I am at home on a beach late in the season, in the dark, alone, keeping the cold at bay. Alert for a light, a sound, a smell. Anything out of the ordinary.
It is during these last vestiges of fall fishing that I feel as if I am living close to my bones. Hallowed and hollowed out. Cold pouring in from the north. Everything shutting down.
With the bulk of the striped bass gone and more leaving daily, you never know what you’re going to find from one night or one tide to the next. It’s not like earlier in the season, when you’re working on resident fish and you’re dialed in to a place and a pattern.
It’s as if you’re going through the pockets of an 8-year-old boy when you’re readying his laundry — a shiny piece of coal, a bottle cap, a lucky rock from a hike a week ago, two moist Life Savers, a stick with a rounded tip.
What will it be tonight? A 20-inch fish? A 20-pounder? Nada? You pull the knot tight and trim it in the dim glow of a headlamp and resume casting.
The surf is up, and broken waves drain through the pea-sized beach gravel. “The beach hisses like fat,” Elizabeth Bishop writes in her poem “Sandpiper.”
Like the sandpeeps, I, too, take the roaring of the surf for granted, knowing, as Bishop observed, that every so often our world is bound to shake.
The stripers I chase in these final days thrive across a broad swath of topsy-turvy waters from Nova Scotia to North Carolina, as at home feeding in pounding surf as they are pushing up coastal rivers and bays.
“Isn’t it a wonderful fish?” asks Pete, the old top-water plug slinger from Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts.
I work three spots without so much as a bump on my way to the point, where I cast about 6 feet from a large rock shaped like a mountain saddle. The end nearest me is angled, so every 10th or 12th wave that breaks on it showers me with spray. It’s been doing that for 40 years. I’ve come to regard this surf-smoothed erratic as an old friend: annoying when the waves are up but part of the extended family. I put up with the wet insults because it’s the best place to fish the east side of the point. Tonight, however, the dousing is for naught; the stripers are absent.
The tide has tripped, and the near-shore waters have woken; the swells snap to attention. Emboldened with the energy of the flood tide, the sets roll into the shallows with vigor, the largest waves climbing to head-high and packing into their steep faces and barrels the energy of yesterday’s 50-knot gusts.
I retrace my steps, fishing carefully, probing left and right and covering a lot of water. The first two spots yield nothing, and I briefly consider packing it in.
The last place I try is the forgotten remains of a gun battery built in 1898 as part of a Spanish-American War fort. Time, hurricanes and winter storms have reduced the gun emplacement to a few chunks of rubble, visible only on the lowest of tides and decipherable only to a handful of graybeards who grew up listening to the stories told by old-timers, all of whom are now pushing up daisies.
Surprise. There are fish here. As waves bomb the ruins, stripers crisscross their remains. Small fish, just beyond the waves. I stay for about an hour and take five.
My family has fished these waters for more than 150 years with seine nets, traps, hand lines, heaving and hauling, rod and reel. Along with the fish, I am pursuing a one-legged ghost, a Civil War amputee and seine-netter whose rough imprint I can still see across four generations of family members, including his great grandchildren, who are now on the cusp of becoming oldsters themselves. No buttery sentimentality. Just a lot of hard bark.
We are all our fathers’ sons.
My old man never understood catch and release. A child of the Great Depression, he was driven by hunger, long after there was any monetary reason to go without. He fished this very spot 80 years ago, give or take. I remember the family stories.
If he were alive tonight, our conversation would go like this:
How many did you get? he’d ask.
What’d you do with them?
You know what I did with them. I let them go.
He shakes his head and snorts.
I laugh, shake mine and try to explain how times have changed.
The shadows merge and grow longer each day. The beach is cold, empty and windy — beautiful for all its loneliness. It helps to have a pinch of cussedness in your makeup to offset any illusion of balance or grace or the notion that the fishing will improve before spring. You put your head down like a plow horse, place one foot in front of the other and trudge into the wind, rod on your shoulder.