In the beginning, there are rivers. These rivers, winding up from the sea into estuary grass and wooded shoreline, mark the hesitant start to our striper season. But it can’t just be any river. No, successful anglers (or, ‘sharpies’) hold these undisclosed grottos close to the waders. The secret of pre-migration striper fishing is well-kept gospel, unspoken, hidden behind immovable stone.
I found my own undisclosed-location by accident. While driving one day, listening to an early season Sox game on the radio, I noticed two pick-up trucks, rear windows pasted with all the usual stickers, parked at a dirty pull-off on a major road abutting a bridge. This piqued my interest.
I pulled over and parked behind one of the trucks, and made my way down a well-worn path strewn with rusted empties and other garbage. The path opened up to the river; bridge to my left, and a current rip at the bend to my right.
Two guys stood at the water’s edge casting small swim baits. I approached the river and they both stopped, shouldered their rods and stared at me. I nodded to both of them, and they eventually continued casting. I got the distinct feeling they didn’t want any company.
The next day, I packed my waders and 7-weight fly rod into the car and set off to that location after work. No one was fishing the river when I arrived.
Casting into a seemingly empty river would be, at any other point in the fishing season, irritating. But in April, the sound of my imperfect back cast hitting the bank behind me, the double clunk of cars going too fast on the bridge, the din of water folding over empty water, keeps my focus more than it would any other time of the year. Everything is new and undeveloped and the whole season is spread out in front of me.
I’m so focused on these thoughts that I barely notice a sharp tap on the end of my fly line. Muscle memory engages like the whir of an old sewing machine. I strip set and soon lip a striped bass, barely the size of a trout.
The first striped bass of the season, seven thin black-as-pitch stripes running from gill plate to tail, dorsal fin also tipped black.
Was this fish born in the Chesapeake in a river similar to the one I’m standing in? Could it have made that long journey north? Or, is this its home, born of the Northeast brackish water, navigating in and out with the flood and the ebb? How many tides has it seen? How many Cape Cod winters or Chesapeake springs?
I hold the fish in the water secretively and it raises its dorsal, kicks hard and jets off, splashing water back at me. I stand waist deep and listen to the water flood the marsh, slowly meandering along to the uneven drum beat of cars on the bridge.
With this, the season expands, stretches out, cracks its bones. The last strands of sun disappear behind the reeds in the marsh and the playful calls of year-of-young ospreys ring out into the twilight. The schoolies chase baitfish out in the channel of the not-so-empty river.
Let there be light.
And it was good.