Monday, August 19, 2013

Tequila Dreams

(from the journal...)

I had been poling the boat all morning in a constant light rain. Visibility into the water had been minimal because of the rain and fog, hampered further from the hood of my jacket. That and the Agave haze in my head from the previous evening’s consumption of Don Julio’s finest, golden hued, oaky and full flavored Anejos tequila. But it was letting up now, the surface of the water almost glass. It was late August and we had planned on running down the river to the mouth and then outside in search of bluefish for the smoker. Within a few minutes of leaving the dock we had run into one of the biggest schools of rat striped bass I had seen this season. None of them were much bigger than sixteen inches but there were literally hundreds of them, all smashing sand eels in two to three feet of water on a mud flat just across from one of my go-to holes.

We had been on them now for two hours. I’ve gotten past the point in my fishing career where I feel the need to keep score. Numbers and size don’t really matter anymore. For me it’s just about being there and watching it happen. So after an hour and a half of drifting the boat and hooking up on every third cast, I climbed up on the platform and just poled us around the flat. So far I hadn’t fallen off.

Up on the bow, my brother Z continued to cast. He was throwing my seven weight loaded with an intermediate line. On the sharp end I had tied on my favorite river fly, a Fur Strip Fly. Essentially just a short piece of chartreuse rabbit zonker palmar wrapped up the shank with a one inch tail and a piece of flash tied in, simple but very effective. Z was releasing another rat as I turned the bow to head to the northern point of a small mud island I had just seen a group of fish boiling in front of. As I poled along I could see a larger, more substantial series of splashes just around the corner of the point. Z saw it as well. He turned, looked at me and said something about big splashes and big fish.

Now the rain had stopped and the water became crystal clear. I dug out my sunglasses from my jacket. The amber lenses actually lightened the water up a bit and from my vantage point above the deck I could see clearly into the water in front of us. Not to mention the pounding behind my eyes seemed to lessen. I stopped and quietly climbed down from the platform and pulled out a 9 weight. I may not keep score anymore but I did not want this fish getting away because we were not properly armed. I dug around in my gear bag for a fly I had in mind. The sand eels had been hanging an inch or two below the surface of the water and I had the perfect fly in mind. But I knew I only had one, an olive and white Page Rogers Slim Jim, kind of a sub-surface popper. A floating line would have been mint but we could get by with an intermediate. I quickly tied the Slim Jim on the nine, handed it to Z and climbed back up the platform.

I eased us up along the edge of the flat to where the river turned a bit and the water gets deeper and held us there as I looked for the fish. I was afraid I had lost it during the tackle change. A couple of minutes later there was a violent eruption of water about 50 feet off the bow and a huge flash of silver and dark gray. I could see her (larger striped bass are almost always female) move off to the base of the sod bank in about 5 feet of water. I pushed us up another ten feet, kicked the stern around so Z would have a straight shot and told him to get ready. I looked at my watch; it was nearly slack on the high tide. I wasn’t sure we could get her to take a fly in slack water and I knew at some point as the clouds above started to break the wind was going to start. We had time. But not a lot.

“Forty feet straight ahead at twelve o’clock, just the let the fly sit when it hits the water”, I whispered.

He nodded, made two false casts and dropped the fly about eight feet to the right of the fish. I saw her move forward and then circle back around looking at the fly.

“Z, slow strip and wait.”

She slowly moved up in the water, a little closer.


“Dude,” he whispered, “I can’t see it.”

“I can, quick strip and stop.”

As soon as the fly moved the fish backed off. Game on. Varitek and Beckett versus A-Rod.

“Ok, two short slow strips, pause and then a fast strip. Let’s see what she’ll do.”

On the first slow strip she began moving toward the fly, she hesitated during the pause and then turned off on the fast strip. She swam along the bank to our left. Not wanting to spook her, I poled us out a bit and parallel to the bank. I could still see her just hovering under an overhang in the bank.  I held us in place and watched her. She wasn’t moving, almost like a laid-up tarpon.

“Ok Z, right up against the bank, see that overhang? She’s right under it, kind of in the center of it. Drop one either to the left or right of the center.”

“Can you get me closer?” he asked.

“Negative Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.”

He laughed and looked up at me. “What the hell was that?”

I managed a smile and replied, “Top Gun, 1986. You’re Maverick, I’m Goose, now cast.”

Z laid out a perfect sixty foot cast - perfectly in the middle of the overhang and two feet directly in front of the fish. She darted to the right, hugging the bank and then circled back toward us almost moving up on to the mud flat and then back toward the bank. In the background I was aware of Z mumbling some four letter words. I had to get him back into the game.

“It’s all good, brother. I would have done the same thing. Strip in quick, throw one back out, same spot and strip fast.”

He did. With the fast strip, the little fly made some good commotion but the fish didn’t move on it. But she didn’t move away either, she just floated back and forth like Tim Thomas in the crease waiting for a breakaway.

I whispered, “Pick it up quick and cast again. Same spot, ten feet to the right.”

The pressure was on. The previous near perfect cast of 60 feet was now a twenty foot spaghetti toss. Next cast, same thing. We’ve all been there. It’s part of the experience and evolution.

Again, with the four letter words as he cleared the tangled line at his feet. I didn’t have to say anything this time. He took a deep breath, made two false casts and let it go. The fish started moving slowly to the left, heading directly into the trajectory of the fly. The fly hit the water about ten feet beyond her.

“Ok man, short quick strips.”

She turned on the fly and started following.

“Stop. Strip. Strip.” My voice now sounded like Michael Jackson.

Z looked back at me quickly. Words were not necessary. He paused the retrieve and then began another strip.

What happened next cannot be fully described with the eloquence that the event deserves. You had to be there. The water behind the fly erupted as the fish lunged at it. She short-hit the fly just as it was stripped away from her but she made another violent lunge, mouth wide open and I saw her dive down. I wasn’t sure if she had taken it or not. She didn’t. The fly popped up at the edge of the wake she had left behind. I saw the fish turn quickly like a Sidewinder missile trying to reacquire a heat signature. Z did too. He immediately water-hauled the fly, dropped the forward cast about twenty feet behind the fish and started stripping. She turned, came up under the fly and inhaled it. The line went tight, Z set the hook and the drag on the reel started singing. She came up out of the water three times trying the shake the fly, not quite tail walking, but close. She was pissed. Really pissed. She turned and headed for the deeper water of the channel.

I poled us along and for a moment considered starting the engine but Z had things well in hand. She gave one more short run and then went heavy. Z could barely get line back. Not wanting to let this last longer than necessary and stress the fish, I kept poling in her direction. After about five minutes Z got her up alongside the boat and I grabbed the leader. I steered her in, lipped her and quickly removed the hook. I got her head out of the water and cradled her in one arm to lift her up. She was heavy and long, coming in at just over forty-two inches on the deck tape. I handed her to Z and snapped a few pictures of her in his arms. He got her back in the water and let the current of the channel run water through her gills to revive her. In short order she gave a big tail splash and swam off.

Z sat down on the forward casting deck. There were no words spoken. None were needed, we had both been there. As I was fumbling through my gear bag looking for something, he finally spoke.

“I can’t believe that just happened. Did you see that shit? Thank you, that was unbelievable.”

I kept searching my bag. “That was a fish of a lifetime. Not so much the fish but how it all went down. You did everything, man. You found the fish, made the cast, adjusted, made more casts, presented, teased her, got her to eat, nice release…dude, that doesn’t happen all the time. Well played, sir.”

He let out a deep breath and asked, “Is it too early for another tequila?”

I stood up from the gear bag holding a half full bottle of Don Julio and two old paper coffee cups.

“Not today brother, not today...”

That’s when I woke up, not really sure of where I was. I was on my couch and the Weather Channel was on TV. Apparently I only made it that far after last night’s viewing of Soulfish2 and a barbecue and tequila fest with Z. I looked out the window as the weather girl talked about snow in the forecast for Boston. The fish had just been a dream.

Tequila dreams.

Good stuff.

North River (MA)
12 Dec 2011

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Derby Time

Here in New England we have numerous “classic” activities for the adventurous. For the spring mogul skier there is White Heat at Sunday River. For the ice climber there is Pinnacle Gully in the dead of winter. For many of us back in the day there were fries and gravy at Nectar’s in Burlington, Vermont. For the saltwater fisherman, there is nothing more “classic” than the Martha’s Vineyard StripedBass & Bluefish Derby.

September 15th, 2013 will mark the start of the 68th Derby. It is the largest fishing derby on the east coast and now draws three thousand plus anglers to that piece of rock off the Massachusetts coast over its five week duration. I’m not going to regurgitate the storied history or the rules of the Derby or the various categories in which you can enter, a simple web search will do that for you. In a nutshell the objective is to catch the largest striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito. Entering a fish in all four categories is known as “The Slam.”

My first Derby was in 2007. I had no idea of what to expect or what I was doing that first year but in the first few minutes of being on the island it became clear to me that this was not just a tournament. The Derby is part of the island’s life, and part of virtually every islander’s life. After that first day, it became part of my life. Not because of the fishing (I actually have yet to officially enter a fish) but because of the people and the idea of the Derby. Over the years I’ve met and become friends with a number of Derby anglers - light tackle, bait, conventional, fly, boat, shore – anglers from every segment. I’ve come to know Derby Committee members and volunteers, business owners, charter captains, bartenders, Derby sponsors…a lot of people. Some of these people I only see during the Derby, but there is a common past shared and a continuing passion for what the Derby is.

That being said, like any large gathering of people competing for something, there is certain etiquette, a set of unwritten rules so to speak, that newcomers need to be aware of. Most of this “information” is common sense but some things need to be learned by figuring it out on your own. Best advice is to at first stand back, listen to everything but say nothing, see everything but blend into the background and be all things fishing, it’s a waiting game. Eventually the ice will be broken and communication with those who have paid their dues will be possible. After a while you might even get some advice on a particular location on a specific tide or when to wait for albies and when not to. A good insider’s view on these matters is “The Big One”by David Kinney. Every Derby angler should read this.

In 2010 I made a product donation to the Derby college scholarship program through my fly business. The idea that an island community would come together in this way to help its kids obtain a college education reminded me of a place that I once knew. I went to the awards ceremony for the first time that year. Standing in that room and watching everyone, talking with people and listening to their Derby stories it became clear to me just how much a part of their lives the Derby is. I watched four generations of one family beam with pride as one of the youngest members of the family made his way up to the stage to receive his award in the Junior division. I talked with them briefly and learned that all four generations fished the Derby together. Every year! I committed my business to be a major sponsor of the Derby the next day. Not for business purposes but because I wanted to be a part of it and I wanted to support it.

The Derby is not just about the Scholarship program. It also provides free fresh fish to the island elderly through the Fillet Program. I generally have issues with “kill” tournaments but the fish weighed in during the Derby do not go to waste and provide meals for those who really need them.

There are many other “facets” of what the Derby does for the community and participants but there is one other element that hits close to home for me and should be noted. In 2008, seven year old Jack Dixon had an idea that he shared with his parents Bob and Sarah. The family had been reading “The Big One” and happened across a photo essay in the newspaper about veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and the challenges they face. After looking at the photo’s Jack told his dad that he wished some of the vets could fish the Derby. The island went into action and made it happen. This year the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge will mark its fifth year. As I said, it’s not the fishing that draws me to the Derby, it’s the people of The Rock, the sense of community and the true Americana that still exists on Martha’s Vineyard on the back roads, the harbors and in the hearts and homes of the islanders.

One of my favorite days of the year is the last day of the Derby and the final weigh-in. Each year on that night I get to stand on the docks in Edgartown with good friends, many of whom I met through the Derby, trade fishing stories of the past season, pass along information on what fly worked the best, discuss off season trips to faraway places, catch up on what our kids and families are doing and talk about our hopes for the next season. They are my extended family and we all “come home” for the Derby.

Special thanks to Derby Volunteer Amy Coffey for photo's!

From the gear room
6 August 2013