Smells trigger memories, each one unexpected and explosive. Spring has always had an aroma, but somehow its nostalgic effect is not as far-reaching as a sniff of stagnant pond mud and green algae, which might as well be a ride in a time machine to the day when I was in third grade and ruined my new sneakers casting curly-tail worms to bass. My mother was not pleased. But that smell of salt marsh stunted by the cool night air, that unmistakable aroma of estuarine water — it brings me back to the ritual of my fishing life, each season a new beginning.
The arrival of spring is one of the things I love most about chasing striped bass. The season always brings hope. And it all begins with my nose. Those olfactory cues give way to early mornings and late nights as the season inches on, the fish getting bigger, the anticipation building. Thousands of other anglers have a circadian rhythm set to the striper’s tides and movements. When spring breaks and the striped bass return, the world speeds up, and eight months of intense concentration begin.
Fishermen are all the same. We can’t help but inhale a change in the air and process its meaning. Our instinct comes from repetition and the blinders of obsession directing us to the salt. Capt. TJ Karbowski of Clinton, Connecticut-based Rock & Roll Charters says he looks at water temperature and celestial influences to time the start of his season, too. “Bodies of fish usually make their moves on the moons,” he says. “If I see 52-degree water three or four days after a moon in May and I’m not out there, I feel like a caged animal that hasn’t eaten in a month.”
Anxiety about missing a good slug of fish dogs you for days. With each swing of the tide in the age of smartphones and instant information, the angler knows what he’s missed before he even kicks off the bedsheets.
Martha’s Vineyard angler Alex Friedman splits his time between his oyster farm and his tuna boat, and he gets a lump in his throat when seasonal markers, including tree frogs, foretell the arrival of a school of stripers. “When I hear the choruses of pinkletinks chirping in the trees during the longer evenings of early spring, my heart gets warm and my mind starts to race because I know those first bright schoolies will be there, down at the mouth of Tisbury Great Pond,” he says.
Instinct is strong in most of us who enjoy the outdoors. We human beings used to rely on seasonal rhythms and instincts that are hard-wired to our ancestral core. They tell us the time to hunt, harvest the crop, catch the fish. Perhaps it’s this lingering connection to our earlier days that brings a flame to the angler’s heart.
Winter is a time of forcibly shutting oneself down, but it’s also the season of preparation, at least here in New England. We stock up on lures. We tie rigs. We mend. We grease. We repair.
“I start my spring by reviewing my [fishing] logs from years past,” says hard-core New Jersey angler Tom Kosinski. “Around the middle of March, I start checking water temps. My magic number is 48 degrees. I have it narrowed down to three potential spots. When I get that first strike, I feel a strong sense of relief — the off-season preparations are over, and it’s time to catch fish.”
Tradition dictates this drive to be prepared. It feels like we’re doing it to carry the torch, to uphold tradition, for a perceived nod of approval from the ghosts who lighted the way.
Narragansett, Rhode Island, surf caster and striped bass sharpie Steve McKenna paused when I asked what the spring run has meant to him during his 40-plus years of fishing in New England. He leaned in and said, “Give me a good southwest wind in early April with the forsythia in full bloom, and I know the first fresh-run schoolies will make their appearance along the Rhode Island coastline. When I see that, I feel very happy because I know I will be striped bass fishing again.”
It is about smells and feelings and instincts and anxieties and patterns and cues from nature. We’re all searching for the same thing, and that thing is not just a fish. It’s a link in the chain of life connecting this year to all the years before it, one that is closed with first solid take of the spring.