The Fall Run

The chance for a great fish lures surfcasters into this season of change.
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I had made it in time, but I was pouring sweat. The hike in is long enough without additional complexity. It’s a big-time ballbuster when you get to the parking spot late and have to power-walk two miles of rugged terrain, a shifting load of gear on your back, before you can so much as see water. The moon was full — October full — good for the walk but not my favorite time to fish the shallows.

There is a constant worry living in the mind of every surfcaster: Might one of the nights I choose to stay home be the night … or will I land in the wrong spot on the right night?

Mercifully, the other factors — the remaining pieces of the conditions puzzle — had aligned nicely: a light southeast breeze, a big tide and little to no wave action.

The air was cool enough that I could see moonlit steam rising off the arms of my wetsuit; in the course of checking my knots and choosing a plug, my sweat had taken on the chill of the night air. I wished I’d brought a jacket.

 Frequent soakings are part of the game for those who fish from the autumn surf, but a nice fish makes it all worthwhile.

Frequent soakings are part of the game for those who fish from the autumn surf, but a nice fish makes it all worthwhile.

Fall is a season of constant change. It sneaks up. Summer bleeds into autumn almost imperceptibly, and then, as the leaves begin to turn, someone smashes the hourglass. In an instant there isn’t an hour in 24 that you can’t come up with a reason you shouldn’t be out there.

A buzz hangs in the air as in a playoff game; the collective consciousness on shore seems to connect thousands of minds with the crackling speed and power of lightning. And just as you can feel that conductive charge of airborne anticipation when it’s ripe, when it’s on, you can also feel when the wires go quiet. The sound of crashing waves is almost foreign when there is no chance of a hookup. It’s the memories of great fish that keep me out there, but it’s remembering the sound of that cold, lonely ocean that pushes me out the door on the cold nights or after five consecutive skunks. No excuse can hold up to missing out.

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I snapped on a Beachmaster “Wadd ” Needlefish — an obscenely large plug born in the 1980s and named, for reasons obvious, after a porn star, Johnny Wadd. I chose chartreuse because it is one of the few colors that can stand up to the silver light of a clear full moon. Stepping into the water, I felt relieved that the tide had not yet begun to stir, and I was further relieved to find that the water was warmer than the air, bringing on an unwholesome comfort like the one you feel when you’ve just jumped directly from a hot tub into a snowdrift.

Rising Hunter's Moon

My first cast flew straight across the barely moving current, and I watched its splash disrupt the undulating white reflection of the rising Hunter’s Moon as I began the painfully slow retrieve. Reeling in straight and slow requires consistent presence of mind, lest my cranking hand accelerate as it invariably does on “autopilot,” the big plug whizzing through the quickening tide unnoticed.

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My mind was unconsciously running through the 20 other places I would no doubt have been better off standing. This doubt is the scourge of autumn surfcasters, who play the night tides on foot. When you’ve walked two miles to meet a tide, you’re committed. Knowing that in no way diminishes the torture of waiting for contact — some sign, any sign of fish to silence the voices of dissent in a caster’s skull. I could have swum out to that rock at the edge of the steep dropoff, I thought, reasoning that sometimes fish are more cooperative in deeper water on the full moon.

I finished a cast, swung the big needle up to my hand and gingerly cleared a few pieces of brown weed from the rear treble. I braced my feet, swung the plug back on a long lead and cast again. Or, the infernal voice chimed in again, I could have picked any one of a dozen other spots that aren’t two miles from the car, allowing contingency planning if I came up empty. I scolded myself for letting the doubt in. C’mon Dave, I muttered. The fish will be here.

I’d made five more casts before I felt the first tentative pull of the dropping tide carrying my plug off to my right and forcing me to widen my stance. As the current gained steam, I aimed my casts farther up-tide to take full advantage of the surging water, which draws big stripers in from offshore to feed where it wraps around the point, the moving tide carrying a nightly variety of food.

Brief moment in time

Twenty minutes. That brief span of time and tide would tell me everything I needed to know about the quality of the night’s hunches. I fired another cast to my 10 o’clock, well up-tide, and ran through the variables. That morning, same tide, more or less, I’d watched a dense knot of black-backed gulls working on some larger bait — mullet maybe? — within a half-mile of my immediate position. If the traditional pattern held, I suspected this shot of bait had probably, under cover of full dark, slipped up onto the shallow flat with the advancing tide, seeking temporary refuge from predators gathered in the air and the deeper water out front. As I checked the boxes on a mental list of conditions, I was still questioning my instincts — the changing season, the possibility I’d landed in the wrong place on the right night weighed heavily. And now, with that same flat dumping its turbid contents across the gravel bar on which my feet were planted, I’d face my reckoning.

I reeled up and swapped out the needlefish for a 7-inch “glidebait,” a mutant plug I’d turned out the winter before, incorporating design elements borrowed from monster-musky hunters in the Midwest and Canada. With careful guidance, the plug can be steered through the tide slowly with a lazy to-and-fro cadence; in situations that call for some commotion, I can get it swimming in a wonky, spastic, zigzagging motion — a pretty fair imitation of a large baitfish fleeing certain doom in the form of a 40-pound bass on its tail.

It borders on absurd, but because the migration is in a constant state of change, there are no patterns that last more than a tide or three, and with the woodstove and snow shovel beckoning from the not-so-distant future, the urge to go and go and go strains all other aspects of life. You can only tell your boss you “didn’t sleep well” so many times before he starts to wonder if there’s something more sinister hiding in the dark silence of your nights “at home.”

I let the big wood fly and felt it splash down a good distance up-tide. Looking out over the moonlit water for visual confirmation, I spotted the bulging V-wake as the plug pulsed through the series of seams formed by the longshore current backing up against the land. I followed its progress as it swung from the visible rip lines into the slick, soft water where I stood. When it was two rod lengths away, the water behind the plug exploded as a large and not totally convinced striper turned away at the last second. In that instant, all of the doubt, worry and wonder was driven out by the white noise of adrenaline-fueled concentration. Suppressing the reflex to jump or stop reeling (an unnatural response I’ve drilled into my synapses over 20 years of surfcasting), I continued to work the plug until it was so close I could have picked it up. No takers.

All of the brain clutter and the cold stiffness in my arms and back dissipated with the ripples from the explosion at my feet. The warmth of excitement spread through my body as I prepared to make my first fully focused cast of the night. In these moments, I think I can understand the “zone” I’ve heard pitchers describe after throwing a no-hitter; suddenly, every sense heightened to perfect sharpness, I am standing wholly in the present. The retrieve is effortless, the strike imminent.

As the glider swung past me with the tide, I heard the boil of a take before I felt or saw it. Steadying in that split second, I felt for weight, and as the line came tight, I struck back. Fifty or so yards out I saw the bursts of white as a large bass bucked through the shallows, beelining for deeper water. I leaned into the rod and listened as my drag tempered her first run. Within 15 seconds I’d succeeded in turning her head, and for a few moments she came back toward me.

She cooperated for another 10 yards before burying her face in the gravel. I stood her up with my rod as she thrashed the surface in explosive protest — the sound of those tail slaps never gets old. She righted herself and took off again. This second run was shorter but no less powerful. When you hook a big fish on a big moon, the event becomes hyper-visual; every movement is accentuated as the showering droplets from each splash are touched off by bright moonlight.

Gaining line

Her second run slowed, and I could see the subtle curve of her back breaking the silvery surface as she rested, using her weight to maintain the gap between us. But as I applied more pressure, she yielded, and I began to gain line. When she was 15 feet away, she made one more exhausted lunge, rounding my position against the tide and then ripping out 10 feet of drag before she succumbed. I lifted my rod and she glided, her whole flank exposed, into my outstretched hand. She was big.

When I’d popped the hook out of her jaw hinge, I lipped her with my hand scale: 38 pounds. My hand could barely hold the base of her tail as I guided her broad body back and forth in the shallow surf. The weight and balanced buoyancy of a big striper always strikes me — a body precision-engineered to thrive in even the most inhospitable places. This one had grown through 16 years of adversity.

I moved her back and forth carefully, supporting her midsection with my free hand. She tried to break my grasp. I let go, but she was unstable. I flipped her around and grabbed her jaw, holding her mouth open while the moving tide spilled through her gills. After a minute or so, her dorsal stood, and she made one firm head shake. When she bit me, I knew she was ready. With one soaking smash of her tail she was back on her way. As I turned to check my leader and hooks, I saw something floating by in the current. I stopped it with my rod tip and picked it up. It was an 8-inch herring that could only have been regurgitated during the landing or release. I knew I was in the right place.

Every year when the spring run begins, I feel as if I’ve been rescued from a frozen hell — no qualms. But when summer gives way to fall, there’s a feeling of true conflict. It’s almost like watching a child grow: You can’t wait for her to take her first steps, talk, hold a rod. But in the same moment you’re already wishing that yesterday was tomorrow.

I watched that big striper swim off into the rare calm of the October Atlantic, content in a way I seldom am. There is no time in my life when the minutes slip so quickly through my fingers as they do on November’s doorstep. But it’s moments like these that stop the clock, just for a second, and remind me that the future is always more exciting than the past — the next tide always comes with promise, and that’s what keeps me out there alone in the cold, trying to stare down winter for one more good fish.

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