We stood there in the cold dark of a pre-dawn November morning talking about the plan for the day of fishing. Lights sparkled about the village of Barnegat Light just across the harbor. Greg said we’d fish “the promised land”, an area off Seaside Heights where the ocean water was warmer, the bunker thick, and where the migrating striped bass were congregating for a Thanksgiving feast. Even humpback whales had been reported cashing in on the autumn harvest…
Striped bass migrate south in the fall and early winter and on the way, feed voraciously on menhaden, otherwise known as “bunker”. Menhaden is a big baitfish – they can reach 15″ in length – a literal cowboy steak for hungry striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish.
Greg fired up “the FishHead”, his name for the 21 foot Parker center console outboard that he so loves for its shallow water capability and it’s ability to fish near shore waters. We pulled up our neck gaiters and buttoned down as we sped out the inlet, rounding the north jetty where Greg opened the throttle for the long ride north. We were not the only boats on the way either. Big and small, open and cabin, we raced across a flat sea just off Island Beach State Park to “the Promised Land.”
Once at the Promised Land, we began to actively scan the horizon for bird play or other signs of fish. In their absence, Greg was wrestling with what to do. He had already suffered the day before when his client refused to do anything but fly fish. In the end it’s all about the client’s needs, but it was killing Greg to watch his client blind cast the water while boats all around were catching stripers on the troll. I was fine with conventional gear and even trolling gear. I wanted a striper on the fly, but I also wanted to take fish by other means if that was all that was working.
I was, in fact, dreaming of conditions Greg had reported on November 12…
And of the fish he caught on the surface bite that morning while fishing alone…
We slowly cruised around the area Greg had fished the previous week. The fish finder would go from blank to occasionally showing a big blob and a few random markings. Greg explained that the blobs were schooled up bunker, but he wanted to see them more spread out horizontally. If they were spread out, jigging or using the snag and drop – a technique where large weighted treble hooks are used to first snag bunker and then let them drop in the water and hopefully into the large mouth of a hungry striper. Either method would have been a good way to hunt bass. But as the bait was balled up, trying to position the boat directly over them as they moved about would be difficult, at best and akin to chasing fish. Given this situation and the lack of surface activity, trolling was the only viable option.
And so we trolled. Greg likened trolling to watching paint dry. He masterfully set up a deep bunker spoon on wire line, a mid-depth umbrella rig with swim baits, and a shallow running rapala-like diving plug. We trolled at 3 mph, chatted, but also scanned the horizon. It wasn’t long before the bunker spoon rod took a deep bend, but then almost as quickly relaxed. We’d find out later it was a solid strike that broke the hook off the spoon! Then the shallow diving plug rod bent down, reel screaming. I let the fish run a bit, set the hook, and soon had a nice striper in the boat. This fish was pretty much right at the minimum length but Greg suggested we release it for something bigger.
A while later the umbrella rig rod went down. This fish would be a nice keeper – roughly 16 lbs.
We would end up catching another smaller bass on the umbrella rig and missed a few more.
Come mid-morning, the troll bite began to die down, so we cruised in search of bird play. We did find some and I broke out the fly rod and cast a bunker fly. While we did not see any surface action I did get a good whack at one point, but that was the extent of the open water fly fishing.
We then headed to the inlet and fished the North Jetty. I rigged up a 10 weight rod with a sink tip line and tied on a fly imitating a peanut bunker, a juvenile version of the bigger bunker that were just offshore. Greg positioned me perfectly for casting to the jetty. I was casting to the wash around the jetty, the seams off the current over the submerged part of the jetty, and even casting out in the deeper water away from the jetty, varying retrieves and sink time. Harbor seals were about the jetty – so neat to see these beautiful animals coming back along with so much other marine life.
At one point I had a good bump and it ended up being a very large Atlantic Herring. I have caught herring on the fly while fishing the bay and they put up a good fight. They can grow to over 18″ and this one was certainly up there in size. Having said that, it could also easily be taken by a large striped bass.
But no one, even the guys fishing live “spot” were catching anything. It seemed as if no one was home around the jetty. We moved on and tried a beautiful part of Barnegat Bay where a “river” ran through the sod islands off the bay side of Island Beach State Park, but again no luck. And so we called it a day. That evening I would dine on fresh striped bass in the company of family, while dreaming of stripers-to-be on the fly…
Over the rest of that weekend, I spent time with my father and went to visit my mother in Seacrest Village Nursing Home. My mother had suffered a broken hip as a result of a fall a month earlier and in combination with her worsening dementia and stroke-related speech problems, was not doing well.
On my last visit before heading home, my father and I sat by her bedside. She lay in the bed, murmuring at times. It was hard to know if she remembered me, but she remembered my Dad, if only by his name. Her bed was by the window and the sun streamed in brightly. Beyond the window was the parking lot and then the low bay marshland of Barnegat Bay.
My Dad and I talked and tried to engage my mother. She would look at us and smile at times. Her hands shook uncontrollably. She lay before us a mere shadow of the great woman, wife, and mother she had been in her 88 years. And then out of the silence of the room and the confusion dementia casts on days of old, came a moment of clarity. My mother raised her head off the pillow and turning to the light streaming in, said with joy in her voice, “oh, isn’t life good.”
I left for home the next day with thoughts of my mother weighing heavy on my mind and heart. How ironic, I thought, that a nursing home, where people come to live out the rest of their days, could be built on the great salt marshes of Barnegat Bay where so much life begins. The great striped bass migration started there with the spawn each spring as did the masses of bunker that fed them on their way to “the promised land”. The baymen lived because of the bay’s bounty and Tuckerton, Barnegat, West Creek and so many other bayside towns and villages sprung up around the tidal creeks and sod banks and thrived on the fish, shellfish, and sea ducks all brought about by the marsh. Yet there lay my mother, on the threshold of the life-giving bay, dying…
Two weeks after my visit, the cell phone rang very early on a Monday morning. I glanced at the phone and saw it was my sister. I knew before I even answered that my mother had passed. The most positive force in my life – my guiding light – that everlasting smile – all of that was gone now.
And so I returned again to the shore, to the bay and the marsh with so many tidal creeks running like little fingers into the land. I spent time helping family get ready for my mother’s final goodbye – calling hours, a Mass, and a farewell lunch after. The weather was beautiful, unusually warm, and though deep in grief and busy in the preparations, I could not help but wonder if the striped bass were still around. A peek at Greg’s blog showed that as deep in December as we were, bass were still being caught, and by a few lucky fly fishers, even. And though it had proven to be a much longer striper bite than originally anticipated, it did not surprise me. Mom, in her own way, had asked the bass to stay a bit longer, as if to show to me just how good life was, in the promised land…