Written by: William G. Tapply
When my father was a young man living and working in New England, he caught striped bass and weakfish (seatrout) on his bamboo fly rod, casting from a dory into the harbors and estuaries of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. By the time I became a young man, the stripers and weakfish were pretty much gone from Northeastern onshore waters. For me, fly fishing was a freshwater activity. Not that I had any complaints.
I did fish the edge of the Atlantic from big ocean-going boats owned by various friends wealthier than I. We went out sometimes beyond sight of land, and we trolled spoons and plugs from rods as thick as my thumb, and we caught bluefish. Tons of bluefish, literally.
When I visited Joe Nies at his vacation place on Nantucket in the summer, we lugged Joe’s hibachi, a bag of charcoal, and a couple of surf rods out onto Cisco Beach toward evening on incoming tides. We got the coals started, then sat on the sand to wait for the schools of blues to come blitzing along. There was no sense casting blindly into the ocean, but when we saw the patch of swirling, spurting water and the panicky leaping baitfish moving down the surfline toward us, we jogged to the edge of the beach and cast plugs into the midst of the frenzy. We never had any problem catching them whenever we found them, although beaching a blue was never easy. It fought like a fish twice its size. It leaped and slogged and took off on long runs, and when you finally backed it onto the sand, its mouth would begin darting and thrashing sideways, slashing at anything it could reach, such as an ankle or a thumb.
When the school got close, we could see the blues hacking and slicing away at the schools of bait. They left the water bloody. They killed wantonly. Sometimes they were so frantic that they knocked our lures into the air. Killing and eating seemed to be two different activities for bluefish.
The first fish Joe or I caught each evening got filleted and slapped instantly onto the hibachi. There has never been a fish as delicious as a five-pound bluefish direct from the surf to the charcoal grill, still twitching.
Blues were violent, vicious, powerful fish with teeth you quickly learned to avoid. A bluefish was known as “the mouth that swims,” and it never occurred to me that you could—or would want to try to—catch one on a fly rod.
Poor Man’s Striper
It was Mike Hintlien, guiding Andy Gill and me from his boat along the North Shore of Massachusetts twenty-odd years ago, who introduced me to fly-rod bluefish. By this time, the striped bass had begun to return to our coastal waters, and it was the stripers that we sought. We cast shooting heads toward the surf crashing against the rocky shorelines, and I made the acquaintance of the striped bass.
But sometimes something else took my deep-running Clouser or Deceiver.
“Big one,” I’d grunt when I felt the pull.
Mike would know right away. “Bluefish,” he’d say. Usually my line came slack a minute later. “Bit you off.”
“Big blue,” I’d say.
“Probably not,” Mike would say. “Probably smaller than those stripers you’ve been catching. Stronger is all.”
When the stripers were elusive, Mike would motor away from the shoreline and tell us to rig up with some wire and a big green-and-white Deceiver. He’d stop the boat in some apparently random place out of sight of land and take out a spinning outfit. It was armed with a big popper minus the hooks. Mike would cast it way the hell out there and chug it back, making it throw water, and pretty soon a dozen or more bluefish would come slashing away at it. When Mike had lured the fish in within casting distance, Andy and I would throw our Deceivers out amidst the frenzy, and pretty soon we’d each be tied to a bluefish.
It was pretty exciting. There was something primitive about it—about the way we went about catching them and about the fish themselves—and you wouldn’t want to do it all day. In fact, we never specifically went fly-fishing for blues. Whenever we fished with Mike, we were after stripers. But for an hour or so, catching trolled-up bluefish on 8-weight fly rods sure beat casting into empty water.
Catching a Keeper
It was around that time that I met Vicki. She was managing a SCUBA shop and writing for a dive magazine. She was passionate about diving, the way I was about fly fishing. I told her right off that I had no intention of ever putting my head underwater and trying to breathe, which I think disappointed her, but she was quite interested in trying fly fishing, my passion.
After a few awkward “lessons,” she decided that she should learn to cast from somebody other than me. So she enrolled in a weekend class at the L. L. Bean school up in Freeport, Maine. When she got home, she said, “Hey! I can cast.” She said she’d also learned some stuff about bugs, and they’d showed her how to tie a Duncan Loop.
“But you can forget that,” she said. “I’m not interested in knots. Anyway, John, my teacher, he wants to take us fishing.”
“Us,” I said. “You mean you.” Vicki was pretty cute. I could understand why a fly-fishing instructor might want to take her fishing.
“No, really,” she said. “I told him about you. He said he wanted to meet you. He said he had a special place to show you. Us. So we’re meeting him Tuesday morning. Okay?”
“A special place, huh? Did he indicate what kind of special?”
She shrugged. “He said something about bluefish. He said to bring an eight- or a nine-weight fly rod and some big saltwater flies. He used the word ‘unique.’”
We met John at a gas station on the outskirts of Bath. An aluminum dory with a small outboard hooked on the transom was trailered behind his wagon. Vicki and I transferred our gear and piled in.
He drove through city streets and suburban neighborhoods, over country roads and, briefly, onto the Interstate. I smiled. I knew what he was doing. “I wasn’t planning on writing about it,” I said to him.
He just smiled.
We launched John’s boat somewhere in or near the estuary of the Kennebec River, and he putted among the boulders and small islands and half-exposed clam flats and patches of beach. Some of the boulders were covered with basking seals. They honked at us as we went past.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, John cut toward the jumbled rockpiles that marked the ragged shoreline, and then he slid through an opening between two house-sized boulders. The portal was narrow and tucked behind one of the tall gateway rocks. You wouldn’t see it if you didn’t know it was there.
We found ourselves on a round glassy pond just a few hundred yards in diameter. It felt utterly isolated. Alien, even. It was the kind of place where you didn’t want to spoil it by talking.
John cut the motor, and we drifted over the pond on the breath of a soft breeze. Then he whispered, “There! Look.”
He was standing in the stern pointing with his oar.
I tugged down the visor of my cap and looked. Then I saw it. A fish. A large grayish-green fish . . . no, wait. Two fish. No, there were more than that. Slowly swimming past our bow in single file was a long line of fish, and as my eyes adjusted, I saw that it was a full circle of fish, an endless line. A daisy chain of large bluefish circling, circling, head to tail. And they were passing about 60 feet in front of us.
I turned to Vicki. “Want to try to catch one?”
She shook her head. “I can’t cast that well. Besides, those fish are scary. You do it.”
I glanced at John, and he nodded.
I tried to remember what I’d read about casting to daisy-chaining tarpon. Don’t bring the fly directly at the fish. Tarpon aren’t used to being attacked by baitfish. Not that it should matter. These were blues. My whole experience with bluefish taught me that they’d try to kill anything that they saw.
I cast flies at those daisy-chaining blues for close to an hour without sparking any interest whatsoever. I tried big flies and small flies, green and blue and white and red flies. I tried poppers and Clousers and Deceivers.
And then, for no apparent reason, one of them peeled off, swam up behind my little yellow Deceiver, followed it for several feet, then opened his mouth and sucked it in, just the way a striper—or a tarpon—would do.
It weighed 14 pounds 3 ounces on John’s Boga-Grip. It’s still by far my biggest-ever fly-rod bluefish.
By the time we released that fish, the daisy chain had dropped out of sight. We waited and cruised around the pond, but it never reappeared.
When the tide turned later in the afternoon, a school of small stripers came into our pond, and Vicki showed me how John had taught her to cast, which was quite well indeed. She caught a bunch of schoolies on poppers, which made all three of us happy.
* * *
Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here.
Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):
- Sportsman’s Legacy: A Rich Memoir of a Man’s Life with His Great Sportsman Father, His Beloved Family, and His Adored Brittany,
- Bitch Creek: A Novel, and
- Death at Charity’s Point (The Brady Coyne Mysteries Book 1).
And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone and the reissue of her Tally Whyte series.