By Zach Harvey
I often joke that if I am indeed a writer, it would be very hard to prove that some days—the days, and there are too many, when I’m not actually chained to my keyboard trying to make something out of nothing. Fishing, here in the last leg of a mild but persistent winter, presents a similar problem: How do I know I’m still a fisherman when I haven’t put a hook in anything aquatic in what feels like about ten months?
I’d love to tell you that I’m the kind of fisherman who spends the off-season preparing for spring and the fishing that begins around late April and gains momentum, like a train leaving the station, right through the summer and fall and up through, say, Christmas. I’d love to have a half-dozen nice shots of the exhaustive preparations that have been underway in my basement shop space since the first week of January: 100 fluorocarbon leaders I’ve pre-tied and coiled up in long loops to prevent the line from emerging like old phone cord two months from now; and all my reels, stripped of last season’s braid, then totally disassembled and cleaned and lubed and respooled; the just-triangulated cutting point on my hand gaff; and the brand-new tips and other guides I’ve replaced after a thorough 10-point inspection I perform each and every winter without fail on every single rod I own. It would be great if I’d built a new rod/sinker caddy out of PVC pipe and a five-gallon bucket the way a real outdoor-writer-type does to chew up time during our interminable New England winters.
Alas, I have no such photos and I have done no such age-appropriate preparation in anticipation of the coming fishing season. My preparations, January to date, with April now standing on the threshold, have been limited to the following. Moved two old NOAA paper charts from my office closet upstairs down to a corner behind the dining room table. Moved fresh copy of 2017 Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book from mail pile to upstairs bathroom “library.” Merged three small scatterings of battle-worn plugs, jigs, and other assorted terminal tackle into a single “master” heap in an orange bushel basket. Discovered that my plug bag has served the last three months as a communal Porta-Jon for at least 9 mentally-challenged field mice and one squirrel. Soaked one pair of pliers that had seized up totally in a small tub of way oil, then transferred them into a mat of paper towels.
While I’m in the confessional, the truth-telling gathering a little momentum, I’d like to pass along a few thoughts about the so-called “early season” in saltwater fishing. Whereas, quite understandably, the fishing press around the Northeast tend to treat April’s arrival as a veritable seizure of fast-moving, edge-of-your-seat, drag-melting fish action (which, relative to, say, March, it is), I recommend the following: Manage your excitement.
Once upon a time, April marked an early shot at some respectable winter flounder activity in the salt ponds or around the upper Bay, and the beginning of semi-reliable spring cod fishing on the spots along the 30-fathom curve and beyond. Some years, the tautog were cooperative by mid-month in the Bay. Elsewhere, surf hungries would line up in the herring runs with dipnets, looking for a few buckies they could strip of their roe. By the second or third week, latest, the spring schoolie fishing would start to materialize on the warmer days with SW wind.
Here in 2017, what flounder remain in the ponds or tidal rivers have landed on the off-limits list. The spring cod fishery is really more of a last gasp for the fish that hung around through the winter, and a case of diminishing piscatorial returns most years. Tautog are more May than April, and you wouldn’t want to get caught trying to harvest a river herring these days. Which leaves: Schoolies. And since we’re sticking to the truth, here, that numbers-game fishing will bend a rod when you’re jonesing, but it will be a whole lot more comfortable and consistent in all but one or two early spots when the calendar says “May.”
Call me Captain Buzzkill if you want, but beyond the ancient lore and the force of editorial habit at the local fish mags, there isn’t a whole lot in the April line-up you can’t do better, warmer, more consistently (less miserably) a month from now. Truth be told, even when there was early-spring opportunity, April was always a little early: Among the many lies that fishermen are known to tell, most of us seem to remember that fishing started two or three weeks before it ever did—and “got good” a full month before the first decent catches came in.
I don’t mean to suggest that April is a total loss in the fishing department. Personal catch stats notwithstanding, April plays a key role in each approaching season. While I’ve learned not to put excessive faith in month-four fish production, I do use the time, with its warming air temps and somewhat longer window of daylight, as a 30-day shakedown of sorts. Early-month, I start to keep at least one light rod in the car, mainly as a visual aid to remind me why I’m out roaming coastal roads at ungodly hours. Where respooling a rod in February always felt like getting dressed Monday night for a dance on Friday, I start to go through my workhorse outfits in mid-April, knowing I’ll have the option to wet the new line the same night with a real chance my lure, once I’ve freed it from a tree along the far bank, might pass a fish’s nose as I rip it back in a furious squall of f-bombs.
In my older and wiser present, I’ve learned to fish April in three- to five-cast swipes, keeping the fish honest but also remaining mindful of April’s limitations, such as: Don’t let the fact that you spot a “53” in the weather highlights trick you into believing your hands will be any warmer in April than they were in February. When it’s blowing 75 knots out of the NW—as it typically does when I decide to make an early schoolie mission—three casts, two snags, one catastrophic wind knot, and nine minutes are all you’ll need to retreat to your car, hands throbbing, nose running like Titanic’s bilge pumps, wondering just how many flights of stairs you must have tumbled down before age two that you thought this would be @#$%ing fun….
More important than cast one is the not-small work of re-establishing your sense of tides and moons. Whereas a few of my fishing friends find some form of amusement in counting schoolies, I tend to put my April priority on running spring routes “dry,” checking the water for a few moments before moving on, looking for the first scratches of bait. After four or five nights wandering, stereo booming, ashtray full, I start to know the tide without the chart, and start to feel the comings and goings of the spring fronts.
If I’m honest, here, I know that April, most of May are when I go through the motions—reorient myself to the living planet. The real fishing, the grind of a thing I still love, will come on like a fever four or five weeks hence. There will be time for sleeplessness, the jittery hunt for the first good fish in the small hours, from here to Thanksgiving. No need to rush things.
By Zach Harvey