A Glorious Show of Striped
Bass Without a Catch
BY NICK LYONS
MORT SAID, POSITIVELY, ABSOLUTELY, “There is no bait in the surf at Amagansett, and no fish.” So, with the bones in my right hip feeling as though someone had rasped away all of the cartilage, I wasn’t much up for fishing. I had slipped in May, gone under in a river, smacked my head on a stone. Now it was August
and I would get a titanium hip in three weeks.
It would be a quiet family jaunt is all, son-in-law driving, granddaughter beside me in the backseat singing, no fly rods to complicate my life. Mort said there were no fish in the surf, and Mort is an honorable and wise friend who is never wrong on matters piscatorial.
On the first morning, at the gentleman’s hour of eleven, I limped to the beach and surveyed the vast, gray ocean. The tide was out, the white breakers were a hundred yards offshore. A few terns flew swiftly overhead, head and beak slanted down, searching; three seagulls foraged what the sea
I dug my cane deeply into the wet sand, like Ahab with his wooden leg, and saw a hundred yards to my left a few birds clustered in the sky. Ah, birds. To an angler anywhere they are icons and emblems, harbingers of drama, so I hobbled north and saw that they were dipping, darting, plunging hard into the
sea. I had seen this before, but never at midday. There had to be a little bait in the water was all, perhaps a few two-pound bluefish among it.
In fact, the low tide, the particular cross-movements of the waves, had built a vast trough or wash, some three football fields long, one wide, and when I got close enough I could see that there were really forty birds, careening and plunging, making my old heart flutter, and that some of the birds came out of the sea looking like aerial Fu Manchus, with a curled mustache hanging from either side of their beaks, and on the beach there were sand eels flopping, four or five inches long, so that was what all the fuss was about, sand eels.
At first I thought the two forms in the foam and vying currents, moving parallel to the shore, were skin divers. Then I thought they might be seals. Were there seals in Amagansett? Or walruses? They kept moving irregularly back and forth, fifty feet in from the breakers, their great bodies bulging the surface at times, then disappearing, then protruding above it, now closer to the shore, now no more than eighty feet from me—and I was twenty feet back from where the water reached. Wading in the suds, I could reach whatever was out there with merely a modest fly cast.
Striped bass. That’s what was out there. Two, possibly three gigantic stripers, perhaps fifty pounds, maybe sixty, as happy as tarpon eating Cuban sardines, in no hurry whatsoever. They and some of the smaller fish I now saw—stripers, not bluefish—had herded the sand eels in against the shore and were systematically gorging on them.
It was a glorious sight—once in a lifetime: bull or cow stripers, perhaps world records, within casting distance, glutting on sand eels, oblivious to all else, vulnerable, a little like me when there’s a table full of strawberry shortcake.
I happen to own fifty-three of the finest sand-eel imitations made. Lou Tabory had given me a sample many years ago, on a long shank hook with silver body, short red tag, long green spade hackles—and I had wisely had a fine tier in Maine make me a lifetime supply. I had caught blues and stripers on them and knew with absolute certainty that they would take fish in this trough. It was comforting to know that they were safe in my fish closet, in New York City.
For a moment I thought wildly about gimp-hopping back to the room, corralling my son-in-law into driving me to town, buying a whole new outfit, rushing back. No. Even a dumbbell knew that would take at least a half hour, and this freak show of nature would be over in twenty minutes. Maybe I should call Mort on a cell phone; he lived nearby. But I didn’t have his number and I didn’t have a cell phone. So I sat down on the bench of sand that marked high tide and watched, eyes widening, then widening more.
A full two hours later the trough finally began to fill, the breakers came closer to shore, the birds drifted away, and the curtain came down on this diabolical show.
You must know that I’m dumb, but not dumb enough to have missed yet another fishing lesson that day.
You know I’ll always harbor a touch of hope amid the well-earned doubts of an old fisherman.
You know I’ll never go anywhere, ever, without a fly rod.
You know where Mort can go. (August 13, 2000)
Sometimes, Taming a Horse Seems Easier
By Stephen Sautner
HANCOCK, N.Y.—It was the kind of day when, if the stars have aligned and you have been especially good, the Fishing Gods will smile and mayflies and caddis flies will hatch all day on the upper Delaware River.
Jim Leedom and I spotted the first rise at ten-thirty, followed by another, and then another. We quickly gathered fishing gear from our campsite, then slid our canoe into the river for a short paddle to the far bank, where the snouts of large trout poked through the surface at the tail-out of a deep pool.
We beached the boat and walked quietly downstream along the grassy shoreline. Small caddis, the size and color of brown rice kernels, danced and skipped along the river. Periodically one would vanish in an audible slurp of a rising trout. Perhaps eight fish had gathered to feed along the tail-out, stationing themselves in various lies.
With several targets to choose from, Jim set up ten yards below me, aiming at a particularly splashy riser. I picked out two fish feeding side by side some forty feet into the main current.
Unlike most trout streams in the East, where a reasonable cast with a reasonable fly often prompts a rise, fishing in the Delaware takes the kind of patience one might associate with cracking a safe. Sometimes it takes a dozen fly changes, lengthening one’s leader to cobweb-thin tippet, or even crossing the river for just the right drift to provoke even a look from a fish. Other times, the right combination is never found, and you finally wander away after dark with the sounds of trout still rising and splashing everywhere.
My first few drifts with a size-16 elk-hair caddis went ignored, even though the two trout continued to rise freely. Each fish would come up about every twenty seconds and leisurely suck down another caddis fly, sending rings that seemed to push my own imitations out of the way. Several times, the farther of the two fish porpoised to grab a struggling caddis, revealing the broad, dark back of what was clearly a very large brown trout. By the end of the first half hour of casting vainly to this huge, rising fish, I began calling it the Horse.
Suddenly Jim yelled out, and I glanced downriver to see his rod bent deeply and a big brown in midleap. He chased after it, appearing smaller and smaller as the trout took him farther downstream. Finally, two hundred yards away, he beached the fish, then briefly held it up for me to see. When he returned, he had that glazed, contented look of an angler who had just released a very nice trout. “Twenty inches,” he said, almost out of breath. “Took a March Brown.”
For the uninitiated, March Browns are meaty mayflies many times larger than caddis.
After I congratulated Jim, I went back to the business at hand. Perhaps the Horse or his smaller cousin (the Pony?) would like a March Brown–sized meal. I quickly snipped off the caddis and tied on a much larger and bushier offering.
To my surprise, on just the second drift, the Horse’s sidekick sucked in the fly. I lifted, and the fish flew from the river, then dashed off downstream, taking line. Within a few minutes a butter-yellow, heavily spotted brown measuring seventeen inches lay in my hand.
“Nice trout,” Jim said, walking over just as I released it.
Stoically, I looked up and said, “The other one is much bigger.” Then we both turned just in time to watch the Horse suck in yet another caddis.
Sensing an Ahab-versus-the-white-whale scenario that anglers sometimes go through, Jim stepped aside as I waded back in, now hunched over like a great blue heron. The songs of warblers, thrushes, and tanagers calling from the surrounding hillsides suddenly faded into little more than muffled background noise. Even a lone bald eagle soaring upriver was worth little more than a halfhearted glance.
But the March Brown didn’t work; neither would a smaller caddis, or a caddis emerger, or a March Brown emerger. I lengthened my leader to fifteen feet. I threw slack-line casts and mended line endlessly. The Horse remained unimpressed. Too many casts over it, and it would sometimes stop rising, as if to teach me a lesson. But inevitably it would start coming up a few minutes later, sometimes a yard or two upstream, or perhaps five feet farther into the current. And when it did, I resumed casting.
And so it went into the early afternoon. Jim had long since gone downriver, where he released a few smaller fish. Eventually he returned to find me in the exact same position. “Still working on that trout?” he asked.
At this point I just nodded. My shoulder ached from repeated casting, and the dry patch on my fishing vest began to resemble the bargain bin of a fly shop, with various bedraggled patterns freshly rejected by the Horse hanging in a clump.
By hour three, the caddis hatch began tapering off. Jim suggested we go back to camp, and I agreed. In fishing, as in all sports, you sometimes have to tip your hat to your opponent, even if your opponent has a brain the size of a raisin. We began walking upstream when the Horse rose one more time.
I stopped. Jim understood. I stripped off forty feet of line, false-cast once or twice, then dropped yet another caddis pattern just above the fish’s feeding lane. The fly drifted a few feet, then vanished in a slurping rise—just like that.
“I got him,” I yelled triumphantly, feeling as if I had just split the atom. But the Horse had other plans. It immediately charged downstream, a loop of fly line caught on my reel, and the leader instantly popped.
Jim remained silent, as good fishing partners will during moments of crushing defeat. He readied the canoe as I reeled the slack line up through the guides of my rod and into the reel. I was done fishing, at least for the afternoon. A minute later I hauled myself into the boat, dropped my rod in the bilge, and began paddling.
By the time we reached the campsite, the spell had broken. Birds once again chattered away: wood thrushes, Canada warblers, veeries, each song prettier than the last. An otherwise perfect day on the upper Delaware continued on, minus one fisherman and one very large rising trout. (August 24, 2003)
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Upriver and Downstream by The New York Times; edited by Stephen Sautner. Copyright © 2007 by New York Times. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.