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