The 12 Months of Fishing: What “Off ” Season?

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For years, I gave my so-called “snow bird” friends endless grief for being, in the grand scheme of New England fishing traditions, a bunch of sissies and “paht timahs.” It never felt mean-spirited because they got their chance at revenge every winter, calling me right around the time the first truly bitter cold snap set in up here–the mercury plummeting into single digits heading for negatives.

“Brrrrrr,” a familiar voice on the phone would say. “I was just thinking of you as I was trying to dig out a pair of long pants and a sweatshirt. I just wanted you to know you’re not alone: It’s freezing here in Florida—dropped into the mid-50s here last night….”

I doubt you’ll have much trouble figuring out my response. If you need a hint, listen to a few minutes of Richard Pryor’s stand-up, late 1970s, with a sharp ear for words beginning with the letter ‘f ’.

As the years have accelerated into my rearview, I’ve grown so glum over the onset of the dark months that I no longer tease the fair-weather Rhode Islanders about their fragile constitutions. Through repetition over the last ten seasons or so (the last three in particular), I’ve accepted that all the migrant wildlife that streams past, bound for points south and/or west as the sun retreats toward the equator, knows something I do not: That is, when the cold intensifies and the bounty of the fall harvest yields to the reality of our leanest months—the hardscrabble winter existence here on the frozen tundra—smart creatures (including certain migratory humans) will follow the receding warmth wherever it goes.

Generally speaking, and there are tens of thousands of examples that bear this out, trying to live in defiance of the natural world doesn’t end well— even if we humans live the consequences on a much smaller scale.

Nevertheless, I’ve been trying, for most of my adult life, to avoid internalizing the whole notion of the “off-season”—the latter a perspective that ultimately turns life in cold climes into Purgatory for the living. Where so many coastal anglers put their boats up or rack their rods by December, then turn their backs on salty waters pending the big spring thaw, I make it a point to maintain at least a partial connection to the sea 12 months a year.

Granted, the most obvious, reliable means to keep salt in your veins year- round is to fall in with the southbound flock and set up shop at a latitude that will offer you sound fishing opportunities through the Ocean State’s dead months. But for most of us, whose professional, family, or financial obligations prevent us from following bats and butterflies to new winter grounds nearer the tropics, the trick is to make a priority of hitting our watery haunts along the coastline at least weekly—a few times a week better still.

According to traditional “off-season” attitudes, our corner of the North Atlantic is a barren, salt-blasted ruin, utterly devoid of life from December through April. In reality, our briny fore hosts a secondary migration—sea herring mackerel, krill, codfish, hake, whiting, pollock, flounder, gannets, loons, sea ducks, seals, dolphins, porpoises, whales, and many other species—during parts of what we call the “off ” season. When you stay close enough to the water to track shifts in the marine ecosystem, there’s really nothing “off” about it—different maybe, cold certainly, but definitely not off.

Once you embrace the whole idea of thinking fish year-round, there’s never a shortage of compelling excuses to heed to pull of tides. The best option, frozen digits be damned, is to secure yourself a spot at the rail of one of the local party boats that runs winter cod/hake/mystery meat trips to the 30-fathom spots south of Block or Montauk. Actual catch on such trips fluctuates wildly, but you’ll be wise to keep meat yield out of the picture. Much more important is the chance to spend one of January’s or February’s more civilized weather days afloat on the frigid, dull gray-green water. Beyond the high probability of seeing wildlife and atmospheric conditions you don’t see outside the winter ocean, there’s a particular gratification in spending a day out in the elements, layered up against cold, and oilered against wet.

Somewhere between the piercing clean of winter air in your lungs, the menacing gray enormity of the open ocean after December, and the full- body relief that overtakes you when you climb into the blast furnace that is your heated truck at day’s end, winter fishing has a way of reminding you how hardy, how resilient you really are (and how fortunate you are to have a warm place to lay your head at night).

Most of my favorite winter experiences came out of the years I fished long past the point when I’d stowed the rods—moved right from charter fishing into the commercial end of the racket, lobstering, gillnetting, dragging, even tub-trawling clear through to spring. If you never leave the water when winter’s on the doorstep, it remains easy, second-nature really, to launch your sorry carcass out into the cold and on the right side of inertia.

At the risk of preaching, here, it’s been my experience that I’m happiest and most productive when I don’t need to consult a tide chart or turn on the TV to check the weather forecasts, when, in short, I’m connected to the docks, the beaches, and backwaters—know it from direct, personal observation, the height of outriggers relative to the bulkhead, or which way the junction buoy was heeling over, in Galilee.

In winter, I’m usually trying to orient myself to the lows—not only the daily timing, but the longer-frequency fluctuations of tidal range according to the wax and wane of moons. Digging fresh steamers, littlenecks, or chowder clams, searching among exposed rocks for lost tackle, or prowling local tidal rivers or harbors for old bottles I collect with fanatical enthusiasm—all are solid, regular reasons to layer up, cover exposed skin, and bolt out into the frigid air.

Consistency is the order of the day. It’s true spring, summer, fall, and it’s still true in our fourth season: You can work on refilling the karmic cookie jar that on some level underwrites the mania of your summer and fall fishing staying inside with your family all winter. You can manufacture tons of sawdust at the lathe, or strain your eyes over tedious threadwork on your new rod. All hold unique rewards, and pass an “off-season.”

But only by getting out in the thick of it—and staying out—will you continue to develop and refine your experience on, in, and around salt water. More importantly, if you’re afflicted the way the rest of us are afflicted with our watery back yard and the creatures it hides, you’ll be so much the happier and more grounded for the resolution to knock the “off” right out of your watery season. The time to celebrate our stretch of Atlantic is always—12 months a year.

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