ON THE RUN

FALL STIRS THE DRIVE TO CHASE LONG AND HARD AF­TER FLEE­ING FISH

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By JOHN LEE

Life seems set against the clock in the fall, when the crisp air, cool­ing wa­ters and fad­ing light make for fran­tic fishing in the North­east and Mid-at­lantic.

It was early Oc­to­ber when I landed my first job. I was be­tween high school and col­lege, un­de­cided, un­com­mit­ted, a bit lost. The job in­ter­view oc­curred among bar­rels of skate and cir­cling gulls. It lasted less than a minute. “Be here to­mor­row morn­ing at 4,” the cap­tain said. And just like that, I was lob­ster­ing out of New­port, Rhode Is­land.

That was nearly 30 years ago, and I didn’t have a clue. I’d fished plenty, or so I thought. Shark and tuna with my brother and dad, stripers and blues, the oc­ca­sional weak­fish. Dur­ing my se­nior year in high school, I’d formed a fishing club in lieu of play­ing soc­cer and lacrosse. We caught a few trout, built our own fly rods and lis­tened to the Dead.

But this was en­tirely dif­fer­ent. This was a work­boat with hard dudes who couldn’t give a fly­ing crap about my AP art history class, Rem­brandt or van Gogh. These were the kinds of guys who never asked a sin­gle ques­tion about your past, your fam­ily, your in­ter­ests, the teams you rooted for or whether you liked dogs more than cats. I loved it and hated it — the work, the hours, the sea.

We fished the fall gales, our bod­ies soaked to the core. I un­der­stood quickly how beauty and dread can live within the same moment. Sum­mer was gone and with it the haze, glare and the dor­sal of a blue shark in a slick. The tone and col­ors changed with the an­gle of light. The lob­ster run had be­gun.

Un­til then, I hadn’t un­der­stood what a “run” was, never mind ac­tu­ally fishing one. This was my rookie year, my in­tro­duc­tion to the pace, rhythm and in­san­ity of fishing hard. And it wasn’t just lob­sters. Dur­ing the fall of ’89, striped bass also con­sumed me. The at­mos­phere at the State Pier in New­port, where the lob­ster boats tied up, was in full striper mode. Ev­ery­one fished for them. There were rods stick­ing out of trucks, waders heaped in cor­ners, plugs on front seats, hooks on dash­boards. It was all we talked about. Where’s the chunk bite, the plug bite, the bait?

I re­mem­ber one of the lo­cals landed a bass of about 50 pounds around Hal­loween. He brought it to the pier, and we stood around his truck in sweat­shirts, el­bows on the bed, eyes an­gled down

at the long fish. The air was cold, and the lob­ster docks smelled of salted bunker and dried rope. I was trans­fixed, a neu­ron lit­er­ally fused inside my head, seal­ing that moment to a fish, a place and a sea­son.

I love the mood of the fall, with ev­ery­thing in mo­tion, fall­ing tem­per­a­tures, shorter days, our souther­lies re­placed by winds from the north and west. The air is cleaner, sharper, the hu­mid­ity gone. The colder wa­ter has more punch and den­sity. All life seems set against the clock. Ev­ery­thing packs on the feed.

Through­out New Eng­land, fish are on the run: striped bass, blue­fish, black­fish, scup, fluke, an­chovies, men­haden, al­ba­core and more. Some move down the coast for the Carolinas; oth­ers head off­shore to deeper, more sta­ble wa­ter. We fish in a rush. The tempo from Maine to Mon­tauk and past Cape May is about get­ting as much as you can.

If you’re young, you grind it out. The thought of a missed week is par­a­lyz­ing. The false al­ba­core fish­ery the past few falls has been strong. Watch these guys go at it, fran­ti­cally, com­pul­sively, each cast into break­ing fish more re­lent­less than the last be­cause they know they’re on the clock. En­ergy is run­ning down-tide.

In Novem­ber, we watch rafts of sea ducks grow larger as more birds ar­rive to win­ter over. The black­fish is the poster-child of late fall. Weather win­dows are short, and most guys worry about not get­ting enough trips to jus­tify keep­ing their boats in through Thanks­giv­ing. Many surf cast­ers hang it up, claim­ing the fish have moved off the beach. Even the good spots be­gin to empty out. It’s all yours.

If you time it right and the sea her­ring ar­rive from the Gulf of Maine, the late-sea­son fishing for stripers and blues can be re­mark­able. These are beau­ti­ful fish with deep col­ors, cold-washed hues of blue, black and sil­ver. They look like a sub­species of the sum­mer fish. Every year I hope for this. I watch for gan­nets, wait on the bait, break out the heavy jigs. The beach is a mile away. You let the jig drop into the school. The air is so clear it feels al­most strange. In a few weeks it’ll be Christ­mas.

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