Watching bait, it’s difficult to just stand there. We want to somehow participate, rod or no rod. We’ve been doing this our entire lives. And so we point to it, and we shout, “Bait, right there, see it!?” We do this while walking along the Charles River, the James, while walking a random marina dock in Fort Lauderdale. We do this with a new date at our side, someone we hardly know, and we do this with our own spouse. Inside of us there is a need to announce to the world that we just spotted a shoal of mullet in the shallows by the dinghy dock. Few people care, but that doesn’t bother us. We keep looking, eyes angled downward.
Here in Rhode Island this past September, two creatures from warm waters showed up in great abundance: the Portuguese man-of-war and the northern halfbeak, which is in the ballyhoo family. We see them annually, but this year we had unusual numbers of them. Halfbeaks are a big bait, often more than 10 inches. They have a beautiful silver color that’s highlighted by blue. We don’t often get a bait show like halfbeaks in the Northeast. They shower and dance across the water, skipping, the whole fish coming clear, over and over. This is done at great speed, far faster than our usual bunker, herring and sand eels.
On the deck of my center console, I stood transfixed. This was my backyard, my local ocean. I had the bluffs of Block Island on one side of me and the eastern half of Block Island Sound on the other. I was close to shore, two miles out. Halfbeaks covered what seemed like miles of water. It wasn’t a single school, but many smaller schools scattered all over. This lasted a few weeks. Huge bluefish showed up, fish to 17 pounds, as well as large false albacore and small bluefins.
I am always torn when I witness nature like this. On the one hand, I merely enjoy watching them. Like a birder watches a falcon in the breeze. On the other hand, the angler in me wants to capitalize. I want to see my popper blown into the heavens. I can’t be alone in this hopeless pursuit of balance — of trying to pause and appreciate, to take in, as a moment of nature, and also to cast and catch. It never ends in a balance.
One thing is certain: It’s over in a blink, and the bait has pushed on.