trip to who knows where. Is anyone or anything out there?
On that September afternoon, my world went haywire as a message came screaming back from the ether. I wasn’t paying attention, of course, when a striper walloped my cedar popping plug. I never saw the strike, but suddenly my rod was jumping, the spool was spinning madly, and I had tapped into something much bigger and wilder than I’d ever imagined. Here, at long last, was a fish to be proud of. A tired, gorgeous striped bass. I hugged it and dragged it back to show my parents and brothers and anyone else I came across. And here, too, was a definitive answer — not to the mysteries of the universe, perhaps, but to something far more tangible to a young fisherman. This puzzling world of tides and currents and mystical fish just might be enough after all.
Striped bass still put a spring in my step, even though I caught my first one more than 50 years ago. And the fish continues to draw me out of a warm home in late fall to fish a southeast gale or drift a boat through roiled waters on a roaring new-moon tide. Big stripers still quicken my pulse, as do schools of migrating fish in October.
The fish continues to lure me into some of the loveliest waters in New England: salt ponds, bays and breaking surf, sand flats and shoals, ocean reefs, rocky shores and the bony waters beneath island bluffs. Current, fog, wind and darkness. It is a landscape that has shaped the fish and molded me.
If you’re going to make hay with stripers, you have to get comfortable fishing nights, from a boat or shore or both. You can certainly catch them during daylight, especially in deep water and at certain times of the year. But the striped bass is principally a fish of night tides and moving water.
It is a fish that rewards hard work, putting in your time, learning the tides and understanding seasonal rhythms and patterns. And just when you think you can pretty much predict their comings and goings, they do something unexpected that leaves you breathing through your teeth.
At times, striped bass can be remarkably easy to catch. On other days, they are maddeningly difficult. They are not jittery or wary like bonefish or a permit. The first striper I took sight-fishing on a flat off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I cast to three times — the third time I watched the epoxy minnow sink slowly in front of the fish, which was feeding along the edge of a sand flat and an eelgrass meadow. I remember the red flash of gills as the striper opened its mouth and inhaled the fly. It was a good fish, too. I still can’t believe it didn’t spook, and I still can’t believe I landed it. Damn lucky.
They don’t pull like a tuna, they don’t jump like a sailfish or a wild rainbow, and they certainly don’t have the speed of a half-dozen or more species any one of you could name. But they have their magic and their moments, and a big striper in heavy cover is still a handful.
I admire the way they feed with abandon, as if it’s their last day on Earth, in some of the worst weather you could conjure. Gales, horizontal rain and sleet, and big, gnarly storm waves. They are a bad-ass bad-weather fish. It is a species that champions venturing out in what the old-timers used to call “boisterous” weather: storms, heavy surf, strong winds and big seas. I squeezed back into a wetsuit last fall to fish an old stretch of water in a different way. And I remember well the wave that knocked me to my knees one night.
I was not much older than a boy the first time I saw a striper race up the back of a big green comber, chasing bait just before the wave toppled over in a roar of foam and spray. The impression remains vivid today. Later, my adrenaline surged when a fish shot diagonally across the face of a reared-up wave in the midst of a Northeast storm and snared my Hopkins jig. Is there anything this fish can’t do, the adolescent wondered?
They are a remarkably versatile, adaptable fish, second only to the hardy mummichog in this part of the world. I’ve caught them in a foot of water on the flats off Monomoy Island and at depths of 60 or more feet in swift currents, fishing bucktails with more than a pound of lead on the line. I’ve seen them slurp tiny cinder worms during a spring hatch on a salt pond, moving gracefully through darkening waters the way dreams wend through slumber.
Other times, they are bulls amid the fine china. I recall with pleasure the sucking, popping sound made by a 40-pounder trying to inhale a large, live-lined bunker that was skittering across the surface. And when that chase ended with a crash of cymbals, lots of foam and a bucking rod, I remembered just how good it feels to be alive.
When I grew up along the salt in Rhode Island, striped bass were the fish. The adult fishermen who had standing in the community of scales and tails were striper guys. And their ability to catch them regularly — large ones, especially — defined what it meant to be a fisherman. I looked up to them, and I wanted to be just like them. Funny how things turn out.