The Pursuit Of Elbow Room - Anglers Journal - A Fishing Life
Often the most memorable places are the ones that are hard to reach, such as a tiny island that pokes its rocky snout up amid rips and tide races.
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It is getting more difficult to slip away from the crowds, to find elbow room, solitude, a stretch of shore where you can fish without another person or boat showing up. For that reason, I gravitate to spots that can be reached only through scrambling, trudging, climbing, sliding on my backside or pounding across miles of chop. Locations that are so well guarded by current, surf, boulders, onshore winds and dragons that others give them wide berth, especially after dark and with a sea running.

The Aviary (not its real name) is a little island in the Northeast, barely above sea level and anchored amid miles of rips, overfalls and fast-moving water. It is maybe a quarter-acre, and all rock. A small, hard spot the size of a postage stamp. A life raft with waves breaking on all sides. The only vegetation is a swath of short cordgrass, the only life a small colony of gulls and cormorants, a few black-crowned night herons, a pair of oyster catchers.

The island smells of guano and salt. A few dead gulls molder in the rocks.

The fishing here is different from anything I’ve experienced. It is like casting from a large boulder breasting a powerful river that is miles and miles across. I don’t know of another place where so much current sweeps just a rod’s length from your feet.

We slam our way here by small boat for the striped bass fishing, which in late summer and fall can be superb on young and old tides.

I have never seen another person fish the island’s shore. It is a tricky place to secure a boat, especially after dark. With the wrong swell or the wrong wind, you are out of luck. When conditions are right, you can stick a little boat in a notch on the north side. We spider-web lines to the boat from a dilapidated bulkhead and a jumble of riprap; the stern sits right off a steep cobble beach. You have to move quickly getting the boat squared away because the water is always setting you one way or the other. And the footing during this procedure is treacherous, even for those who are young and nimble as terns.

If you are foolish enough to get swept off the island at night when the tide is screaming, God save you because there is little your partner will be able to do. But if you are careful and like wrestling fish in uncommon places, this is a pretty cool spot.

The lonely little crag is part of an old eroding recessional moraine, a high spot in a wall that held back an enormous glacial lake 17,000 years ago when the last ice sheet retreated. Now just its bony little snout pokes above the whitecaps.

You won’t find any sand here. The current is too strong and constant for so much as a grain of feldspar and quartz to find a toehold. Instead there are bounders, cobbles and gravel. The tide slows, but it never completely slackens.

The Aviary’s low relief makes her a sitting duck in this era of rising sea level. She has been battered and over-washed by hurricanes and nor’easters of yore, and has always resurfaced like a tough little cork.

But more storms and surge are in her future. An air of impermanence has hung over the little island like the fog that shrouded her the first summer afternoon I climbed aboard.

If you prefer higher ground, this isn’t your place. The isolated nub is as precarious and transitory as anything in life.

In summer, we might lean back against a large surf-smooth log at the end of a night’s fishing and watch the tugs pulling east and west, their burdens snuffing out the lights on the mainland as they slide past. Time slows as the tide ages. The world sleeps and no one is waiting up for us.

We were pinned down out here early one October evening by veiny lightning that dropped around us like pitchforks. We waited until the cells passed. Big fish swept in on the flood, and it was a good night by any measure, with stripers from the teens well into the 30s.

The action was easing, and we were down to one live eel, the runt of the litter. Chris and I flipped a coin. I won and tied on a new leader and a sharpened hook. On the fourth or fifth cast the shallow water parted with a small fury, and several minutes later I eased a nice fish up onto the gravel beach. I look back on my notes from the trip. “What a night,” I wrote. “What a night to be alive.”

On my desk is a Ball jar filled with small current-rounded stones and a few broken pieces of mussel shells that I scooped up in a bucket one night.

Find your sanctuary.

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