“Local kids don’t drown.” That’s what charter skipper Ben Rathbun told me years ago. In a roundabout way, we were talking about what author Wallace Stegner referred to as the “mongrel smartness” of Huckleberry Finn — the native intelligence of both local kids and fishermen for staying out of harm’s way and catching plenty of fish.
I thought of it as I looked down at the kayak that morning, floating easily on the water, waiting for the old guy with the paddle to get in.
I continue to fish the same tidal river each spring that I have since I was a boy, pursuing a fish that has held me in its sway for more than 50 years. The striped bass is a wonderful fish, but half a century is a long time to do anything. What do our rituals reveal about us? And what can a fish teach you about life?
For one thing, I don’t feel I have to catch all the fish in the river any longer. Or even the largest ones.
The man is not the boy, but it’s easy to see how his enthusiasm for those first fish of the season still drives him to the water’s edge.
These waters and river towns have history for me. As a boy, I knew all the shortcuts, the fishing holes, the breaks in the stone walls, where to find surf clams and grass shrimp, how to sneak into the private pond, the bike paths, the names of every family in the village. Even the names of their dogs. Today, I’m just grateful to still feel the strong pull of the seasons, excited to see the fish arrive in early spring, a tad bittersweet when they turn tail in November and disappear.
I’ve measured the striped bass against all other species I’ve pursued, not for their line-ripping runs (which others surpass) but for something more: the gales and night tides in which they happily feed, their adaptability, our shared history.
They’re a striking fish, with dark stripes on silver flanks, a spiny dorsal fin, big heads, broad tails, ample girths. If you ask a coastal kid in the Northeast to draw a fish, chances are he’ll sketch a striper. That profile imprinted upon me early and has never been replaced.
And fairly or not, I have judged the angling skills of others by their ability to drag big linesiders up onto a beach or into a boat. It’s a fish that rewards effort and canniness. You don’t need deep pockets or a big boat to catch the largest striped bass.
For the last several springs, I have worked the lower reaches of my hometown river from a kayak. This stretch of water is actually new to me. I’d overlooked it for years. It’s made up of coves, marshes, old oyster bars, a few scrubby islands and submerged rock piles that were deposited when the Laurentide Ice Sheet paused and then retreated some 20,000 years ago.
To unlock it, I fished the stretch hard for the last five springs regardless of tide, weather or time of day. I went when it was calm or blowing 25 knots, in showers, fog and bright sun. I slow-trolled a tube and worm over every bit of water that looked fishy. Now I toss plastics on light spin and have a ball.
I like the simplicity and quiet of kayak fishing early in the year. Just the right amount of stealth and utility to let me catch a bevy of shallow-water stripers.
From boyhood to adolescence to whatever unfixed phase I have entered now as a 65-year-old, the striper has glided powerfully through my life. The fish is the twine that knots my fishing life to so many memories and friends.
In late winter, I had a significant health issue that landed me in the hospital for a month. As I shuffled behind a walker, I never dreamed I’d fish this spring, certainly not from a kayak. I was worried about my balance and falling out of the boat.
You learn in time that there aren’t answers for all the big questions of life. The whys usually elude us. When I’m stumped, I fish, usually alone.
Several times this spring, I recalled two conversations I’d had ages ago with men now gone on to their reward. One was with Capt. Rathbun. The other was with a British submariner and World War II veteran who was sailing up the East Coast when his wooden boat was struck at night by a commercial vessel, which kept on steaming. The sailor was found clinging to the aft section the next morning. I interviewed him by telephone for a story and asked whether he had felt scared.
“I’ve always believed,” the cruising vagabond told me in his British accent, “that if you’re born to hang, you’re not going to drown.”
When you dodge a bullet, you tend to fatalistic moods. I swung lightly into the kayak that morning and paddled into the river. That mongrel smartness apparently kicked in. I took one of my largest fish of spring.