For denizens of the northeastern seacoast, nothing marks the start of summer like the four words, "the stripers are in." Stripers, striped bass, or rock bass, are the most revered salt-water fish from the Maine Coast down to North Carolina. The largest striper ever caught was sixty-five inches, but most range from twelve (schoolies) to fifty (cows), with anything over twenty-five inches considered a nice fish.
December of my sophomore year of college, my parents moved into a new house on Little Bay in Dover, New Hampshire. Events directly associated with the upcoming fishing season highlighted the ensuing winter and spring. Christmas-a new fly-tying vice. February-the installation of a seventy-five foot dock leading from my front lawn down to a 20x20 ft. float capable of landing two boats. April-a new seventeen-foot Edgewater fishing boat with a center console and 4-stroke Mercury outboard engine, fittingly named, On The Fly. In five short months my dad turned an empty house into a saltwater fly-fisherman's dream. So when Cody, our next-door-neighbor and lobsterman, uttered those long-awaited words on May nineteenth, my dad was fully prepared: boat fully gassed, reels freshly spooled, flies tightly tied.
The stripers are in.
Exactly two weeks from the day my dad called me at school with an unusual excitement in his voice, I was back home on the boat. He pointed us toward the Schulla Plant to get a couple hours of fishing in before dark and before the forecasted thunderstorms rolled in. The Schulla Plant is a nuclear power plant with an outflow system that makes the water in its vicinity ten degrees warmer than anywhere else on the seacoast. This stable warm water spot draws fish year-round, though many purists, including my father and myself, consider fishing the Schulla cheating. Nevertheless, it was my first time out that season, and if I could get a few fish under my belt, it would take the pressure off the rest of my trip and off my dad who regarded it as his responsibility to put any guest he took on the boat into some fish; if I returned to Chicago shut out, the albatross would burden my father more so than myself.
As predicted, numerous tiny goldfish shaped icons speckled the fish-finder as my dad glided his new boat up to the warm water outlet with an intuitive precision. The dry nylon of my fly line dangled in my anxious fingers as I steadied myself on the bow of the boat and waited for him to get into position.
There's an old eroded houseboat washed up on shore near the Shulla, abandoned there since my dad was a kid. He would climb on the two-story structure with his friends-their own pirate ship plentiful with fantastic treasures and possibilities-until the piercing sound of the marine patrol's air-horn chased them off. He always said the best time to fish the Schulla was two hours after low tide when the water reaches up to the first set of windows on the old houseboat. As we approached, water was pouring into the empty slots that once held windows. He did not make mention of it but I anticipated his eyes tracing the waterline against the vacant wooden sockets. The tide was perfect.
"All right," my dad said, "Cast 'er on the other side of the rip at two o'clock so she drifts through the center channel." When fishing in a river or along shores with moving water, fishermen look for rips, magical spots in the water where opposing currents meet or something under the water-rock formations, logs, debris-impedes the natural flow, creating a "rip" or "riffle" on the water's surface. Tiny baitfish get caught against the rip and it becomes an underwater buffet for bigger fish, and in coastal New Hampshire, striped bass.
I quickly unhooked my fly-a chartreuse Clowser minnow named after its inventor-and made two false casts to get some line out before sending my fly, a huge tangle of line, and nearly my flyrod itself into the water just over the side of the boat. It had been a while. My dad exhaled a breath of humor as he tried to keep the boat steady against the current. He set the throttle with just enough forward propulsion to counter the current head on and stabilize the boat as he abandoned the wheel to attend to my snarls and tangles. For years I had fished rivers, lakes, coasts, and inlets with my father, with a certain amount of skill and knowledge accruing from my experiences. Nevertheless, my father still found it his place to aid me in matters of reel, line, and fly. He rested a comforting hand on the lower part of my back and it sent an odd shiver through my body as usually happened when I had been away from home for a while. With thick, calloused fingers that moved with an uncanny suppleness, he gingerly manipulated the line around itself until the muddled mess returned to its straight state while I held the rod in my hand, giving him slack in the line as needed.
"No worries. Try again, this time let the rod do the work and don't force it." I readied my line and with a flick of my wrist sent my fly soaring gracefully behind me. Another flick of the wrist sailed it out across the water before the heavy lead eyes set it down on the water's surface with a plop. Much better.
"Okay, let it sit for about an eight count, then strip 'er in quick as a bastard," my dad said, incorporating his favorite simile. Everything was a "like a bastard," and of course his New England accent, which I was lucky not to inherit, always omitted the "r." The water was cold as a bastad. His lawn was green as a bastad. Clinton had been lucky as a bastad.
My first cast brought in nothing but the long-awaited and familiar feeling of being out on the water again with my fly-vest the only weight on my shoulders. My casting became more natural, and it was not five minutes before I landed my first fish of the season, a seventeen-inch striper. Pheww. My dad pulled out the disposable camera, standard equipment on any fishing boat, and took the ceremonial picture of me kissing the first fish of the season-a tradition anyone who catches a fish on the boat must adhere to. For the next fifteen minutes it was like fishing in a stocked pond. As I caught one fish after the other, I remembered why we considered fishing at the Schulla cheating, though no complaints escaped my satisfied smile. I was in the zone. Everything felt automatic again and it took my dad poking me in the back with the net to snap me out of my fishing reverie.
"What?!" I shouted back. My head was spinning as if I had just woken from a much-needed nap.
"Storm's closing in on us. Gotta head back," he said. The words barely escaped his mouth when a tremendous artery of lighting shattered the sky in the direction of my house. Thunder followed almost immediately; the storm was close. Apparently, the excitement had swallowed him as well. A precarious balance of dark clouds and sunny rays swathed the sky.
The Catch-22 of saltwater fishing says that the best fish are caught in the worst weather. Al McReynolds caught the world-record striper off the end of a New Jersey jetty in the middle of a Nor'easter. It was heralded as "the night he caught the devil." The same night, on the same jetty, another man was swept into the ocean by the fifteen-foot breakers. Every saltwater fisherman's problem is leaving bad weather when you're catching good fish. Being only the first day of my trip and having already boated a few fish, I decided not to push my luck. I reeled in my line, hooked my fly and stepped off the bow onto the floor of the boat.
"That's fine. At least I whacked a few," I said. My dad eased the boat away from shore and the shallow waters and out toward the main channel of the river. Though a boat-owner for only a few weeks, my dad stood behind the center consol, almost regally, with an innate poise. He belonged there. I had never seen him at such peace. I watched with admiration as his eyes scouted the surroundings as if seeing them for the first time. I often found that I was able to hold a conversation with my father by following his eyes. They had a way of pointing things out and communicating his appreciation or mere awareness without the need of words: a lone tern headed out to sea in our opposite direction, the red channel marker jolting against the wind and tide diverging against one another, the upside down leaves on the birches that lined the bay (my father always noticed the upside down leaves).
We did not get a hundred yards from shore before a thick, blinding fog closed in around us. The shoreline completely vanished on all sides; we could see neither the bow of the boat nor the water over the short side. We were floating along through a cloud. If it were not for the smell of the salty air or the motor's rumble, we could have just as well been in a hot-air balloon, miles above land.
"Does this happen often?" I asked him.
"I've never seen anything like this," he replied. Not the answer I was hoping for. In situations that required a certain seriousness, my father tended to be neither soothing nor unsettling-for all the confidence I had in him, I never caught a trace of it on his face. I was about to suggest we drop the anchor and sit put until it cleared, but another jolting rumble of thunder, this time lacking its visual counterpart, reminded me of the initial threat. As we struggled for options and swallowed rising bits of despair, the fog loosened its embrace on us and we suddenly floated into a patch of perfect clarity. Thinking we were steering straight up the river, we were surprised to find that we drifted almost to the other side of the shore and dangerously close to a fifty-foot moored sailboat named Hope Afloat.
In the distance, the General Sullivan Bridge marked our destination. It was actually two bridges side-by-side, the newer one used by cars, the older one only by pedestrians; it was too costly to tear the old one down, so the town left the decaying steel structure up for recreational use. Much of the original green paint remained on the familiar skeleton. It was part of my mom's morning bike route. In the middle of the night during the summer, what seemed like the entire Dominican population of the otherwise ethnically homogenous town of Dover could be found atop the rusty green bridge. Men would tend huge fishing poles that hung over the rails, hoping to catch food, while their families sat around them on lawn chairs and coolers, and their children toyed with live bait in plastic buckets. The bridge also happened to be right before my house. My dad reset our course toward it and gunned the motor as lightening continued to stain the sky with Matissian colors directly over our destination. We were heading right for it.
We did not travel twenty seconds before the fog returned as quickly as it had dissipated, forcing my dad to cut the motor again. A gust of wind made the previously still water choppy. We had been so careless in underestimating the sea, never believing anything threatening could happen in the little isolated bay. Less than a half a mile away, on shore, people were eating dinner (Lobsters? Steamers?), watching the Red Sox, arguing with Comcast over the phone if the storm knocked the cable out (during the Red Sox game), and waltzing through another ordinary day in their lives. I felt as though I was in the first rowboat that crawled up this river half a millennium ago, carrying anxious and apprehensive explorers into a foreign land. Plus the fog. I had driven over the General Sullivan Bridge thousands of times in my life but never did I think that my life would depend on it. Again, the crackling of thunder kept us from falling under the spell of the ghostly fog.
About a minute passed before the fog, now seemingly toying with us, mysteriously vanished. Further off course. We immediately looked back to the General Sullivan Bridge. Over two hundred years after he led his wounded troops out of Canada and back into New York during the thick of the Revolutionary War, the General would again have a chance to lead-this time two fishermen swallowed by a pervasive fog and the lure of striped bass.
For the next fifteen minutes we zigzagged our way from one clear patch to the next until finally reaching the bridge. Once on the other side, we seemed to have left the fog behind for good, and my dad pointed the boat toward the piercing blue light that marked our dock. The shadowy sky blackened the water in Little Bay, and the choppy waters became eerily still. As our boat glided across the black mirror, chills ran down my spine. I felt caught, as though I were being guided by the River Styx into the ancient underworld of Hades.
The sight of my mother waving her arms and shouting to us from the end of our dock (as if we needed any warning) snapped me back to reality. My dad brought the boat along the dock, and we hopped onto the unweathered surface. As we started tying it up, the first few raindrops, the size of grapes, fell from the sky. Quickly, we grabbed our flyrods and dashed off toward the house, making it inside just as the sky opened up. Inside, my dad's friend Kevin was drinking coffee and awaiting our return. Ever since we moved, Kevin had hung around our house like it was the local fly-shop. My dad told him the story, how we were completely at the mercy of Mother Nature-the helplessness, the inexperience, the blinding abundance of fish. Finally safe, he let out his emotions, which I was glad he had reserved until now. I realized my hand was on his shoulder as he spoke. He called it the scariest thing that had ever happened to him. Kevin listened without saying a word. When my dad finished, Kevin put down his cup of coffee and looked toward me.
the stripers are in, huh?"