Fall is a never-ending blur, with birds, bait, fish and fishing folk in constant motion, chasing one another from sunrise to sunset and through the night. It’s a time to be dialed in to the hunt, with multiple migrations overlapping as predators chase prey, and flocks of gulls and terns and sheets of escaping bait point to the action. The choices are many: striped bass, bluefish, tuna, tautog, albies and bonito, and red drum.
Boats whiz in and out of launch ramps and marinas at all hours. Four-wheel-drive trucks comb the beaches. Rock hoppers line up along breachways and wherever glacial debris lays piled up and the current is moving.
Some years it starts slowly, before the equinox, when the fishing patterns and weather resemble summer more than fall. But at some point, a front or two kicks the season into gear, and the clock starts moving faster. Daylight shrinks, shadows lengthen, temperatures fall, and everything is on the run.
There’s nothing like an early-season blitz, with bait flying and fish streaking through the waves. You might take eight or 10 school-sized stripers wet-wading and still have time to body surf the warm September waves. In my book of simple pleasures, that’s hard to beat.
The quickening lends the season a pleasing sense of urgency. No one wants to miss a daytime frenzy or a 2 a.m. gathering of big fish in some remote, unnamed spot. So we push ourselves hard, foregoing sleep, yard work and other commitments to venture forth, shrugging off bad weather. It’s also the season when the winds blow through the night and forecasts become even less reliable than usual. Come October and November, many of us wish we had more boat beneath us.
I like my chances of capturing large stripers in late September and the first weeks of October. That’s when I plan to fish late, mindful of tides but also knowing that the fish I’m hunting will eventually show themselves. You pay your dues by putting in your time, fishing the right way, staying sharp and always focused on the next hit. You’ll find me in early October wading up to my chest in a wetsuit along a stretch of beach and rocks where I have history.
For more than 50 years, fall has been my favorite season. My Uncle Kid introduced me to surf fishing when he gave me one of his old fly rods with a small spinning reel attached. For several seasons, we stood side by side in fall on a beach in South County, Rhode Island, and cast and cast. All I caught was wind shadows and clouds. I was about 8, and when I tired of casting, I worked my feet back and forth until my boots sank into the wet sand. I skimmed stones, daydreamed and tried to follow the trajectory of Kid’s long casts until his large plug landed with a white scuff on Block Island Sound. One day, I thought, I’ll cast as far as he can.
Kid would pick me up after school, and I’d haul myself into his faded green pickup as if I were climbing into a tank. Kid stood 6 feet, 1 inch, with long arms and a kind of rolling walk. Tennessee born and raised, he worked for the water company, drank Wild Turkey and cared endearingly for his son, who had Down syndrome.
My brothers and I can’t recall Kid ever backing down from anything. He walked and talked like he could take care of himself. He was an MP in World War II, part of the Normandy invasion D-Day Plus 2. Before the war, he was on coastal beach patrol in Rhode Island when he met my father’s sister, which is how this kind-hearted good ol’ boy from Campbell County, Tennessee, came to live among Swamp Yankees.
If his fishing buddy came with Kid, I’d sit between the two of them, a minnow among bluefish, feeling as safe in my young world as I’ve ever felt since. They laughed, told ribald jokes, smoked and sometimes passed a bottle. Kid told me not to tell my mother anything I’d heard, which was easy, given that I didn’t understand a word they said.
I fondly recall late September in the company of these men — bouncing down a rutted beach road in a warm, sun-filled truck cab that smelled of rubber waders, tobacco and whiskey. In one way or another, I have sought ever since to re-create those feelings of fall, the camaraderie of like-minded souls and the lovely late-afternoon light.
In my fall bag, I carry an old block-tin squid I inherited from the wife of an old timer who passed away decades ago. I also have a bunch of his blank tins. The jigs are 6 inches and weigh about 2½ ounces. I rig them with a single bucktail hook on a split ring. They cast well, cleaving a stiff on-shore wind as easily as a big blue chomps through a bunker. And their flat bottoms and tiny keels aft make it possible to fish them in the rocks if you hold your rod vertically and pay attention.
I fish them out of respect for the tough, old Yankee widow whom my family was close to and whom my brothers and I referred to as Nana. She was short of stature but as hard as a black walnut, sturdy as iron, smart and direct. I knew her husband only from his tackle, a few stories I’d heard and a single photo of him standing beside a large striper he took in the 1930s.
I used one of the old tins in an early nor’easter a few falls back. It was late afternoon by the time I reached the spot, and the wind and surf were building. I climbed aboard a large, flat rock, which gave me a good platform for working the tin around a maze of rocks and white water. As soon as the jig landed, the wind bowed the line, and the tin skated across the surface. A nice bass exploded on it, throwing a shower of spray. I missed the fish, let the tin settle for a moment, resumed the retrieve, got hit again and slammed the hook home. The rod arched, and the fish ran. A moment later, a herring gull sailed low across the cove from left to right, hit the line, and that was all she wrote for that fish and my ancient tin.
It blew all night, and I changed rocks as the tide flooded. I startled a flock of sanderlings feeding in the lee of a boulder. I fished jointed black swimmers and did well, landing some fish and losing others in the rocky surf. But what I remember clearly is the skidding tin squid, the crashing strike, the second take, the bent rod and the ill-timed gull. That’s fall.