Editor’s note: Each fall, scores of anglers chase striped bass along the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic from the surf and boats. In this excerpt from Seasons of the Striper, a new book from Rizzoli New York, author William Sisson describes an obsessive striper angler’s indoctrination into the “old ways.”
As a budding young striped bass fisherman in the 1960s, I was fortunate to inhabit a world still populated by Swamp Yankees. These longtime New Englanders made their livings as fishermen, farmers and merchants. Swamp Yankees were a frugal, independent, hardworking lot who spoke their minds and were wary of outsiders. They could keep secrets. They were perfect role models for a young striper kid.
I am 68, old enough to remember the Swamp Yankees of southwest Rhode Island who worked the sounds, bays, salt ponds and tidal rivers. They netted river herring and smelt, and harvested lobsters, bay scallops, oysters and eels. Some trapped muskrats. Others took customers out on fishing charters. At least three of my own Swamp Yankee forebears ran haul seines for striped bass along the beaches of southern Rhode Island. They had names like Peleg, Ichabod and Ezekiel.
I grew up in this tribe and absorbed their ways without realizing it until much later. It was how they stood and moved and talked. The careful way they sized someone up. Their frugality, distance and stubbornness. Swamp Yankees were taciturn. The ones I knew could communicate with just a look. I learned to read their eyes, their brows, the tilts of their heads. I had plenty of practice spotting the storms that sometimes clouded their expressions, the lightning that narrowed their eyes.
No population studies on Swamp Yankees exist, but their numbers have been declining for decades. Newcomers with more education and money have displaced these self-sufficient watermen, along with their rural country cousins. Old-timers were brought up eating johnnycakes, spearing eels through the ice, and smoking buckies and bluefish. The Johnny-come-latelies wouldn’t know a buckie from a bonefish.
As a boy in the early ’60s, my world revolved around a town dock and the seawalls of Watch Hill Harbor. There, I spent hours handlining cunners, netting blue crabs and fishing for tinker mackerel, snapper blues and winter flounder. The dock was also home to three charter skippers and their old wooden tubs, which to my eyes were seagoing gems. It was as colorful a collection of Swamp Yankees as you could ever find in one place. Captains Prent, Louie and Manny were experts at making ends meet and just getting by. They cast large shadows, and I wanted to be just like them. Little did I know they were a dying breed.
The most sociable of the trio and the best fisherman was Captain Prent Lanphere, who was thin and wiry, and whose face was deeply lined and weathered. He hand-rolled his cigarettes from loose tobacco that I sold him from behind the counter in my father’s general store, conveniently located across the street from the dock. When he returned with a charter, I’d be on the dock waiting to see what was swimming in his fish well, a compartment built into the bottom of the hull and flooded with seawater.
“Any stripers Captain Prent?” I’d ask. “Can I see them?”
I hear him sharpening his knife on a whetstone before he quickly filleted the day’s catch. He was also a showman. He used to tickle a blowfish’s belly, and once it expanded, he’d bounce the fish on the dock to attract tourists. Then he would try to interest them in a charter. He was known as “Old Smoothie.”
I can also still picture Captain Louie Dussault stretched out on the deck of his salty little boat, his upper torso swallowed by the engine compartment, loose tools scattered around his legs. I learned not to ask the captain questions when he was thus engaged.
For years my family chartered a fishing trip with Captain Louie each summer on my oldest brother’s birthday. I looked forward to the outing all year. With great anticipation, we dropped our lines into the deep — probably all of 25 feet. That was 60 years ago, and memories of clearing the breakwater and heading west — where we bottom-fished the Middle Grounds off Stonington, Connecticut, for flounder and scup — still feel exciting.
Louie lived aboard his charter boat in the spring, summer and fall, and retreated to an ice-locked houseboat in a cove on the Pawcatuck River during winter. As my mother and I drove through town one late fall when I was 11 or 12, I spotted the captain leaning against a light post by the road, a large bag of groceries in his arms. He wore a heavy mackinaw wool jacket with the collar turned up and a broadbrim fishing cap. It was starting to rain, so my mother pulled over. Louie climbed in the front seat. He didn’t have his thumb out—my mother later told me he was too proud to ask for a ride. We dropped him off at the head of his cove, where a footpath led down to the houseboat. Unshaven, he looked tired and worn, not the rugged skipper of summer. That small encounter, when one of my heroes suddenly seemed all too human, left an enduring impression.
For many years, Captain Louie and a few other solitary men came to our house for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. They had nowhere else to go, and my parents had been friendly with them for years. That world is long gone. Today, a kid couldn’t fish off the dock if he wanted to. A gate blocks the entrance, and a sign prohibits both fishing and any access at all unless you’re a boat owner or the guest of one. And anyway, a large yacht now walls off the face dock, where old men once sat on overturned buckets and marked the passage of the seasons by the comings and goings of small fish.
Those stubborn old captains wouldn’t feel at home in the harbor today, either. They were from the long-gone analog world, where you fished with your wits, skills, common sense and sea smarts. A world that calls into question our notions of “progress.”
I know one thing for certain: If not for those skippers and the springs and summers spent fishing off the dock and patrolling the seawall with a long-handled crab net, I would be a different person today. There, a kid could learn the basics from the bottom up through observation and trial and error. It was a laboratory for finding bait, understanding tides, tying knots, pulling apart bird’s nests, mimicking baitfish with spoons, getting gouged by dorsal spikes and nipped by blue crabs, and a hundred other nuances and building blocks we fishermen take for granted. These were early fundamentals for a striped bass fanatic.
I felt utterly safe sitting between my father and my oldest brother on the old face dock, our feet hanging over the edge, each of us working a handline. We broke sea clams on the raised heads of the spikes that held the planks together and avoided the large gray splinters that penetrated hands and feet as easily as the small hooks we baited with clams.
My father was full of kinetic energy, heckling the fish like a shortstop: daring them to bite, letting them know they had met their match and were about to be caught. With each nibble, he’d snap his wrist and forearm as if making a throw to first, setting the small hook and hauling his fish onto the dock in a blur. An impatient man who played fast sports like racquetball, my father with a handline and a mess of cunners in the waters below was a catching machine. His time with us was limited; he usually had to hurry back to his store.
Once, in an antique shop, I found a tarred hemp handline wrapped on a wooden holder. Its enduring scent instantly swept me back a half-century to that dock, where a boy came of age and discovered his tribe. It was just as the writer John Hersey described: “He picked up the ball of twine and put it to his nose and drew in the smell of boats, caulking smell, rope-locker smell — the smell which, savored in deepest gloom of wintertime, had the power of evoking faraway sunlit wavetops, a canted mast, splashing bow waves, a warm summer breeze on a helmsman’s cheek.”
My father descended from Quakers who fled England for Portsmouth, Rhode Island, in 1651 to escape religious persecution. He kept close to his colonial roots. He lived just 50 miles away as the crow flies, beside a tidal river in Westerly, in the southwest corner of the state. He owned and operated several businesses in nearby Watch Hill that he took over from his enterprising mother, Hattie. He was born into a family of commercial fishermen that had been shaped by loss.
My grandfather, William Bernard Sisson, was a surfman in the U.S. Life-Saving Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard) and was stationed both in Quonochontaug and Point Judith, Rhode Island. He and his mates kept watch over the coastal waters, launching pulling boats to rescue distressed mariners. On the side, he fished commercially for striped bass and was a professional gambler.
Known as Bernie, he died suddenly in 1922, when my father was 2 years old — too young to form any memories of his father. The following year, my father’s 5-year-old brother, Billie, was struck by a truck and killed. In photos of my grandmother taken shortly after, she is dressed in black and faces the sea, my tiny father held close to her waist. Her kind swallowed their losses and moved forward. My grandmother steered my father away from the saltier relatives on his paternal side who fished for a living. Letters she wrote in the 1920s revealed her determination to ensure her surviving son and daughter would get college educations. Both did.
My great-grandfather, also named William Sisson, was himself no stranger to risk on or off the water. This eldest William Sisson was, according to his obituary, one of the youngest Union soldiers in the Civil War. Too young to enlist legally in Rhode Island when the war broke out, he instead went to New Hampshire, added a few years to his age and joined a cavalry regiment under another name. He lost a leg on a battlefield in Virginia and returned to Rhode Island to make a living as a commercial fisherman.
A photo shows him standing on a beach, holding a cane in each hand, trouser leg pinned up, net strewn in the sand, pipe between his teeth. He levels the same hard look displayed by family members across the generations that are etched both in my memory and in photographs. My great-grandfather and his sons, commercial fishermen all, had long, sad, windburned faces. Maybe they didn’t start out tough, but they were eventually tempered by their circumstances. During the Great Depression, my grandmother dropped off bags of groceries at their homes.
My great-uncle, Captain Ed Sisson, was another Rhode Island seine netter, known for his keen ability to smell stripers before he could see them. At 76, he died in the surf hauling in a heavy seine, literally with his boots on. Such were the times.
Captain Prent once told a writer for the now-defunct magazine Tidings about a day when he was helping this great-uncle haul his seine off East Beach in Watch Hill. That day, he said matter-of-factly, they netted a striped bass weighing 105 pounds. That he said it so casually makes me believe it was true. All along the striper coast are stories of linesiders of yore weighing 100-plus pounds, nearly all taken by commercial men.
The thumbprints of these Swamp Yankees still mark their descendants, revealed in their stoicism, independence and hard bark. They bear no buttery sentimentality. We are all our father’s children. My father was frugal his entire 91 years, long after there was any reason to go without. In his later years, he lamented the father and brother he never knew. I had him read the 80-year-old obituaries I had found in my research. He sighed and shook his head. “I never knew my brother,” my father said. “I never knew my father, either. Imagine that. Never knew either of them. What a shame.”
It is fall, and I’m imagining William B. Sisson riding beside me in my Down East skiff as the wind strengthens and the seas build with the flood. My family has worked these waters for generations. I skirt the empty rip and study the seas in the fading light. It’s bigger and steeper than I’d hoped. No other boats are working the reef this evening. I’m fishing alone, except for the old-timer in my head. To keep the bow from getting knocked sideways, I drift it under power, with one hand working both the throttle and wheel, the other one holding the rod. I’ve fished this way before.
You can make it through there, son, he whispers. You’re not going to get any fish unless you get back in there anyway. You know that. The fish are in the second or third wave.
My grandfather is right. A surfman and a gambler, he knows about playing the odds and taking chances. There’s little to be gained by nibbling around the edges. I know exactly where the fish are lying. Either I go in after them or pack up and go home. I’ve got the gold pocket watch with his initials engraved on the back. I have his name. And, like it or not, I’ve inherited that little bit of wiring that connects us to our past.
Like my dad missing his dead father, I, too, have spent my life looking over my shoulder for the ghost of this waterman, chasing him until we meet here on a windy night with a foaming rip spread in front of us. It looks and feels fishy. The calendar and tide suggest the same. And here he is, the Swamp Yankee, standing beside me, talking in my ear.
Go ahead, boy, he says. Get back in there. There’s fish to be caught. You can make it. Move!
Seasons of the Striper: Pursuing the Great American Gamefish from Rizzoli New York is available at bookstores and on Amazon starting in late October.