Large bass, small babies, and so-called friends.
It was just after 10 o’clock, on the tenth day of the tenth month when I stepped out of my truck and into the pull-off on the Cape Cod Canal. Although the night was clear, the moon was new, and the air was warm, I felt the end approaching—the end of the 2015 striper season, maybe even the end of striper fishing as I knew it.
“So, when are you selling all your gear?” someone at the office had taunted me the day before.
I’d endured six months of similar heckling since sharing with family and “friends” that Pam and I were expecting our first child in October. The possible veracity of those taunts had me distracted as I removed my rods and bike from the truck.
I gave my phone a last check before I mounted my rusting rod-holder-fitted Schwinn and pedaled onto the Canal service road. A few days before, a hairline crack in my formerly waterproof case had let in just enough saltwater to fry the circuits on my iPhone. I had insurance on the phone, but still spent a chunk of my Saturday at the Verizon Store, arguing to no avail that I needed a replacement immediately. Eventually, in waddled my uncomfortable and irritable wife, who explained at a volume approaching a shout that, despite her being nine months pregnant, her husband was too selfish and too stupid to spend nights at home while the stripers were running. Fifteen minutes later, a wide-eyed clerk handed Pam’s wide-eyed husband a replacement.
My friends, it seemed, were already proving right. That week, amazing reports had been coming from Rhode Island, where dense schools of peanut bunker had brought bass and blues into the surf for the best fall run in years. I’d started to ask Pam if a trip south was in the cards, but abandoned the request in fear for my own safety.
The Canal fell within Pam’s 10-mile radius of acceptable fishing destinations, which made it my best choice, even though reports had been slow. Columbus Day weekend is just beyond the peak of fall fishing on the Cape Cod Canal. The big push happens in September, and by October, anglers are left fishing the small schools of bass that make up the final laps of the fall run. The October 8, 2015 Fishing Forecast posted on OnTheWater.com mentioned plenty of bait, but few and picky fish in the Canal. Red Top Sporting Goods had weighed in a single 24-pounder.
On the night of October 10, the banks of the Canal were empty. A month earlier, on Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, both sides were full of headlamps bobbing up and down as fishermen clumsily made their way down the uneven rocks to the water’s edge. As I pedaled west toward the Bourne Bridge, there were no other fishermen in sight.
I was tempted to go home. I could pop open a bag of chips, crack a beer, and toast what had been a wonderful decade-and-a-half of carefree surfcasting. After that, I could start posting tackle on online classified boards and trade the lures I’d hoped would catch cow stripers for the money to buy diapers that would catch…well, you know.
I biked down to my rip, a sharp seam in the current created by a small rocky outcropping that had been exposed by the falling tide. I clipped on a 2½-ounce bucktail jig, added the 5-inch red pork rind trailer, and set to casting.
Fall-run fishing has a touch of desperation in it. Every northwest wind blows in a preview of the coming cold and a reminder that the striped bass will soon be leaving. By mid-October, after more than five months of hard fishing, I both welcome and dread the season’s end. I think how nice it will be not to feel compelled to climb into waders night after night to face an ever-colder surf and cast into ever-fiercer winds. And then I think how terrible it will be not to have that option. Compounding my usual end-of-the-season angst was not knowing what my next striper season would look like. Would fatherhood allow for almost-nightly outings? Would the baby accommodate the after-work napping that makes those nightly outings possible? Would I even want to fish?
Those questions clouded my concentration, like the thick freight trains of fog that follow the cold water west through the Canal on warm summer mornings. A soft tap burned off my mental haze, and I realized that the tide, and my chances at fish, had approached their peak.
“Real” canal jigging requires a rod with the flexibility of a pool cue to cast a jig heavy enough to anchor a small boat. Fishermen who have mastered the technique use their lures to read the bottom like Braille, learning exactly where to cast to drop jigs into holes where big bass might be sitting. I’m years away from that kind of mastery, so instead, I use regular surf rods and smaller jigs to fish the closer structures and current edges the way I used to fish the bridges in Southern New Jersey. I cast the jig almost directly up-current, feel for it to touch bottom, and then reel just fast enough to keep it above the rocks. One similarity it has to real canal jigging is that you tend to lose a lot of jigs.
I was only half-sure the tap on the next cast was a fish when I leaned back to set the hook. For a moment, the rod didn’t budge. What was on the other end sat still as stone, immovable. It came to life with a single broad headshake and a swift left turn into the current. I reeled frantically to catch up, coming tight as the fish passed my position. The rod doubled and I pivoted counter-clockwise as the fish ripped line from the reel, apparently undeterred by the tightly set drag.
It was a good one, but it’d been weeks since I’d hooked a cow so I wasn’t sure how big. The currents of the Canal add power to every fish, and it would have been far from the first time that I’d been sure I’d hooked a 40-pounder only to see a 25-pounder appear at my feet.
Concerns that it was merely “athletic” evaporated when the fish locked me into a stalemate right at the edge of the rip. The fish was so strong, so stubbornly holding its ground, that I thought it had wrapped a rock until I saw its tail on the surface swishing steadily back and forth. I put more pressure on, hoping to pull the fish into the eddy, but this sent the fish on another run, its departure ripping a hole in the surface of the Canal. That’s when I started to worry about losing the fish, mumbling over and over, “Stay hooked, stay hooked.” I’d have been even more worried if I’d known it would be the last fish I’d hook before the next Thursday when my wife came downstairs to tell me that we needed to go to the hospital.
Everything began happening so quickly that, as I look back on it now, it’s almost difficult to separate the week’s events.
I steered the fish into the eddy where, sensing the current change, it bolted past me again, this time running up-current, but the drag and the new moon tide proved too much for the fish to fight. The drag fell silent and the fish rolled on its side.
A nurse tossed me a set of scrubs and said to put them on. The baby was coming now, via Caesarian, and they needed to prep my wife. In the O.R., a doctor snapped orders while I sat above the partition, and reached for Pam’s hand.
I grabbed the leader, stuck the rod in the rocks behind me, and plunged my hand into the bass’ mouth, feeling the sandpaper teeth scratch my palm as I grasped its lower lip.
A nurse emerged from behind the curtain with a baby girl, and handed her to me. Her skin was soft, her eyes were closed, and her cries were loud—a good sign, I thought.
The big tail, worn down and scarred from 20 migrations, swished slowly as I removed the jig and righted the bass. The saucer-sized gill plates opened and closed silently but strongly. I let go of the lip and gripped, as best I could, the thick wrist of the bass’ tail. My left hand barely fit around half of it as I used my right hand to steer the fish’s head into the current. The fins were up, and I felt the muscles tense. She was ready to go, but I held on for an extra moment.
The nurse came to take the baby to weigh, measure, and clean her, but I couldn’t let go just yet. I leaned in close to the tiny ear and whispered, “Thanks, Maura.” Pam looked at me quizzically, but I knew Maura understood. She’d sat tight just long enough for her old man to catch his biggest striped bass, and whatever happened in the striper seasons to come—whether my friends would be right or wrong—everything was going to be just fine.