Stuff It Charters

Outdoors: Casting Into Past for Striped Bass Heaven

By C. J. Chivers (as it appeared in The New York Times on July 4, 2000)

The boulders that loom in the shallows of Point Judith, R.I., are debris from the last ice age, having been scoured off the underlying stone some 12,000 years ago, only to be scattered, like so much construction rubble, when the ice retreated from the mouth of Narragansett Bay.
Each summer, schools of striped bass gather in the heavy waves that wash over these rocks, completing migration routes they have traveled since glaciers changed their world. They are mature,. savvy predators. Some are longer than a man's leg.

Sometime in the darkness on a recent Friday night, my father stood in a small boat that rose and fell just outside the Point's crashing surf. His rod was slumped over and bouncing. He was fighting the sixth or seventh fish to come to the gunnel during a busy, moonless hour.
Captain Joe Pagano shined a light into the blackness, illuminating the outline of a pale brute with flared gills and thrashing head. He lifted the dripping bass and worked out the hook. A 21-pounder.

As fishermen go, my father is extraordinarily finicky. Let it be known that James Chivers doesn't want big fish. He doesn't want little fish. He wants succulent keepers precisely at legal size, which in Rhode Island is 29 inches. This fish was about 39 inches long. No good. Pagano turned it back.

The recovery of striped bass stocks during the 1990's has invigorated all manner of inshore fishing methods. Pagano, a skipper for 21 years, has resurrected the most elemental: the inshore eel-casting trip. Like the charter captains of yesteryear, Pagano weaves a 23-foot boat in and out of the surfs edge, holding the hull tight to submerged stones and ledges, hazarding the turbulent shallows where bass roam at night. His work at the helm gives fishermen access to a rich intermediate zone, a belt of water beyond the range of shore fishermen and beyond the daring of most people in boats.

He describes it like this: "I've already hit all the rocks. So I know where they are." Eel-casting at night is all fundamentals. You take a live eel, a foot or more long, and slide a stout hook through its head. Pagano moves the boat in position while you whisk long casts toward small targets. The eels plop down and you reel them back slowly, presenting them as easy victims for the big, migratory fish that lie in ambush by the boulders.

When a fish hits a foot long eel, usually it's a big fish, and usually it smashes the bait. If you prefer 29-inchers, you might have to wait.

Why would anyone prefer 29-inchers? The truth is this: My father is an unconverted meat fisherman with his own exacting standards.

In 1955 he fished the tidewaters of Virginia's Rappahannock River. Back then small bass, 20- to 22-inchers, filled acres of the river's wide surface, slashing at schools of bait under a wheeling sky of gulls. There were. so many fish in 1955 that my father, then a teenager, did not have to bother giving casting directions to my grandfather, who had been blinded in a hunting accident nine years before.

Once they found the schools, anywhere they threw lures there were fish. Bass were everywhere. Even a blind man could catch them. My father is a shy man, and he holds his emotions close, but when he talks about the Rappahannock of 1955, his voice is tinged with joy.

He has seen his ideal, and he saw it young. And having acquired his taste for striped bass on the small, tender fish of the Rappahannock, he wants none of Point Judith's larger, tougher fish. All he wants, a few times each year, is a single 29-incher, the sweetest catch he can bring home without risking a state summons.

Out on the water with Pagano, the Point Judith bass were weak for eels. They came readily to the boat. One by one we turned them back: a 13pounder (33 inches), a 17-pounder (36 inches) and five clones at 21 and 22 pounds (39 or 40 inches). Finally, the fishing slowed and we moved, heading north up the bay.

Shortly before 1 a.m., we eased up to a spot where a small contingent of submerged boulders could be picked out by ripples in the swells. The air was laced with the aroma of honeysuckle. Dad was still at work. He is 61. His shoulders were stiff. His casts were more conservative, low on snap and vigor. But soon he hooked another large bass, which he fought halfway to the boat before it slipped the hook.

Quickly, he heaved the eel back to the same spot and -- wham! - was on again. The fish seemed lighter. And as it raced by the boat, its short, slender form was silhouetted by Pagano's light. Dad smiled. "Too small," I said, as it came out of the water. Pagano produced a measuring tape. There it was: the 29-incher. The night's smallest bass, my father's perfect catch.

We stowed the tackle. Pagano throttled the engine into gear. A half-hour later we were gliding over a salt pond's tranquil surface when a tangerinecolored moon rose up out of the Atlantic.

Big eels. Shallow water. Forty-five years from the Rappahannock. Fresh dinner on ice.

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