I had a lot to do today. I had deadlines. I had research. I had an interesting, engaging blog post on hydroponics to write. And it was all going according to plan, until Kevin called me at 12:30.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m on the bus,” I said. No matter where I am, this is what I always say when he calls my cell and asks me where I am. It’s an answer from a New Yorker cartoon that ran years ago and somehow got traction in our marriage.
“I’m on Route 28, twenty minutes from home,” I added.
“The stripers are in. They’re knocking ‘em dead in Barnstable Harbor. The boat’s ready to go, and Bob’s waiting for us at Millway.”
I wanted one of those little flashing lights with the siren. The kind where you open your window and just stick it on the roof. But they don’t give them to fishermen, so I just did my best to not push the speed limit envelope too much.
I squealed into the driveway. “I’ve got your jacket and bibs in the truck,” Kevin said. I grabbed my boots and a hat, and we were off.
Fifteen minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot at the Millway ramp, and Bob jumped out of his truck, gear in hand. The plan was to go out into the bay and jig for mackerel, and then come back to the mouth of the harbor and liveline the mackerel to get the really big stripers.
As we put the boat in, I looked out at the water with some apprehension. The wind wasn’t that bad, but it was out of the north, and the harbor was choppy. A north wind opposes the outgoing tide, and can make for some serious water once you leave the shelter of the harbor and round the corner into Cape Cod Bay.
“It’s a north wind and an outgoing tide,” I said to Kevin and Bob. “Do you think it’ll be okay out there?”
They thought it would be. And, if it turned out not to be, we could always turn around.
As we were loading the gear, two guys in 23-foot Novi pulled in. Bob knows just about everyone on Cape Cod, and the two guys were no exception. They waved to him as they pulled up to the dock.
“Going for mackerel?” they asked. Bob nodded.
“It’s rough out there. Nine foot swells. We got out to can 4 and had to turn around.”
Now, a 23-foot Novi is a much bigger boat than a 19-foot Eastern. It’s broader and it’s drier. A 23-foot Novi can go places a 19-foot Eastern can only dream about. If they couldn’t get out there, we certainly weren’t going to.
“The boat was completely out of the water,” Bob’s friend said. “When I saw the sky, I decided it was time to turn around.”
Damn! We were so ready to go! We had the mackerel jigs rigged, we had the aerator set up, we had a plan.
So we made another plan.
Bob has vastly more striper fishing experience than Kevin and I do, but I want to assure you that this isn’t the reason we’re friends. We just like Bob. Almost as much as we like Bob’s wife, Mad Dog. That they know where all the fish hang out is just a bonus.
Bob thought we should do some trolling in the channel on the south side of the harbor. When the tide’s on the ebb, the big fish tend to hang out there, catching the little fish as they go out with the tide.
Because this was Plan B, implemented only because we couldn’t just go home when conditions rendered Plan A impracticable, I didn’t have a high level of confidence. But we were there, and the boat was already in the water, so there was no point in not trying.
We went out the Millway inlet into the harbor, and started trolling. As we went west, against the tide, we got nothing. But after we turned around and started east – the direction the fish were probably going – I got a hit in the first few minutes.
It was a big hit. The fish took my pink Sluggo and ran with it. The line just went out and out and out. I tightened the drag, and tried to keep the pressure on.
I don’t have much experience with fish, and most of what I do have is with relatively small fish. A fish of any size at all feels like a rhinoceros. Moby Dick. The Loch Ness monster.
Bob made sure I didn’t screw it up. “Face the fish,” he told me. “Don’t try to reel when it’s taking line, and keep your tip up.”
It’s difficult to convey how excited I was. That kind of excitement always seems silly in retrospect, once the wild thing at the end of your line has been safely turned into filets and is sitting in the refrigerator, waiting for the grill to heat up. But when there is a wild thing – a wild thing you can eat – at the end of your line, and you are doing your damndest to bring it into the boat, it is ridiculously, disproportionately, inexplicably exciting.
Bob kept me on an even keel. “You’ve got all the time in the world,” he said. “Don’t force it.” He coached me through it, and I landed the fish.
It was 30 inches and 10 pounds. A comfortable margin over the 28-inch minimum, although still small by striper standards. But it was the biggest fish I’ve ever caught. So far.
Bob also landed a keeper by the time thunder put an end to our trip, and all three of us hooked a schoolie or two that we released. Because Bob and Mad Dog aren’t big fish eaters, Bob sent his fish home with us. There are now almost nine pounds of hours-old striped bass filets in our refrigerator. The grill is heating up.
All the things I didn’t get done today will have to get done tomorrow. And they will, somehow. It took me 47 years to figure out that, when there are striped bass to be caught, I want to be out trying to catch them.
God I love to fish.