It may sound weird to those of you who may not fish, but I can still remember the first striped bass I ever caught. I was seven-years old and incredibly excited to be on Martha’s Vineyard for the first time. Being as fish obsessed then as I am now, my mom and stepdad did nothing but fan the flames upon stepping off the plane. It’s an island surrounded by fish. Uncle Richard catches tons of fish off of the dock. The mountains are made of candy….Well, maybe they didn't go that far. But, after hugging my grandparents and unpacking, I rigged up my new spinning rod (a Penn setup given to me by my parents), tied on a black and white jerk-bait, and ran down to the dock.
Being a kid and a first timer fishing in Martha’s Vineyard, my fishing swag was absolutely to the max. Beginner’s luck is just that powerful. Combine these two elements whenever you’re on the water and something cool is bound to happen. Well, lo and behold after about 10 minutes of chucking the lure as far as I could, I felt my first telltale striper slam. The rod doubled over, the drag pulled, and from that moment on, I was ruined forever - destined for a life of chasing the man in striped pajamas at ungodly hours of the night.
As the years progressed and our family kept returning to the Vineyard, fishing remained a mainstay on my visits to our grandfather’s house in Vineyard Haven. Through the teachings of Martha’s Vineyard Time’s managing editor, Nelson Sigelman, I eventually started to learn the striped bass and bluefish fisheries on the island. My haunts shifted from the Oak Bluff arcade at sunset to the ripping tides off of West and East Chop. Even at an early age, covering an entire beach in a night or morning with slug-gos and top-water plugs was not unusual for me. In the week or so I’d spend on the island each summer, I’d manage to stick a couple fish – even lucky enough to catch a 37” keeper in the harbor as a 16 year old – but as I grew older, my fascination with the Chops faded. The island is a big wild place, there were other places to explore, other parties to crash. On an island renowned for its large fish, I wanted big to be the norm, not the exception.
When I got my driver’s license, I began driving out to Menemsha and Lobsterville – destination beaches for the striper obsessed. I’d walk the beach and navigate the rocks, chucking in quest of a 20 lb fish, the “big striper” bench mark. But most nights, I’d come back with smaller fish or random keepers. The big one eluded me. I’d plug the night away with my spinning gear, covering entire stretches of beach and fishing myself to the point of exhaustion the next day. I was fishing hard, not smart those days.
Even though the spinning rod continued to dominate into my late teens, I became intrigued by the fly rod and began to incorporate it into my nightly rounds. I wasn’t particularly good at fly fishing on these trips. I could cast about 40 feet and only had a handful of flies. I lost way more fish than I ever landed. I figured one bite, hit, or lost fish to be a good night. But overtime, I learned the beaches and how to recognize dead water. I learned where fish staged on certain parts of the tide and that certain beaches fished better on falling tides than others and vice-versa. By the time my childhood was over, I found myself to be a fairly competent Vineyard angler - most of that due to absorbing Nelson’s profound knowledge over years, but also through hard work, experimentation, and pushing myself to fish better.
This year’s annual migration to the Vineyard was different than past trips. For the second year in a row, we found ourselves outside of Vineyard Haven in West Tisbury. The rental house, located on the banks of Lake Tashmoo, offers some excellent shots at striped bass on the beaches outside of the “lake” on outgoing tides. Similar to the rips off of West Chop where bait would be flushed from the harbor on fateful falling tides, bait is essentially vacuumed out of the Lake Tashmoo inlet and out into the less friendly confines of Vineyard Sound. Naturally, this is more than an ideal spot to fly fish for striped bass. For the next two weekends, I would explore as much of it as I could.
It’s 1:00 AM on Fourth of July weekend in Martha’s Vineyard. Drinks have been served and everyone bathes in the afterglow of their respective nights. For my step sister and brother, their friends, Andrea and Juliette, and my buddy, Christopher – this meant meeting the ever awkward Larry David and witnessing young Christopher sing a duet to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” with Miss Pocket Full of Sunshine herself, Natasha Beddingfield. It was a night they will probably never forget.
My night was far less eventful. Mediocre fly fishing for striped bass (one 23” fish and another one missed over the course of 4 hours) but as always, it was time well spent with Nelson. I made the right choice. But while my compatriots buzzed with excitement, I anxiously waited for the tide to change.
Regardless of our different paths that evening, it’s not time to go to bed. There are still beers in the fridge. The good times can’t end. No way. No how. It’s not time for that yet. Sure, a delightful evening of fantastic food and revelry accompanied by a peaceful fog deserves its due with a fine night’s sleep, but what night isn’t substantially improved by sticking a monster fish in the face?
While I sit and enjoy a Magic Hat IPA in the bug-free confines of my room , the tide chart fills my head with illusions of grandeur. I see boiling water. I hear splashes. Crashing beasts in the darkness. I can feel the bend in my 8wt. The line racing out through my fingers. The drag screams and my heart beats on a little faster. Strangely enough, it’s the exact same feeling after all of these years. A combination of pure joy and adrenaline. My Buddy Chris Yates interrupts my train of thought. “Rem, need another beer?” I snap back to reality. I do. I’m still in my button down and jeans from earlier. But not for long….The tide has started to turn. It’s time to suit up and head to the kayaks. ”Hey man, let’s take this one for the road.”
I’m not sure what compels me to take to the water at night. Certainly there are more practical things I could be doing with my time, but there’s a certain allure that I find particularly unique to finding yourself alone in the darkness of an empty beach. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than finding that peaceful serenity that allows responsibility to be respectfully placed on the back burner, the ingestion of an extra beer or two, and the ruthless pursuit of large fish. But an empty beach under the cloak of darkness is a beauty on to itself. The black waves gently roll in, the stars show off above you, and as long as the tide keeps up its pace - the possibilities are endless. Put me in a place with nothing but free time and I’ll often fish myself into an exhausted stupor. That’s my idea of a vacation. Take my daily routine for example:
4:30 AM – Fake wake up… Look out window. Say F*ck it. Hit snooze until 5:05 AM 5:05 AM – Convince myself that time here is limited and fish will be everywhere thismorning. Stumble out of bed and into waders 5:15 AM – Kayak across Lake Tashmoo 5:23 AM – Beach yak in reeds. Begin trek to beach. 5:30 AM – Hit beach hard. Look for working birds or crashing feeshes. 9:00 AM – Sun too high. Tide likely gone. Fish too. Time to head in. 9:35 AM – Beach yak. 9:45 AM – Clumsily step out of waders and dive into a warm breakfast of toast and coffee. 10:30 AM – 3PM – Catch up on sleep. 3 PM-5:30 PM – Do normal people things. 5:45 PM – Dance a little dance. Throw on waders again. 6:00 PM –Whenever – Revel in the salt. Howl at the moon. Get weird on some fish.
Repeat until can’t move.
When you’re in a fishery as special as Martha’s Vineyard or in past stories - Siesta Key – you’ve got to take advantage of your time on the water. Similar to big game hunting, choosing your spots and shots will require a sacrifice sometimes. The big fish don’t always come to the playground. Even when they do come out to play – they do not come on every cast. But sometimes, things line up. There was the time my good friend, Chelsea McLeod, and I were greated with a small blitz of fish the moment we arrived on the beach. Another night, I stuck a keeper fish over a breathtaking sunset. The next morning, I forced myself out of bed and found myself on fish all morning. I saw stripers keeping pace with my sand eel, the fly resting on the tip of their nose. I had 45” fish swim within a few feet of me. I even managed to get one on camera. Over the course of 11 days on the water, I managed to catch one keeper striper (33"), some fish that were pushing the border (26", 27") and a bunch of fun low-mid 20" fish in skinny water. I consistently caught fish each time out, something that might become rarer in the coming years.
There will always be parties. Giant stripers in the shallows? Not so much. Especially when one considers the rate this once fantastic fishery’s stocks are dropping due to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and over fishing all along the East Coast. For now, I’ll chase the fish over the buzz. As Matt Miles says, “the tug is the drug.” I really believe that.
West Virginia's Monongahala National Forest plays host to a diverse and thriving ecosystem that harbors one of the elite trout waters in our region. Located 3 hours from The District (a breathtaking drive through the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Moutain ranges), the South Fork of the North Branch of the Potomac River (can we change it to Monongahala River or river of three ofs?) is an accessible fly fishermen's paradise and with over 90 miles of fishable trout water, how could you not fall in love? Having attempted this trip previously (our crew got snowed out in March), Cullen, Kenny, Trent, and I descended upon Monongahala's Smoke Hole Canyon with the full intention of getting away from it all, drinking a few beers, and ultimately - sticking some trout in the face.
We made our way into the park around 10pm Saturday night and after accidentally squatting overnight in a family campground (the locals were cool with it) under the brightest moon I've ever seen, we woke up to that stillness you can only find in the mountains. It's hard to describe when the shackles of 4G and cell service are lifted - a strange elation of knowing you're doing what you love and there are literally ZERO distractions or things to pull you away from it. In other words, we were going to have a full day on the water. As we packed up camp at 6:30AM the next morning, a few tops were popped (bud light and makers mark is a good a heathanistic sacrifice to the trout gods) before tying up the laces of our wading boots, throwing the wands (fly rods) on the roof rack, and hitting the road.
Our campsite, which ran next to the river through the put and take section of the South Fork, had some good looking trout water so we decided to not waste any time and get after it. Splitting into two "teams" - Kenny and Trent vs. Cullen and myself for A) biggest fish and B) most fish (spoiler alert: pay up boys) - we spent the morning fishing from 7am-12pm and managed to get into some fish.
The morning, highlighted by Trent's solid 12" brookie, was mostly spent catching small rainbows, fall fish, and the occasional smallmouth. Although the fish were smaller in this section, action was plentiful and the fish wild and absolutely gorgeous (no ugly stockers here). I spent the day throwing nymphs (size 16 prince, pheasant tail, or hare's ear followed by a foot and a half of 5x and size 22 midge) and managed to catch 25 trout in the morning to put our team up 29 to 26.
Meeting up at noon to crack a few more tops and pound some turkey/bread sandwiches we traded notes and rerigged. The absence of a Monongahala Monster was peculiar. Not one person had hooked into a trout over 12" in a river reknown for Hawg Johnson encounters. We decided that it'd be best to fish the C&R section by working our way upstream from the section just below it. Although the "competition" was still on, I fished with Trent while Kenny and Cullen paired up s little ways downstream.
Upon moving a little further up from Trent, I noticed what I thought were three palominos (orange rocks) in a good looking pool and decided to beat it to death with my nymph set up. After pulling a few small bows, the indicator shot under and a solid 18" bow erupted from the water. Luckily, Trent was nearby with his GoPro and after helping with the netting, managed to get some incredible underwater release footage. With our first "big" fish out of the way, we could relax, the instagram itch quelled, our beloved website/blog/reputation salvaged all upon the survival instinct of a wild fish. We pulled a few more nice fish from the pool before heading up to fish the first few runs of the C&R section to cap off the day.
Splitting off from the group, I managed to find a great looking pool at the start of the C&R section. I made an adjustment to my rig (upping the split shot and tying on a size 18 egg pattern), the indicator shot down and a healthy 16" bow flashed. After getting some more underwater footage, I went to picking the pool apart and eventually ended up pulling a solid brown (15") and a couple more rainbows before I was distracted by the victory wails of my compatriots.
While I was in the run below them - Trent, Kenny, and Cullen were doing quite well up river. Kenny landed a bigger brown, Trent his best bow of the day, and Cullen chipped in with a few nice fish himself. Occasionally looking upstream to see how they were doing, I noticed Trent was shirtless in the middle of the pool. Weird. A few minutes later, he was still there, Kenny and Cullen looking on excitedly. Then I heard it - a combination of yehti screech and triumph. An eruption of emotion that is only appropriate when one holds what they seek. To Trent - that was a 22" rainbow trout. After taking some pictures, we released the fish back into the depths of its pool.