After chasing stripers for 54 springs, you might wonder if there was much left to learn, or many surprises left in the season or the fish. I ponder that from time to time.
But in May, I had a new mission, one provided unintentionally by noted surf fisherman Frank Woolner, the long-time editor-in-chief of Salt Water Sportsman. A member of the IGFA Hall of Fame, Woolner wrote the following in Field & Stream nearly a half-century ago:
“The bass are in — or should be — and you have a new lease on life,” wrote the World War II veteran who died in 1994. “Baby the first one. Whether you keep him or turn him loose, the first striped bass of a fresh new season is a mightily important fish.”
As an admirer of Woolner, I liked his short take on spring stripers. It made me realize that for the last six or seven years, I rarely gave the small, early-season fish the due they deserved. I’d handle them carefully and release them quickly after giving them a brief once-over. This year, I was determined to study the first fish for a few moments. These little guys are, after all, the future of the fishery. If we don’t protect them, this great passion of ours eventually goes kerplunk.
I took four small stripers on my first outing on the tidal river where I caught my first spring fish in 1968 — my first this season was about the same size as the ones I caught back then. They were keepers back when Woolner walked the Cape beaches as a surf-fishing god, and a legal fish was 16 inches or larger.
On this spring day, the fish were all over the shallows, but they weren’t striking soft plastics with the pop that they would in another week, when water temperatures squeaked up a few more degrees. I held each one and examined them closely — healthy, perfect, cookie-cutter schoolies with spikey dorsals standing up straight and river water running off their silver-and-black-striped bodies and the iridescent scales on their backs and heads. Each had a lovely greenish cast over the mid-to-lower portion of their gill plates, a coloration I hadn’t noticed before on the gill coverings. I thanked Woolner.
I looked back over some old log entries from an early May morning years back, when the sound of spring peepers and the first birds of the morning overlapped at 4:40 a.m. I loaded my tackle by flashlight.
On the first drift of the new season, I put my friend’s walkaround on a pile of rocks in the Connecticut River, an inauspicious beginning to spring.
I was using a partially submerged rock pile crowded with eight gulls as a reference. I set up alongside it, cut the engine, and the ebb pulled us as much west as it did south. I trimmed the engine up and watched the depth go from 5 feet to 3, 2 and 1 as we lurched and settled on the stones. We pushed ourselves off with a boat hook, and the miscue was quickly forgotten.
We found fish on the mud flats along the east side of the river and caught eight or 10 in 5 to 8 feet of water on a white lead head and a chartreuse soft tail. The fishing was relaxed. Chris and I talked about boats, work, bosses, fish and money, then back around to boats.
I put a quick kiss on the head of the third fish I caught. I don’t make a habit of kissing fish, but that morning I thought, What the hell. One way or another, I’ve been smooching and making google eyes at stripers for longer than I’ve been kissing girls.