O’ Brother, Where Art Thou Fishing?

On the road to a first striper, with a little help from our friends.

Saltwater Fly Fishing
October/November 2006

My brother, David, fishes with the same sense of vital necessity that other people read the Sunday Times. It is a fundamental trait. That and his songwriting, both pursued with equal dedication under the big blue sky of northwest Montana.

So about a year and a half ago, when a spring gig found him bending guitar strings somewhere west of Croce’s turnpike, he called from the road after the last song was sung and informed me that it was time to hunt down his first striper. “Hook me up!” he said.

Problem was, the fish were not in thick. On top of that, he had only an 8-weight rod—used primarily for dredging big rainbows out of the Blackfeet reservation lakes—and an intermediate line. He had waders, but no boots. No stripping basket. And no notion in hell of how to catch a Garden State striper on a flushing tide in mid-April. He’d never even fly fished in salt water, confident only that if he kept driving east he’d arrive at the ocean, hopefully in the vicinity of some place called Sandy Hook.

He found his way to a fly shop and purchased some flies and the concomitant advice, then picked up a tide chart and booked a room at a local flea bag. That afternoon he probed the shoreline, pondering the existential nothingness of a seemingly fishless Atlantic ocean. A man fly fishing along the bayside provided some clues, as did a couple of hard-tackle Jersey boys on a dock. But that “Whyya askin’?” directness can flat stymie a Southern boy, until the regional poles align over something mutually compelling, such as rippin’ lips. And even then it may take a while. Dejected but determined, and with a spring drizzle mounting, he headed back to the room for another phone call.

Back at the hotel, a hot shower and a long nap almost convinced David that this striper business was pointless.

That night, somewhat embarrassingly late, I put him on a three-way conversation with local angler and fly tier Steve Farrar, whose primer on mentoring would-be surf fishers begins on page 30. Farrar straightened out David’s coordinates, told him how to find the tip of the hook in pre-dawn darkness, and bade goodnight with an encouraging, “Look for me in the morning.”

The next day dawned overcast and spitting rain, and after five fishless hours of slogging about in waders and Tevas without any rain gear, trying to get his fly out far enough while watching locals rocket forth shooting lines and “doing that stripping thing with both hands,” soaking wet and shivering, he heard someone on the shoreline say, “You must be from Montana.”

It was Farrar, who gave him a couple of flies and told him what time to return in the afternoon. The tide, he advised, was kaput. Back at the hotel, a hot shower and a long nap almost convinced David that this striper business was pointless. But in one final surge of stubbornness, he again headed out to the Hook and began heaving line. A sturdy wind at his back eased the pain, and the tide was moving well. By now, he at least understood the importance of that. And then, suddenly, the light snapped on—the rip, the depth, the retrieve—fast as possible after the swing and wham! the skunk was off. It wasn’t a big striper, but man did it count. And on the following cast, a twin. For the next two hours, he had striper radar and a golden fly. The memory maker was a 30-incher that gave him a 10-minute tour of Hudson Bay.

As cold and clammy as I start to feel when writing about such fly-fisherly virtues as camaraderie and fraternity, the truth is most fly anglers are quick to show others the way—as Farrar did—because we recognize sharing knowledge as critical to the sport’s perpetuation. Sure, there is plenty of attitude. But its not like say, surfing, where newbies bobbing in the set are viewed as speed bumps, or snow skiing, where egos pile up thicker than two feet of Seattle Cement. In this sport, we all know that occasionally determination is not enough. We’ve all “been there,” all understanding that sometimes you need  a little help from your friends. And from strangers alike. ✦