THE RUN

IN FALL, YOU MIGHT FISH 40 NIGHTS TO GET ONE THAT YOU’LL NEVER FOR­GET

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS -

In the North­east, the fall mi­gra­tion is un­der­way, and an­glers will fish tide after tide un­til after Thanks­giv­ing in search of stripers that weigh a pound an inch. By ZACH HAR­VEY

Fall wouldn’t be fall with­out Septem­ber. But if you look at it with a cool head, it’s not hard to see that month nine has more to do with Au­gust than with Oc­to­ber.

Hur­ri­canes, sure. But in the south­ern reaches of our far North we’re still chip­ping away at the same res­i­dent fish that came home with the June moon, the main charge of the Ch­e­sa­peake’s broad-headed, deep-bel­lied won­der women: stripers built the old way, a pound an inch. Septem­ber’s the last of our plan A tac­tics and A-list grounds.

Late in the month, the fronts start queu­ing up like 747s in the Thanks­giv­ing-eve sky over JFK. The first or the fifth east­erly gale spins ashore with a lit­tle ex­tra right english and dumps mon­soon rains. The surge ar­rives, back­ing a night tide, stands the fleet up straight in its slips, leaves fin­ger docks and fresh­wa­ter ser­vice lines un­der a foot of wa­ter. When the tide re­treats, it gath­ers six months of eel­grass, sticks, des­ic­cated mats of wrack line, fish totes, float­ing poly and pot buoys, and drags it all back out the in­let into cir­cu­la­tion.

Two tides later, the storm’s high­tail­ing it past Province­town, Mas­sachusetts, Ge­orges-bound. Wind drops out. Flags hang in ver­ti­cal heaps, mo­tion­less for an hour or two. A half-tide after that, the air changes. Wind comes back up in a ris­ing hiss. The mer­cury rises sharply in its tube — and the tem­per­a­ture drops from 64 de­grees to 38 in­side of three gusty hours.

Four days left on the kitchen cal­en­dar: Septem­ber still. Call it what­ever makes you happy. We know Oc­to­ber when we see it.

The “fall run” we ro­man­ti­cize dur­ing the other nine months of the year isn’t one body of fish, one class of plugs or some sec­ondary hit list of foolproof au­tumn striper struc­tures. The fall run is a fa­cial tic, a two-month Ir­ish Catholic guilt trip for the striper-lov­ing world, a manic episode in 12 acts. We, the men of au­tumn, don’t run. We hold our ground, as much of it as we can de­fend, and hope to head them off at the pass.

It takes a few sea­sons to un­der­stand that the au­tumn fish­ery is not — re­ally, can­not be — an act of pure of­fen­sive plan­ning. No part of this

spec­tac­u­lar, hun­dred-lay­ered eco­log­i­cal traf­fic jam we call a mi­gra­tion is par­tic­u­larly lin­ear or se­quen­tial. Nor are striped bass (or giant bluefin tuna, cod, sea her­ring, por­gies, blue­fish, tau­tog, false al­ba­core, squid or any other species we tar­get) uni­formly dis­trib­uted across ev­ery mile of their sea­sonal range.

What I mean is that many green­horn striper­men vi­su­al­ize a Macy’s Thanks­giv­ing Day Pa­rade of game fish, four bass across and 1,500 miles long, snaking along the coast from Long Is­land Sound to New­found­land. When the wind howls south­east and 50 teen-class stripers va­cate a tidal-river in­let they’ve haunted for more than a week, the flat­lander imag­ines no less than 50 fall-run re­place­ments, the head of the line that snakes in from points east, jump­ing the turn­stiles and fall­ing into for­ma­tion — one out, one in. Re­peat, re­peat, re­peat un­til the line ends on Christ­mas Eve. Or …

Not so much.

There are few rules and no guar­an­tees this side of La­bor Day. The­o­ries are like star­lings that form up into amoe­bic megaflocks when weather’s brew­ing late: They blot out the sun.

After a cou­ple of falls get­ting jerked around by an end­less ar­ray of shoulda-been-here-last­nights and we-clocked-em-this-morn­ings, we learn the true na­ture of the task at hand: We throw our neo­prenes, an ex­tra hoodie and a pair of gloves in the truck and dump an ex­tra pound of eels into the keeper car, know­ing the hours we keep are about to go to­tally out of whack with tackle-shop hours.

The plan, here to De­cem­ber, is to hit a smart mix of spots ev­ery night there’s even a faint chance we’ll sniff out a feed­ing striper in cast­ing range. The cen­tral strug­gle with “mi­gra­tion” fish­ing is the lack of sta­tion­ary stripers to hunt at our con­ve­nience. We cover the same grounds night after night, tak­ing enough casts per stop to de­ter­mine whether a shot of fish has ar­rived — or van­ished — dur­ing our ab­sence the last 12 or 24 hours.

At least up to the point when we find a sub­stan­tial body of fish, job one is to keep our spots hon­est. When we fi­nally land, ac­cord­ing to the law of au­tumn av­er­ages, in a fu­ri­ous hit of big bass on a binge feed, we can aban­don search mode and work on the fish we’ve found un­til the meat dries up or pushes on a few tides later to chew up some mi­gra­tory miles be­fore the next three-day caloric ben­der, lo­ca­tion TBD.

The deeper we fish into the frozen dark — Thanks­giv­ing? — the more we can’t help won­der whether, more than our pet spots or even the west­bound bass, it’s our­selves we’re keep­ing hon­est, out haunt­ing the ocean­front with the rest of the af­flicted, rods peek­ing over our tail­gates. One more species on the move at tem­per­ate lat­i­tudes.

The grim truth of fall-run cast­ing: Even if your com­mit­ment is to­tal and your fish­ing skill un­canny, you’ll fish 40 au­tumn nights to get five that pay and one you’ll never for­get. The way I fig­ured it, I’ve worked twice as hard in four times the pain for many con­sec­u­tive days or nights longer in other fish­ing sce­nar­ios — man­aged to pre­vail then and will, no doubt, again.

One ben­e­fit of age is the abil­ity to change the terms or cur­ren­cies of suc­cess. Call it a cop-out, but the yield of an au­tumn in the high surf is much big­ger and richer, more sat­is­fy­ing, more mem­o­rable than a 90-day body count of bass over 20 pounds.

Much as I’ll ap­pre­ci­ate the meat a few months hence, when sun­set’s at 2:38 p.m., I doubt I’ll in­clude that ex­act fish in my in­ward high­light reel. But the bat­shit-crazy con­ver­sa­tion with a to­tal stranger at 3 a.m. — the whole dis­tanceas-time thing in space — fol­lowed by 10 min­utes of sleep-de­prived hys­ter­ics while the tide quit? Top five, Novem­ber 2017.

The big­ger vic­tory, too big to take in at sea level with nor­mal hu­man senses, will be march­ing into the im­mi­nent win­ter hav­ing lived the last three months in ex­act ac­cor­dance with a piece of good sense that has lived in the bones of ev­ery New Eng­lan­der who ever worked the fields and fished the waters I call home: While the sun shined, I made hay.

The faith­ful work late into fall, look­ing for a good fish as the sea­son dis­ap­pears in a se­ries of gales.

Bait and birds and fish set the tone dur­ing the fast-paced fall mi­gra­tions.

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