From The Surf: Early Morning Fishing
In the gray light, I look down and check my plug selection, a 7-inch, 3-ounce pencil popper, white with a faint pink stripe down each side. I briefly debate switching out for yellow or perhaps a mackerel pattern, but opt against it. I’ve seen no signs of life yet, at least not in the water, and start to second-guess my location. The gulls seem ambivalent too, taking short flights out over the water before coming back to rest on the grease-calm surface. It’s June, after all – somewhere, anywhere, there could be a typhoon of striped bass and baitfish within sniping distance of my 11-foot rod.
My cell phone, perilously stored in the front pouch of my waders where at least a half-dozen cell phones before it have met their doom, remains silent. Two of my friends are also out fishing, following their own interpretations of where the tide, wind and weather might have sent the fish. We promised to coordinate in order to zero in on the bass, but surfcasters are at the same time chronic exaggerators and painstakingly secretive. Relying on fishing buddies to provide you good information in real time is asking a lot.
When we planned to coordinate the night before, I already knew one of my friends would make a fish call prematurely – after a seeing a single splash or small school of baitfish – suggesting the blitz of blitzes is about to take place at his feet, and I had better get there. I’ve chased these prophecies and found quiet waters, my friend shrugging his shoulders and saying it never really materialized. So when he calls first to say the birds are “acting fishy,” I stay put.
I start casting, still not seeing any sign of stripers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t here.
The second friend calls after he’s put nine fish on the beach that morning alone and the school is moving off. He’s done this before, calling with wild descriptions of birds raining hellfire from above, bass ripping the ocean into shreds and baitfish seeking refuge on the beach, preferring to die of oxygen deprivation than ingestion – after it’s already played out. In the past, I’ve arrived late to this scene, and found glittering baitfish corpses outlining the farthest reach of the waves and a still ocean.
Occasionally, there’s a fisherman or two calling it quits on the morning and heading back to their cars, grasping a striped bass’s gill plate at their waist while the fish’s tail still drags along the ground. When he tells me there’s still a slow pick of fish, I thank him, and again stay put.
A small v-wake catches my attention, a baitfish of some sort. When it veers closer, I see it’s a bunker. The fish looks battered and bruised, a zombie fish, isolated from his schoolmates. I feel bad for the bunker, a creature that spent its entire life surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of its kin. Now, by some sort of interference, this fish has been left behind. Before I can get too sentimental, the bunker’s problems are over. Mouth agape, emerging from the green depths, 30 pounds of striped bass puts an end to the baitfish’s misery. The bass eats and turns in one motion, its tail swinging wide and slapping the water in that staccato pop I’ve been waiting all spring to hear. As I look up from the drama unfolding at my feet, I see them rolling in — the stampede of bass and bunker.
The graphite rod loads like a slingshot and snaps straight, shooting the plug on a trajectory for the heart of the school. The plug lands and I make it dance, rod butt between my legs, right hand on the foregrip, left hand on the reel handle, pulling the rod up and pushing it down to make the tip whip back and forth. The plug comes to life. Its heavy rear section stays anchored in the water while the narrow tip washes side to side, bouncing off the surface, sending up a small spray. I turn the reel handle just fast enough to make the plug inch forward as it dances. A boil appears behind it. Something has taken interest. I keep moving the plug and the hit comes. The water below the pencil popper detonates, but instead of disappearing from sight in the maw of the bass, my plug is in plain view, cartwheeling through the air. He missed, I think, but that’s not correct. The fish made a direct hit, and had the striper done that to a bunker instead of an unyielding piece of wood, the stunned baitfish would have folded neatly into the striper’s gullet.
Whether it’s the same fish that comes back for the plug or another, I can’t say, but as soon as I take up the slack and put the lure in motion, it’s attacked. The hooks take hold, and the bass, furious at this situation, rips up the water. In the early morning light, the fish looks brownish as it thrashes on the surface, though when it draws near, it will show an olive hue to its back with the slightest tint of purple on its sides. Backlit as the sun crests over the horizon, the dorsal fin and top of the tail appear transparent as the bass circles toward the shore. I grab the leader, wrap it around my hand, and then grab the plug. The front treble has taken purchase in the corner of the fish’s mouth while the rear hook has found purchase under the lower jaw.
Once I watch the broad tail propel the fish back into the green waters, I grab my phone and call in my friends. They join me in plenty of time, and we connect with a few more fish each before the bite slows and my alarm signals it’s time to get to the office. We walk off together, making plans for the following day. It will be the fourth day fishing early in the morning in a row, but not going fishing seems like an illogical choice. It’s June after all – the best month of the year.