Past Report: October ebb tide

Success in October is a narrow beam of light. Urgency. Last round. You don’t have to leave but you probably should before the month is over, because the bass are few and the weather is usually less than ideal.

We press out into the full moon night with two hours of darkness ahead of us. It’s muggy for October and the boat pushes soundlessly through the water; dirty yellow circus lights from the powerplant to the starboard, clean moonlight refracting the still water to the port.

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My Dad and I arrive at the East end of the Cape Cod Canal just as the Yamaha ticks to a thousand hours.

The sun rises slowly over the East End, illuminating the dark sea, the jetties and the scattered anglers fishing on them. Four other boats drift the East running current with us. There had been whispers of albies—or false albacore, an incredibly hard-fighting, tackle busting tunoid that migrate to our waters in the Fall—at the East End, which is fairly unusual, as the best “funny fish” action usually occurs in the warmer waters of Buzzards Bay and the Sounds.

A mola mola surfaces a few hundred yards away. Two guys in a little white skiff motor right up to it to get a closer look, and we follow. One stands on the bow, which was practically in the water, taking a video of the creature from his iPhone.

“What is it? Shark?” one asks in broken English. The giant creature saunters off toward the middle of the channel, cut and gashes visible from numerous collisions with boats.

We drift the end of the Canal and soon spot birds working down the shoreline. The fleet of four motors ahead, small metal lures at the ready for the possibility of a fast-moving school of the elusive fish. We setup down current of the school. Predator fish slash through the water under the birds. I stow my spinning rod and pick up the fly rod, stripping out a few coils of fly line from the reel to the deck.

 

“Could be Albert!” someone shouts from a center console. He casts a slender metal lure into the school and begins a quick retrieve.

I strip more line and stand up on the bow.

“Two o’clock,” someone says, or maybe I say to myself. I make two false casts and watch the school boil sixty feet in front of me.

I can admit that my fly cast can be, at times, ‘utilitarian’. It’s not pretty by any means. More often than not, my forward cast with turn into a puddle of tangled fly line. My fly has the tendency to hook onto anything in the boat. Sometimes I’ll even smack myself in the back of the head with a clouser. But every once in a while, I get lucky and summon up a beauty.

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I double haul on the forward cast, pulling down on the fly line to load the rod, and shoot it forward. The line unfolds from its perfect loop and the fly extends and hangs in the air, weightless, before falling to the water sixty feet away.

My surf candy lands just short of the school, two o’clock on the dot. I pause before I start my retrieve, letting the fly sink, trying to mimic the way a real wounded or dead baitfish would act if it were in that particular scenario. I make one strip and come tight.

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“Albie!” I yell, and I’m positive the entire fleet can hear my proclamation. The fish makes a long run for the bottom, and then stops, holding in position. I eventually get enough leverage to work it to the boat. A fifteen-pound striper turns on its side.

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“That’s a funny looking albie,” the guy on the center console says.

We move back to the mouth of the canal, and see scattered terms circling and occasionally diving. Under them, fish jet through the whitewater. Those aren’t stripers, I think but don’t say, as my confidence in identifying fish before I catch them has waned.

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We motor up to the first school and cast into them, but before I can finish my retrieve, the school is gone. Then, they pop up two hundred yards behind us. We pick up and move and I attempt to make another cast, but my line catches on the T-top and I nearly break my rod in half on the forward cast. My Dad makes a cast with the spinning rod to where the school should be, but we quickly realize they’re gone again. The whole act resembles an embarrassing game of whack-a-mole. The fleet of five had suddenly turned into a fleet of twenty boats, all chasing separate schools. Lines get tangled and boats nearly drift into each other, but no one gets angry or swears at anyone else. We understand this is albie fever, and the clock is ticking for all of us.

The schools disperse. All of the boats drift away from the Canal. Fishermen stand on bows, rods at sides, peering into the water, looking for signs of life. There’s silence.

But then, it erupts. False albacore jet out of the water through dense schools of silversides and peanut bunker and the birds resume their diving frenzy. Everyone yells to one another about where to cast, but you can barely hear it over the boiling water.

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We’re in position to cast to a school, and we do, but don’t get any takers. We continue drifting and come into position adjacent to a school by the channel marker. I don’t cast, but watch their direction, and they move against the current toward the Cape side. I make a long false cast, pull the rod forward, and use the surface tension of the water to catapult my line to the feeding school. I make three or four strips and the fly disappears in a boil of water. A jolt of unbridled electricity courses through the fly line, to the rod, then into my hands.

The fish runs deep and I dance on the bow, avoiding the evaporating line, trying to coax it away from the many nooks and latches under me. The line clears and shoots through the guides and I’m onto the reel.

The fish continues running, the large arbor reel spins in a blur, the drag screams like a jet engine. This time, there’s no mistaking what’s on the end of the line. The knot connecting the fly line to the backing shoots through the top guide. I press lightly on the spool with my palm to slow the fish, but it’s unrelenting. Suddenly, the line goes slack. I scramble to take back line and finally come tight again, hook thankfully still secure. My heart beats in my ears.

 

There’s a sense of urgency to the fight then. The false albacore only show in numbers for a few weeks out of the year. And out of those few weeks, how many days will I actually get to target them? Say I do make it out and find fish, what are the odds I actually have a shot at one? Combine this with the picky appetite of the albie and the tenacity of their fight, and the odds of a successful catch are thin.

As the fish continues running away from the boat, then doubling back toward it, these thoughts flash through my head, and I begin doubting my ability to catch the fish. It runs again toward the jetty and I’m onto the backing for the third time. The rod trembles and vibrates with each frantic tail push. Suddenly, next to the boat, there’s a disturbance in the water and a dense school of frantic baitfish blow up. Albies slash through them and splash clear out, within arm’s reach from the boat. My Dad throws into them but doesn’t get a take. Within seconds, they’re gone.

I finally regain line and I see the fish on the surface. I reach into the water and grab its forked tail for a quick picture. The albie is speed embodied; sleek and torpedo-like, hard tail like a rudder. Its neon-green dorsal area gleams silvers and blues in the sun.

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I shoot it back into the water and it takes off to continue terrorizing schools of small baitfish and ill-prepared fishermen alike. I stand on the bow, hands shaking.

The ride back is bumpy and I sit on the bow of the boat, hood on, bundled up against the October cold front suddenly pushing through. The thought that this may be the last boat trip of the year crosses my mind. It’s Sunday, and the workweek looms long ahead of me. Weather reports promise cold nights and gale force gusts. Another hurricane is brewing in the Caribbean. The outlook doesn’t look promising.

But just as we come into view of the power plant, and just as I’m beginning to accept the fact that the albie would be my last fish taken on the boat this season, we see it. Thousands of terns, gulls and gannets dive bombing acres of water, gorging themselves on peanut bunker and mackerel. Massive splashes disrupt the water below the birds. Baitfish flee from the silver flanks thrashing on the surface and torpedoing through the water column. We motor to the edge of the chaos, but soon find ourselves engulfed in it, a piece of the fury of migrating nature moving as one being—the violence and balance of the fall migration—the beautiful onslaught. The sea hums like a machine.

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We each lob wooden plugs into the white water and we’re on before we even have a chance to take a turn of the reel handle. The drags scream and we maneuver around the boat trying to keep our lines from tangling. We call this part the bluefish tango.

Blues fight angry. They’re known by most as yellow-eyed devils. They thrash and bite at the line pulling from their mouth and very often break you off, running away with expensive lures hanging from their mouths like jewelry. They smoke drags and break rods clean in half (this actually happened). You get them to the side of the boat, they turn on their side, and when you reach down to unhook them, they swim off on another long run. Each one is a prizefighter that falls to the mat, but gets back up and lands another three haymakers.

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When they finally tire, their yellow eyes glare at you and they snap their razor teeth in the direction of your hands and feet. Bluefish are the embodiment of the wildness of the Fall run.

We catch blues until we can’t reel anymore, and the wooden plugs eventually turn into treble hooks attached to hunks of coarse, colored sawdust. We leave the blues blitzing and we’re content with our one tangle with the fighters for the year. A little bluefish blood on the deck is a good way to end the boat season, I decide.

The boat goes back to the mooring, in the near-deserted mooring field. We stop at the fried seafood place and get clam rolls. The restaurant is noticeably empty, and I chat with the girl at the counter.

“How’d you do?”

She could tell I’d been fishing because of my windblown face, cracked lips, and the fact that following most fishing trips, I find myself at this particular place shoving a fish sandwich into my mouth after eating nothing but a granola bar for the day.

“It was a good day,” I told her.

“That’s it for the season, huh?” And the way she said it inflected some amount of finality, something I didn’t really want to admit.

“We’ll see. We might launch out of Sandwich next week if the weather holds.” But I know she’s probably right.

We pull the Mal de Mer off the mooring, back the trailer down the ramp, and haul her for the season.

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