A new take

Strip, set. The take.

As a salt season to remember and a year to (mostly) forget winds to a close here on Cape Cod, I am renaming this blog in honor of that moment. Welcome to “the Take.” More on the reasons behind this change later. First, a brief look back at what turned out to be a remarkable eight months on the water.

Temperatures are now dropping below what they were when my alarm sounded shortly after 4 on a late March morning. Maybe I was jumping the gun but it had been a long winter – though not so long as the one to come for sure – and hope is a powerful inspiration. I pulled on my leaky waders (they’re still leaky) and hit the flats, casting dark flies in the dark. I didn’t hook any fish that day or on the next several trips but by April the first migrating stripers had arrived, biting with abandon and seemingly as antsy as I was for the season’s start.

COVID-19 had also arrived in force by that point and it was becoming more and more obvious that it would change our lives, although to what extent could not have been guessed. A hold on charters went into effect and, while it was unclear what that meant for wading trips, bookings were slow in coming as anglers, like everyone, found planning difficult. When the state announced it would allow fishing charters to resume on May 25, I was ready with a plan and happy to get back out on the water doing what I love.

The flats are a special place, especially in the spring, made more so when shared with appreciative clients, both new and returning. Before the sun rises the other stars light up the alternating currents of sand and water. As pink reflections color the clouds, tails betray bass feeding on sand eels in the shallows. Cast, strip, strip, set and the rod bends.

Feeling the take and watching the take are not the same, although the experiences share key elements. There is satisfaction in having sought and located a creature that swims freely through the vast ocean. It is a huge place and simply encountering an animal of such beauty and power along its edge should be recognized for the extraordinary event it is. Born hundreds of miles to the south, a bass of 6 pounds may be arriving in the spring waters of Cape Cod for the first time, young and hungry after its journey. They are exploring new territory and learning the ropes and lines. 

The angler is a student as well as teacher. Like any tutor, our actions have an effect on the tutee, whether man or fish. I spent more time than ever this past year talking with clients about the proper release of even small fish. While it’s true they are generally more resilient than their larger brethren, hooking and removing any fish from the water is a stressor. Handling each as little as possible and giving it at least a moment to breath before release goes a long way toward its survival and reducing catch and release mortality, a concern even the saltiest of anglers have come to recognize as a problem for the population.

After several decent client trips by foot with plenty of social distance in May, boat trips kicked off at the start of June and it felt like the action didn’t let up until mid-November. Those early trips on Cape Cod Bay were especially fun. One in particular stuck in my mind. 

Dennis and Paul booked the boat for two full days in a row on great tides and, after some searching and a few fish caught elsewhere, we found some real nice bass in a series of inlets and coves, including fish exploding on the surface in shallow water as they fed on large silver sides along the grassy shoreline. Dennis and Paul reminded me of younger versions of my uncle and his good friend, two capable anglers who enjoy everything about the hunt. They ribbed each other about missed hook ups, secretly cheered their friend’s success and seemed to enjoy every minute. After more than 16 hours on the water and upwards of 45 bass caught over two days we all walked away smiling and knowing the time was well spent. Dennis even left me with some of his flies, which I caught fish on throughout the season.

Many people ask me which I prefer; wading trips or boat trips. My honest answer is I don’t have a preference. I grew up surfcasting and love the experiences of stalking flats, exploring far up creeks or casting into whitewater along the beach. But the boat opens up fishing grounds obviously inaccessible by foot and vice versa. It’s not that you can’t hook large fish from shore or you can’t get into skinny water on the boat, it’s just two different stages with a different cast of characters. I’d rather not run into a great white shark while waist deep but on the boat the same encounter can make the trip for many clients. And there’s something about the intimate feeling when schools of large fish practically swim through your legs that can’t be replicated while under power.

Through June I spent most of my time on the bay, putting clients over fish on Billingsgate Shoal or wading the flats off Brewster. With the COVID boating boom and get outside mantra taking off the shoal became downright crowded. Luckily, I never feel compelled to stay with the crowd. Instead I’ll aim to put clients on fish elsewhere when it feels particularly bumper carish. As the month wore on I started bouncing back and forth between the bay and Monomoy, where foggy days seemed to produce the best fishing.

Fishing in the fog is tricky, especially without radar. I knew I’d be adding radar this winter but for the time being I had to rely on my own senses to keep clients safe and find fish. Your ears and experience are critical tools in the thick fog. Listening for engines and birds is key to success; stay clear of the former in restricted visibility and close to the latter. I like to tell clients, especially young anglers, about the three Bs in this order: bait, birds and boats. Find bait and you have the best chance of finding fish, birds can be helpful but aren’t foolproof depending on the species. When neither is evident, boats might lead you to a pile but I don’t like to rely too heavily on other fishers. The fallacy of boats is simple; one boat stops because a spot is just as good as any other without obvious signs. A second boat seizes on the possibility that the angler who stopped knows something. Next thing you know, you’ve got a half dozen boats fishing a spot on a hunch. Sometimes it works. Most of the time it’s a distraction.

Find all three – bait, birds and boats – and you’re in business.

On several days, fogbows were just as good at helping us find fish as anything else. In the fog, without other clues, I would jokingly say that we might as well head toward the fogbow, which is exactly as it sounds, a rainbow in the fog. Doing so gave us a destination at least and, while I knew in some cases that the bottom structure also leant itself to the possibility of success, it was almost unbelievable how often heading in that direction put us on good-sized fish over multiple trips. Maybe fogBow is another B to consider? It’s certainly better than FaceBook as far as I’m concerned!

Once the season really heated up and I was doing two trips a day it became a little trickier keeping track but Monomoy produced consistent action if not size on the surface starting in July. I was up at 3 or 4 in the morning and not home until dark on many days. Trips with repeated double and triple hook ups at a time are a blur but I can still remember enjoying each one and the smiles on the faces of my clients. As is typical, bluefish started showing up mid-month, a treat for clients who had never battled the feisty alter ego of striped bass. The bluefish off Monomoy and in Nantucket Sound appeared bigger than the mostly small tailors we saw the year before, an indication the same schools had returned and hopefully foreshadowing their return with even more weight on them next year. Notable that by about three-quarters of the way through July the water on the flats of Monomoy was ridiculously hot. At one point I was running back to grab the boat while a client continued to fish and it was physically uncomfortable to wade through some of the shallower waters close to shore. There were still some fish nearby but it was another anecdotal prompt for important questions about water temperature, catch-and-release and what’s coming down the pike.

August – as usual – was spottier on the surface but continued to yield fun trips for bluefish and bass as well as a few black sea bass feeding aggressively on flies. Whereas other charters often focus on going deep when water temperatures near the surface rise, fly fishing – even with heavy duty sinking line – requires more horizontal searching for fish closer to the surface. Even my light tackle clients seem to prefer the surface takes over dragging the bottom, however productive that can be. On one trip we found stripers and blues swirling about 5 feet below the surface in a clear but nicely textured rip. So, it was a pleasant surprise when the gray shape of black sea bass torpedoed in to take the prize on several drifts. 

Another welcome trend was the number of young people I had onboard or wading on the flats. The skill and enthusiasm they exhibited was an inspiration for old guys like me. Some already knew how to cast, while others learned the basics quickly in the moment. I’m still in awe of one young man who could cast a fly rod as well as many seasoned veterans I’ve had out. His father said he had taken it up only a month earlier! In most cases it was their first time hooking into a striper or bluefish and it took me back to my first saltwater experiences. It was especially gratifying to see the broad grins on the faces of their fathers. No offense to mothers, it was just mostly fathers onboard, though it was a daughter who most quickly picked up casting on her first try.

September arrived and, with it, right on schedule the hard tails; bonito, spanish mackerel and false albacore. Despite having to dodge weather throughout the month, chasing the funny fish – named for how they make anglers act – was productive and great fun. I have to admit I haven’t focused on false albacore or bonito much over the years but the addiction has set in and I’m already looking forward to next year’s window for passing it on to clients. These are powerful, fast and aggressive fish that will test your gear and mental stability. The spanish mackerel seemed more abundant and farther east than ever, and the false albacore stuck around well into October, making for some memorable late season fishing. At the same time, large bass appeared again close to shore. I’ll save the story of some of those trips for a post later this winter but suffice to say, the season continued to reward the intrepid.

My last trip was Nov. 10 and back where the season started in Cape Cod Bay. It was a beautiful day and the client had never hooked a striper. I warned him it could be hit or miss. Turns out it was hit. They weren’t big but there were plenty of them over dark spots at the end of a dropping tide in an open cove. As we bounced back to the harbor, I had a hard time not smiling and whooping out loud, a sure sign of a good season.

And now I spend most of the time on land, watching the late fall’s pale sun show more clearly through near leafless trees as it drops lower in the sky. The red of Mars continues to shine, though it too will fade as we dive into winter. I will dive back into working on preparations for the year to come, work my side gig, cut wood, slowly reapproach all those home improvement projects I have let languish for yet another year, and maybe even tie some flies. Cold weather wading and another season is right around the corner.

Now, a little more on the revamped name and direction of this blog.

I hope the change inspires both a renewed perspective on how important the activity of fly fishing is to me and some interest among readers in what’s to come. First, I hope to populate this space more frequently. Writing a blog feels a bit old school at this point with social media posts allowing a much quicker “take” on the day’s events, fish caught and the corresponding eye candy. But it also gives the writer and reader more opportunity to connect over shared ideals, experiences and stories that go deeper than an Instagram post or tweet. (God knows we can all do with a little less scrolling and trolling these days.)

Second, I plan to weigh in more specifically on topics important to anyone who celebrates “the take” and wants to ensure future opportunities to enjoy the world around us, beyond this screen and over the horizon. The word itself is intended to require thought. While “take” evokes a specific moment for those who fish, many of whom do so without harvesting what they catch, the act of catch-and-release is, in fact, still an act of taking. The natural state for that fish is disrupted, its energy is expended for our pleasure and the process can be fatal. In fact, it might be more natural in some ways if the fish were harvested but we already know that is not why most of us fish and the consequences of unrestrained harvest can be fatal for entire species. The reason we care is because we fish. It is an accepted paradox. We must recognize that all our actions come at a cost, even those intended to preserve what we love.

While pushing forward in this space, my background in journalism will rule when it comes to facts but I will not hold back my bias in favor of science and conservation. My opinion will be clear even as I tread in deeper waters. If this loses me a client, it is probably for the best. Given the integrity, values and passion I’ve seen in my clients so far, I’m not worried.