One morning many years ago, with less than four hours sleep, I stood on a Nantucket beach in the predawn darkness, wearing heavy rubber pants, and tried, cast after cast, to catch a striped bass. I was alone and nervous, and what I kept asking myself, as the icy Atlantic Ocean sucked me repeatedly into the surf, was, Why the hell am I here?
This was not like trout fishing in pretty Montana streams or salmon fishing in majestic Alaska, with handsome college-age guides paid to help me figure out how to do it. There is no long tradition of employing guides for striped bass fishing. Instead, you just listen to what your buddies tell you and eavesdrop in the coffee shops and bars, and then try and figure out for yourself where the fish are that day and how to go after them.
When I first began angling for striped bass, the talk started in the parking lot at Woods Hole, across the sound from Martha’s Vineyard, around the four-by-fours waiting to board the ferry: “Have the stripers come up from the Chesapeake yet? I hear they’re catching them at Montauk.” “Seems there’re too many bluefish around.” “I thought I saw Knowles disappearing off onto a really strange road near Dionis. Think that’s where his secret place is?”
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis, from the family Percichthyidae) are found only in American coastal waters. They were originally exclusive to the East Coast, until sportsmen transported them to San Francisco Bay in 1886; now they ply the Pacific, too. On the Atlantic Coast, striped bass migrate from Florida to Maine in the warm months. The most famous striped bass fishing grounds are the Outer Banks off North Carolina, the waters of Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound, Cape Cod, the islands off Massachusetts, and the mouth of the Penobscot River in Maine, though there are some places in the East where you can fish for landlocked bass.
As early as the late 1800s, businessmen from New York and Boston set up “bass clubs” on the Atlantic Coast, many of them in the Elizabeth Islands off Massachusetts. Large quantities of bass were caught, and large quantities of liquor were drunk, at these institutions. (Club records reveal wine bills that were larger than their food bills.) Pigeons carried messages back to the city so that members could maintain business contact without interrupting their true business—that of catching and talking about catching fish.
Salmon and redfish, among others, also have their devotees, their mystique. But striped bass is the only sport fish that is uniquely American. Perhaps for this reason, as much as for its flavor and the challenge of catching it, bass has inspired a camaraderie that seems to have as much to do with culture as with sport.
Knowles was my first bass buddy, my first unofficial guide to striped bass fishing. In the noble tradition of the bass clubs, Knowles and I (he was in his seventies at the time) would down shots of whiskey and then cruise Nantucket in his Willys jeep looking for secret places. As we drove, he’d slap me on the back and say he liked a woman who drank shots of whiskey and swore and liked to fish for bass. “And she can cook ’em, too,” he’d add.
He knew where the bass would be: “Look for the rips off points of land,” he’d say, “or sandbars where the water comes from two different directions and crashes together, or an inlet where the water washes in and out. Watch the seagulls. They know where the bait fish are. And always, always fish the tides. Fishing the tides is even more important than fishing at night—although if you put the two of them together on a high spring tide, you could get the blitz of your life, one fish after another, everyone on the beach catching fish. Awesome.”
Well, Knowles probably didn’t say “awesome.” He was an old Yankee, tight with words—a man who told you only what you needed to know, who would never lend a lure to a novice (“Might lose it”), and who knew that you had to fish hard for the best-tasting catch in the sea.
If it was Knowles who taught me where to fish, it was Norbert who taught me how. Norbert knew a lot about all kinds of fishing, and I think what he really liked was the size and power of the saltwater equipment you need for stripers—the ten-foot spinning rods with massive, heavy reels and the 12- to 15-pound test line.
“Use a lure that’s a ‘swimmer’ and goes deep,” he used to say. “Use a ‘popper’, and you’ll have to catch them on the surface.” Norbert would get his doctor friends to steal surgical tubing—unused—from the operating room to make bass lures. Bait, a basic necessity, could be sand eels (shoestring eels, the fishermen call them) or squid. You could cast for stripers from a boat, or troll for them. You could even fly-fish for them, using popping bugs and streamers. Or you could surf-cast from the beach.
When I first started surf-casting, my arms would shake with pain from having thrown the heavy lure so many times, and my index finger would bleed from the line twanging out of its hold. That was back when I was still in my Why-the-hell-am-I-here? phase.
Norbert, who thought surf-casting was the only way to catch striped bass, helped stop that nonsense by teaching me the proper technique. But sometimes, even after I theoretically knew how to do it, the lure wouldn’t release, and it would end up jingle-jangling foolishly at the end of the rod. Or, worse, if my knots to the swivels were bad, a pricey lure would go sailing off towards the horizon. At times like this, I think Norbert wondered why I was there, too. He said to me one time, “Not many wives come surf-fishing with their husbands. You like this?” About as much as making From-Here-to-Eternity love on a sandy, wet beach, I thought to myself, but what I said out loud was, “It’s sort of a pain-pleasure thing with me. Pain to please the palate.” I was beginning to get the hang of it.
The take of a striped bass is definite: You set the hook in the fish with three hard yanks. Sometimes, though, in northeastern waters, there is an impostor on the other end of the line—a bluefish. Bluefish is a lot oilier than striped bass when you go to eat it, and nowhere near as delicate—but it’s fun to catch, and, since there’s no legal size limit, if you catch it, you can keep it. An ocean-caught striper, on the other hand, must be at least 34 inches long to keep if it’s taken from Massachusetts waters (the limits vary by state and can change yearly).
Since at least Colonial times, the supply of striped bass on the East Coast has varied dramatically; there have been periods when the fish were present in massive numbers, and periods when they seemed to have all but disappeared. In 1623, for instance, Plymouth colonists, with only one boat and net, were able to catch enough bass to feed themselves throughout the summer. So plentiful were the stripers that an act passed in the Massachusetts Colony in 1670 mandated that all income from the bass fisheries of Cape Cod be used to establish a free school; striped bass thus could be said to have funded the first public school in the New World.
In the late 19th century, there began a decline in the bass population that lasted nearly 40 years. Then, from the 1930s until well into the 1960s, bass were plentiful. I began to fish with Knowles and Norbert at the end of that big up-cycle. Then came yet another decline, this one lasting nearly 15 years. During this period, in 1981, Norbert was killed when his car ran into a tree late one night—it was just before his annual trip to Nantucket. Knowles had a heart attack one day in 1990, while he was climbing out of his boat; he died with his waders on.
The promise of food—good food—drives us all, especially fishermen. In 1635, one William Wood, in a book called New England’s Prospects, wrote: “The basse is one of the best fishes in the country … pleasant to the pallet and wholesome to the stomach.” Craig Claiborne once claimed that striped bass would be his first choice if he were allowed but one last meal.
And striped bass can be great eating whether it’s large or small, young or not so. That’s lucky for Massachusetts fishermen, because the 34-inch rule means that any wild bass you catch in the state will probably weigh close to 18 pounds.
The wild bass that are now sold commercially are usually smaller, and the farm-raised bass that many restaurants now serve weigh in at something like a pound and a half. At Le Pescadou in New York’s SoHo, chef Sara Daniels cooks farmed bass with fresh fennel slices stuck into slits in its flesh—a variation on a technique used in France for loup de mer, or wolf fish. When the fish comes out of the oven, she flambes it in Pernod. It’s an excellent, aromatic dish.
But still, there’s something satisfying about cooking a big, wild fish that you’ve spent time in combat with. I like to streak wild striped bass steaks with a blend of brown sugar and mustard, or with thyme butter, then cook them on a very hot grill for about four minutes per side. Just one taste, and I’m right back in Nantucket, watching the seagulls with Knowles or practicing the lever cast with Norbert.
Or I’m out after stripers among other friends I’ve fished with over the years—working the edge of the rip in Striker’s boat, doing a sneak attack on the fish in the grasses with David. Or I’m sleeping in my waders on the sand with Lynn, or drinking vodka cocktails with Matthew, leaning against the jeep.
Surely, I’ll always pursue striped bass for its noble history, for the challenge it offers, and for its untamed taste. But mostly—and perhaps this is true of all devoted striped bass fishermen—I’ll pursue it for the spirits. With the spirits.