Podcast Produced by John V. Turner
Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in January 1991 in Soundings magazine, a sister magazine to Anglers Journal.
I haven’t been streamside for the opening of trout season since I was a child, but each Thanksgiving I stand in the surf and cast into the autumn gloaming for striped bass.
Along with apple pie, coat and tie, I pack my truck with rods, waders and a duffel bag stuffed with warm clothes when I travel home to Rhode Island for the holiday. I brought cross-country skis last year to take advantage of the early coastal snowfall. I skied after dinner — then I fished.
Measured the traditional way, my angling forays on Thanksgiving are nothing to brag about. I seldom hook a fish, but catching fish has never been crucial to this ritual.
The afternoons become time to reflect, to leaf back through the season, from the small striped bass of spring which glisten with a sense of renewal, to the heavy fall surf that threatens to sweep the angler into the night.
I was accompanied this year by my daughter, Leah, who is five, and a companion, Patty. They walked the beach searching for sea glass, shells and pebbles. I promised Leah I’d call out if I hooked a fish, but soon she was out of earshot.
I waded up to my waist to get as much distance as possible with a lightweight minnow-shaped plug, which I fished in tandem with a dropper. To cover ground, I worked my way down a sandbar for about 100 yards — casting and retrieving, walking a few paces, and repeating the process. The surf was light, but occasionally I had to grab the top of my waders and jump to prevent a wave from spilling over the top and sloshing in. Eventually, I stepped into a hole cut into the bar by the waves. Despite the tight belt around my waders, water trickled down my legs.
Long bands of clouds from an approaching front rose from the horizon. Backlit by the sun, they glowed in shades of pink, purple and blue. A new moon was setting. A spotlight lit the white wall of a nearby lighthouse.
My attention quickly shifted to the gulls that flocked tightly over the water, diving and chasing one another. After a few minutes, they peeled off and regrouped on another spot.
It was a good sign, an indication of life. I watched closely for breaking fish but saw nothing.
Just before dark, my gaze froze on a school of bait fish splattering on the surface. They looked like they were being chased by small bluefish. They vanished as quickly as they had come.
I cast with anticipation. The first fish threw a spray of white water when it struck the swimming plug. After a short fight, I released a small, plump striper. I was disappointed Leah hadn’t returned.
I hurried back with renewed vigor. I was still wet, but the cold had vanished — that always happens once you start to catch fish. A short time later, Leah returned with both pockets of her dress coat filled with wet, sandy treasures. A black lab who chased rocks trailed behind.
The light was draining fast, and I didn’t see the second striper hit. I set the hook and once the fish was firmly on the line, I loosened the drag and walked to shore.
Leah danced along the water’s edge in excitement. The dog didn’t appear too interested; he waited patiently for another rock to be thrown, even though in the darkness he couldn’t follow them any longer.
I helped Leah position her hands on the rod and then let go. She cranked against the light drag. “He’s a real fighter,” she said. “Wow, look at him pull.”
As the rod tip dropped closer to the sand, Leah finally asked for help. I screwed the drag down for her and quickly worked the fish to our feet.
In the distance, the headlights of beach buggies came on. I held a small flashlight between my teeth to remove the plug. Leah ran a finger along the fish’s dark lateral line. We said good-bye and let it go.
The temperature was falling, but I needed a few more minutes. An afternoon of reflection had suddenly been replaced by a drive for one more fish.
The last hit could have sprung from my imagination. It felt as gentle as a kiss, like the brush of a wave. I set the hook expecting nothing, and the rod bent nicely.
Right away, I knew it was the largest fish of the day. We took turns bringing the striper to shore. It was a good fish, 15 or 16 pounds.
There were more to be caught, but this was not a day for quantity. I’d already received a full helping.
I carried Leah up the hill piggy-back style. Her tights got wet clinging to my waders, but she didn’t notice in the excitement of being included in this Thanksgiving reverie.
Back at her grandparents’ house, I ate a turkey sandwich and two pieces of pie. I washed away the chill with a mug of hot peppermint tea.
It never tasted better.