Something strange happens around the new moon in June. The waters off Cape Cod, already full of migrating and year-of-young life, explode in a cacophony of energy. The bay becomes crowded. It’s a time of year in which you’d do almost anything to get just a few hours out on that new summer ocean. Alarms are set for 3:00am to catch the tide, but there’s no sleep to be had, so you head down to the boat at midnight and sit on the captains seat re-tying knots and organizing tackle in the darkness of the running lights. At work you sit at your desk, trying desperately to think about anything other than the cows pushing mackerel to the surface, thrashing and ripping through the white water. The fishing report page gets refreshed every three minutes. Striped bass migration hysteria reaches a peak deafening roar.
It’s a Saturday, an hour before false dawn, and boats in the now-full harbor roam in different directions on their moorings. I approach the Mal de Mer from the skiff. I forgot my headlamp so I awkwardly hold my iPhone light up in the pitch darkness as I approach the mooring. I pick up my father, my brother Michael and a friend, Dave, from the dock, where they stand, hands full with coffee, ice and tackle bags. The plan is simple: Find the mackerel out front. Shoot across to the Race, catch stripers, and repeat (that last part only).
“Wind?” my dad asks.
“Light and variable.”
No response, only a smile and a nod.
With that, we’re out of the harbor, and we’re laughing and drinking our burnt gas station coffees out of Styrofoam cups, discussing tides, tackle, weather and plan, but we all know there is no plan and it’s better off that way. It’s moments like this one, pushing forward into the dim glow of stars on dark water, when the season seems infinite and ever-expanding, and that in any direction we point the bow, we’ll find success in a wide-angle lens.
At Race Point, Michael, age fifteen, who hasn’t quite caught the striper bug the same way I did when I was his age, or my father did at a much later age, drops an energetic tinker mackerel into the water, where the depth runs from 200ft to 10ft in an unbelievably short distance. He keeps the bail open, letting the mackerel swim wherever it chooses, never taking his eyes off the line as it unravels from the spool. The mackerel takes the braid in short jerks, line sometimes catching on the side of the spool, a halt, then a quick run in the opposite direction, then another halt. A few seconds into the drift, the line suddenly shoots out, barely visible as it unravels from the spool.
Michael could only articulate an “Ummm,” before he realized what exactly was happening. But he remembers what we told him and he flips the bail and lifts the rod gently to let the circle hook do its job. The drag sings in a steady whine and the rod bucks in big jerks. The circle hook, and Michael, does their job.
The fish makes three long runs, threatening to spool the Penn reel, but we get her boat side just as the first orange glow of the sun hits our little spot in the bay. I reach into the water and into the big girl’s mouth, circle hook firmly implanted in the corner, and lift her up to high fives. The June sun reflects sepia shades off wet olive and purple scales. Michael gawks at her size, laughs nervously and doesn’t want to hold her, not even for a picture on his Instagram page.
I lower the fish slowly into the water and let her get her bearings. She kicks her tail softly, raises her dorsal fin and bites down on my hand and kicks off into the darkness.
As the sun rose over the point, so did the bass, and the rest of the morning was filled with the monstrous crashes of cow stripers chasing mackerel and sandeels to the surface. Every time a Guppy plug was batted out of the water, it was met by loud excited laughs and yells of joy.
There’s purpose in life, then, not just due to the presence of the marone saxatilis, but because of the people I’m with. It’s comforting to know there are others who live for these moment, and are ecstatic just to be spending time on the water in June, when the Bay is so abounding with life.
And I can’t help but hope that it never ends.