The dandelions bloom, and then the forsythias, and any old salt will tell you that with each of these spring occurrences come tautog and of course, striped bass.
May tides and longer, warmer days produce different types of blooms—clouds of near-microscopic phytoplankton and subsequently, zooplankton. Suddenly appearing to indulge in the Spring bounty are massive waves of baitfish—silversides, mummichogs, sand eels, bay anchovies, and mackerel, menhaden, squid, flounder—migrating or navigating in from their winter residences. The bays ripple to life.
But this is hushed insanity, a hysteria hidden under the waves. The true insanity, the tangible madness that is the start of the striper fishing season, doesn’t begin until the marone saxatillis find the schools of bait off Cape Cod.
It starts in whispers on forums, from friends, fishing acquaintances and tackle shop workers.
“My brother’s buddy lives out on the Vineyard. He got into ‘em heavy three days ago. Cows all over the place. They’ll be at the canal soon.”
“30-pounder caught at the west end. Big push of fish last night at the east turn. All feeding on top.”
You listen with reluctance. The fish can’t be here yet. It’s too early. Water’s too cold. It’s only May 6th.
Geography would dictate that fish migrating North would either need to pass around the rips of Monomoy up the outer cape, through the funnel of Buzzards Bay, or in between the Elizabethans, moving through in massive waves like flower through a sifter.
This would be the only explanation as to how the fish end up inside our bay and to locations North. Zealous anglers picture the migration like a parade, as if you could stand on a jetty overlooking the Atlantic waving to the schools of fish as they pass by, marching bands and floats in tow. But it doesn’t happen like this.
One morning toward the beginning of the month, you’re catching schoolies in the river, and the next morning, there’s fifteen to twenty pound fish crashing the surface. It’s as if they simply appeared.
The Mal de Mer had been in the water for three weeks, nearly alone in the harbor against the breakwater, joining the lobster boats and other commercial fishing vessels in a sea of otherwise empty moorings. Early May had been unseasonably cold and stormy and the few fishing trips we had taken had ended up being only wet boat rides. But finally, halfway through the month, the weather shifted.
It was the type of May night I remember from childhood; a light breeze, calm seas and the sweet warmth of the days and twilights that seem to last longer than physically possible.
My brother Jimmy brings his girlfriend, Mckayla, who’s never been on a boat. He packs a cooler with warm Bud Lights and we order fried clam rolls. We cruise out into the bay, make the turn at the channel marker and point north, no destination plugged into the chartplotter. Daylight dances toward twilight, terns and plovers and cormorants meander and watch us curiously. I turn off the engine and the Mal de Mer drifts with the outgoing tide, past the flat.
Then we hear it. Birds. Lots of them. I pull out the binoculars and scan the horizon. They circle and dive inside the bay in a fast moving rip off the point of the beach. I crank the Yamaha and open her up and she planes, whining loudly as we approach the school. We stop just outside, rods in hand and at the ready.
Bass are jumping out of the water, beating the baitfish with their tales, chasing them through the rip. From the bow, I can see the schools of bass inches below the water, prowling and attacking the wild-eyed baitfish. The micro schoolies are present, but alongside them are the new arrivals, the keeper fish hungry from their travels. The terns rain down on the water, circling and diving.
A drag is singing at the back of the boat as Mckayla is fighting a fish. She reels clunkily, but works the rod back to gain line. Jimmy helps her keep the tip up, Bud Light in hand. Soon, the fish is at the side of the boat.
I lift it up, stripes dark, a product of the deeper water it’s been traveling in. Sealice, the telltale sign of a new arrival, scurry along its body. The fish goes back in the water, and there’s high fives and we crack another beer. The beer is warm, but it goes down smooth.