Heads like elephants

The blurry lights of the city didn’t make nursing a 4am wine hangover any easier.

There was only one other trailer in the parking lot–that sinking feeling was back in my stomach. We had heard we missed the bite. Yesterday was the last day. Why didn’t you get up here last month? We were a day late. How does it always seem to work out like that?

We cruised indifferently out deep with a few other boats chasing solitary birds picking dead pogies left over from the dragger carpeting the area. The gray morning began brightening, leaving us alone in our thoughts–feeling the day-too-late dread that so often encompasses our fishing forays. I glanced at my phone and had seven missed calls from Capt. Coombs. He called again and I answered. I heard him over the roar of his engine:

“…the hell are you doing, over here, in tight by the channel marker, click.”

Todd, who had heard the entirety of the one sided conversation was already in gear.

We arrived to find three separate washing machine-like blitzes surrounding the boat—broom tails beating the water leaving indentations and holes. A hundred feet in front of us, a 500-pound bluefin porpoised, sending pogies hurdling through the air in all directions. Twelve-inch baitfish were batted out of the water like confetti. There wasn’t anything I could do but watch.

Then, when the paralysis wore off, we screamed around the boat picking up rods and tripping over ourselves getting into position to cast to the giants–the biggest stripers I’ve ever seen blasting through schools of baitfish like battering rams, heads like elephants.

These are moments that won’t be taken for granted. In the moment, you try to remember every little detail–the way the bass move and strike, the gray on gray morning, the eyes of the fleeing baitfish. To bear witness to the relentless machines of nature is humbling and quite often unexplainable. Memories and details of our experiences get hazy over time–you begin to wonder if you overestimated the intensity of the blitz, the size of the fish. But every once in a while, you experience something like this and it just sticks in your brain like pinned note. Here are all the details, don’t forget them. And so you don’t.

To experience this is one thing–to actually catch one of these monsters was an entirely different matter. We hurled big flies into the washing machines with only a few short strikes met by frustrated laughs. Should we move and get into better position? Should we scream at the guy who just cut us off and ran right through the school? How much longer is this going to last?

The fish sounded and moved under the boat, and then popped up forty feet off the bow. Chris, who already had his fly in the air, shot his line and dropped it directly into the imaginary hula hoop. He made two strips and came tight, strip setting against the big jaws of the striper in a way that would make most trout guys from Pennsylvania blush. He was on the reel immediately.

I cast from the back of the boat, a white beast fly, then a big popper, then a bulkhead deceiver. I had three shots that I still can’t get out of my head to this day. On the third one, the fish followed my fly right to the boat, looking up at me before finally deciding at the last possible moment: no, I don’t think I’ll eat that today.

I clipped my fly and opted for something a little brighter. Just as I did, one of the larger blitzes of the morning popped up 20-feet to the port. I grabbed the closest rod to me, a spinning rod with a plastic popper tied to the line, and underhanded the plug into the fray, fly-less fly rod still at my feet. I saw three bass turn to the plug as it landed, and a fourth bigger one surged forward like a submarine. The plug disappeared. I don’t remember the fight or the pictures or the release.

Billy Mitchell

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