bassDrake Magazine Back Issue Content Winter 2017LifestyleSeasons of the striper

Seasons of the striper

It starts in early Spring when the water is cold and flinty, the wind an unceasing bully. Sure, there may be a schoolie here or there, a member of the Hudson River group that’s opted out of the migration. But the great fish are still south. I don’t care, though. I just need to reacquaint myself with everything, to feel the bend, to shoot the line through the guides, to smell the brine, to hear the surf’s hiss. This trip just gets me one step closer to the real thing.

A little later on, some of the biggest girls come ambling into the back bays, seeking warmth. They take poppers. The spring run used to be stronger. We all think that. We are flyfishers, after all, prone to nostalgia, insisting during those inner monologues that it was better back then. Right? Maybe.

There used to be a fun-ass striper tournament in New York City every spring, miraculously put together by my friend, Captain Frank. I usually rode along in his boat as an observer, as a “journalist.” On a few occasions, I even fished.

The tournament brought together one of the oddest mixes of people you’ll ever see: Pasty Wall Street straights and fun-loving, mostly Italian-American guides, who are the descendants of Sicilian watermen, if not in actuality then at least in spirit. Crescitelli. Cornicelli. Vetere. Paciello…

Captain Frank always managed to persuade some sort of celebrity to headline the event. The late Clarence Clemons hobbled around the boat one year on knees wrecked by decades of touring. He sweatily blew into a saxophone for an hour after the tournament, and then the instrument was auctioned off. The guy who won it immediately grabbed the sax from Clemons’ hands, wrapped his lips around the mouthpiece and blew one single, long, flatulent note.

The amiable, up-for-anything Ed Burns caught a huge striper a few years ago. A famous chef was on the boat one year and was in a dour and distracted mood all day. The striped bass all-tackle world record holder (81.88 pounds!) was a guest once, and he only caught small bluefish.

Wade Boggs was probably the most frequent featured celebrity. Right as we left port, he’d crack open the first of the day’s many canned Miller Lites, always with the same toast, year-in and year-out: “Here’s to swimmin’ with bowlegged wimmin.” An hour and a few cans later, when he was inevitably forced to relieve some pressure, Boggs would tuck his fishing rod under his arm, head for the stern, unzip and pronounce: “Beer. You don’t buy it. You just rent it.” When the driving rain pushed us under the hardtop, Boggs would regale us with tales about playing with Jeter and trying to hit Randy Johnson’s fastball. One year when he was with the Red Sox, Boggs got off to a blazing start, batting above the magical .400 mark. He saw Ted Williams in the locker room one afternoon before a game. Williams shook his hand and said: “OK, you’re hitting well. BUT LET’S SEE IF YOU CAN DO IT FOR AN ENTIRE SEASON.”


When the waders start to get clammy, it’s summer, and that means it’s flats season.

The most fun way to flyfish for stripers is on the flats. They are generally bigger than bonefish and, on the wading flats near my home—with the boat wakes, jet skis, bait-chunkers, etc.—they can be as flighty as permit.

“Fishing for stripers on these flats is like hitting on models in nightclubs,” says my friend, Raf, who may or may not know what he’s talking about here. “You’ll rarely, if ever, land one, but the fun is in the game, in the scenery, in the moment.”

This is the same guy who, on rainy summer mornings, during the high tide of the commute, breaks off a square of his dark chocolate cannabis bar and gets in his car and drives around our neighborhood in Brooklyn listening to The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” on repeat. He likes to watch the men in suits and the pretty women under their colorful umbrellas hurrying along the sidewalk to catch cabs or the subway. His excuse is that he misses watching music videos. I’m not sure Raf has a job. He’s a fun guy—not a hipster and not an overly urbane Manhattan-ite, but beatifically and effortlessly inhabiting some strange place between those two poles. I’d bet you’d like him.

In the summer, with some feelings of regret, I leave the flats. Family vacation duty calls. We go to Nova Scotia, to a cabin on the Margaree River. As my focus turns to Atlantic salmon, I exchange one obsession for another. I fish hard during the liminal, non-family hours of the trip. Though not as good as it once was—again, nostalgia—the Margaree remains one of the most enjoyable salmon rivers in the Maritimes. Raf’s “models in nightclubs” analogy comes into play here, too. You will catch one or maybe even a few salmon with some persistence and a heavy dose of luck. But the pursuit is always worth it.

A few years ago, I was in one of my favorite pools on the lower part of the river. I had it all to myself, which is somewhat of a rarity on this public water. It was a perfect day, windless and shrouded in a mist of cool rain. I tied on an Ally’s Shrimp and worked out some casts. On my third swing, I got a pull. I set the hook. The fish never showed, just held, deep in the current. It slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t a salmon.

A few moments later, I was taking the fly from the mouth of a schoolie striper. Its skin felt like sandpaper. I let it go and made another cast. Bang. Another striper. This happened a few more times before I reeled up and left one of the best Atlantic salmon pools on one of the best remaining salmon rivers in Eastern Canada with this scoresheet: 5 striped bass, 0 Atlantic salmon.

In recent years, more and more stripers have been showing up and they’ve pushed farther upriver. They are part of a population residing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence—separate from ours in the eastern U.S.—that’s gone from bust to boom in the last decade, thanks in large part to a total closing of both commercial and recreational harvest in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They breed in the mouth of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick—another titan in the salmon-river world—and wreak havoc on the salmon population there. In the summer, the stripers spread out all over the Gulf. Canadian authorities claim that they haven’t had any impact on Margaree salmon because they show up after the smolts have left the river for the sea. Anecdotally, that seems hard for me to believe. But what do I know?

Either way, I can’t even begin to describe how disheartened I feel when I pull up a striper on that river. It’s an odd sensation to despise a species of fish in one place on this earth, and love it in another.

Back home, in late summer, you can still sneak in a decent flats day every once in a while, but the days of wave after wave of fish pouring over the white sand are pretty much done. There’s a weird two-week interstitial in late August and early September when not much happens on the water. And then the early fall season kicks in.

It’s a gracious period. The weather is clement. The ocean is still warm. A few stripers have begun to show up in the surf. But this is hardtail season, first the bonito and then the false albacore. The whole thing starts seemingly out of nowhere, with the flip of a switch. It’s fun and exciting fishing, but it always feels too short in duration. A storm hits, the weather cools and, just as suddenly as they appeared, the hardtails are gone.

Not to worry, though, because now it’s hardcore striper time. This is the sweet spot, but it can feel a bit manic because you know that the time is running out on you. The trips shift to the early mornings, so you can be on the water and in the right spot when that magic hour begins with the first sliver of the sun on the horizon.

I’m usually showered, dressed and back at my desk by nine in the morning on these days. My thoughts never truly leave the water, though. I sneak periodic looks at the tide tables and surf reports throughout the day. I even venture into the netherworld of the Internet chat boards, only because every morsel of information feels nourishing. This is high season for my favorite misspelling by chat board bros on those sites. “Hooked four strippers near Coney last night!”

It’s about this time when things usually go a bit haywire. My waders and boots never really get the chance to dry, and the funk starts to overwhelm. My fingers bleed from fly line pulls, and they start to sting with the first cast every morning on the beach. The bait balls up by the jetty, the fish start to bust on them, and the ensuing adrenaline surge feels almost like lust.

I collapse into bed every night and sleep soundly but never long enough, up again and out of the door in the dark. At times, I’m rendered stupid with fatigue, having to concentrate hard, for a full five minutes, to remember my Social Security number.

And then, sometime in late November, there comes a week when I don’t go out. Something happens. Work, maybe. A cold nor’easter. The unsettling darkening of the afternoons. I get some semblance of my bearings back. I sleep past 4:30. I eat a real breakfast. I wear clean clothes. There’s Thanksgiving and football.

In December, inevitably, there’ll be a spell of relatively mild weather. Just a few days. The gannets are diving in military formation in the bays, after the herring, the favorite food of the largest stripers that pull up the rear-guard of the fall run. I put on my long underwear, the knit cap, those neoprene gloves that keep your hands warm but still kinda suck for fishing. And I waddle down to the water and cast.

One year, I fished on Christmas Eve and caught two 20-pound stripers. I told myself that I would keep going, that after Christmas break, I’d get out again, at least once more. But that break has a way of taking it out of you. By then, it’s January. That’s not a striper-fishing month, not for me, anyway. Neither is February.

The time off, in the end, is a good thing. I even manage to forget it all for days at a time. I stop the incessant peeks at the tide tables. I work.

In March, I’m usually still OK for the first two weeks. But then comes the last half of that month. It teases. Maybe it’s the increased sunlight. On impulse one night, I’ll stuff my gear into a bag and set the alarm. And everything begins again.

Monte Burke is a contributing editor at Forbes magazine.

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Monte Burke
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MONTE BURKE is the author of Saban: The Making of a Coach, and Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World-Record Largemouth Bass. He's currently working on a tarpon book.

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