I am fishing outside the main channel, well beyond the red and green markers, while the rest of the world zooms past at full throttle. I am as far south as you can go on the lower reaches of this tidal river without being on terra firma, back in the boney water, amid submerged boulders, some of which show their backs at low water, appearing to spout or porpoise when the wind is strong and spray flies off their dark noggins.
I am happily (and stealthily) working the flats, points and coves, exploring new water, back on the fringes and margins where the fish are piled up. I fished this river as a boy, but not this section and not using this method — slow-trolling the shallows with a simple tube-and-worm rig. It is not the most elegant getup found in the book of angling arts, but it’s very effective when scouting new water by kayak for striped bass. And I have a real fondness for the way these early-season fish crush a sandworm threaded on a single hook trailing off the arse end of a red tube. The boy in me has never tired of catching.
The rod shakes in its holder — sometimes a fish crashes the surface on the strike — and the drag sings out. It’s a simple magic trick, one that neither the fish nor I seem to tire of.
An acquaintance sniffs pretentiously. “On the fly?” he asks. “Are you getting them on the fly?” God help these knuckleheads; you wonder if they could find enough to eat if they were turned loose in the Garden of Eden.
The nice thing about striped bass is that over the course of a season I will chase them with spin, fly and conventional tackle, in knee-deep water and in depths to 75 feet, from the surf, in salt ponds and from a proper boat stemming a rip. But for another week or so, I plan to merrily paddle off Little Marsh and Constellation Rocks, trailing the pedestrian tube-and-worm and creating a series of small, wonderful ruckuses.
The shore greens up, and pollen and petals drift on the tide. Scratchy birdsong floats over the shallows from first light to dusk. A great blue heron croaks across my bow, and the pair of nesting osprey are their usual vocal selves. I say good morning to the terns squabbling from their rocks. A harbor seal balances as motionless as a weathered bronze sculpture on a rock barely cresting the surface. A cormorant leans forward and shoots the contents of its morning meal out its backside before abandoning its perch as I glide past.
This is small-boat country, mostly old, dented tin contraptions with small outboards and kayaks. You take your chances fooling around back here with a prop boat of any size, especially on a falling tide, unless you’ve put in the time to figure out just how to thread your way through the minefield of glacial rubble.
For a few weeks as spring sails toward summer, I find a rhythm, a cadence, a little grace, perhaps. Tides and moons slosh through my consciousness, and I watch the forecasts for fronts and winds. It helps to be on the fish every few days. Before long, you start to figure out a few things. And then they’re gone.
The waters are still cool and oxygen-rich, and the fish embody the vigor of the season. The early stripers are lovely: silver and green and lavender, with dark backs and stripes, and sea lice on their aft flanks.
Can you ask for more than a sunny spot in the lee of a little point on a gusty day with a few good fish already in the memory vault?
These tidewaters run beside old Colonial fields, marshes and woodlands that have been “worked” for more than 300 years, and occupied and reoccupied by Native Americans for thousands more.
The river land to the north was part of the Davis homestead, which dates from about 1650, when Indian interpreter Thomas Stanton started a trading post on the river.
There is a large salt marsh on the farm known as the Continental. During the Revolutionary War, the Davis family (and others) was asked to give money to Gen. Washington’s Continental Army. Not having a surplus of cash, they cut salt hay and sold it to farmers who didn’t have access to the river. The money from the sale of the cordgrass (Spartina patens) went to the Continental Army.
Through the duration of the war, this saltwater meadow was reserved for Washington’s army, hence its name. Locals with a sense of what came before them still refer to it as the Continental marsh.
The Colonies are at war, and in my mind I see the Davis men swinging scythes as they cut marsh hay in the early summer heat. “Whoa,” one says to a horse. Fishermen and farmers, they pause from their work, wipe the sweat from their worried faces and look out over the bounty of the bay and river.
Some 240 years later, I sit on a warm river rock resting my bones, kayak nestled in the rockweed, and stare back at them across the water in wonder.