If you fly fish for striped bass in New England twelve months a year, you get used to disappointment. Especially when you’re in the no-man’s-land between December and February. Arctic air masses have a knack for sending everything, including the bite, into a state of suspended animation. Wind chills can be downright agonizing. Not to mention the psychological toll of fishing in a desolate area that just a couple months ago was loaded with bass.
Still, there are those fortuitous exceptions. The right tide to fish is in the middle of the day, and the water is blanketed with a fog so dense the visibility will have to be measured in feet. The air temperature is an October-like 56. The meteorologists have spit the bit on the wind; they were calling for a blow out of the northwest at 10-20mph, but it is so dead calm you can see micro-droplets of water floating past your eyes.
While I remained pessimistic about catching – I drew a blank here a couple weeks ago – at least I’d get in some casting practice with the switch rod. I had started fiddling around with the two-hander during the spring run, but the lesson I had taken a few months ago had rekindled my interest. My greatest concern was the fly. I don’t like to fish weighted flies, so I usually rely on a 3/0 shot or two on the leader and a few strategic mends to sink the fly. But the power of the two-handed cast was sending my shot off into the ether, even after I had pressure mounted it with pliers. I knew some sink tips would help, but I didn’t have the materials. Necessity, mothers, invention, and all that, so I quickly whipped up a fly with a heavy wire sub-body, a tungsten bead head, some bucktail, and a marabou collar. It would be sparse and heavy enough to sink, and I had yet to meet the striper who didn’t like a little soft-hackle in his diet.
What a magnificently ugly, fishy day. And I had the whole place to myself. I waded out into the fog, made a cast, threw two mends, and let the fly swing across the current. Bup-bup! There he was. I was so unprepared for the glory of a first cast strike that I was sure I’d missed the hookset. But sometimes stripers won’t let you screw up. A bass, not long from the sea, with a brilliant slivery-white caste, high-contrast charcoal grey stripes and a look on his face like, “what’s going on here?”
Well, I would have called the day a success right then and there. But on the next cast, there was another. Then another. OK, so the stripers were on the smaller side of 16”. But what they lacked in size they made up for in fight. Fresh fish from the ocean are a different animal no matter what their dimensions. This went on for a half hour, and then came the point where I decided I was playing with house money. So I left fish to find fish.
I ventured upstream a ways, but the change in location didn’t alter the catch rate. I had been in such a hurry to tie my weighted prototype, I didn’t consider what might happen after showing it to a wildly enthusiastic audience. The bass made quick work of it, and pretty soon I had not so much a fly, but rather a hook, hair and feathers in various stages of undress. I also noticed that the takes were coming near the surface; I could see the fish rush the fly before I felt the tug. So I clipped the test fly off in favor of an unweighted September Night.
Bluefish had nothing on these bass. This was once a nicely proportioned fly with pink and olive bucktail and a very sexy chartreuse marabou collar. Honest.
The stripers pummeled the September Night, and it wasn’t long before that fly was in a state of monochromatic disarray. I could see an ominous bulge of water trailing the fly as it knifed down and across, or as I retrieved it in direct opposition to the current. And that’s when I realized: it was now a moral imperative to try to catch a striper on top in December.
I chose an all-chartreuse Gurgler because it was the first surface fly I found in my box. The conditions were perfect for topwater flies: not a breath of air, and a flawless surface where any kind of wake or commotion would be tantamount to ringing the dinner bell. Cast, strip, strip, strip – here comes that wake behind the fly – strip, strip, and then a striper cartwheels over the fly in a desperate attempt run it down. I’m so undone by the histrionics that I’m standing there, cackling in sheer delight, when CRASH!!! The fish buries the fly in the recesses of his mouth.
This went on for another 45 minutes. They took the fly on the strip retrieve. They took it when it was just sitting there after a missed strike. They took it after a long pause and the fly was merely twitched. They took it in December with the water temperature in the low forties when no self-respecting bass is supposed to chase any fly, let alone one on the surface. And the bonus was that the fish I was taking topwater were bigger than the ones I was taking below.
Stories like this one want a happy ending. I certainly already had mine. But now it was someone else’s turn.
As I waded off the bar, I noticed a white nine-inch rigged Sluggo marooned on the bottom, swaying in the current. It would make a fine lure for my son to cast next summer on Block Island, so I snaked my hand into the water and liberated it from the rock it clung to. As I walked up the beach, I saw a spin angler materialize out of the fog, and I had a change of heart. Maybe he would like to have it. It’d make a nice early Christmas present. A random act of kindness from a stranger and a way to gift-wrap the day with good karma.
I hailed him cheerfully. “How ya doing? Do you ever fish big Sluggos?”
“Yeah, sometimes,” he said.
“Merry Christmas,” was my reply as I handed him the rig.
He stared at it. “Oh, wow,” he said. “I lost that here yesterday.”