Sea Change

What fascinates me about the sea is the unending capacity to surprise. Perhaps this emotional offering is not always pleasant, but always generous and it breeds in me an unabashed greed for time on the water. This day was mine. Cell phones and computers lay forgotten. In the words of an old Vermont dairyman, "Don't call me unless the barn burns down and don't call me then, 'cause there's nothing I can do about it."

I backed the Montauk away from the landing. The ancient Mercury sputtered and gasped, fidgeting uncomfortably at idle as old two strokes do, begging me to push the throttle forward. Easing out of Menemsha basin the Merc's flattened, tin-can profile shook unmercifully and I tinkered with the fine line between too much speed and a grumpy two stroke. It was new moon dark and socked in. What ambient light there was came from the harbor across the channel, the dock lights blunted by the fog.

I pushed the nose of the Whaler into the channel and noticed the channel buoy was shoved hard over to the outgoing and struggled to stay on the surface. The tide was running hard and it sucked us forward and shoved us down the channel. The sensation always reminds me of the effortless joy of sledding. The jetties slipped by quickly and we spilled into the darkness of Vineyard Sound.

I'm a visual navigator. My inshore pursuits rarely take me out of sight of land, poking around the rocks and flats of the northeast in pursuit of striped bass. My eyes and a compass are the only navigational aids I carry. This morning there was no visibility. Though early June, the sky and the sea were a wall of dark gray and the wind scattered foam across the chop. Matt and I stood shoulder to shoulder against the leaning post shrinking deeper into our raingear, turning our heads to avoid spray. He flipped the cover on his watch.

"It should be getting light"

"It will be late in this mess," I said looking back to the east. The sun would work hard to pierce this blanket. I headed west/northwest toward Gay Head and Devil's Bridge at a pace fast enough to smooth the engine, but slow enough to kill time waiting for light.

Devil's Bridge is not a place to take lightly. Two great tidal flows, hammering for eons at the great promontory, litter the sandy floor with thousands of boulders. One wonders just how majestically this cliff rose from the sea in its infancy. Even hundreds of yards offshore in 30 feet of water, many of these giants lurk just below the surface waiting to dismember an outboard. There is little room for error here, but in the right conditions it is home to some very large striped bass.

Dawn struggled in late, but the emerging light revealed the Devil in full display. The guardian rip was running as hard as I've ever seen with three standing waves breaking well above our head. Behind was a thrashing sea slamming into itself over the rocks. Whipped by the wind and now with rain slashing across our faces, the gray wall of sky and water were as cold and forbidding as winter steel.

"Bassy kind of morning ain't it," Matt grinned. I grinned back knowing this was striped bass country. Perhaps the thing I love most about striped bass is they are the junkyard dogs of the fish world. The storied haunts of these great fish are a boatman's nightmare.

The only way to fish here is one at a time. Walking away from the helm here is not an option. An anchor would simply suck the bow under in this current. I held the boat in the slick just under the front wall of the rip. Matt stripped out his fly line and with three false casts hurled a big squid pattern into the slick and with a wet fly swing, let the current suck the fly into the turbulence. On the second cast a flash of silver knifed through the standing wall of water and tore into the fly, ripping a hole in the vertical face of the wave.

Matt bellowed his delight in the wind. His line snapped taunt and the rod tip dove toward the fish. The slack fly line at his feet leapt up and danced around Matt as he cleared it to the reel. Once connected directly to the fish, the reel accelerated to a blur as the striper turned with the current and headed for the rocks.

We fished this way for two hours, yelling like schoolboys at each thrashing take. We caught and released a number of 30-inch class striped bass – not huge, but powerful, beautiful and voracious from their long migration. We just released one of the larger fish when the Merc decided it had suffered enough at idle, and quit.

Matt turned from releasing the bass just in time to see me furiously turning the ignition key and working the throttle back and forth. We sailed up and over the first wave sideways, dropping into the trough and raced up the face of the next wave, Matt hanging on to the bow rails and me cursing outboards in general. The engine sputtered to life and I shoved it to the red line to clear the plugs and slammed it into gear just as we hit the third wall stern first. The wave broke over the stern, the bow rose and settled and I found myself calf deep in water.

There are two ways to empty a Montauk, bilge pump and momentum. I jammed the throttle forward and headed back up the backside of the second wave. The water in the boat surged to the rear, over the stern and the Whaler, suddenly free of her liquid burden, shot over the wave, dove into the trough and climbed over the fist wave to freedom. We burst out of the rip and I pulled back the throttle, easing toward shore and calmer water to take stock. Matt's face was ashen and I smiled weakly and shook my head. The pump finished the job of clearing the bilge and we cut the engine and drifted quietly in protected water. By the time we squared the gear we were laughing like kids barely escaping the principal's office, but inwardly I shuddered.

The sun broke through, the wind kicked up its heels and the clouds scattered before it. When it swept the last cloud from the sky, the wind ceased its labor and lay down. Where a few hours before we struggled in a dark and angry sea, we found ourselves becalmed on flat, deep-blue water. The sun scattered a million diamonds across the surface and rising from the blue water was the near tropical white of Dogfish bar.

We were barefoot and stripped to shorts, drifting time and again with the tide over the bar, every detail passing beneath us starkly visible. Large ghostly bass moved on and off the flat searching for crustaceans and burrowing sand eels. Easily spooked, it is apparent they are more comfortable in the angry waters of a rip than cruising a bright flat in two feet of water. Still, with the right fly and presentation, they could be taken. We drifted, we fished, we ate, we napped and we reveled in our freedom.

By sunset we'd been in the boat 15 hours. We drifted near the long stretch of beach known as "the bowl". Our experience fishing from this beach gave us reason to wait. This time of year there is always a chance for the evening blitz. The birds were congregated – a good sign. The sun hovered beside Cutty Hunk and the sky and sea were amber.

The water rippled as if pushed by the wind, but there was no wind. Schools of herring skittered just under the surface as predators pushed them from beneath. The first breaks came sporadically, then increased. The birds rose and circled the boat. Within minutes the sea boiled angrily, the gulls screeching encouragement to the stripers tearing through bait. The hapless herring leapt from the sea only to be hammered from above by the gulls and terns. It is a rather marvelous exercise in cooperative carnage. Matt and I cast into the fray, hooking an occasional bass, but we marveled more at drifting in the midst of this bloody opera than catching fish. When the sun slid into the sea, the carnage ceased

I leaned against the truck and listened to water dripping from the trailer. The last bit of light shimmered on the water. I love the sea, though it could care one whit, whether in its ebb and flow it swallows me in my gnat's breath insignificance. Its beauty lies in its vastness and in my inability to affect it. I'd been rebuked, rewarded, fascinated and the sea grew dark. Reluctantly I turned away.

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