In the predawn darkness, I knew exactly where I was by the scent of the ocean and seaweed at low tide filling my nostrils. It wasn’t windy, but an easy swell pushed in from Casco Bay and washed against the rocks with a gentle roar. I made my way by headlamp across the rocks of the peninsula, worn over eons into long, threatening blades. Due to the low stage of the tide, I had to pick my way down seaweed- and barnacle-covered rocks. The grip provided by my felt-soled boots—to which I’d strapped chains for extra traction—worked like 4-wheel drive for my feet and allowed me to creep out onto the last big rock that dropped off into deep water. I was surrounded on three sides by prime striper water no more than a couple rod lengths away. As I made my first casts, the eastern horizon was just beginning to brighten, and there was not another soul around. I was on a quest for a giant striper and started off with a large Lefty’s Deceiver. I made several casts in various directions without a strike. I let the fly sink, stripped it slowly back to the rocks, giving a few extra strips and pauses at the rod tip. I was hoping that stripers were nearby and would strike right against the rocks at my feet.
As the sky brightened enough that I could see into the water a bit, I saw a flash behind my fly on a couple of casts. After it happened a third time, I switched my fly to a smaller chartreuse Clouser Minnow, one that catches bass for me anywhere I go in fresh or saltwater. On the very next cast, I was halfway through my retrieve when the jolt of a hard strike threatened to steal my rod. As my hand clamped down on the cork, I gave a small, triumphant hoot.
The fish took all my loose line and a little extra and, for a few moments, fooled me into thinking I’d hooked a bigger fish. A few minutes later, I grabbed a chunky schoolie from the waves washing around my ankles, impressed, as always, with its strength and aggressiveness.
After some more casts and another schoolie in hand, I heard a wet puff of air. I looked up from where my line entered the water and spotted the shiny black head of a seal at the surface, looking at me like a curious dog. I had seen seals here before. On my first trip, I was invited to fish from a borrowed kayak, and one of the fish I hooked suddenly began pulling with frightening strength. After seeing a giant mottled creature in the water below, I thought I had hooked a trophy. Instead, I shared a moment of surprise with a seal that popped its head out of the water about 10 feet away with my small striper in its mouth. It eventually let go of the fish, which I landed and released relatively unharmed.
After a moment, the seal lost interest and dipped its head back under the surface, and disappeared. I thought about the recent and tragic news of a swimmer, not far from where I was fishing, who was fatally attacked by a shark. Since seals are a major food source for the increasing numbers of great white sharks, I began scanning the glassy water for a fin cutting the surface.
Every time I tell people that I went to Hermit Island, they ask how I got there and are always a bit confused when I tell them I drove. There is a private campground on the coast of Maine that is accessible by a rough dirt road that crosses a sand dune and leads to the rugged and heavily forested coastal Island. There are only tents and tent trailers allowed on the campsites, which vary from oceanfront to deep in the forest. Reservations can be made (by mail) months ahead of time, but sometimes you can get lucky if you call during the season, provided you aren’t picky about which campsite you get.
In addition to the secluded and scenic beaches, the island has large stretches of prime, rocky coastline—perfect habitat for striped bass. Beaches can be incredibly productive, but I have always been drawn to the character of the rocky coast, with the shadows of boulders, weed patches and eerie black holes of deeper water where predators hunt. Even compared to the jumbled rocks making up a jetty, Mother Nature created a special pattern of rocks and contours that makes each section of shoreline unique. Jetties also draw anglers, and if you get out and explore, you will likely have a rock all to yourself. Using Google Earth, you can digitally fly over the coastline of state parks and other public areas, looking for rocks and structure. Even if it is a popular park or tourist area, it’s a good bet you will have the place to yourself at 4 a.m.
Look for sections near deeper water and channels, keeping in mind that different spots will fish differently and have varying amounts of accessibility, depending on the tide. Be careful not to strand yourself in a dangerous spot on a rising tide. If you wander far out onto a rock pile at low tide, keep a close eye on the rising tide and always have an escape route to higher ground and a route back to land above the high tide mark.
The tide was lower at sunrise on my second morning, and the same rock was too far from the water to fish. The steep drop-off that made a great spot the previous morning was now prohibiting me from getting all the way to the water. Crawling and sliding down through a miniature canyon of kelp-covered boulders on the other side of the point, I found a spot. After 10 minutes of trying to keep my back-cast off the rocks towering behind me and getting attacked by a swarm of mosquitos, I knew I needed to get out of there.
Frustrated by not being in a good location at first light, I marched down the beach as fast as I could, sweating in my waders, to the next point of land. Working my way down the point, I crossed a cut in the rocks that was flooded with knee-deep water at high tide, so technically I could call the land beyond an island. I had fished here before, and I knew there was a big slab of rock that sloped off into the deep water of a channel and was fishable at all stages of the tide. On some mornings, the natural quiet is broken by the deep rumble of an approaching lobster boat. Occasionally, I get a wave from the captain as he cruises through the channel close to the rocks. I caught a few more schoolies and knew this was where I needed to be at sunrise the next morning.
The last morning of our long-weekend escape, I awoke to heavy rain hammering the tent and thunder shaking the ground below my sleeping pad. I reached under the cot that my wife, Michelle, was sleeping on and grabbed my phone to check the time. It was a little before 4 am.
On these family camping trips, we typically spend time together during the day, but the early morning hours, when everyone is asleep, belong to me. BUT, since standing exposed and alone on a rock in the ocean in a lightning storm is not a good place to be, I let myself doze a bit longer to let it pass.
Just as the sky was beginning to change from deep black to a medium grey color, the rain slowed down and the thunder stopped. I climbed into my wet waders and made my way down the rough dirt road to the beach. When I got out from behind the protection of the higher ground and trees, I was greeted by an angry ocean and a strong wind. Big, mean-looking, steel-colored breakers crashed against the rocks. Nevertheless, I headed back to my rock slab. It was drenched from the pouring rain, its depressions filled with rainwater like a maze of miniature ponds. Thankfully, the protection of an island just offshore meant I could fish in the channel between the island and the shoreline in relative calm without being fully exposed to the largest of the waves.
It was not relaxing fishing. Assaulted by the roar of the breaking sea, struggling with the wind to get off a decent cast, and fighting to stay in contact with the fly in the violent water took a lot of energy. It was starting to feel futile when a striper attacked the fly just off my rod tip. I was encouraged that the fish were feeding, and I was also reminded that I didn’t need to make long casts into the wind since the fish were close. I remembered a guide telling me that I needed to get the fly swimming right in the white water against the rocks. I began fishing exceptionally close, throwing my fly into the churning white froth of each breaker as it crashed. Careful timing was needed: a false cast as the wave approached, so the line is in the air and ready to drop into the swell of water as soon as it hits shore. Then the fly swings and drifts, with a few strips mixed in as the foam settles and the water rushes back down the rocks. It’s amazing to me that I might catch fish in a patch of water that is gone after a few seconds.
My carefully choreographed dance with the waves was rewarded a few casts later with a strong bass that shot straight up at the fly as I retrieved it through the foamy layer of a big wave. The combined force of the fish and the receding wave pulled my line way far off the rock ledge and the loose line wrapped around the reel handle for a moment. A stripping basket is essential for fishing from the rocks, but in these conditions, the line didn’t always find its way into the basket. I was able to free it quickly, and the next wave washed the fish right back into the rocks, where I was able to grab it.
When the low, overcast sky was as bright as it was going to get, I decided I needed a break from the waves and explored the opposite, protected side of the point. The incoming tide had combined with the weather to form larger rogue waves, and one had drenched me from the top-down as it broke, giving me a wake-up call that this fishing can be dangerous if I let my guard down. The other side offered fewer options for getting to the water’s edge, but I did find a spot where I could crawl down to a protected lagoon. There was not a steep edge within casting range like the other side, but instead a shallow garden of boulders and weeds that was just deep enough to keep the bottom out of sight. I stood nearly thigh-deep on a piece of rock, with water waving the kelp around in gentle swirls against my legs. From there, I was able to cast to the backside of a rocky point that broke the current of the incoming tide and waves, creating a pocket of soft water, just like in a river. Since I’d already caught several schoolie-sized bass, I had renewed interest in hunting for a trophy. I snipped off the Clouser and tied on large brown-and-white Deceiver tied on a 4/0 hook, complete with large prism eyes that stared at me, as if in surprise, as I tightened down the knot. I pulled out some line and started making casts toward the point. In the calmer, clear water, I could watch the fly swim, hovering enticingly above the boulders with the bucktail and hackles waving seductively between long, slow strips.
After just a couple casts and as the fly approached the edge of rocks at my feet, a large striped bass, much bigger than I had yet seen, shot straight up off the bottom and came close enough to the fly to give it a quick kiss, then quickly turned on a dime, showing me its fat, white belly as it dove for to the safety of the bottom. I picked up the fly and shot it back out with a short cast to keep it in the water, hoping the fish regretted passing up the easy meal and might return. Frustrated but encouraged, I made many more casts without a follow, so I changed to the same fly but in chartreuse and white. I swam the fly through the surges of white water around the point, using fast strips, slow strips, and dead drifts. The tide had crept up, and I knew that I soon needed to retreat to higher ground. After a particularly large swell sloshed by, a large area in front of me was covered with soft white foam-like someone had just dumped a tank of dish soap into the Atlantic. Suddenly, behind my fly, I made out the outline of a giant fish at the surface, its back and dorsal fin poking through the foam. It was just about the largest striper I had ever seen – about the size of my leg. It turned sideways, and I saw the heavy, black lines down its side. It looked like it was eating my fly, and my fingers tightened around the cork grip and my fly line, anticipating a strike. Miraculously, I kept my nerves in check and did not pull the fly away, but made a strip, expecting to feel the heavyweight of the fish.
The strike never came. The fish dropped down in the water out of sight and dragged my heart with it. I gave a lonely moan of angst into the breeze, my only consolation being that I got to see the fish, knowing that monsters do in fact prowl those rocks.
I cast for a while more, not giving up until the tide forced me back up the rocks. As I walked through the campground to pack up and head home, thunder started rumbling again in the distance, and a few flashes on the horizon made me thankful I had gotten off the exposed point when I did. Soon, another downpour began, and as we packed up camp in the rain, the image of that giant bass kept swimming through my mind. It will continue to do so until I can again return to the rocky New England coast.