The Day of a Thousand Striped Bass
In September 1996, when I was younger and cared more about the pursuit of fishing glory, I was on the beach with my fly rod for the start of the 51st Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Jared Hull of West Tisbury and I had arrived at East Beach on Chappy just before midnight with ambitious plans. We would fish for striped bass, catch a few hours of sleep in the luxury of my truck, then look for a morning run of false albacore and bonito at Cape Poge gut. My state of derby delusion had inspired dreams of weighing in a striper, a bonito, an albie, and a bluefish on the first day of the derby. At the time, the minimum length to weigh in a striped bass in the derby was 38 inches, four inches longer than the state 34 inch length limit. That was and still is a very big fish on a fly rod. It was pitch black and humid and the current flowing along East Beach was shimmering with phosphorescence, an ocean milky way in a universe of life. Just after midnight, Jared and I stumbled upon a school of big stripers. The only other person near us on the beach that night was Cooper Gilkes. He was guiding Barry Dolich, a fisherman from New York. The trip was supposed to end at midnight, but with big fish on the beach Coop and his client were not anxious to leave. "My wife will understand," Barry said. In fact, when Barry returned after dawn the next morning, "his wife was not as understanding as he had predicted," Coop told me later. The night was memorable. Almost every cast attracted a follow or a strike and a shout from one of us of: “I’m on!” What made the night so remarkable is that every hook-up was marked by an explosion of light created by the phosphorescence in the water and the thrashing of the fish. The phosphorescence was so pronounced that I often was able to make out the movement of a striped bass chasing the fly as I stripped it across the water — the fish visible as just a streak of light in the water. That night the three of us who were registered in the derby caught fish 35 inches long, 36 inches long, 37 inches long — big, beautiful fish — but no fish in excess of the 38 inch minimum. That honor went to the client, who was not registered in the derby. Go figure. The morning ended and Jared and I never did catch a fish to weigh in. But It was a hell of a night. I wrote about that night in a column titled, Night of a Thousand Bass. It also became, for a time, my favorite fishing anecdote. I could not stop telling it and retelling it. It became a standing joke between my good friend and frequent fishing partner Tom Robinson and me. “Tom,” I would begin, “did I ever tell you about the night of a thousand bass?” Tom would feign horror. “Oh no, not that story.” It has provided us with many laughs. Who among us does not have a friend or family member with a well worn anecdote that inspires a subtle (or not so subtle) eye roll? I bring all this up because one night the first week in August this summer
I called Tom up and asked, “Tom, remember the night of a thousand bass (Oh no!), well today I had the day of a thousand bass.” Tom was interested. Earlier in the week I was in Coop’s and heard Macol, one of his young employees, telling Rob Morrison about a big catch of bonito off Squibnocket. Macol said his friends had arrived at the crack of dawn and hooked about 20 of the mini-tuna. Bear in mind that a good day is catching one of these often finicky fish. Inspired by this information and the admonition that you've got to be there early or forget it, I woke up at 4 am, Friday and trailered my 18-foot Tashmoo skiff to the West Basin launch ramp. I was just making my way around Gay Head as the sun rose over Menemsha a little unsure of my exact destination and where I was supposed to find these bonito, as I had ventured into the Atlantic side of the Island in my boat only once. I was off Philbin Beach when I was enveloped in fog. It was as though I was sitting in a big cotton ball. I slowed down to a crawl. I knew the beach was not far off and despite a chart and depth monitor I became concerned I might be going in the wrong direction. It was very disorientating and just a little freaky worrying about hitting the beach or having some speeding numbskull run into me, so I dropped the anchor and waited for the fog to lift, which it did in about 15 minutes. Lo and behold, as the visibility improved I saw striped bass breaking everywhere. The ocean was slate gray and calm, and quiet except for the sounds of bass slapping the water in front of my boat, behind me and beside me. The fish appeared to be feeding on sand eels. I began to troll a swimming plug and soon hooked up. The fish was just 28 inches, the legal size. I wanted to release it as there were clearly bigger fish but the bass had taken the hook deep and was bleeding badly, so rather than release it to die I put it in my fish box. I left the action in search of bonito. I never did see any, or see anyone else catch one. However, I did catch three sizable bluefish (smoked the next day) and three sea bass (turned into delicious fish cakes). Did I ever tell you about the day of a thousand bass?