There will be a night, sometime in the early season, when you’ll be stirred to action. Perhaps it is the warm, southwest wind blowing through the open window at dinner or the sight of the low-hanging full moon when you rolled the garbage bins to the curb, but something reminds you that in this still-young striper season, you haven’t yet been to your rock.
It’s been a full six months since you set foot on its angled, bubble-weed-covered surface, and you’d like to think that no one has cast from it since. Fifteen years ago—when you first climbed atop it during a super-moon low tide and named it for yourself like some surfcasting alpinist—that might have been the case. Today, that’s far less likely. The once-obscure beach now attracts both out-of-state and local fishermen. Many have probably even named the rock themselves because any rock as great as yours demands a name.
Still, you wonder, somewhat jealously, if anyone knows it the way you do. How many of them know that, even on a pitch-black, flood-tide night when there’s no evidence of your rock’s existence above the surface, you can stand on that smaller, unnamed rock, take a bearing with that one particular building in the distance, and swim to your rock with seven strong side-strokes—one for each stripe on a striped bass. If you make an eighth stroke without hitting the rock, you’ve misjudged your trajectory and have gone too far.
You check the tide, and decide that, after the kids are asleep, you’ll go to your rock. Odds are, by the time you get there, it will be occupied, but it’s just as likely that whoever’s fishing it will leave before slack, and you’ll be able to pluck one or two fish from the dying tide.
Books read, teeth brushed, monsters under the bed banished, you retreat to the garage. You have a new surf rod you bought in the offseason, having succumbed to the social-media hype, and it’s beautiful. It has a crisp action, ergonomic, shrink-wrap grip, and the latest in guide layouts, but you pass over it tonight. Instead, you pick up the heavy, floppy 11-footer you built the same season you found your rock. The guides are enormous by modern standards, arranged in the “cone of flight” concept (fewer, larger guides) designed to maximize casting distance with monofilament. They significantly slow the rod’s action, but it’s perfect for flicking a bucktail jig to life. The cork-tape grip is worn, familiar, and in several spots, the rod blank is showing through. There’s already a reel on there, a Penn 704Z attached with electric tape. You thread the 50-pound braid through the guides and attach it to a pre-tied, 50-pound-test leader with a double-improved clinch knot.
Then, you turn your attention to the plug bag. You’ll further specialize its contents as the season begins to take shape but, for tonight, you stick to the old standbys. A handful of darters, a couple needlefish (though you rarely throw them from your rock), and a dozen bucktail jigs from 1 to 2.5 ounces in white, yellow, and chartreuse will do. You take one of these, a white 1.5-ouncer, clip it to your leader, and hang the hook on the reel’s handle.
Last, you squeeze into your wetsuit, noticeably tighter since last fall, and pull on your studded wading boots before opening the garage and clicking down the driveway to the truck.
You love the nighttime drives to the surf. The houses you pass almost all have the blue-flickering glow of TVs, and there are few, if any, cars on the road. You watch for wildlife, a leftover habit from when you were young and believed that active livestock and wildlife were a promising sign of active fish. As you slow down to approach the on-ramp to the highway, a coyote pads across the road. Good, you think, but then wonder how many other surfcasters are currently racing to your rock.
The appearance of other anglers is often more difficult to predict than the appearance of the fish. You’ve seen shoulder-to-shoulder Tuesday nights and ghost-town Saturdays. On this night, however, the parking lot is empty, and as you emerge from the hollow in the dune, you find yourself alone. This might be because the fishing’s been lousy or that it’s too early, but neither matters. This trip is about reconnecting with your rock.
The surf is gentle, but big enough that the hiss of each retreating wave drowns out all non-fishing concerns and sharpens your focus to the here and now. You make the quarter-mile walk over a mix of sand and softball-sized rocks, slowly regaining your surfcaster’s agility, which is rusty from the off-season.
Your rock’s fortuitous positioning, right at the edge of the deep water and within casting distance of the current seam, makes it the perfect place to swing a darter, swim a jig or, in daylight, work a pencil popper. Any further from shore and it’d be too deep to stand on. Closer to shore and you’d barely be able to reach the sweet spot with your cast. Even moving it a few yards north or south would make it a bit less productive. The placement feels like providence, but in actuality, it was the Laurentide Ice Sheet. This rock, and many of the rocks you fish from, were cast off at random along the Northeast coast during the glacier’s retreat, like the Matchbox cars your three-year-old scatters about the house. That the rock’s positioning was by pure chance makes it all the more remarkable.
You slip into the water and begin your swim, the usual apprehension filling you as the bottom drops away from under your feet. It’s too early for sharks, you assure yourself … but it’s prime time for seals.
Once, while standing on your rock on a foggy May night, you shouted yourself hoarse at a grey seal that refused to leave you alone. You felt ridiculous when, in the grey light of false dawn, the seal revealed itself to be the buoy of an errant lobster pot, deposited there by a recent storm.
At the seventh stroke, your fingers brush the bubble-weed. As you pull yourself atop the rock, you notice how this motion has been getting a little harder every year. Eventually, you’ll climb on this rock for a final time, though it’s unlikely you’ll know it then. Before that happens, you think, you should chisel off a small chunk of it to bring home, both as a keepsake and to leave a lasting mark on the boulder that’s left such a mark on you.
You find your footing, a slight concave in the surface of the rock just large enough for two cleated size 13 boots. You unclip the jig from the reel, grip the rod butt with your left hand, the taped-on reel with your right, and lean back to cast. The bass might be there, and they might not, but you’re back on your rock, and that’s enough for tonight.