By Mark Dysinger, AMFF Ambassador
Remarkable, I thought. Who would have guessed that such a place could exist so close to one of the most populated areas of the East Coast? The view before me was extraordinary, and it played upon my mind not just as a fisherman, but as a human being. Several species of marine birds were gliding past my position in the observation tower, and many more could be seen down in the marsh and along the flats. The view was simply extraordinary. I had taken my seat up here so that I could hold a strategic position: I needed to be able to look back at the parking lot, but I also wanted to scope out the water that I would soon be fishing.
The drive from home was much quicker than I had anticipated. Journeys to new fishing spots can be fun, but in my case they usually provide some anxiety as well. Did I pack everything that I would need? Would my friend be able to make it (after all, he’s the one who knows the area)? Would the weather hold? How would the fishing be? A few double checks on the directions assured me that I was on the right track, and I had arrived on the early side. A straight shot down the highway and a few back roads were all it had taken. My friend’s vehicle was nowhere to be seen in the parking lot. I had plenty of time to gear up, check terminal tackle, and just take in my surroundings. After opening the back hatch of my Pathfinder I sat down and finished what was left of my iced tea. I let my mind wander and open up to the fresh adventure that was now before me.
Fifteen minutes had passed since our agreed upon meeting time. Gary is a father of three, two young daughters and a newborn son. He had told me there was an outside chance that he might not be able to make it to the water today, but I always give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s hilarious, a real joker and a heck of a flyfisherman. He’s worth the wait, but at this point my curiosity was getting the best of me. Our meeting place was a bird sanctuary maintained by the Audubon Society located at the mouth of a large river and estuary system. I’d heard some very good things about the striped bass and weakfish here, and now that I was geared up, my casting hand was starting to itch. Okay, we give him the standard half-hour wait. I looked around for something that would occupy my time for the next fifteen minutes. That’s when I saw the observation tower connected to the sanctuary office. That should do, I thought. As I walked towards the tower, two mountain bikers and several bird watchers crossed paths with me. Cordial hellos were exchanged, and one elderly man with field glasses looked me over from head to toe.
“There were some birds working over there,” he commented.
“Over where?” I asked. In my waiting, I had forgotten that I was all geared up.
He nodded his head in the general direction of the marsh. “Over there. They looked like terns, and they were working with gusto.”
“’With gusto?’” I asked, smiling in spite of myself. “Well, that’s good info. Thanks.”
He gave me a wink, then wished me luck with my fishing. I kindly thanked him and proceeded to the base of the tower’s stairs. Several placards explained the various kinds of birds that might be seen throughout the year, but one stood out to me more than the others. It was a small engraving that thanked all of the members of the Audubon Society for their hard work and dedication in preserving habitat and maintaining sanctuaries such as this one. God love ‘em, I said to myself. I know some people who deserve accolades like this for their dedication to fisheries. Without thinking, I tipped my cap to the placard and climbed the three flights of stairs.
So there I was on the observation deck, watching egrets and herons working their way through the marsh to the north, and plovers and terns working the spit to the west. To the south was a beach on the Atlantic that had many cuts and holes, and to the east was the parking lot and path that I had just come from. An occasional fly-by from a gull or two was so close that I could almost see the pupils in their eyes. Now those who know me will tell you that I am an angler at heart, and those who know me well will tell you that I am an angler to the point of compulsion. That being said, I found it very hard to turn my attention from the birds. They were a delight to watch, and one could argue that doing so might replace costly sessions with any qualified therapist. It did so many things for me at once. It reminded me of my home as a boy in Maine which was only three blocks from the beach. I never really paid too much attention to the coastal birds back then (heck, our state bird was and still is the chickadee), but seeing them from the tower gave me a bit of a flashback and a lesson about how easy it is to take certain things for granted. It also changed my paradigm and helped me to once again see the big picture, not just from an ecological standpoint, but from a philosophical one as well. Seeing the interaction of the land and water and of the creatures that live in both, and then seeing the horizon on the water from such a height has a unique way of providing perspective that can’t be gained any other way. I was alone in the tower, and at one point I felt like Captain Ahab in the crow’s nest. Thar she blows! A hump like a snowhill! Tis Moby Dick! Did I say that or think it? I took a quick look over my shoulder. Perhaps it was fortunate that I had the tower to myself. To a casual observer, a tall guy in waders who grumbles and laughs to himself is probably best avoided. Once in a while I would make a mental note of a rip or seam, but more often than not I found myself smiling at a couple of egrets that looked like they were on a first date. Peculiar behavior, but not unlike some of my efforts in high school.
A glance to the west across the spit and into the main river channel showed a marker buoy that was leaning under the full flex of the outgoing tide. That’s right, there’s fish waiting. I looked down at my watch and realized that my thirty minute waiting period had actually grown to forty-five. A whiff of the breeze told my nose that the water was ebbing and leaving exposed mudflats. I scanned the lot for any sign of Gary’s car, and when it wasn’t there I thanked the birds for the entertainment and descended the stairs. The view from up above showed a walk of at least ten minutes to the start of the first structure, so off I went. I would be setting out without my friend to show me his spots, and in a location like this there were many to choose from.
The first thing that I noticed was the wind, and unfortunately it was coming from the southwest. I surmised that I hadn’t noticed it from up in the tower because of my preoccupation and amusement with the feathered friends. Any presentation to the rip in the main channel would require casting into this gusting air, so during my hike I made the decision to loosen up my casting arm a bit by working the outflow of the marsh. This approach would have the wind at my back, quartering off of my casting shoulder. The wind also made it a bit chilly, and reminded me that it was still April in New England. I walked towards the end of the spit on the marsh side. It was in effect a small barrier beach that allowed the backwater to empty into a large tidal creek, which in turn emptied into the main river. The current was swift and the seams and rips were not only well defined, but loud. A sucking sound accompanied the marsh water as it went around the point and into the creek.
The sun was high in the sky and I kept my profile low, hoping to spot any signs of stripers. My first glance showed me the retreating forms of several schoolies that were alarmed by my presence. “Low profile” is such a relative term. You’re a good flyfisherman at six-seven, but if God had wanted you to be a great flyfisherman he would have made you a foot shorter, I judged. My next approach at the water’s edge was even lower, and this time I could clearly see a small group of schoolies working some bait off of the point. The bank was very steep here, and I guessed that the exceptionally clear water was about eight feet deep only a rod’s length from my position. I landed my first cast right on the outside of the current seam and let my fly drift a few feet. A small striper immediately launched itself from its holding position and nabbed the chartreuse clouser. A quick strip strike and short battle yielded the day’s first fish, about 16”.
A fish on the first cast. That’s usually come back to bite me, I mused.
After a few more presentations into the outflow, I noticed something peculiar. The fly and line weren’t penetrating the water column like I had expected them to; in fact, they weren’t really penetrating the column much at all. That’s when it hit me: I had spooled up with my intermediate line, not my quick descent. The spare spool that I needed wasn’t on my person but back in the Pathfinder. A roll of the eyes and shrug of the shoulders were followed by a few more casts to the pod of fish. If one came up, maybe some others will. Some other stripers did come up, but none took. Apparently that first fish had been the most aggressive, or the fight had spooked the others, or it had been just plain luck. Or maybe all three. I slowly backed away from the water and looked back in the direction of the parking lot. That’s when I heard excited voices from behind me on the other side of the spit’s hump. I took a few lumbering steps up the incline and was greeted by the sight of two spin fishermen working the main river channel. An enormous rip lay before them, and one’s rod was pulsing with the fight of a good fish. When the battle was over, a striper of about 28” was unhooked and gently released. I glanced back at the water I had just fished, then back at the two fishermen. Now the other one had his rod bent and was hooting with delight.
I found myself at a mental crossroads of sorts. Should I go back to my vehicle and respool with my quick descent line? If you’re gonna fish that rip over there, you better be rigged up with that other line. But what harm would there be in taking a walk over to the channel and scoping things out a bit further? Besides, there’s a flat over there dropping off to the channel, and the line you’re rigged with is fine for that. This ping-ponged in my mind for a few moments, and what finally broke my daze was the sound of laughter from the channel. Yes, they were into another fish. I opted for the near instant gratification and went over to the channel, hoping for some bass on the flat. Surely there had to be some there as well. Besides, it was still somewhat early into the prime cycle of the tide and I could always walk back and respool later.
I was certain to give the two fishermen a wide berth, and entered the water at least fifty yards downtide from them. I’m not an expert at nonverbal communication, but I could tell that they weren’t happy with my presence. Their frivolity disappeared, and suddenly they were all business. Another fish was hooked, but the usual hoopla was absent. Too late, guys. The jig is up. I worked some line off of my reel and double hauled into the persistent wind, hoping to reach the edge of the channel and work back through the flat that lay between it and myself. My third effort rewarded me with another 16” striper that was full of sea lice. I followed the gradually dropping water and hooked two more bass over the next fifteen minutes, one of which was an honest 22”. I heard whooping and hollering again and looked in the direction of their source. Each of the fishermen was hooked up, and my presence was now either accepted or forgotten amid the action.
I was getting my share of activity but it was nowhere close to the success these two guys were having by throwing their bucktail jigs out into the main rip. The answer to my situation was quite clear, but I still tried to rationalize that I didn’t really need to walk back to the parking lot and respool. The receding water had allowed me to get well within the rip’s range now, and I kept at it for a while longer with the intermediate line. Fifteen fishless minutes later I made my way back to the bare mud at the border of the spit’s sand and looked up to the sky. It was still a beautiful day, and if the wind had not been blowing so hard I probably would have been hot in my waders and jacket. I started back to the parking lot, but my adventurous side pulled me towards the beach side of the sanctuary, the spot I had looked upon to the south from the observation tower. It’s a new spot, so I might as well see what I can while I’m here. The road less traveled, right?
Sometimes I really don’t like my adventurous side. For the purposes of embarrassment avoidance, I won’t divulge the number of times that it has gotten me into a spot of trouble. Suffice it to say that most of this trouble has come upon me when alone, without a voice of reason to reel me in. On this particular occasion I lucked out, as there was no real calamity to ravel in. Instead, I was treated to a much closer view of the seaside beach and saw some structure that was only hinted at from the tower. The tide was now much lower, and the holes and depressions were obvious and very appealing to the eyes of an angler. A couple of obvious cuts could be seen from this level, and some mild humps extended into the water where they seemed to reach to infinity. I found myself grinning from ear to ear, very content with my find. This spot was obviously no secret, but up until then it had been a secret to me. I was still a relative newcomer to this state, and my “must fish” agenda was continuously expanding. Here’s another, I thought.
But I had mulled it over long enough. I needed to get back and change my gear if I were to fish the main rip again. I made a quick turn back in the direction of the lot and my gaze was immediately fixed upon a section of dune grass bordered by red tape and large signs that read: “NO ENTRANCE- ENDANGERED BIRD HABITAT AND NESTING AREA”. A brace of gulls at the edge of a neighboring dune glared at me as if they questioned my literacy. I took a few steps closer to the signs and saw further information indicating that the enclosed areas were being used by at least two species of bird, one a tern and the other a plover. I could hear them chatting at each other back in the grass but couldn’t see them. The sentiments that I had felt when viewing the placard at the base of the tower once again washed over me. It was hard not to be duly impressed and grateful for the undertaking of those who were watchful of these animals. I looked farther down the beach towards the sanctuary office and saw three or four more areas such as this one. I had seen them from the tower, but from that distance had noticed neither the signs nor the tape. I eyed the gulls that still stood sentry on their dune and reassured them. No worries, guys. I can read.
After another few minutes of plodding through the sand I found myself once again situated on the back hatch of my vehicle. A long drink from my water bottle put some saliva back in my mouth, and for the first time I noticed that my fingers were cold. Actually, they were more than cold; a bluish purple color showed underneath my fingernails all the way down to the quick. I peeped at my watch and discovered that the walk back to change gear had really taken about three times the estimated ten minutes. My casual course through the beach and inspection of the structure and nesting areas had eaten more time.
I found my spare spool with the quick descent line and held it in my hands for an indeterminate amount of time. I’m not very sure just how much time passed…it may have been two minutes, and it may have been as many as ten. But while I sat there and gazed upon the spool there were several things happening within me, the foremost of which was a realization that I had matured as an angler. I’d heard several varying accounts about the different stages that fishermen go through, and up until just a few years ago I had been very preoccupied with the actual process of hooking and landing fish. It didn’t matter how many or how big, but I tried to maximize my time on the water and give myself the best chance to cross paths with my quarry. And if I got sidetracked, I got frustrated. Taking into account the events of this day at a new fishing location, there had been ample opportunity for me to get annoyed, frustrated, and even discouraged. Whether justified or not, most of these sentiments would have been directed at myself. The initial wait for Gary could have gnawed away at me a bit, despite the fact that the grace wait was a common courtesy between us. My observations from the tower would have been much different. I would have noticed the birds and used them to help me locate fish, but the majority of my focus would have been directed at the water itself and its associated fish-holding structures. The realization that I had actually spent an extra fifteen minutes waiting for my friend could have led to some self deprecation, building upon the knowledge that it had imposed upon my actual fishing time. How about rigging up with the wrong line, and then not having the other spool with me on the water? That probably would have sent my blood pressure rising and gotten me to second-guess my preparedness. And once I had decided to come back and respool, I almost certainly would have taken the most direct route back to the parking lot so that I could maximize any remaining time on the water. I would not have been sidetracked by more birds and a couple of signs.
Why is this all coming out now? This change hasn’t been overnight, I pondered. And that’s when I became aware of the answer. I had been going through this change for a few seasons, but the events of this day were fulfilling to me, not aggravating. Instead of being mired in frustration and self-doubt, I had enjoyed myself immensely and taken more out of my visit than had been anticipated. In a day that was full of conditions that would have once bothered me, I really hadn’t been bothered at all. I had recently turned a corner and was now very aware of it. I put the spool down, stood up, and cast my gaze to the sky again. The sun was still warm, and with the lot being a bit out of the wind I began to feel toasty. I fully flexed my fingers in and out to rid them of the cold and then found myself breaking down my flyrod. I somehow knew in my subconscious that I wouldn’t be fishing again that day. The old me would have marched straight back out to the rip to take more stripers, but right then I knew that it wasn’t necessary. I had the knowledge of a new area and that there was plenty more structure to fish at another time and tide. Catching more fish just wasn’t important at that moment. I secured my gear, climbed into the driver’s seat, and buckled the seat belt. At that moment I shot a final glance at the tower and had a sudden urge to ascend its stairs for another look at the sanctuary. What kept me from doing so was the mindset that was dictating my actions to leave in the first place. I was content. I pulled away from my parking space and gave a finger wave to the structure in the rear view mirror.
See you next time.