I am standing alone in hard rain and up to my stomach in dark water. My waders hug my body and thousands of fat raindrops splash, bounce, and cascade off my brimmed hat. There is no better place to be.
Today is one of those days when no one is on the beach but me and the hunkered down laughing gulls who are too uneasy to speak. Most fishermen will come out when the weather isn’t exactly nice, but today it’s outright bad and I’m the only one on the beach. This may not be a good thing, but it won’t stop me. In fact, it draws me to the surf.
I walk through the gray haze and wet air covered in neoprene and plastic with the weight of the Long Island Sound around my stomach, resisting my forward progress. As I lift my feet in the surf, they wave like branches in a strong wind, bumping and slipping on green-fleece covered rocks before settling into soft sand. With unsure steps and body that feels like it can be blown away by a wave, I stalk my prey.
The wind blows at my back and the saltwater sprays against my skin. The tide pulls on my body and the rain washes away the salt from my face. The water on my glasses hampers my vision. I feel like I am looking out of a car windshield, the wipers aren’t working, and I’m in a thunderstorm.
I reach into my canvas surfbag and pull out a Creek Chub. I match it to the sky, gray with a little blue. I tie on a leader, snap on the lure, and let it rip through the wind. My line arches behind my lure in the shape of a wavy rainbow. It’s a beautiful site.
The ounce and a half lure splashes on the surface of a long rolling swell. At the same time, my hand cranks the handle on my Penn reel, the spool turns, and my slack line straightens tight. With a quick snap of my seven and a half foot North Shore rod, the artificial lure comes to life. Its gray and blue body breaks the water’s tension then slowly sinks.
The casting, cranking, and popping puts my mind at rest. I watch the lure, a magical marionette. My eyes scan the water, looking for any unusual movement, splash, or shadow. Nothing grabs my attention.
My mind follows my eyes over the open water and sky. Thoughts flicker from What the hell am I standing on? to When the unknown becomes real and what is reality needs to be re-examined, does truth get closer to fact?
I come back around again, nice splash. My eyes dart from side to side trying to catch whatever that was in my peripheral vision, but I find nothing unusual. Again, I start to float away. How come when you go upstate they put mustard on their burgers?
The water explodes. My popper disappears. My biceps flex. My forearm and wrist take on the weight. The drag on the reel strains and screams as the fish heads for deep water. With one solid back sweep, I set the hook. The rod bends like a divining rod over an underground lake. The drag drones in pain.
I wonder about my little reel. Is it up to the task? I start to question my knot’s strength. The line slices through the water from left to right, pulling out yards of monofilament line. A bluefish? Maybe I shouldn’t be using such light action gear? I can’t help but second guess. After all, a rod less than 8 feet is better suited for fresh water.
The drag stops. I dip the rod tip, reel, and pump. Text book.
The unknown fish and I engage in battle. I change my mind on the type of species several times. It’s a bass. No it’s a blue. My answer comes in the form of one straight long pull.
A striper! I can’t see it yet, but I am sure enough. I pump up and reel down, hoping to get the fish in view. Even if I lose it, I would at least like to know. I start to reel faster as the fish charges me. I can’t keep up. A striper breaks the surface, rattling my lure around in its mouth as it leaps and its tail dances across a breaking wave.
Oh, no, I’ve lost him! The striper’s silver body picks up the scarce light under the gray sky and sparkles as the fish goes back under. To my surprise, I feel the strength of his mouth ripping at the treble hooks. I’ve got it!
Boiling the water, darting tightly, the striper appears an arm’s length from my grasp. I stare at all the fuss and I reach for my pliers.
Selective harvest or catch and release?
The fish stops moving. Its dorsal fin relaxes and it hugs close to my body, like a dog on a cold day. The fish and I have come to an understanding. We are both animals and, for the moment, I have the upper hand. I reach down for its lip and the bass shakes the lure at the thought of my touch. My thumb grips its lower lip and my other four fingers sink into the soft underside of its jaw. The bass is temporarily paralyzed. I take out the treble hooks and my hand is the only hold I have now.
What to do?
Twenty-eight inches is the minimum size limit, but, at thirty-six inches, a striped bass has spawned at least once. If it’s over thirty-six inches, I’ll take it.
I turn for the beach with the fish in my right hand and the rod tucked under my left arm. I pull my surfbag to the side and open it, looking for my yellow measuring tape. I grab a rag from the pouch on the front of my waders, gently place the striper on a strip of white sand, and place the rag over its eyes and measure.
Thirty-six inches exactly!
I promised myself I would keep it, but I measure again. It didn’t grow. I turn my back to the beach and head toward the open water. I stop dead in my tracks and look back to the beach again. I’m looking for something that isn’t there — A reason to keep the bass. I have none.
I walk knee deep into the water. Bending over the dark green water, I release the striper gently. It pauses, finding its buoyancy, then bolts for freedom. The surface of the water breaks and two predators part.
I spend the next hour or so fishing, realizing that I must join the masses and earn a living. I take my last cast and, with a final look over the Sound, decide it’s time to go home and get ready for my night job.
I walk back to my car, thinking about my time spent fishing. I’m reminded that sometimes the odds are against you in life. At other times, the possibilities are endless. You never know what’s going to happen. One day you’re swimming along, the next you see something new and alluring. You give it a try, and Wham! You’re hooked.
There are humans with the same problem, except they end up in rehab — a different form of Catch & Release. Fish wind up on the dinner table. I let a big one go today, but that striper got a second chance at life.
Oh, yeah. It’s good to be alive!