I had checked this beach on six consecutive days, watching the fall bounty of peanut bunker stack up in the bubble weed and the seabirds meander along the shoreline, picking at shells and eelgrass. Three of the six days, I found fish—micro stripers gliding through the shallows chasing singular baitfish and shrimp.
On the other three days, I sat in the truck in my waders, heat on and windows down, smelling the sweet decay of Fall; the pungent sea breeze that brings life but takes it, too. I kept the droning sports talk on the radio hoping it would distract me from the growing feeling of dread that the stripers would miss this seemingly perfect beach on their journey to their birth waters.
This is fishing, most days in late Fall
This particular beach is rather shallow at both tides–a small trough at high tide dropped two or three feet to a gradual slope out into the Bay, with six or seven boulders strewn about as if dropped at random from the outstretched hand of a bored giant. Jetties bordered either side of the small public beach area. To the west, the beach cut in and stretched down to a narrow inlet. On most days, the offshore breeze rippled white caps across the Bay, pushing spray up onto the sand as the tide flooded and the estuary filled.
On the seventh day, just before the afternoon flood tide, the wind shifted to the West and the white caps and seafoam calmed to near mirror conditions. On the seventh day, there were stripers.
I jammed the truck into park and flew to the bed to piece together my 7-weight. A messy Ray’s fly on a wind-knotted three-foot leader would have to do. I briefly thought about pulling on my waders, but decided against it. There was no time. It was slack tide in early October. There were peanut bunker strewn across the bubbleweed. Stripers were swirling along the entire stretch of beach down to the inlet. A guy sitting on the hood of an old Camaro was yelling something to me, but I couldn’t hear him over the screams of the terns. At a certain point, you don’t care about wet feet.
I made my way out to the jetty and cast parallel to the beach. Before the fly had a chance to catch up with the intermediate line, it disappeared into the mouth of a striper. Just as I got the schoolie to the rocks, the birds’ cries increased and the stripers made a push onto the beach. Schools of peanut bunker crashed onto the bubbleweed. Out deeper I saw larger tailslaps. At the base of the jetty, I spotted a lone bass eyeing the schools, twice the size of the rest of the fish. I false cast to the edge of the jetty where the fish would be, but when I shot the line, a gull intercepted the fly perfectly, wrapping leader and fly line around its wings.
The bird’s hungry screeches turned to higher-pitched angry screeches. As I untangled him, his flock-mates side-eyed me angrily, but weren’t concerned enough to halt their attack on the schools of baitfish.
The quickening tide only fanned the fires of the blitz. Peanut bunker continued to pour through the inlet and along the beachfront turning the water black, constantly shifting around and away from voracious stripers of varying sizes. Suddenly, the dense school of peanuts vanished at the foot of the jetty, and in their place swam a dozen large stripers. I made three casts to where I thought they would be and came up empty. On the fourth cast, I let the fly swing and sink in the current and set the hook on a patch of bubbleweed. I reeled in my fly line and what was left of my leader and tied on a crease fly.
I cast the crease fly and made one long strip. The fly gurgled and dipped and disappeared into the mouth of a striper. The fish shot deep immediately and pulled fly line from my hand. The 7-weight bucked and bent. I kept pressure on the fish, pulling the rod sideways parallel to the beach, letting it have line when it wanted it and fighting back a few feet here and there when I could. Eventually, I slid the fish up on the rocks; a bright, specimen with broad shoulders and the tail of a much larger fish. The purples and olives deep in the scales glittered in the fiery waning daylight. I stared at it for a long time, positive that I would never see a fish as perfect as this one.
I moved down the beach toward the inlet as the sun disappeared. Twilight fell quickly to darkness in the ebbing tide. Another fisherman was casting small pencil poppers into the darkness and caught fish on every cast, laughing and whooping with every hookset.
The birds had flown home or sat quietly offshore with bellies full of baitfish, but the bass continued swirling in big schools. I heard their tailslaps when the surf subsided. I peered through the darkness for a long time, catching glimpses of silver flanks and big tails in the moonlight. Every once in a while, the bass would push the peanuts right up against the eel grass bed I was standing in and I couldn’t help but make a roll cast a few feet in front of me and watch the schoolies attack it. The night was warm, the breeze light and the tide ebbing. A thought crossed my mind that often does in the late fall: I wish this never had to end.
As the sounds of stripers began to subside, I made a cast with the same beat up crease fly. I let it float on top of the water and made one long strip. A bass erupted behind it and fly line shot from my hand. The fish made one long run and held deep. I tried working back with the rod but the fish held fast.
I eventually gained some line and worked the fish back, but just as I did, the fish shot parallel to the beach toward the inlet, bringing the reel down to the backing. I moved down the beach in the darkness, following the fish slowly, watching it’s moves, trying to get into position for an endgame. Eventually, I turned the fish. I saw her big tail in the moonlight just past the bubble weed, where she stuck. I waded out, boots filling with saltwater. But just as I reached down to lip her, she shot off again. The knot between fly line and leader caught on the bubble weed a the line went slack. She disappeared into the darkness as fast as she arrived.
“That was a good one, wasn’t it?” came a voice in the darkness underneath a headlamp, much closer than I thought he was.
I stay out long past when I said I’d be home, and long past when the last inkling of striper life on the beach had subsided. I continued to cast for the sake of casting, feeling the wind of the fly line as it brushed by my ears. It was a warm night in October. I didn’t mind wet feet.