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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

A Striper Fisherman Chronicles an Obsession

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

Seasons Of The Striper — Pursuing the Great American Gamefish by William Sisson occupies a rarefied space among books about striped bass. It is literate and beautiful, a chronicle of one man’s obsession with, and devotion to, a fish — a print domain most often associated with salmon and trout. This fish book will rest easily next to the art books you place on the coffee table in advance of a visit from non-angler in-laws you want to impress.

Seasons Of The Striper includes no instructions on how to spool a reel, tie a knot, hook an eel, and battle a big striper along a boulder-strewn shoreline. There are plenty of excellent instructional books and online videos for that.

This book is for the fisherman who appreciates the tug of a big-shouldered striper and finds peace and beauty in the culture of the crashing surf and the swirling currents of a star-lit night. Experienced anglers will recognize a common denominator in essays and images cast deep into the culture of striped bass fishing.

Sisson writes, “I only fish regularly with people willing to go deep into the night without whining about how beat-up they are going to feel the next day. Whiners make abysmal striper partners.”

You’ll find yourself nodding — I get it. I’ve been there.

The print quality is very good. Publisher Rizzoli International specializes in fashion, interior design, culinary, art, architecture, and photography books. Many photographs could stand alone, framed, and on a wall. Don't hand this book to your buddy with pizza-grease-stained fingers and say, “Hey, check this out.”

I often carried a small camera in my pocket when I wrote a weekly fishing column for The Martha’s Vineyard Times. And when I was ambitious, I carried a Canon single-lens reflex. My problem was, and is, that when the action started, I was not disciplined enough to put down my fishing rod and pick up my camera.

Sisson is smart. He takes his friend Tom Lynch fishing. Lynch is a professional photographer and gallery owner who is disciplined enough to let Sisson catch the fish while he takes photos.

Striped bass in wave. Photo by Tom Lynch.

The title page features a Lynch photo of a striped bass in the curl of a bait-filled wave with terns and gulls overhead. Another photo shows a fisherman immersed in the suds of a breaking wave; only the tip of the rod and a plug is showing. When you look at these photos, you hear the surf crash, smell the ocean, and feel the droplets on the back of your neck.

There is a Lynch photo of a bass just below the water's surface. The reflection of the light breaks up the image and gives it the quality of an impressionist painting.

Much of the book focuses on the Rhode Island shoreline, where Sisson grew up, and the adjacent waters, including Connecticut, Long Island, and Cuttyhunk. But Martha’s Vineyard gets a nod. A great photo by Vineyard Colors of two fishermen on South Beach graced the cover of the 2021 Bass and Bluefish Derby souvenir booklet.

The book’s thirteen broad chapters cover the gamut of Sisson’s and the striped bass fishing experience. “The Old Ways” describes the nineteenth-century fishing clubs where men in coats and ties reeled in giant striped bass.

I’ve met many visiting striper fishermen on Martha’s Vineyard who are unaware of the bass club that once existed on Squibnocket Point, one of many clubs that dotted the southeast New England shoreline in the nineteenth century. A photo of a Pasque island fishing club member dated 1870 shows a man sitting in a chair at the end of a catwalk while his “chummer” on the rocks below handles a long-handled gaff. I suspect that fisherman would feel right at home on a beach today.

Sisson, a former newspaper reporter, is a keen observer. Writing about a visit to Martha’s Vineyard during the derby, he said, “As fall advances I chase fish in a dozen places between Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and Montauck, New York from boats, beaches, rocks, and breachways. This is the best time to be fishing those small, salty towns where striped bass still hold sway and where you won’t get funny looks if you walk into a diner unshaven and wearing waders and a salt-stained hat. In places like these, it’s the uniform of fall.”

A bass stand on Pasque island in the Elizabeth Islands, circa 1870. Photo courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

“I watch a teenage boy in waders glide through Edgartown on his bike—in another time, another place, that was me. Rods stick out from beater station wagons, pickups, Mercedes SUVs, and utility trucks. The cops don’t bother with cars and trucks driving beachfront roads at 3:00 a.m. with rods in roof racks or sticking out of tubes.”

“At a breakfast diner, my waitress tells another server that someone named Steve is taking her fishing tonight. “I don’t care what he says,” she declares. ‘He’s taking me bass fishing. More coffee, hon?’”

That coffee shop could be one of a dozen Island places. We’ve all been there.

I was surprised to learn that I’m related to Bill Sisson. His first boat was a Tashmoo-18 lobster skiff built on Martha’s Vineyard. My first and only boat is also a Tashmoo-18. The connection ends there.

I’m not much of a boat fisherman. I won my Tashmoo in a raffle fundraiser for the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group many years ago. I knew nothing about boats and was a danger to myself and everyone on the water.

Sisson writes of his Tashmoo, “She was simple and sea-kindly, with a strong sheer, low freeboard, ample flare, and a tumblehome transom. Wet but sure-footed, she carried me through the fall rips when larger boats with more power retreated for quieter waters. The builder, Dan West, called her a ‘seagoing miniature.’ She was that and more, possessing that bit of magic you always seek in a boat. The skiff and I had an agreement. I promised to maintain her properly and not push her too hard. She held up her end of the bargain by always getting me home. Her hull was graceful and well-proportioned—built for comfort, not speed. Pull back on the throttle, and she’d bring you back to the dock in dicey conditions. The Tashmoo’s lines were clean and graceful, a direct descendent of an old wooden lobster skiff that West had found deteriorating in a Menemsha salt marsh on Martha’s Vineyard. He pulled a plug off the tired workboat and began producing Tashmoos in fiberglass, turning out faithful reproductions of the original skiffs that were built near Eastport, Maine, at least a half-century earlier. She was specifically designed for working inshore waters, and West kept her original pedigree undiluted instead of trying to make her be too many things for too many people. The late Norwegian sailor Erling Tambs might have called her the “embodiment of usefulness.”

My skiff was a sea swallow—small, light, well-balanced, nimble, and sturdy—a pure organic shape. She was out of step with the high-horsepower creations streaming in from points outside, but she was completely at home fishing nearshore waters and the small islands of birds, silversides, and bass. She cost $4,800 new, unrigged, which even a young reporter with a new child could afford with a small loan. It took me several years to connect the dots and see the relationship between Fred’s skiffs and my first boat; I’m certain the old lobsterman was smiling from on high. Both were purpose-built with a distinctive regional design.”

Here’s another beautiful connection to the Vineyard. Sisson sold his Tashmoo-18 to the Tisbury harbor department, which still owns and uses it during the summer. And I work for the harbor department — Bill, I promise not to sink it.

Seasons Of The Striper will not necessarily teach you how to catch striped bass but will give you a deeper understanding of why you fish for striped bass.

Seasons Of The Striper, Pursuing the Great American Gamefish, by William Sisson (Rizzoli Publishing, 224 pages, Hardcover, $55)


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