Some of the most memorable stories of the fall run are the ones that happen between the fish.
On September 1, an imaginary clock starts to run. Most will never hear it or have any idea that it exists, yet for New England striped bass anglers, it’s as real as the words you’re reading. This clock starts ticking at the beginning of the fall run and counts down to the end of the season. It is a period of anticipation, excitement, and incredible fun, but for many of us, perceiving the time passing and hearing that imaginary ticking is a persistent, heavy psychological weight. There just isn’t enough time; the season is always too short, leading to mixed emotions sometimes overshadowed with melancholy, anxiety, and regret. Those emotions are the fuel we burn on our relentless chase of these majestic fish up and down the East Coast.
From this point, the rest of my season is going to be about trying to beat that clock by whatever means necessary. Every decision I make will be shadowed by what-ifs, primarily, “What if I miss the last big fish of the year?” and, worse, the nagging thought that persists even when I’m out fishing, which is “What if I should be somewhere else?”
As a result, I, like so many other surfcasters, abandon carefully dissected local spots, trading them for road trips covering huge swaths of coastline. Whether it’s from Portland to Portsmouth, Watch Hill to Point Judith, Montauk to Breezy Point, or Monmouth to Cape May, the “run” is a common phenomenon among surfcasters in the fall. We hope for giants and endless blitzes, but also attempt to absorb every last second of the season while collecting stories that will tide us over the long winter.
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Last Casts in Maine
Rumors circulate faster and more aggressively in the fall. While I give them no mind in the spring, once Labor Day comes and goes, my proverbial ear is pinned to the rail, hoping to hear word of the final train of fish coming down the tracks. When my friend emails me, the darkness of the offseason is already creeping up like the Nothing in The Never Ending Story. “I just heard of a really big fish caught in Maine, and lots of smaller fish all over the beaches.” A simple phrase, jammed into a longer thread of text, jumps out at me as if highlighted by neon light. My friend qualified that most anglers have given up, but “there are definitely still fish.” Everyone else is already going south, but I can’t help going against the grain. I don’t even respond to the email; I just started packing.
I arrive long before dark at my first stop, a ledge along Maine’s south coast. It is uncharacteristically calm and warm for October in Vacationland. My plug bag is jammed full and physically heavy, but I feel light of heart as I walk the ledge.
My pencil popper casts so far that it leaves my field of vision in the fog. Like fishing at night, I rely on feel and trust, knowing that repetition has made me effective and efficient with this lure. It’s not long before I start getting hits from small fish.
I lose one after the other in the fight: the fish too small, the hooks too big. I finally land one, just as darkness falls on the world, and marvel at its bravado—it’s barely twice the size of the lure. Several more bass come to hand, but I was hoping for fish of considerably more heft, so I move on.
The next stop requires a “hit-and-run” approach. I prepare long before I arrive by pulling over on the side of the road, making sure my gear is organized and putting on my surf top. When I glide into the parking spot, my lights are already off and I navigate by the light pollution from nearby mansions and streetlights. I’m out of the car and on the shore in one, long, fluid motion.
The fog is so thick, the night immeasurably dark, and the lights at my back hit a wall of black that feels physical. The tide is down, and the flatI’m on extends into infinity. I wade an uncomfortably long distance out into the cold water, losing sight of anything behind me except the glowing orbs of a couple of exceptionally bright house lights. Let us hope it doesn’t get worse, or I’ll be lost out here, I think.
My first cast is greeted by larger schoolies that aggressively chase my Slug-Go as I work it fast and loose across the surface. I land three in rapid succession before hooking a fish that seems substantially larger before coming unbuttoned in a jarringly loud splash. That’s the last hit, and a half-hour later, I am on the road once again.
Surfcasters have many strange skills; some useful in day-to-day life, many not. One of my relatively useless skills is a mental list of just about every 24-hour Dunkin Donuts and most of the pizza places open until 11 p.m. or later. Before I make it to the next spot on my slow meander south, I have a delicious, steaming pizza on the passenger seat next to me. I chow down, still in my waders, as AC/DC’s Ride On plays on the radio.
Stop after stop, it’s a perfect run, and the whole night yields fish. No trophy fish, but there are schoolies everywhere. At every stop, I am almos immediately greeted by voracious, wild fish that recklessly attack my plugs. I fish rugged ledge, a skinny sandy beach, a large inlet, and even a small boulder field. Not one spot is devoid of life, and dozens of fish are landed over the course of my journey.
As I drive home at 7 a.m., more than 14 hours after I started this run, I hear tomorrow’s weather forecast calling for a high of 50 degrees, followed by a high of 42 the following day due to a strong northwest wind. My joy sours upon hearing this as I realize the fish won’t be there next week. They may not even be there tomorrow.
Raging Against the Storm
The night is a howling beast. I meet my friend at our first stop along Rhode Island’s South County, and we can feel the hammering of the surf hundreds of yards from the water. “We really going to do this?” I ask him.
“Guess so,” and he laughs, but his voice is high pitched and wavering. “We’re here, aren’t we?” I laugh, too, but it doesn’t feel funny.
The wind is blowing a sustained 50 knots, with 65-plus-knot gusts. Every breaking wave is a warhead detonating, felt as much as heard, and the blazing water shoots up the slope with ferocity. Technically, we’re fishing, but even with heavy jigs and needlefish, I doubt our offerings are getting beyond the wall of white water. Then, after only a few minutes, even standing 50 feet back, we are both knocked down by a single ferocious swell. We share a frightening moment, crawling away from the surf on all fours, hoping another wave doesn’t come before we can get back to our feet.
We collapse into powdery sand at the base of the slope, panting, and sit in silence, soaked to the bone and covered with sand. “Next spot?” I ask. I’m sitting so close to him that we are practically touching, but we still have to yell.
“Next spot,” he yells back.
We fish all night in a void, and only the white water from the waves breaks the dark. Scouting, we find immense concentrations of bait in all the backwaters and small fish feasting on them. However, our target is not small, minnow sipping schoolies. We’re looking for giants and as such, roll the dice on less protected waters. We spar with Mother Nature and her willing dance partner, the mighty ocean, until our bodies can take no more.
We skunk. But as we gear down, 6 hours after we started, we marvel at the storm. It makes us feel so small and weak; a reminder of our true place on this tiny blue rock hurtling through space and time.
For miles on the ride home, I dodge downed power lines and puddles that cover both lanes of the road. My car rocks in gusts of wind and I slow to a crawl through several incredible downpours. The power is out everywhere, and all the houses, streetlights, and stoplights are out.
Police redirect my course three times until, on the fourth redirect, an officer stops me. He looks in my window, and runs the beam from his flashlight around my car. With genuine shock on his face, he says, “Please tell me you weren’t out fishing in this!”
Among the Birds
After many miles in the car and on foot, we finally found fish. The number of them in front of us is remarkable; they are breaking everywhere, cutting through huge swaths of peanut bunker. Most appear small, but larger swirls indicate there are big fish in the mix.
We had to wade out to a sand bar to get to them, which meant crossing a chest-deep trough. Once on the bar, we’re surrounded by the fussiest fish I have encountered all season. My friend, bewildered after 20 minutes of casting into the fray without a hit, screams into the night, “What is even happening right now!?” I shush him, though his howl echoes loudly across the water. I have no answer. I frantically change lures, trying to find the right plug.
As we stand there—having been left high and dry on the bar by the dropping tide—I feel myself slipping into total lunacy. How can there be so many fish on so many peanut bunker, and we are unable to catch more? It just doesn’t seem possible. It feels personally insulting.
We are exhausted, and sit down on the bar for a few minutes, first discussing our next move and then just in silence, listening to the mayhem. As we sit, two giant birds swoop down from out of the black, and land to our left, perhaps 20 feet away.
“Don’t move,” my friend whispers.
Then, two more birds fly down out of thedark, followed by a few more. They’re great blue herons, apparently now comfortable with our presence, wading into the water to feast on the peanut bunker driven to shore by the bass. We watch for a while before wading back to shore, walking back to the car, and moving on to our next destination.
I said I wouldn’t stay up all night again, but I’m on my way to a fifth spot, and as I drive, I do the mental math: “Even if I only fish for 45 minutes, I won’t be home until 6 a.m.” I shrug my shoulders and remind myself that I won’t regret lost sleep when the season is over.
Surfcasting success in the fall often requires a “grind”: many locations, many hours, lots of caffeine, and not much sleep. Experience has taught me to stay in the game as much as possible when the conditions are right, or I will suffer persistently from “You should have been here last night.”
As I step onto the shore, it feels fresh, alive, it feels right. Despite my waning energy levels, my spirits are buoyed by intuition. There are fish immediately, both blues and stripers, and the hits are savage. I swing my darter in the current and it gets slammed just as it begins to really dig into the sweep. The fishing goes from fever pitch to ice cold like a switch has been flipped. I’m so tired that after only a few casts without a hit, I’m nearly asleep, most of my brain offline.
Then, I catch the scent of rich, oily menhaden on the wind. My waking consciousness snaps back online, and I redouble the focus on my drifts. Five casts, maybe ten, and my darter gets hammered by a fish of a different class. Drama ensues: peeling drag, line rubbing on an obstruction, a wrapped rod tip as the fish gets close. Eventually, I bring the fish in. It’s in the low 40-inch range when measured against the marks on my rod and I am instantly vindicated for my “accidental” all-nighter. As I slide the fish back into the water, I no longer feel the fatigue, the aches in my feet are distant, the tightness in my back is totally gone, and my eyes are wide and bright.
A short while later, I land another beautiful 40-inch fish just as the sun starts to illuminate the grey and foggy autumn day. My throat is dry and my stomach gurgles from hunger, but I cannot pull myself away from the frothy, gently rolling waves. One more cast turns into one more hour, but then a gaggle of anglers spill out of the dunes and engulf the spot.
There’s another lull in the action and I decide to try something else. Off comes the darter and on goes a big metal-lipped pikie. A number of casts later, as the plug swings so close to shore that I have to drop my tip to keep it swimming correctly, it is suddenly gone. It appears to fall through a black hole that has opened in the ocean.
I set the hook, and the water erupts with huge splashes. My rod bobs and bends against hard head-shakes. It takes only one short run, and as a result, I’m winching the fish up to me in seconds. It’s hard to get a good grip on her massive jaw—she rejects my grip over and over before I finally get a good hold. As I pull her out of the water, her size becomes apparent. She’s huge!
I pull the hook out, get her back in the water, and then take a moment to stare at her. Lying on her side, the hazy light reflecting off her flanks, she defines perfection, the ultimate shallow water predator. “Thank you, gorgeous,” I whisper out loud, and without another thought, I let go. She melts into the surf with one subtle sweep of her tail, and is gone.