I was 17 and on my way to pick up a date for a high school dance when I caught a glimpse of a rising moon on a cool September evening. Bright and fat as a peach, it stirred me. I rushed home, grabbed the keys to Dad’s boat and headed out in search of striped bass. In my delirium, I forgot my date. True story. It was, after all, a striper moon.
The incident inspired my oldest brother to create a collage of images clipped from magazines. On a beach in the foreground stood a beautiful woman glancing longingly out to sea. Far in the distance was a figure fishing from a small Boston Whaler like my father’s. The caption read, “Oh well … I guess he’d rather chase bass.”
One of my earliest memories is of a dusk-to-dawn fall striper foray. Still too young to fish seriously, I dozed to the rocking waves and woke to the sound of drag singing as my dad fought a big striped bass, working the fish close enough to the boat to gaff. When he hoisted the striper over the gunwale, I was immediately enchanted by the long, pearly-white giant scribed with black stripes, its sharp-edged dorsal and sweet, pungent odor. Later, I came to savor the white flesh. As I grew older, my passion for stripers teetered on obsession. Even after hours of pursuit, their mysterious ways taunted and baffled me. But I was learning.
Stripers have the power to take you over. “That is the magic that rides the striper’s shoulders as it swims through the ageless pattern of its autumnal migration, south along the shore and deep into the souls of the men who live on it,” wrote John N. Cole in his 1978 book Striper. This book was a revelation. Although I was a senior in high school, Striper was the first book I truly read and enjoyed. Cole tells of his passion for stripers and fishing and how both shaped his life, his values and his thoughts. I could relate. I had spent a childhood chasing stripers along the shores and islands of my coastal Connecticut home and had fallen under their spell.
From spring through fall, from shore and by boat, mostly at night and on rainy or overcast days, I madly pursued these fish as they migrated between their spawning grounds in Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River and their summering grounds as far north as Maine and Nova Scotia. Along the way, I caught bluefish and weakfish, dug clams, trapped lobsters, netted blue crabs and jigged for flounder. But always, stripers swam through my thoughts, particularly when autumn breezes arrived and the leaves turned crimson and gold. That’s when my desire reached its pinnacle.
I cast hefty plugs from the surf. I drifted eels, sandworms and chunks of mackerel from the boat. I anchored off islands and live-lined 3-pound bunker among the wrack-covered boulders where I hoped a huge striper lay. I constantly hounded my father with questions: Do you think the cows are coming through? Where’s the best place to fish tonight? Can you leave work early? Can I skip school?
Stripers push you to extremes. There was the night the surf slammed our small boat onto a reef, swamping it as we struggled, close to hypothermia, for our lives. Once, a wave filled my waders, stole my breath for a moment and pulled me under. Balky engines left me drifting at night and in rough, foggy conditions. That went with paying your dues and learning the ropes. There also were countless crisp, bright nights flanked by sunsets and sunrises; the salt spray, sun and wind; the clamorous cries of gulls and terns.
Between fishing, I slept on the deck of the boat or on island beaches rife with sand fleas. Napping on the boat during one four-day striper binge, I was awakened by the Coast Guard, whom my distraught mother had called, convinced I was lost at sea. Thereafter I was confined to shore for a while but still managed to fish the surf.
In an area otherwise congested with humanity, the beaches, islands and bass were my wilderness. Later, I recognized my pleasure in Thomas McGuane’s collection of essays, An Outside Chance, in which he tells of fall fishing for stripers in Sakonnet, Rhode Island, within casting distance from mansions. “And, to a great extent, this is the character of bass fishing from the beach,” he writes. “In very civilized times it is reassuring to know that wild fish will run so close that a man on foot and within earshot of lawn mowers can touch their wildness with a fishing rod.”
I remember one night when my father and I were anchored along a narrow reef stretching nearly a mile from a sumac-covered island to a pile of rocks exposed only at low tide. It’s an unusual reef because the tide flows over it in the same direction whether it’s coming or going. The trick is to stay close to where reef meets island as the tidal current flows through the eelgrass carrying food to waiting bass. Suddenly my bunker began to splash along the surface. In the moonlight, I could see the fins and wake of a long, lean striper slice toward my bait. There was a brief chaos of sound and flying water as though a flat rock had fallen from the moon. Then silence and a dead rod, my bunker floating motionless.
When I began to reel it back to the boat, my father hissed, “Wait!” Soon we saw a swirl, followed by a large dorsal and then a tail. Like a cat playing with a mouse, the big bass stunned the bunker, picked it up and ran. I counted off several seconds as I fed it line, then flipped the bail and drove the hook into the bass’ jaw.
Sometimes it was hard to miss the fall action, as flocks of gulls and terns dove on schools of breaking fish. I’d cast surface and swimming plugs into the action, and I well remember the adrenalin as fish swirled, boiled and struck. Sometimes the bass vanished as quickly as they had appeared, leaving me to wonder where they had gone and why. So much mystery, so much to learn.
Happy that I shared his passion, my father taught me the most promising spots to fish during certain seasons and tides. His knowledge was based on a lifetime of working this shore and keeping meticulous notes, always searching for patterns. He might have caught a good fish under the full moon off the southeast corner of a rocky island in late October, when the tide was two hours out. Or he might have found a school of big fish off a grassy bar the first week of June as the tide began to turn and rise. So we studied tide charts and calendars and fished those spots when conditions seemed right. His tattered old calendars were full of scribbled notes: Oct. 28, 4 bass, 20-40 lbs, NE corner Goose Island, tide 2 hrs out, 1-3 am … The stripers weren’t always there, but we found them often enough to keep us hungry to learn more.
In 1985, after a stint in the Marine Corps, a forestry job brought me to Montana, where I became intrigued by the fall rituals of rutting bull elk. I love the wild country and rivers still large and clean enough to sustain wolves, grizzlies and bull trout. But when the larches and aspens turn gold and the haunting calls of elk echo off high canyon walls, I close my eyes, take a deep breath of cool autumn air, and remember the salt spray — as stripers swim through my heart and soul.