A Fisherman’s Tale Of Enduring The Elements – 18 Hours On The Water
Some who call themselves fishermen, in reality, spend in short, a handful of sunny warm weather days on the water. For others, the pursuit of large fish often puts them in life-threatening situations. While the average fisherman recognizes a bad idea right away; there are those who struggle with fishing addiction, who will say there is never a bad time to fish.
In fact, my mother always told me “there is no bad weather – just dressing badly for the weather”. I would attest to my mother’s’ words of wisdom, and pride myself in fishing the harshest conditions possible. Why? This isn’t an easy answer, but in short, because this is how I am able to measure my own character as a fisherman.
Biting Off More Than We Could Chew
My boat, the “Scurvy Sea Slug”, was named in remembrance of my deceased fishing mentor, who used these words to describe toughened fishermen. Having run the boat numerous times in severe weather, I can honestly say that my little bass boat holds up to the name. In September of 2017, two friends and I launched my 14-foot bass boat on the Atlantic Ocean, from one of the estuaries on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, in the wake of tropical storm Jose.
“My boat, the “Scurvy Sea Slug”, was named in remembrance of my deceased fishing mentor, who used these words to describe toughened fishermen.”
We were perfectly fine until the winds abruptly changed and became directly exposed to winds from the west. By this time, it was about 1:30 am. My boat took two good sized waves to the stern, and before I knew it, I was swimming into shore with a bowline. My friends and I managed to strip the boat, carry the hull down a narrow path, and get it back on the trailer. With the boat and equipment loaded, we parted ways with a final note from my friend and his words of wisdom, “We better not tell the girls about this”.
As a side note, my wife quickly developed the skill of tuning out most fishing related dialog.
By 4:30 am, I found myself at the town wharf, using fresh water on my Mercury engine to remove the salt. Coincidentally, I ran into another friend, who happens to be a great mechanic, working the night shift at the yacht club. He was able to empty the saltwater from the cylinders, and re-prime the engine. Not only does it run, but the chug which I had grown accustomed to, was gone! I will forever be a faithful customer of Mercury.
Foul Weather Doesn’t Determine My Fishing Schedule…
My lesson learned was not to avoid foul weather. The writer, Hunter S. Thompson, once wrote, “When you enter the ocean, you enter the food chain, and not always at the top”. In reflection, I learned that fishing is who I am, I’m not going stop, and I would die a happy man; should my fate occur in pursuit of fish… though I hope to have many years left topside! The weather seemed to have won this battle, but the war wasn’t over.
About three weeks later, my friend Corrigan, a seasoned boat captain, and I were in pursuit of a hefty Striped Bass for the 2017 Martha’s Vineyard Bass and Bluefish Derby. We had been chasing that one elusive fish – the kind that comes with a breathtaking life experience to always be remembered. The memorable fish aren’t always the biggest. Sometimes they can even be the smallest.
Memorable fish, by my standards, are often proportionate to how hard you are willing to work for them.
I can honestly say that my fishing friends have incredibly fine-tuned skills and tend to share the “cast or die trying” mindset. More so than not, we find ourselves fishing in the surf, rather than from the boat. Striped Bass are a night time hunt, and often the odds are better casting from the boulders.
Setting Sail For The Elizabeth Islands In Pursuit Of Striped Bass
However, on this occasion, Corrigan and I agreed that the boat would be most suitable to reach the Elizabeth Island Chain (our neighboring islands) a few miles to the west. With about a dozen islands totaling 34 square miles, each island is quite small, and hosts shorelines of unforgiving boulders. The Elizabeth Islands are owned by the Forbes family (widely known for their wealth).
While making landfall is forbidden, the surrounding waters have produced several fishing world records, and the majority of state records as well. Each island is separated by navigable channels that can flow at speeds upward of twelve miles an hour. Historically, this area of the Atlantic Ocean is also a watery grave to many of the most significant shipwrecks in New England. On the bright side, these waters are also within derby limits; and that was the plan.
As you can see, our trip across the Vineyard Sound left us out in the open for a while with the nasty weather!
As it was, Hurricane Maria had just been reduced to a tropical storm, creating a small-craft advisory – we didn’t mind. Storms tend to drive Striped Bass into a feeding frenzy. Disoriented bait fish, high oxygenation, low visibility, and thermal breaks often make fish hyperactive, hungry, and if you’re lucky, they’ll even attack topwater lures.
The Fishing Begins… The Harsh Weather Is Nowhere To Be Seen
Corrigan and I picked up our friend Peter, and the three of us departed the harbor toward the Elizabeth Islands in a twenty-foot center console. The weather was overcast, humid, but the water didn’t seem abnormally rough. By the time we reached the Elizabeth Islands, nothing seemed out of the ordinary other than the lack of other boats. Unfortunately, we had made the mistake of listening to the radio, and Billy Joel, who we considered to be bad luck to listen to (on fishing days) came on; this wasn’t good.
As Corrigan and I pulled up to the islands, we began fishing at an area called Tarpaulin Cove.
I rigged a live eel (commonly used for striped bass fishing), which was unusually large; stating, “big bait, big fish”. I casted toward a rock pile not far from the shoreline. As soon as it hit the water, it felt as if several fish were fighting over it. I reeled up to find it had been eaten down to only two or three inches in length. This is always a definitive sign of bluefish. We continued to cast with no other signs of life, until the sun had fallen below the horizon.
Darker Weather Leads To Darker Waters
With darkness surrounding the boat, the weather became more turbulent. We decided to troll south, within 150 yards of the eastern shoreline. The three of us huddled behind the center console to form a strategy sure to gain us just one good fish. The area had yielded many world record fish, and we reminded each other of this – convinced that we too could catch an elusive giant. This type of determination is a trait shared amongst New England Fishermen.
Hold strong, keep casting, and put in the hours.
Regionally we have all convinced ourselves that long hours and salty tears guarantee an unprecedented fish. You almost have to convince yourself of this; otherwise you’d be a fool to spend so much time in unforgiving seas, amongst larger predators than yourself, in weather that often seems apocalyptic. This occasion was no different, and just warming up.
A thick fog had moved in, making visibility less than fifteen or twenty feet. Combined with the chop and howling wind, it was a little disorienting. Corrigan said, “Guys, I’m going to bring us through Robinson’s Hole. The weather is going to make it a little sketchy, so I’m going to need you guys on the bow to spot boulders.” This statement from Corrigan, a captain capable of transoceanic voyage, made me a little alarmed. I took position on the bow, which (as many of you may know) is the roughest place to ride. My headlamp only provided a few feet of visibility past the bow as we turned starboard into the channel separating the islands of Naushon and Pasque.
Corrigan steadily raised the throttle until the boat was running hard against the current, using instrumentation rather than eyes for navigation. Looking down, the waters were racing beneath the boat as if we had achieved full plane. We managed to navigate the channel.
As the boat slowed into calmer waters, Corrigan said, “I’m going to drop anchor to get the blood back in my hands”. His calm demeanor and a thick layer of fog hid the beads of sweat running down his face.
Now on the western side of the Elizabeth Islands, the Buzzard’s Bay side, we ran the boat north; periodically casting into the fog toward the island. We continued fishing the Elizabeth Islands for several hours without a sign of life. By early morning, we were ready to accept defeat, and returned to the harbor. Peter was falling asleep, and we dropped him off at the dock behind his house.
Daylight Breaks and The Striped Bass Fishing Rages On
Daylight was upon us, and the thick fog now looked like clouds floating on the water. At eye level and above, the clouds were bright white as the sun came up. The water looked like glass. Some of my favorite days on the water start this way. About that time, the radio began to play the song, Baby I Was Born To Run, by Bruce Springsteen. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan, it seemed like a suitable song, as I’d like to think that fish are also born to run.
As we made our way back to call it quits, we spotted a disturbance on the water’s surface. We quickly cut the boat into idle and took simultaneous casts, both pulling up smaller striped bass. This was a significant moment for us, if for no other reason, because we made the association that listening to Bruce Springsteen, reversed the Billy Joel curse. After learning this, the word disseminated amongst our fishing circle and is now a ridiculous superstitious practice, which we consider absolutely necessary.
After catching a handful of smaller sized stripers, I was content to go back empty handed.
Corrigan on the other hand, insisted that there were bigger fish feeding below the smaller ones. I put my feet up, and controlled the drift of the boat while Corrigan continued casting away. The fog began to lift, and the day was shaping up nicely, but still deemed unsuccessful. We had almost reached the channel markers to return to the docks when Corrigan sent out the infamous “one last cast”. Zing!
The Infamous Last Cast
A few seconds into the cast, his line began ripping, and he insisted the fish felt big. While it may seem frustrating to the fisherman working the line, I always find it important to talk your fishing buddies through landing a good fish. Reminders like “take your time”, “let it run”, and “don’t change the drag” are important. When total silence suddenly turns into an adrenaline filled fight, it is easy to over work your tackle. This is usually how fishermen lose the biggest fish they’ve ever hooked into. Corrigan was receptive to my coaching, and I was eagerly awaiting his approval to assist with the net.
The “net man” may seem pretty insignificant, but get in the way sometime, lose a friend’s fish, and see how long that story lasts. I digress.
Corrigan cautiously reeled, allowing the fish to run periodically. As the fish neared the boat, the line came dangerously close to the prop a few times. At the risk of having the line break on the prop, I wasn’t about to assist until I got the nod. I have heard stories of friend’s getting in the way while landing good fish. Usually the intention is good, but a bad outcome has been known to end friendships. This may seem ridiculous, but imagine watching a potential record lost!
At Corrigan’s ready, I was able to net the fish with one clean swoop. Lifting the net over the outboard engine, we could both see that this was the fish we had been looking for. Eighteen hours in the boat, enduring a small craft advisory. A night spent cold, hungry, wet, and tired, all made worthwhile in a few short minutes. While this particular fish wasn’t by any means a world record, we knew that it was worth weighing in.
It was the only boat fish weighed in, because we had been the only boat enduring the advisory, until it cleared that morning.
I want to disclaim that this wasn’t my fish. I hadn’t done anything to catch it. None the less, it didn’t matter which one of us caught it, and Corrigan would agree. Fishing buddies keep each other on the water, endure some nasty elements, and occasionally even life or death situations. It’s fishing; you never know what is going to happen. It’s the gambling element that keeps us coming back, and on this occasion, we defied the odds, leaving the water feeling like winners.
Here’s the clip of Corrigan and I landing that fish as a team. WARNING: Graphic Language