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.