In March and April, depending on where you live on the East Coast, the first broods of monarch butterflies hatch from their chrysalis (a cocoon to you and I) and enjoy a short two- to six-week life span. They do what butterflies are best at: they flit around, eat flowers, look pretty, avoid elementary schoolers with nets, and dodge feisty birds. They will follow an irresistible pheromone-scent trail, find some butterfly love, mate, lay eggs on a select milkweed plant, then die. From these eggs, a second generation of monarchs emerges in May and June, and sows the seeds for the third generation to hatch in July and August. A fourth generation hatches in September and October from the eggs laid by the third.
It’s this monarch 4.0 version that is unique. Unlike their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers, this quartile generation embarks on a different life path. Instead of dying in a month, the 4G East Coast monarchs gather in great swarms and light out for warmer climes and a winter in Mexico. After a 2,500-mile journey south and west, they gather in Oyamel fir trees and hibernate. In spring, they lay eggs for a new year-class that journeys in reverse following the bloom of milkweed steadily north and east to the Atlantic seaboard.
The annual fall flight of the monarchs invariably coincides with a push in the bay anchovy migration. In some circles, monarchs might be described as phenological indicators of the fall run. Weathered jetty jockies state it differently. They’ll squint into a setting sun, spy the hapless monarchs and offer up some granular wisdom wrapped around tidbits of BS to keep you on your toes, “Mmmpf. Butterflies. Gonna be good this weekend. Use a black fly.”
The monarchs southerly flight paths are somewhat dictated by the winds and temperatures. Generally, I’ll see them in mid-September. I’ll notice that perceptibly the sun is rising later and setting sooner than during my August bonito expeditions. I’ll have thrown a jacket in the backpack to ward off the morning chill. The skies will be high and dry with low humidity. I’ll think I can smell the schools of bait. And I can. It’s a waft of melon and flower incense distinguished from the salt air by its sweetness. At my nephew’s soccer game I’ll see one, then two monarchs drift high out over the trees and settle down toward the playing field. And I’ll know that these bugs are fluttering down along the coast, passing the rips at Monomoy, Great Point, Block Island, Point Judith, and on to the epicenter at Montauk. Later, they will fly by the jumbo false albacore of Cape Lookout. And I know that tomorrow I will be fishing for albies. I will look out from my Rhode Island rocks and spy a monarch or two flapping out over the mild surf in confirmation of the night prior’s encounter.
What little work I have, along with family obligations and stagnant social life, will take a back seat. Phone calls will go unreturned and text messages will be left hanging. For the monarchs are flying, and the best of the season has just begun.