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