The author recalls a cold, rainy November night and a wild fish that came out of a rip off a coastal island, which Hurricane Sandy later flattened.
Nowadays it’s just another sandbar in a New Jersey bay where boaters and PWC riders haul up in the summer to play their radios and drink Coronas. At high tide not much is visible — just a narrow sliver of sand that seems to bob in the low breakers like a corpse.
But it wasn’t always this way. Twenty five years ago I knew it as a remnant coastal island — a small chunk of short dunes, Atlantic cedar trees, sumac and beach plum that had separated from the mainland. Oystercatchers would probe the mud flats along the spartina grasses that lined its leeward shore. Gulls loafed among the dunes. Rafts of brant honked and croaked in its coves.
And off the southern point of this diminutive island was the most bassy-looking rip I ever laid eyes on. There the ebbing tide would hurry past a shoal, churn through a deep hole, then rise and crash over a bar, creating a crescendo of seething, swirling, watery confusion.
It’s only appropriate that from this spot my greatest striped bass was taken.
I discovered the rip while on a daytime scouting walk. Through binoculars I could see it surging with the last of the ebb. I theorized that I could make the 200-yard crossing from the mainland to the island by wading carefully and avoiding deep holes or cuts.
I was right; the following night, in a cold drizzle and under the darkness of the November new moon, my friend Dery Bennett and I slowly picked our way through the channel and eventually reached its shores. We could hear the rip before we saw it — it was the same sound as a lively riffle on a trout river. When we rounded the south point, we spotted a dark sinew of rushing water pushed along by the spring tide.
Dery, 35 years my senior, salty and seasoned, began casting one of his signature ragtag plugs — namely some old wooden swimmer he likely found washed up on the beach. He ran the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group, and I believe he loved the act of fishing far more than actually catching fish. I, on the other hand, the young upstart in my 20s with painstakingly maintained tackle, was out for blood. I opted instead for a live eel — one of half a dozen I had picked up at a tackle shop earlier that evening.
I knelt in the wet sand and took the eel out of a canvas bag before hooking it through its lower jaw. Then I waded knee-deep into the rip and lobbed it 50 feet uptide and let it tumble with the current. The eel drifted maybe 10 yards when I felt the solid thump of a good take. I let the fish swim with the bait until my arms were fully extended away from me; then I reared back mightily into solid weight. For a moment, nothing happened. Then slowly and unyieldingly, line peeled off the reel as the bass powered farther and farther into the rip until I thought it would spool all 300 yards of monofilament.
Finally it stopped and shook its head, sending ponderous thumps up the line, down the rod, through my hands and into my soul. For some reason I glanced at my watch, perhaps knowing this would not be a short fight. It was just after midnight.
Meanwhile, Dery had reeled up his plug and enjoyed the show.
For what seemed like a long time the fish simply held somewhere out there in the rip and sulked. I could almost picture it — angled away from me, digging into the 3-knot current with broad sweeps of its tail. Minutes passed while I could do little more than hang on, terrified I would lose the big fish. Dery, ever the wise guy and knowing my deep belief in fishing jinxes, began joking about sharpening the fillet knife and heading home to light the grill.
“Stop!” I pleaded, trying to appease unseen fishing gods while stifling my laughter.
And so the fight went on. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Twenty-five. Sweat, mixed with rainwater, trickled down my neck. Hands once cold now felt hot. Half an hour into the fight, I could feel the fish surrender. It moved out of the rip into slack water and began swimming toward me.
I pumped the rod and gobbled up line with each turn of the handle. Before I knew it I could see a large spiny dorsal fin slice the water 20 feet away. I reeled in more line while wading out deeper until I could grab the leader. With the leader in hand, I walked the fish into the shallows and kept walking until the bay parted and the most beautiful striped bass I have ever seen slid onto the sand. I looked at my watch again. Thirty-five minutes had passed since I hooked it.
A quick measurement on my rod revealed that the fish was 44 inches and probably weighed 35 pounds. Though it was not the biggest striper I ever landed, it fought the hardest and is still the most perfectly proportioned bass I’ve ever caught. It had a smallish head, thick, muscular shoulders and a deep, round abdomen.
Despite earlier jokes about a grill and fillet knife, Dery and I knew we would let it go. I slipped the hook from its softball-size mouth and posed for a few snapshots before I slid the fish back into the water. We watched it kick its tail a few times before vanishing into the darkness. Although it was the only bass we took that night, it marked the beginning of more than a decade of sometimes amazing fishing from this secret and intimate spot.
Over time the island began to shift and erode. Blame it on climate change, sea level rise or changing tidal currents, but one by one the trees toppled into the bay. Then the deep hole filled in, and the bar began to shallow out. Eventually the big stripers — the ones that prowled the shallows at night — vanished from their usual spots. In 2012, two years after Dery died, Superstorm Sandy took care of the rest, flattening it literally and figuratively.
I still see what’s left of the island occasionally on my way to fish somewhere else. Now it’s just a sad-looking mound of sand scraped clean of even a blade of dune grass. I try to shrug it off as just another spot that’s come and gone, but inevitably memories of the rip, the bass and, of course, Dery come rushing in like the November spring tide one rainy night many years ago.