Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

June 6th, 2005

Lucky 13
By Dave Micus

"April is the cruelest month," suggested T.S. Eliot, which tells me he was a New Englander and a striped bass fisherman. Come April, we in the northeast have been waiting five long months to feel the throb of a striped bass on the line, and, knowing that May will bring the return of the fish, April, already a long and dreary month, seems longer and more dreary.

T.S. was talking in the aggregate, though, as May can be pretty damn cruel too. As I write this it is 42 degrees and we are into the third day of a Nor'easter that, had it occurred in January, would have dumped sixty inches of snow. I still have the wood stove going three weeks into May and the fishing grapevine has had nothing to report, while a check of my fishing log shows I caught bass during the first weekend in May last year. Imagine being a child and waking up on December 25 only to be told that Christmas will be delayed for 21 days. That's how it feels.

But last Sunday a break in the weather gave me a window of opportunity. I first cut the grass so I could leave with a clear conscience, then headed to an estuary system that fishes well early in the season on a dropping tide. I took the added precaution of calling Mike, the guru on North Shore striped bass fishing to seek his sage advice.

"I was there on Friday," Mike tells me, lowering his voice (odd how fishermen do that when talking of locations, even though there is no one to hear), "and did well. If you leave now you'll hit the tide right. Work your way down to the first point. That's where the fish will be. You won't be alone there, but wait your turn. Fish Clousers." That was all I needed. I didn't have to pack the gear, as it has been packed and ready to go since mid-April.

The area I'm fishing is owned by a land trust, and the only access is a gated dirt road. It's about a half mile walk from the road to the water, which is a good thing because, like rain, it discourages the weak-willed. The walk is a pleasant one, and you can usually see a wild turkey or pheasant, but, anticipation being what it is, I always have to resist the urge to run. Today the weather is overcast and I'm pleasantly surprised to find that, when I reach the water, I'm the only one here. I enjoy fishing alone. It's not just that I'm a curmudgeon, though I am, but I seek solitude as much as fish.

In a previous trip to this same spot I encountered a guide and his sport. The guide parked himself right at the point and wouldn't budge, even though it's a bit early in the tide and by starting up stream and working my way down I'm getting more and bigger fish than they are. As I near them I hear that constant inane prater that some guides feel compelled to spew, as if to assure their sport that he is getting the total experience. "Look at that!" this one shouts when a hooked bass splashes on the surface. "He was tail walking!" which is something I've never seen a striper do, and I vow to myself that if I ever again hire a guide, which is unlikely unless it is Chris Chin in Canada, I'll insist on meeting him for coffee prior to our trip to assure that I don't shell out 4 c-notes to spend seven hours with someone I want to strangle.

I wade about waist deep and choose a fly from the fly wallet. Mike advised a clouser, but I don't like fishing them. Don't misunderstand; it is likely the greatest salt-water fly ever conceived, and that is part of the reason I don't like fishing them. Too many salt water fly rodders fall into the deceiver/clouser rut, and never expand their horizons. I compromise a nd choose a clouser flat-wing of my own design, a fly that I'm sure would cause a purist like J. Kenney Abrams to conk me on the head. It is tied like a traditional flat wing, only upside down, with bar bell eyes on the top of the hook shank, conceived in a fit of inspiration during a winter session at the fly tying vise. It casts as well as a traditional clouser, but as I strip it near I notice that, oddly, it is swimming with the hook point down, even with the bar bell eyes on top of the shank. The flat wing feathered tail, it seems, has neutralized the weight of the bar bell eyes, and this fly will end up in the drawer of original flies that seemed brilliant when conceived, but...

I tie on a traditional clouser.

I begin catching fish right off, quite small, but that doesn't matter. After not feeling a saltwater fish on the line for six long months I had begun to wonder if even catching fish on a fly rod with feathers as bait is possible. After all, what is a greater leap of faith than believing you can imitate bait fish with bird feathers? So these small fish are a thrill, hunger being the best sauce.

On one cast I catch the smallest bass I have ever seen, and I'm not sure if he was trying to eat the clouser or the clouser was trying to eat him. I am barely able to slip my thumb in his mouth as I unhook him, and I notice that his eyes are literally bugging out of his head, as if he hadn't learned in school the threat the fisherman poses as he migrates from the Chesapeake to Maine and back. I unhook him quickly and let him go, and maybe, just maybe, he has learned a lesson that will let him mature to a 38 inch bass someday.

When I work down to the point a rip is forming. I clip off the clouser and tie on a Rays fly. I think the Rays is the perfect fly; easy to tie, productive, and so aerodynamic that it adds about ten feet to my cast. If I were able to fish only one fly for striped bass, it would definitely be a Rays. The bass like it too. I get the first substantial hit of the day when I cast the Rays fly into the rip, and when the fish shakes its head I can tell it's a fair sized bass. He fights well and when I land him I'm surprised to see he's 24 inches. Maybe it was the current, or maybe just early season optimism, but he felt bigger than that. I release him and on the very next cast I catch his identical twin.

The tide, meanwhile, recedes to low, the bite stops, and it's time to leave. I am never able to just reel in and go, so I play "ten casts," a game where I throw ten more casts, and if I don't catch a fish I reel in on the tenth cast and call it a day. If I do catch a fish during any of the ten casts I start over again with ten more casts. Poor casts are Mulligans and do not count. Today I throw nine casts without a bite and reel in on the tenth (which often produces a strike as the bass are sometime attracted to the constant motion of the fly being reeled in-but not today). I glance at my watch for the first time and am amazed to see that I have been fishing for 3 hours. If you had asked me how long I'd been here, I would have said about an hour. Funny how fishing is like that. I end the day with 13 fish, 11 of them quite small but two large enough to take line off of the reel and I'm content with this outing.

On the walk back down the road I encounter a mother and her young son. He is carrying a spinning rod, and when she sees that I'm leaving she says, "Oh, no, we're not too late, are we?" I'm afraid they are. It's slack tide right now, and, like most places, this spot fishes best when the water is moving. The boy looks at me pleadingly.

"No," I say, "I just decided to call it a day. You should do just fine."

And I hope they do. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.


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