Accidental Stripers: Chaos, but the good kind

She must have taken the deceiver as it dropped unattended through the water column–some 30 pounds of Cape Cod spring-run striper.

A big bass, the kind I was after, had engulfed all three trebles of Capt. Bill’s plug.

‘I can’t see the hook points anymore’, he tells me, pulling her up onto the gunnels. ‘I want to get her released.’ You see, The Captain’s eyes aren’t what they used to be when he was painting the corners for the Cards. Sure, it’s a legitimate and worthy request.

But an untimely one nonetheless when you’ve been trying and failing for years to hook a momma bass on the fly and when the school is juuuuuuust over there by the potline under a few scattered birds, looking like they may at any moment begin their assault on the unassuming schools of herring and mackerel.

I reluctantly accept and hand my rod to Sean, who I’m sure took it just as reluctantly.


Stubborn Goals

Ever set a stubborn goal for yourself at the start of a trip? You think, you know I’ve been trying for five years to get a big fish on the fly, and, by god, no matter what, I’m going to do it today. Well this trip, while we cruised across a smooth Cape Cod Bay toward a falling tide, a light west wind, and reports of massive schools of mackerel and herring in the rips, I made it my stubborn goal to finally check this box off the ole’ bucket list

But, on this particular day, Sean and Jon joined, two buddies who don’t often get to fish, let alone throw 9-inch plugs to 30-pound bass, and I made it a priority to get them a few shots. It was very unselfish of me, I’ll admit. No, I’m a goddamn saint.


And when we arrived at The Race, the tide changed when the chart said it would, and the bass came up like I thought they would. Bird piles were spotted and under them, white streaks of fleeing baitfish and striper belly flashed. Fingers were pointed fore and aft, screams of 10-o-clock-a-hundred-yards! and neutral, they’re right there! could be heard over the rumbling of every outboard and cry of every gull and splash of careening striper.

Chaos, but the good kind.


Sean stood on the bow, spinning rod in hand, gripping the t-top as Captain Bill flew wide-open throttle toward a large density of screaming terns and gulls. Just as we saw the whites of their eyes, Capt. Bill cut the engine, ghosted up next to the school, and Sean, after nearly getting thrown from the boat, launched a long cast into the feeding frenzy. The plug hung in the air and the bass rolled below; big hollow splashes ringing out above the sounds of the morning. Just as it landed, it was smashed by a bass that somehow missed the trebles three times in a row before engulfing it with an unknown vengeance. ‘Eat it, you son of a bitch!’ Sean was screaming.

And as he fought that fish and got it boatside, you’d be sure, if you watched him, that he knew exactly what he was doing.


I make this experience sound normal and easy. It wasn’t and it’s not. Because while we did find plenty of small schools of big bass on top that morning, this isn’t the status quo. And you never know, after that school disperses, as they all eventually do, that it could be the last time you find them that morning. And when this happens, you picture the days ticking away off the June calendar and you’ll have to wait until next year to finally complete the stubborn goal you set for yourself.

The frenzy thankfully continued, and when Sean and Jon had their fill, when they were just staring off into the horizon, shaking their head muttering ‘wow’ under their breath, I kicked them off the bow. My turn. I picked up my fly rod.

We pulled up to a school, three anxious looking terns, heads turned down toward the nervous water. Then came those hollow splashes again. The linesiders erupted, and I stripped line in loose coils to the deck. I counted my false casts—one, two, three, shoot. The line wrapped around my feet. ’Too short!’ Captain Bill called from the stern as he hurled a cast just to the right of the school.

The school stayed up and I had the window to make one more cast; a beauty, the deceiver falling just to the outside of the school. I stripped once, long and slow, then quicker, and watched the biggest bass I’ve ever seen just stare down my fly and make a little move like she wanted some of this. She followed it in slowly, only a few feet, but just enough to make me feel that tiny tinge of discomfort in my gut, before disappearing underneath the boat.

Just then, Capt Bill hooked up with a fish that would take him ten minutes to fight and miles from the closest blitzing school. He finally got it boatside, and she’s a biggin’ as we say. All of 35 pounds. The Captain is all smiles. But she had swallowed the plug. So, with the fly still 70 feet off the bow, sinking at around 8 inches per second, I handed the fly rod to Sean.


Bruised Thumb

“Uh, hey Bill,” Sean says flatly from the bow. I don’t answer. Getting three trebles out of a big striper is meticulous work. “Bill, what do I do?”

I look up. Sean has two hands on the fly rod, like how a tennis player might grip a racket preparing for a backhanded strike, fighting butt pushed deep into his stomach. The rod bucks and throbs and bends down to the handle and the line disappears from the bow immediately. The fish runs and the spool spins mercilessly. We exchange panicked looks, and for once, the boat is silent except for the consistent whine of the drag.

Sean, who before today, had never caught a fish on a plug, let alone touch a fly rod, is hooked up with a lifetime bass on the fly. He looks down at the reel, a mechanism he’s never seen, and went right to his instinct to grab the handle. Bad move. It slams into his thumb. He tries to hold on and the rod bends down forever into the water.

“Let her run!” I yell. He releases the handle and the rod jerks back up, but he’s still tight.

The fish continues to run and after some inordinate amount of time, although I already knew the answer to the question I ask him: “On the backing?”

“It’s been on the backing.”

He keeps pressure on the fish and she moves him toward the stern, and when she slows, he uses the rod to keep pressure and gains a little line back. She takes off again, and this time, she means it. The boat cheers and we all tiptoe around the boat, avoiding Sean as he fights for position against the big girl. He holds the rod white knuckled and before she’s done running, he goes to grab the handle again. As soon as he does, the rod bends down into the water, before jerking back up to a straight line.

We stand silent.

“I think she’s gone,” he says after a while, rubbing his bruised and swollen thumb.

“I think you’re right.”

I get the treble out of the Captain’s fish and give her a healthy release. She kicks off, giving me a splash in the face as a thank you for taking over the job. Because if Capt. Bill had attempted it, she probably wouldn’t be swimming away. Sean stands on the bow, fly rod out, rested on his hip, gazing out over the horizon. And if you looked at him, you’d swear he knew what he was doing.



Billy Mitchell

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