Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By Wil­liam Sisson We want to hear from you. Please send your com­ments to ed­i­tor-in-chief Bill Sisson at wsis­[email protected]­me­

It helps to have a lit­tle cussed­ness in your makeup when the beach is cold and empty, and you’re chas­ing the last fish of the sea­son. By WIL­LIAM SISSON

Iam at home on a beach late in the sea­son, in the dark, alone, keep­ing the cold at bay. Alert for a light, a sound, a smell. Any­thing out of the or­di­nary. It is dur­ing these last ves­tiges of fall fish­ing that I feel as if I am liv­ing close to my bones. Hal­lowed and hol­lowed out. Cold pour­ing in from the north. Ev­ery­thing shut­ting down. With the bulk of the striped bass gone and more leav­ing daily, you never know what you’re go­ing to find from one night or one tide to the next. It’s not like ear­lier in the sea­son, when you’re work­ing on res­i­dent fish and you’re di­aled in to a place and a pat­tern.

It’s as if you’re go­ing through the pock­ets of an 8-year-old boy when you’re ready­ing his laun­dry — a shiny piece of coal, a bot­tle cap, a lucky rock from a hike a week ago, two moist Life Savers, a stick with a rounded tip.

What will it be tonight? A 20-inch fish? A 20-pounder? Nada? You pull the knot tight and trim it in the dim glow of a head­lamp and re­sume cast­ing.

The surf is up, and bro­ken waves drain through the pea-sized beach gravel. “The beach hisses like fat,” El­iz­a­beth Bishop writes in her poem “Sand­piper.”

Like the sand­peeps, I, too, take the roar­ing of the surf for granted, know­ing, as Bishop ob­served, that ev­ery so of­ten our world is bound to shake.

The stripers I chase in these fi­nal days thrive across a broad swath of topsy-turvy wa­ters from Nova Sco­tia to North Carolina, as at home feed­ing in pound­ing surf as they are push­ing up coastal rivers and bays.

“Isn’t it a won­der­ful fish?” asks Pete, the old top-wa­ter plug slinger from Cut­ty­hunk, Mas­sachusetts.

I work three spots without so much as a bump on my way to the point, where I cast about 6 feet from a large rock shaped like a moun­tain sad­dle. The end near­est me is an­gled, so ev­ery 10th or 12th wave that breaks on it show­ers me with spray. It’s been do­ing that for 40 years. I’ve come to re­gard this surf-smoothed er­ratic as an old friend: an­noy­ing when the waves are up but part of the ex­tended fam­ily. I put up with the wet in­sults be­cause it’s the best place to fish the east side of the point. Tonight, how­ever, the dous­ing is for naught; the stripers are ab­sent.

The tide has tripped, and the near-shore wa­ters have wo­ken; the swells snap to at­ten­tion. Em­bold­ened with the en­ergy of the flood tide, the sets roll into the shal­lows with vigor, the largest waves climb­ing to head-high and pack­ing into their steep faces and bar­rels the en­ergy of yes­ter­day’s 50-knot gusts.

I re­trace my steps, fish­ing care­fully, prob­ing left and right and cov­er­ing a lot of wa­ter. The first two spots yield noth­ing, and I briefly con­sider pack­ing it in.

The last place I try is the for­got­ten re­mains of a gun bat­tery built in 1898 as part of a Span­ish-amer­i­can War fort. Time, hur­ri­canes and win­ter storms have re­duced the gun em­place­ment to a few chunks of rub­ble, vis­i­ble only on the low­est of tides and de­ci­pher­able only to a hand­ful of gray­beards who grew up lis­ten­ing to the sto­ries told by old­timers, all of whom are now push­ing up daisies.

Sur­prise. There are fish here. As waves bomb the ru­ins, stripers criss­cross their re­mains. Small fish, just be­yond the waves. I stay for about an hour and take five.

My fam­ily has fished these wa­ters for more than 150 years with seine nets, traps, hand lines, heav­ing and haul­ing, rod and reel. Along with the fish, I am pur­su­ing a one-legged ghost, a Civil War am­putee and seine-net­ter whose rough im­print I can still see across four gen­er­a­tions of fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing his great grand­chil­dren, who are now on the cusp of be­com­ing old­sters them­selves. No but­tery sen­ti­men­tal­ity. Just a lot of hard bark.

We are all our fa­thers’ sons.

My old man never un­der­stood catch and re­lease. A child of the Great De­pres­sion, he was driven by hunger, long af­ter there was any mon­e­tary rea­son to go without. He fished this very spot 80 years ago, give or take. I re­mem­ber the fam­ily sto­ries.

If he were alive tonight, our con­ver­sa­tion would go like this:

How many did you get? he’d ask.


What’d you do with them?

You know what I did with them. I let them go.

He shakes his head and snorts.


I laugh, shake mine and try to ex­plain how times have changed.

The shad­ows merge and grow longer each day. The beach is cold, empty and windy — beau­ti­ful for all its lone­li­ness. It helps to have a pinch of cussed­ness in your makeup to off­set any il­lu­sion of bal­ance or grace or the no­tion that the fish­ing will im­prove be­fore spring. You put your head down like a plow horse, place one foot in front of the other and trudge into the wind, rod on your shoul­der.

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