Spring. Battleground season in the Northeast when the warm, pleasant and consistent summery weather begins its war of attrition with the holdover days of winter. Short, cold and wet and dug into the latter weeks of the years first quarter like teacup jacks into an acre wide school of mudding redfish and snook. There simply to ruin your good time. The warming trends and blossoming trees, and sun are replaced by howling winds, rain, temperature dips that touch freezing, and the inability to bury winter clothes at the back of a closet. It is at once torturous to those anglers who pick the wrong, dogshit day to begin their season, a godsend to those who gamble correctly and get out on a day when winter has been successfully routed, and confusing as fuck to the diadromus striped bass wintering in coastal rivers that want to do nothing more than to return to the Atlantic.
But a little patience and attention to the doppler tends to pay dividends. And the bass will always swim. They must.
My initial foray into the 2014 spring season came late of a Sunday during the first week of April. I was joined by my buddy Panos, a fellow expatriated Floridian, and our friend Brian. Both of whom suspected that the window for the first fish of year was about to, or had already opened and that no time was be wasted. So we loaded up the waders and 8 weights and hit the road.
On arriving at our destination we found the sky empty, save the sun where it burned a colorless crater in the blue banner of heaven stretched across the west. As we donned waders and tied on flies we joked that the weather too good to catch striped bass. And that even if the bass were there that they wouldn’t eat. True creatures of the northeast, the mantra by which most striper anglers live is that these fish give preference to wind, the slop of washtub seas and cloudswept and rainy skies when really turning on and feeding. At least on that the wind was blowing fifteen knots into our faces. We did have that.
The time for the tide we wanted to fish still was still about an hour or so away. With slack and the eventual turn still to come. Our chosen water empty of other anglers, a rather rare occurrence as I’m led to believe, Panos and I took a knee and some time to survey the water for signs of life from the short, stony beach. We discussed the maddening effects of tarpon fishing, largemouth bass, and the foolishness that are restaurants that have chosen to name themselves with puns. Undistracted by our musings, Brain left us to our chatter and tramped out into the chilled flow and started firing loops out into the tide. Eventually the tide reversed and the water began to fill with glimmering boils and eddies. Upwellings from the gently contoured bottom. With the water looking promising Panos and I waded out and began swinging our flies with the tide.
The three of us fished about an hour before Brian spotted what looked like gulls swarming over bait a mile or so away. We gave the first water we’d chosen five more minutes before giving chase to the birds.
A light jog in full waders and a few miles traversed in the car and we’d found the birds. Unfortunately for us, the birds for all their swooping and diving to and from the water were not working bait. Rather they were just doing bird stuff. Like flying around. And screaming. Assholes. We stayed a while working the small bay in which we’d found ourselves with the hope that the water it held, slightly warmer than that of our first stop, would be enough to entice a bass or two into loitering about long enough to swim before our flies. None of us got tight. Our last stop of the day required still a bit more driving, and even then, after another hour and change of casting and swinging flies we were still without a fish. Though at this final stop we did see one fish, in the mid-thirty inch range taken by a nearby fisherman. For us, the day was skunk, but on the drive back to Manhattan Brian said it best. We got out there, saw some water, and learned that the fish hadn’t yet made it as far as we had been looking. Successful reconnaissance to be sure.
The following week Panos and I tried again. New spot, new weather. Rainy. Overcast. Cold. Not a breath of wind. Everything slicked out. Again we were the only ones fishing. The set-up seemed ideal. But after almost two hours of fishing neither of us had been hit and we hadn’t seen a single sign of life. Bass, birds, bait or otherwise. Not to mention that my efforts to cast that day were piss poor. I don’t know if I neglected to stretch my line well enough, if the two hours of sleep I’d managed between closing the bar and getting into Panos’ car had negatively affected my motor skills, if I was missing an entire ferrule or what. Maybe it was just my day to suck. Whatever the case, the fruition of that morning, that seemed rich with the promise of hungry stripers, was a frustrating nightmare.
We changed locale to an area that was reportedly holding some solid numbers of bass. I left the fly rod in the car, choosing to keep my blood pressure low, and switched over to a spinning rod and a jerk bait while Panos went after the largest fly in his box. For in the striper game, size does matter.
Having spent the majority of angling life in southern waters I am very much an acolyte of the whole “elephants eat peanuts” school of thought, because, relatively speaking it is true. Sure, if you throw a chunky, deer-hair-headed ten inch mullet pattern at a hundred plus pound tarpon, or a twenty-six pound redfish they will eat it. Probably. The point though is that you don’t have to throw anything that big in most warmwater fisheries. The aforementioned fish would happily eat a three-inch anyfish pattern without hesitation. Five or six inches are about as big as you need. And the math is simple. I get it. Poons and snook are eating small forage fish, crabs, and shrimp the majority of time. Bite size type things. Where striped bass are eating baitfish that outweigh the average bonefish. It’s how they like to roll. I saw a dude a couple of weeks ago throwing a soft plastic eel. It was THIRTY INCHES LONG. And he caught fish on it. I mean what the fuck. Point being, it’s something I’m having to get used to. Throwing huge flies and lures and having to sometimes gear up to a 10 weight, not because a thirty inch bass is such an ass kicker, but because I’m about to cast two pounds of material into the tide. It’s new. It’s weird. I’m having fun. Digression over.
We plumbed the water column from top to bottom for a couple of hours before calling it quits. Another skunk. However, we spent some time chatting in the parking lot with a rather fishy gentleman who revealed that the fish were holding in an area between where we had begun our morning and where we were ending it. The beginning of the run was imminent.
Two days later I was in Cold Spring, New York (and if you ever find yourself in this rad little town go check out Old Souls. Place is great.) for a bit of hiking when I got text from Panos. “A lot of fish,” he wrote. “We crushed them.”
A couple of days later Panos and I were on our way to catch a late afternoon/evening tide and to get tight on the freshly swimming fish. And in typical metropolitan fashion traffic out of the city at 3pm was a fucking nightmare. NIGHTMARE. We arrived much later than we wanted to, and both of us were a little salty as we geared up. Each of us grousing not-so-jovially about missing the tide, the light, etcetera.
There were eight or nine other guys already in the water was we were walking up. Two were on their way out. Surf-style spinning rods slung backwards over their shoulders.
“How was it,” asked Panos.
One of the men shook his head at the question. He looked cold.
“Been here since sunrise. Twelve hours. No fish.”
The two men continued on and away from the water. As Panos and I waded in he turned to me.
“They should have stayed,” he said.
I let go with a long sigh.
“I don’t know, dude. I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Watch. It’s gonna happen.”
We took our places in line and started fishing. The sun declined in the west and the clouds began to grey with shadow. The world around turned to blues in the decaying light. Lodes of gemstone orange and gold chasing the hot orb down the horizon on its way into night. And twenty minutes after I’d sent my first loop out across the pushing water, like dominoes falling, rods began to double down the line under the weight of feeding spring stripers. One by one by one.
A few moments later and I had brought my first striper on fly to hand. It was schoolie and no great shakes for a fish that will achieve sizes well in excess of fifty pounds, but it’s like they say. You always remember your first. And given the fact that the bite was on fire that evening, I was able to bank some memories on the other dozen and a half that I got tight to that evening.
It was pretty remarkable. Everyone there was hooking up as fast as they could land a fish and cast again. Most of the fish taken on fly were schoolies, 18″-26″, while the guys working with spinning gear, and able reach further and into deeper water catching a slightly larger average size, with some fish over 30″ coming to hand.
We fished well into dark. The entire cadre of fisherman standing before the tide working their lures and flies in silence. Save an errant whisper here and there. The slash of graphite carving the night and the susurrations of fly line being shot serving as the only reminders that there were other fisherman fifteen feet to either side of me. All casting at that point was done entirely by feel. The speed of the line sliding through my fingers. The weight of the rod at full load. It was tough. You have no focal point for which to aim and no idea how much line you’ve got out. A lot casts died in the dark that night. But when the fish are there, you keep casting.
At three hours into the tide, the sun long gone, and the wind beginning to rise, the cold was beginning to wear on me . My fingers were numb and I was near ready to call it quits. That’s when I heard it. A quick zippering of Gortex sliding against Gortex. A strip set.
“Oh yeah,” whispered Panos. The words small in the darkness. “Big fish.”
I clicked my headlamp on. Bowed to the reel seat, the 8 weight Hardy caught the wan artificial light and flared. A white-hot parabola incising the black. Beads of water clutching the fly line winked as they traveled out through the guides after the bass as it ran away with the tide. Panos leveraging hard against the fish to slow its pace and the fish paying little heed to the pressure.
Panos said the words before the Abel actually came out of the reel seat. He must have felt the metal slipping. When I heard them, I swung my eyes towards the direction of the fish, thinking the problem had occurred further down the line. That maybe he suspected the 20# leader was beginning to part. Or the fish had swam into one of the other lines being fished. So, I never saw the reel leap forward from its tether. Nor I did I see Panos catch the reel one-handed and in mid-air. When I turned back around, to face him, the scene that I found was a kind of odd Tenkaric cluster fuck. Panos had the rod, reel-less, held at chest level and away to right. His left arm jerking forward while the rest of him remained rigid. A marionette held fast to a single animating string. He’d caught the reel on the spool side, disabling the drag. For to hold the reel loosely enough for the fish to continue to take line would have seen the reel fly from his grip and shatter its way up the guides before disappearing forever in the Atlantic ocean.
“Fuck. Shit. The fucking reel came off,” he said. Following with a few more choice expletives, the transparency was appreciated, but unneccessary. Despite being completely handcuffed by efforts to avoid the catastrophic failure of losing the reel altogether, Panos managed to retain an impressive calm.
I moved over to him. I took his reel hand and we moved the reel back to the rod. Once there Panos inverted the rod so the reel seat was facing up. I held the feet of the reel fast against the reel seat and Panos slid his hand from the spool side of the reel to body side. The fish could take line again.
Panos stayed tight on the fish playing it expertly with the crippled system while I maneuvered the reel feet back into the seat. My fingers were numb entire and I couldn’t feel the locking rings at all as I spun them up their channels. They came tight and I gave the locking rings two more hard turns.
Panos spun the rod back over and went back to fighting the bass. A few more minutes passed. When the bass came into the shallows before us, its head displacing enough tidewater to fill an extra-large rondeau, there was no conversation about landing the fish. Panos took a last pair of turns on the reel and steered the rod and fish towards me. I stepped quick and latched both hands onto its lower jaw before it had time to react to the shape that had just materialized before it out of the dark.
Oddly enough, there was far more confusion in trying to document the catch then there was in any of the hooking, fighting, and landing of the bass. We pick our battles, I suppose.
And I must say, I wish I could have managed to take some better photos of this epic fish than those more or less shot on the fly amidst the confusion and excitement both Panos and I were experiencing. But amidst the adrenaline, cold, and hip-deep water I fell a little short with the photography. Sure, we could have taken an extra few minutes to reign in the excitement and regain composure. Focus on making an image with the fish posed all perfect, but we wanted to get her back in the water. The battle had been hard-fought and she had a whole summer of swimming still to go. Panos set about reviving her. Her gills working easily as the tide washed over them. The low whoosh of water churning with each sweep of the broad, heavy tail. Soft dorsal swimming as it rode above the water. Panos pointed the fish towards deeper water and let go. We candled the way for the striper as it decamped slowly over the stone and sand. The length and bulk and burnished flanks distorted and reduced in the gin clear water, betrayed by refraction. And at the edge of the fused glow from our LED’s the bass turned a grey shadow and then simply vanished. Swallowed up in the dark, pulsing tide.
We fished a while longer, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was cold and between the two of us we’d caught well over thirty fish. We had accomplished what we had set out to. Hammer fish. And that says nothing be able to bear witness to Panos landing such an awesome striped bass.
On the drive back to the city we did not talk about the fishing we’d done that day. Didn’t talk about Panos’ big fish or how many we’d caught or the guys who had fished twelve hours only to leave twenty minutes too early. We talked about what was next. Where the fish would be in two weeks. A month. Two months. Weakfish. More stripers. Bluefish. This is fast becoming my favorite aspect of this new-to-me fishery. That it is perpetually dynamic. That here today, gone tomorrow is the speed limit at which all contestants must play. That it is not easy fishing. But if you manage to time it right, just right, the fishing can be extraordinary. And that if you only hit it perfect for one day in the entire season, all the waiting and skunks and months of shitty winter weather, are worth it. It’s enough. Maybe.
Big thanks to my main man Panos for sharing mad knowledge and showing me how it’s done up here in the Northeast. I couldn’t have got the striper on fly monkey off my back without him. Dude’s fishy like you wouldn’t believe.
Two weeks from yesterday Nicki and I will be wrangling brown and rainbow trout at high elevation while basking in the natural beauty that is New Mexico. Land Of Enchantment! Following that, it’s flats season in the Northeast and I’ll be scouring the skinny stuff for early summer stripes with my homie Capt. Vinny Catalano. Hopefully all that fishing and fucking around will translate into lots of tasty stories to be told in the near future. Stick around.