Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

October 18th, 2004

The Migration: A Log
By Dave Micus

Agonia is s term coined by Christian monk and aesthete Thomas Merton to describe the fact that man, alone among God's creatures, realizes that this wonderful gift of life has to end. New England striped bass fishermen well understand the concept of Agonia. Stripers are a migratory fish, traveling from the Hudson or Chesapeake up the New England coast in the spring, only to reverse their path and head back in the fall. Come late October, the waters of Northern New England are devoid of bass.

But the fish gods are nothing if not just, and as consolation for 6 fishless months, they have blessed us New England salts with the fall blitz. The bass, gorging on bait for their long trip south, appear in great number and in great sizes along the shore, and if you manage to time it right the fishing can be stunning. Last year, for instance, on the beaches of Gloucester and Beverly and Manchester by the Sea, the greatest blitz of striped bass seen in 40 years took place. The schools were huge, fishermen were getting a fish on every cast, and anglers took up to 100 fish. Most impressive was the size of the bass, with many stripers in the 30's and 40's taken. And I missed it. Taking no chances this year, I took a week off in mid-October with the intention of fishing from dawn until dusk, filling up on bass just as they fill up on bait to get me through the long, cold winter.

Day One: I had a good report that the bass were biting down on Cape Cod, but decided to stay local the first day, thinking that, if the fishing was poor, I could head to the Cape on the morrow, and if the fishing was good I'd save myself a 2.5 hour drive (each way). Besides, I really don't like to travel to fish, as, for some reason, I usually go fishless and why drive for 5 hours to get skunked when I can do that within 15 minutes of my house? But I would have to travel some, as, in the fall, the bass tend to follow the ocean-edge surf and not travel up into the sounds and estuaries that I usually fish.

The north shore oceanfront is, no surprise, an affluent enclave that strives to keep the riff raff out. Massachusetts has an interesting law from colonial times that cedes the owners of ocean front property the land out to the low tide water mark. This was to encourage owners of waterfront property to build docks and piers and increase commerce, but now has the effect of waterfront property owners thinking they own the ocean, and they post 'no trespassing' and 'private beach' signs everywhere in an effort to prove it. But though this law remains in effect, it is mitigated by another statute that permits public access to the high water mark for the purpose of 'fishing and fowling.' Property owners seek to circumvent this loophole by having the entire area around these beaches posted 'no parking,' but, fortunately, the local police relate more to the economic status of fishermen than millionaires, and during the fall ignore the illegally parked cars. But today it wouldn't have mattered if I had been run off by shotgun wielding landowners, as all I had to show from their private beaches was one medium sized striper. And I was the lucky one, as the six or so fly fishers and surfcasters within sight went fishless. Tomorrow, it would be Cape Cod.

That evening I received a call from Richard Khan, a quintessential bass bum who has been fly fishing for stripers for about 40 years, long before many even thought that you could take a striper on the fly. Khan, as he prefers to be called, is one of the more colorful characters who haunt the north shore of Massachusetts in the quest for striped bass. He is a trained chef, and he tells how, years before as a young turk, he, Jasper White, and Julia Child would gather in his Cambridge apartment and argue over how to turn the culinary world on its ear. He was also a professional opera singer, and one only has to hear his sonorous voice to visualize him on stage as Rodolfo in Le Boheme. Retired now, he brings the same artistry and passion to his quest for striped bass, and once caught a 48-inch striper while fishing off of the rocks in Magnolia. I told Khan about my almost fishless morning. "You were there too late," he confided. "The beach was loaded with fish from 5 AM until 7," or, typically, the time I arrived. This gave me the excuse I needed not to drive down to the Cape, and we planned to meet on one of the north shore beaches at first light.

Day 2: I arrived at Singing Beach in Manchester at 5am, and had the beach to myself. The surf was a good bit rougher than yesterday, but I worked my way out past where the waves were breaking, or so I thought, and began to cast. In the purple/red light of false dawn I saw a large wave bearing down on me, about shoulder high, so as it hit I hopped into the air to take the wave on the chest. But the backwash from a previous wave swept my feet out from under me, and I went down like a wide receiver caught in the air by Brian Urlacher. I scrambled to my feet but the damage was done. It would be a long cold morning. Adding insult to injury, I took only one fish. It was time to move.

Route 127 is to the striped bass angler what the Strip is to the Vegas gambler. Route 127 runs parallel to the shore, and off of this road are many of the best fishing spots that the north shore has to offer: Singing Beach; Black Beach; White Beach, Long Beach, Lobster Cove, West Beach, Magnolia Beach, Breckenridge Beach, and other, more obscure places that I've promised not to mention (one of which being the spot where Khan caught his four-foot bass). Much of it is, conveniently, sight fishing from your car. You ride past a beach, look for gulls diving and bass slashing, and, if nothing is in sight, you move on to the next location. I hadn't driven far when I spotted a small blitz, and I ignored the no parking and private beach signs, waded waist deep, and caught a striper on the first cast.

I was the only angler on the beach, but not for long. Striper fishermen are like the gulls -- both seem to materialize out of thin air when the fish start blitzing. Soon there were ten fly fishers on the beach, one of which was Khan, and we all managed to hook up before the bass, following the bait, moved on. So it was back to 127. Now we had a small caravan; Matt, another striped bass aficionado, Khan and myself. Our collective gear was likely worth more than our collective cars, which made no difference; we saw no more feeding fish and, still chilled from my unwanted baptism, I decided to head for home.

Day 3: I toy with the idea of going to the Cape, but it is Saturday of a holiday weekend and I decide not to risk the traffic and crowds. Five months of getting up at 5 am to work and fish (not in that order) finally catches up with me, and I forgo fishing and sleep in. I curse myself the entire day for being soft.

Day 4: It's back up at 5 and off for the coast. Again a brief frenzy at one of the beaches, fishermen materializing like phantoms, and five fish, bam bam bam, before it ends. I cruise 127 in search of gulls and fish, see neither, and head for home.

Day 5: I meet Matt and we work five or six beaches. We each take a fish blind casting, but the action is slow, particularly for this time of year. Where can they be? Nearly everyone I talk to on the north shore says this is one of the worst fishing years in recent memory, and I agree, though it comes as a surprise seeing the reports I had been getting from New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Cape Cod. It seems as if the bass just never made it as far as the north shore in any great numbers, particularly disappointing when on the verge of a six fishless months. But though it's slow, I'm buoyed by the fact that I'm off tomorrow, a weekday, and I'll salvage this week by heading down to Cape Cod and catching my limit. As I sleep, linesiders whirl through my dreams.

Day 6: I get up early for no reason. A Nor'easter, the remnants of a tropical storm whose name I forget, is raging outside. I check the weather map on the net and the weather on the Cape is even worse. The rain I can handle, but the wind gusts will take a 50-foot cast and return 40 feet of it, and I decide not to drive 2.5 hours to deal with that. I take a short ride and see that the Ipswich lobster fleet have left their moorings and taken safe harbor at the town wharf, a more dependable predictor of bad weather than any N.O.A.A. forecast.

Back home, I break down the strung up rod and clean it, strip the line off of the reel and clean it, too, and am considering stowing all of my gear for the off season, then don't. Saturday is only four days away. I wind the line back on the reel and string up the rod.

The fish gods might smile on me yet. ~ 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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