Stripers and old friends, North Hampton Beach, July 2012

Family gathers around the fishI got my 9-foot, 9-weight Orvis Silver Label HLS RM back when I moved to Cape May, New Jersey to edit the Star & Wave in 1997. I was a heavily-addicted trout fisherman used to living 20 minutes from the amazing catch-and-release section of the Deerfield River, and I was going to need a replacement for those evenings spent tossing Elkwing Caddis at rising rainbows. So my friend and fly fishing mentor extraordinaire Kevin Moran, and his dad Fred if memory serves, helped me put together a rig for the salt. And Kevin presented me a book by Lou Tabory called Inshore Fly Fishing. I bought a three-dollar green plastic dishpan at the hardware store and punched two holes in it for a bungee cord so I could wear it around my waist – homemade stripping basket to catch the line so it wouldn’t tangle around my legs in the surf.  I was ready to learn striped bass.  I fished all around Cape May’s jetties and inlets, cast from the beach when I saw birds working close in, and sometimes caught fish, though never any of the monster ones like on the cover of Tabory’s book. I had better luck out on a boat with a good guide, who I worked with while writing a piece on Cape May for Salt Water Fly Fishing Magazine. I fished and worked in Cape May for two years.

Fast forward fifteen years, three moves, busy jobs and four kids, and while I still get out for trout, I haven’t fished the saltwater more than a handful of times in a decade. So when, during a visit with Kristen’s sister Wendy’s family, back out from Ohio for a few weeks, my friend and brother-in-law Ed’s suggestion that we fish the surf while Kris, Wendy and the kids played on the beach, was appealing, but I had no great expectations other than much-needed relaxing family time.

Fighting the striper

We ended up at North Hampton around 2 p.m., following a 1 p.m. high tide. Ed and I fished the rocks and the little rip on the north side of the beach for an hour or so, Ed with a spinning rig and me with the fly rod,  and then we saw birds working hard right off the beach itself. I recalled something of my days in Cape May and was struck by a singular urgency. Yep, I ran like a wildman, stripping line into my basket as I went, getting ready to cast.

I plunged into the surf, up to my waist, and cast a clouser minnow as far into the mass of diving birds as I could get and started a fast retrieve. A fish hit right away and I got it on the reel and brought it in. It was about 19-20 inches, and a beauty, but I didn’t spend a lot of time admiring it. The birds were breaking up and wheeling away. I released the fish and cast again and this time the fish that took bent the rod double. Ed arrived and asked if I wanted help landing whatever was on the other end of the line. It was a generous offer, but I said no, cast.

I got the fish on the reel and we went back and forth about five minutes. His first few runs were incredibly strong and he took the line nearly out to the backing. The family had all gathered on the beach along with a crowd of other sunbathers.  David and his cousin Cole darted in close, thrilled at the site of the fish’s big tail lifting out of the water as it rolled and fought.

Releasing the fish

I was glad for the chance to share something with the kids that I don’t do very often anymore, but has meant so much to me. Grateful David got to see a bit of why this sport isn’t just beautiful and meditative, but on occasion, adrenalin-rush thrilling. The second fish was likely a keeper, but I knelt in the surf and released him.

Subsequent casts found three flounder, but no more stripers. The school was gone. We fished a bit more, talked, had a big family dinner from cardboard fish and chips boats on the upper deck at Ray’s as the sun slipped down toward the water.  Ed and Wendy and their kids, the cousins our kids love so dearly, would be leaving straight from dinner. It would be a long time until we see them again. And it’s been even longer since I’ve seen Kevin – and never even met his new baby. And the sun will sink into the water again and again and my hair will keep getting grayer and my kids will grow up and have their own lives and come visit, God-willing, with their own kids. But every once in a while I’ll take this rod, or one much like it, out of its case and cast a fly into the water and when the fish takes it, it will be like there was a permanent thing in the world, even if it was just that trembling, perfectly impermanent relationship between arm and rod, line and fish, spirit and water.

Striper at North Hampton

Thanks to Wendy for taking these wonderful pictures!

UPDATE: Check out OrvisNews.com’s Picture of the Day for 7/21/12!