Slack Tide; or, Screw it, I’m going to keep fishing for stripers

Our beloved stripers are in a bad spot. But this isn’t about that. Not directly, anyways.

I had never met Todd, co-founder of Dupe a Fish, in person. And I’d only met Geoff, local guide, rod builder, and tyer of Brackish Flies, once. But forecasted conditions for the morning were objectively fishy, to say the least, and I wanted to share the striper love with a couple of internet buds.

I barely had to ask and received an identical response from both—

I’ll be there.

I’m finding that lately, it’s relatively easy to connect with those who’ll drop everything at the mere mention of blitzing stripers. Every fishingtagram influencer I meet (and I use that designation endearingly in this context, because I belong to this category), has the same manic persona when it comes to fooling a fish into thinking feathers or synthetic materials tied to a hook looks good enough to eat. They’re the type who don’t get offended if you raise your voice just a bit when they blow a hookset on a big fish or make a beauty of a cast right over your line; the type who would drive from god-forsaken places like Lowell or Springfield or New Jersey to make a 4am push-off for a damn-near-perfect outgoing tide.

When you meet them down at the dock and shake hands in the utter pre-dawn darkness, comparing gear and and tying flies to tippet, pretty soon, as the red sun just barely creeps over the dunes, you’re talking like you’ve been fishing with them since childhood. Just like that. My 12-year old self would be very concerned with my habit of meeting up with strangers I’d met on the internet, but I haven’t gotten chopped up yet. So that’s something.

As this happens more often, as I meet others in the flesh for the first time in the same early morning blackness, I find similarities. There’s passion for the fishing in common, sure–there’s always that utter lunacy we all embody. But more often lately, there’s urgency.  

It’s the top of an outgoing spring tide and the stripers had pushed mackerel into the Bay the day prior. Everything I’ve learned about fishing this little Bay tells me that these fish will remain for at least a few more days. But we know how that goes.

As we hit the main channel, my prayers surprisingly seem to be answered. Further out against the shoal, small splashes of singular fish dot the water. The bait is spread out and the gulls and terns haven’t noticed their presence yet. As we approach, the bass erupt, but in no perceptible pattern. We give chase with three other boats and make “perfect” drifts along the shoals but get few shots. That wonderful frustration creeps in. It’s the perfect degree of challenge for a couple of guys who thrive off the punishment fly fishing so often doles out.

Once, we see a big bass come out of the water and inhale a tinker mackerel, but before we get a cast off, the water goes still. We drift and wait and suddenly, they blow up 50 feet off the port side; big boils and tail slaps and 6-inch baitfish take flight. Geoff hurls a cast into the fray but the school slides by the boat in the silence of three or four empty strips. He waits and mends and lets out a yell that makes everyone on the boat jump. He comes tight with a big swooping stripset and an arching 8-weight.

Todd is tying on a new fly as this happens, hands shaking, trying like hell to not peek over his right shoulder where the bass are audibly churning up whitewater and making a real mess of the mackerel. Geoff’s fish goes to the reel and the sound of the drag blends with the crying gulls. Todd cinches the mushmouth onto the tippet and makes a late cast to the back of the school. He gets a short strike and trout sets. No go.

Every drift, cast and strip set feels critical. We sense the constant pull to cast, even when the fish sound and the Bay goes quiet. There’s only so much tide in a day, and only so many blitzes in a season.

Targeting stripers these days demands a change in perspective. It forces us to appreciate the scientific beauty of matching a hatch perfectly or not at all. It’s about tempering expectations. The fishing is challenging and incredibly frustrating, but we welcome it (most days) because we know how close we stand to the abyss. Things are shifting or have already shifted, depending on who you listen to. 

The ebb tide advances on. In the second spot, we find the fish rushing over a big flat–a perpetual push of shifting water and life chasing life.

It’s one of those bites you’d swear lasts forever. Every fly hurled onto the flat and into the guzzle is slammed by a hungry striper. And occasionally, an olive silhouette more than double the size of the fish we’d been catching bolts out and just stares down one of our flies before turning tail and disappearing into the trough.

Each appearance of this phantom fish is met by yells and a collective shot of adrenaline from the boat; a proclamation about changing flies, a dance around the console, an overzealous estimate of her size—

“’I’ve got this wild deceiver, check this shit out. She’ll eat this for sure. “

“Throw that crab pattern on!”

“Dude, she’s 40 easy. Easy.”

We sift through disheveled fly boxes and tie sloppy non-slip loop knots. There’s another boat a few hundred-yards down fishing the same flat as us, and we can hear their yells in between our own.

The casts come faster and the fish more frequent until all the water has receded, leaving the expansive flat completely exposed. We lose count of the fish we get to hand—well they did (it was 61). The tide slackens low and the fish disappear. The abrupt silence is jarring.

Slack tide gets a bad rap. Most of us view it as dead time—a window in which stripers refuse to eat; a necessary evil that we endure in our pursuit. We let our “catching anxiety” get the best of us.

More often lately, I’m seeing it as a chance to catch our breath—a reprieve, an hour granted by the fish gods to store a moment or two from the previous tide in our weird little memory banks. It’s a time to take a few gulps out of that PBR pounder warming in the sun you opened an hour ago but haven’t even thought about.  

While slack forces us to suffer through a period of fish-less activity, the baitfish will soon start to run again and the crabs will be washed over the flat and the stripers will give chase and hopefully eat what we throw to them. Everything eventually goes back to the way it was, only in reverse.

I like that sense of certainty. There’s a familiarity to it.  

We end up deep in the Bay, in a ten-foot-wide channel surrounded on all sides by eel grass beds, sod banks and half-exposed mud flats. The delayed incoming tide takes her time getting the waters moving, but we don’t mind her meandering nature. We make half-hearted casts and tie on weird flies and dead stick them just for fun. We’re loopy; drunk from lack of sleep and abundance of willing stripers. The June sun hangs high overheard and the whole flat spreads out like an oil painting.

Regardless of the less-than fishy conditions, the casting never stops. These times are too precious. You have to make use of them or you’ll hate yourself later for squandering the opportunity. Geoff ties on a funky-looking fly, something he calls the “grim reaper” either by his own naming or by some other. He casts to the sod bank, letting the fly sink, and retrieving with methodical, arm-length strips.

And then, it happens. His hand halts mid-strip and the rod bends gradually. The fish immediately takes him to the reel, peeling short bursts of drag then one long one. She digs into the deepest part of the channel and holds. Stalemate. We go silent. This fish is different. For just a few moments, things are simple again.   

Perspectives change. You begin to welcome slack tide in its dependable clockwork. You appreciate the way a schoolie takes your fly at the absolute last second, right before you pull it out of the water. You look around and see peers who feel the same way about stripers as you do.

And eventually, you realize there are enough people involved in this whole thing who love this fish and what it represents to not let it be extinguished.

I’m hopeful for the future—while my complaints may lead you to believe otherwise. We never worried about these things when we were younger. We only thought about when we could get out and catch stripers again. I miss the simplicity of it all. When did catching striped bass become political? How did we get to the point of considering stopping our pursuit of striped bass? I don’t think I’m ready for that type of sacrifice.

I can picture my life without a lot of things. But a spring without stripers? No, I can’t reconcile that. You write your congressman and make angry posts about conservation equivalencies. Toss your gear in the trash and write op-eds swearing off targeting striper. I’m going to keep casting, waiting out every slack tide and jotting each schoolie down in my little mental picture book.

Photos by Eddy Stahohiak

Billy Mitchell

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