The “N” Word: Month-Eleven in the High Surf

By Zach Harvey

Halloween used to be a serious benchmark in a surf season—a gateway of sorts into autumn casting. A pipeline of fish stretching out east and then north—Gloucester, then the South Shore, the Outer Cape, the Canal, the South Shore, Nantucket, the Vineyard, Newport, Jamestown, the South County beaches and Block Island. Waves of fish, bass, blues, but also, for a tide here or there, weakfish, bonito. Bait—big bait, small bait, bunker, squid, sand eels, bay anchovies, mullet, herring, whiting, and more sand eels, bigger sand eels. Layers of bait, layers of predators.

September, the front half of October were like a warm-up, a cocktail hour before things got moving in earnest. And then, Halloween onward, there weren’t fish clogging the first wave every tide, but if you hit it the way surfcasters eying success have always need to hit it—that is to say every night—you could pull out of the driveway around sundown with a reasonable expectation that if you were willing to put on some miles, you’d find fish somewhere.

In the second coming of stripers, the mythology of the old “fall runs” was on the lips of so many veteran surfmen that it offset the biological reality of the post-Moratorium striper hunt—at least enough to keep the new generation’s collective eye on the ball well past the October blitzes. In the early 2000s, I witnessed a few seasons when Indian summer held enough stripers on the beach to touch off mayhem when the first waves of sea herring—the last of the so-called “late bait”—blew into town in November. But in the second half of that decade, the all-important timing went to hell in a hand basket: The intensifying pace of nor’easters, sou’westers, and NW clean-up gales effectively drove our resident bass out of town by the second moon in October. Early November, the herring still offshore, and, most years, not much “in-between” bait like whiting, butterfish, squid, or foot-long sand eels to pull westbound migrant schools up into the shoal water, the last-hurrah herring action along the beach misfired and kept missing.

I must admit that I’ve lost an incremental bit of my will to cast the late innings almost every season since probably 2005. And somehow this fall, at a point when even the diehards are thinning out amid growing fears about a coming striper collapse, I have a strange will to push this hunt past the first snowfall.

Some of it is proof that I’ve managed to keep the memory of the last evil winter close enough to front-of-mind to fish with newfound urgency and some honest dread for what’s coming all too soon. But there’s also an awful lot of bait around—layers of it representing various species and all sizes, including full-size pogies milling around in every salt pond, tidal river, and harbor from Sakonnet past Westerly.

I’ve heard loads of surfcasting and fly specialists tossing around various comments about “the table” being “set” over the last few generally forage-rich seasons. Every time I hear the phrase, I feel compelled to point out that a lot of bait is only a “set table” if there’s someone coming to dinner. Otherwise, tons of bait is just, well, tons of bait. My own cynicism notwithstanding, this autumn—so far, at least—feels different, feels fishier in ways I’d be hard-pressed to articulate.

Granted, I haven’t seen so many pogies around in any other season I fished attentively. For that matter, I’ve never seen so many schools of foot-long menhaden milling around one rod-length off the end of my boots and nary a predator in sight. More than a few nights, I’ve actually sat along the shore with the express purpose of pogy-watching—hundreds of them coasting to and fro, flipping here and there, apparently just for the joy of flipping. After watching one specific log-jam of them for two straight weeks, way up inside a local tidal river, I started to notice what I determined were terminal-boredom sores growing on their flanks. These fish, unmolested for so long, had lost their collective fire. That, or all the antidepressants washing out of suburban leech fields into the river had numbed then over entirely. I can’t say for sure.

Maybe that’s just me. After years pounding my head against the unyielding stone face of fisheries policy and politics, I decided at the outset of this season I’d pull back from that darkness, take some time to remember the numerous parts of a season fishing that drew me into this mess in the first place. I’ll admit that I’ve been a bit surprised how much—absent the pull of the black hole that is management—I still love this racket. And in the end, it’s love of winging bits of metal and plastic into a howling headwind that makes up about half of autumn’s fishing potential.

Whether or not there’s a late “run”, there will be fish in our surf another month at least. What you will have made of that a month hence is a worry you need to install in the front of your mind immediately. It’s not September anymore, and now even Halloween is bobbing along in our wake. Now, it’s that cruelest time of a surf season, when the fish we have tonight might very well leave town with the next dumping tide, and one “tomorrow night” very soon, there will be no reinforcements coming along to take their place. If you’re still doing it, do it now and do it as often as you can stand.

The only certainty in the whole fleeting transaction of November casting is this: Three months from now, you won’t regret a single night you manage to lurch out of your house and take at least a few casts. Tired as you might feel this minute, the long rest is much closer than you think.

This story ran in an earlier version of Coastal Angler, but we loved it so much we ran it again.