Still got what?
Once each Derby, I fish my way around Squibnocket Point, convinced I'll come back with an enormous striper - a newsmaker. I try to time my trek with a coming tide either early on or late in the day.
This year, the last day of the Derby dawned bright and fair, and I had to go. High tide was just before nine, and the wind was out of the northwest: I'd be able to get a lure far enough off the beach no matter how high the surf was. Perfect conditions. I was so confident, I carried a gaff.
It's a long walk, about two miles, and a tough one, especially when you're compressed in neoprene waders and carrying fishing gear. At low tide, when there are some patches of firm sand to walk on, it takes about 40 minutes. At high tide - scrambling over rocks - it takes longer and a lot more out of you. But it makes me feel like I've still got it, still got what it takes to smoke out a 40-pounder, maybe, or even a 50... who knows?
I know, I know: slim chance, but none at all if I give into my cranky knees and sleep in.
It's a walk I've made since the early 1960s, when I first caught the surf-casting bug and started to hang out in the parking lot at Squibnocket. When I bumped into Danny Bryant or some other outdoor giant, either there or at the Tisbury Great Pond opening, I'd hear about the amazing action the previous night, and I'd tried to suss out what he was using, what tide he was fishing, and where. If I didn't have the right lure, it was off to Brickman's to buy another one, or two - how'd I know which color worked best?
At low tide, my pal Herb and I used to fish the mussel shoal that doglegs out from the west end of the Squibnocket bathing beach. At high tide we'd walk on out to the point. Easy walking until you got to the fence-like remnants of the old herring run, when the rocks took over, everything from softball- to VW-sized. First stop was the first bass stand, where we'd sometimes see Oscar Flanders leaning against a glacial erratic and looking out over the water, looking like he'd always been there too. I'd stare out and try to see what he saw. No way was he simply taking a break, or day-dreaming. He was onto something that I couldn't fathom, wasn't he?
There's something magical, even mystical, about fishing for stripers from the beach. All things being equal, I'll pass on chunking with bunker off Sou'west Rocks, or slow-trolling eels off Cape Higgon. Not for me, dragging four-foot tubes on wire line off the Old Man, or live-lining herring off Quicks Hole. There's nothing like my own two legs to get me where I can drop a two-ounce Stan Gibbs pencil popper into the backwash of just the right rockpile a quarter mile west of Black Rock.
And it all looked perfect Saturday morning, until on my first cast just past Oscar's spot, my plug got heavy after a couple of cranks on my conventional reel - heavy with weed. It was that sodden, clingy brown stuff, almost like hair, that can somehow get a grip even on slick monofilament line, let alone treble hooks, and ends up in the guides and even on the reel's spool. And it doesn't come off with a quick tug. It's a picky process cleaning up after each cast, a rhythm breaker.
With the rising sun behind the waves as they crested, I could see gobs of the stuff in silhouette, and I had to skip a couple of my favorite spots, knowing that the lure would get all gunked up as soon as it splashed down.
I kept heading farther west, hoping to find clear water, until Nomans was square in front of me. The weed persisted, most everywhere, but I found a couple spots where I could work a lure effectively. Where the point finally peters out, there's one last jumble of rocks where I almost always find fish. And it was weed-free - finally! I launched a bomb out toward Nomans and scooted it past one of my favorite rocks.
Now I could cast freely, and really cover some water. I settled into a rhythm that's almost meditative for me - cast and retrieve, inhale-exhale. This is what I love to do.
But before I was swept away in some mellow glow, I was jolted awake by a watery explosion no more than 20 yards off. What the hell was that?
If it's a fish....
No, must have been a rock. I waited for it to happen again, when the swell sucked back for the next wave to build and break. Nothing doing. Oh well, the next wave was bigger, and the rock would surely show itself this time.
Again - nothing.
Oh my God, I thought, there's a huge fish in there, just outside the wash. And I'm going to nail it. I tightened the drag on my reel and let loose with a strong, tight stroke that sent my lure whistling off into the blue. My retrieve was no longer random: each pop meant business.
I braced myself for strike of a lifetime. There would be no margin for error with a fish this big, especially if it decided to dig in behind a rock. But I would get the big cow up on the beach, with or without the gaff, if I had to dive in and wrestle it ashore with a forearm buried deep in one of its gills.
The tenser I got, the wilder my imagination ran. I pictured myself dragging the monster into the Derby weigh-in where a murmur would turn to a roar as all eyes swung my way and people started slapping me on the back. Or up on the stage at the awards ceremony, fumbling for words as the mike was thrust my way. "First, I want to thank my buddy Herb..." or was it my dad for taking me out with Roland Authier off Wasque 50 years ago?
But then the bubble burst. Off to the left, about 40 yards out, in water where there might have been weeds, or maybe not, up popped a seal, bigger than any bass I'll ever see, and I knew in a flash that the huge fish that wasn't a rock wasn't a fish either. I let loose my grip on the rod, dropping the tip into the water, and swore.
I stumbled out of the wash and slumped against a boulder. Another fantasy busted, another empty Derby.
So what if it was a gorgeous morning and I was lucky to be alive? So what if I could still make the walk out around the point and fish the same water as Oscar Flanders?