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.
North River (MA)
12 Dec 2011