Volume 16, Issue 38 - September 18 - September 24, 2008

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Night on the Chesapeake

Without crowds or vision, you’ve got to fish by feel

The word has been out for some time now. This rocky point and its shoal waters where good stripers have been visiting in the late afternoon are not a secret any more. An hour or so before dusk, the skiffs begin to motor in and anchor up.

The clank of the Danforths as they are dropped, sometimes hurled, into the water, echoes noisily. Apparently there’s an actual party on board a nearby boat; at least two other conversations carry across the water.

In spite of the racket, a pod of fish shows. Anxious anglers cast baits and lures. Some are rewarded. Shouts of excitement ring out, nets are wildly displayed and the occasional splashes of conquered rockfish can be heard within this scattered, impromptu fleet.

I make some casts with my fly rod, but my heart isn’t in it. My popper gets no attention anyway. The action becomes sporadic for another half- hour. As daylight dies, the navigation lights begin to blink on, and one by one the other boats fire up and head for home. It gets darker.

Finally I am alone. Nothing happens immediately, but then it usually doesn’t. Change is going on. The water gets quieter and blacker. The sounds soften and expand. You begin to hear things that weren’t there a while ago: small pops; a quiet splash; waves suddenly audible against the distant rocks.

With a sliver of the moon now showing, a few baitfish frolic, jumping over drifting twigs and debris just for the joy of it. The tidal current hissing against the hull becomes mesmerizing. This is an older Chesapeake that is descending, a wild, big water with real adventure waiting just beneath its dark surface.

Fish Are Biting

The Eastern Shore is red hot, from the Gum Thickets to Blackwalnut Point at the southern end of Tilghman. Rockfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel are in mixed schools and feeding voraciously on top, sometimes all day long. Follow the birds. The big fellas are usually deep, but the breakers are often in the mid-20 inches. Anything shiny and fast will get their attention. Use short steel leaders or the blues and macs will cut you off.

Fly-fishing at night always tests my patience and control. Removing my sandals, I step up on the casting deck. Checking my line to be sure it’s still stretched out and free of kinks and coils, I strip it onto the deck. I can feel it immediately trying to sneak under my feet; I do my best to keep it clear.

I’m using a heavily dressed, black streamer fly now. It’s weighted and tied so the hook point rides up and won’t foul on the submerged rocks. How a striper can so easily find a black fly against a murky bottom in the dark of the night is beyond my reasoning. But night fishing, this kind anyway, has little to do with logic or reason.

It’s hard to throw a fly now because you can’t see your loop form as you cast. You’ve got to relax and feel the rod flex as the line moves through the air. Maintaining timing and getting your cast out becomes a serious challenge. Forcing things doesn’t help. So you get relaxed. You have to.

I work my line into the dark and make my throw. The line shoots out; then I feel the tide pulling it across its flow and down into the depths. My long, slender rod dips and undulates with the moving water, and I can imagine the fly sliding and curling along the rocky bottom.

A peacefulness that had eluded me all week finally slips into place. A deep breath helps my focus, and, as the line straightens out in the distant blackness, I hold it in the current for a moment and let the fly swim.

When the hit comes, I’m surprised, as if a fish were the farthest thing from my mind. I strike back hard, pulling my rod into my hip with the line clenched against the cork grip.

It’s a good striper, heavy. I hear it crash up through the surface of the night water as it bolts. The coils of loose fly line leap off the deck and hiss through the guides. I try desperately to maintain line tension, and I’m terrified something will knot up or go wrong. Then, finally, the fish is on the reel.

It’s a weathered, Billy Pate salmon model that’s probably caught a couple of hundred fish before it came to me. The reel’s drag is making a sweet, soft hum, and the sound reassures me as the bass continues to run off in the dark. Forcing my deeply bent rod high and off to the side, I carefully add finger pressure to the rim of the whirling spool. It’s old and smooth and warms at my touch.

I hear the fish broach again somewhere off in the blackness. The stars, high over the water, appear suddenly brighter. I want this moment to go on forever.

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