Story: “First Light” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply

Bill Tapply on the hunt for striped bass off the coast of Massachusetts.
Photo courtesy Vicki Stiefel

[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. He was far and away the best writer I have edited, and we developed a friendship around our shared angling and literary interests. He wrote books and articles on fishing and hunting, as well as great mystery novels that often featured fly-fishing. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I’ll post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]

One morning many Junes ago, before saltwater fly fishing became The Thing To Do in New England, Rip Cunningham, then the publisher and editor-in-chief of Saltwater Sportsman magazine, and still and always an all-round good guy, called me on the phone. “The stripers,” he said without prologue, “are all over the place down here.”

“I’ve been hearing stories,” I said. “Figured it was a lot of exaggeration.”

“The stories are true,” said Rip. “They’re back. It’s really quite awesome. They’re sloshing on the surface and cruising the mud flats at first light. You can see ‘em waking in water barely up to your shins. Sometimes they tip up and wave their tails in the air. It’s like bonefishing. We’ve been catching lots of them. It’s all hunting and sight-fishing. Smallish flies, medium-weight rods. Stealth and cunning. Right up your alley. You’ve got to do this.”

“What do you mean,” I said, “by lots?”

“Well,” he said, “my brother-in-law and I got about thirty between us in a couple hours this morning.”

“Thirty in two hours,” I repeated. Rip, I knew, did not exaggerate. I did the math. Fifteen fish per hour between the two of them. One striper every eight minutes per fisherman. That’s about as fast as you can throw out a fly and haul in a strong fish. “That,” I said, “is lots.”

“Big ones, too,” he said. “We landed three keepers, saw several others. Of course, we didn’t actually keep ’em. They’ll be back again tomorrow. Anyway, there are plenty of others. We saw, I don’t know, hundreds of fish. But who knows how long it’s gonna last? I haven’t seen stripers like this for twenty-five years.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You said you got thirty this morning?” I looked at my watch. “It’s still this morning.”

“This isn’t morning,” Rip said. “Hell, it’s – what? — almost ten-thirty. The sun’s high in the sky. This is the middle of the day. Fishing’s no good now. We quit hours ago.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “You got me. Where and when?”

“Tomorrow at the Duxbury launch. Four o’clock.”

“Four a.m., you mean.”

“If we’re on the water by four-thirty,” he said, “we’ll hit it perfectly.”

“Easy for you to say,” I said. “You live there. Me, I’ve gotta drive two hours.”

“I released one that measured forty-one inches,” said Rip. “Dropped a little chartreuse-and-white bucktail in front of this shadowy wake and she just finned over to it and opened her mouth and sucked it in. About a foot of water. All hell broke loose. But, hey, if you’d rather sleep in . . .”

“I’ll be there,” I said. “You know I will.”

* * *

In those days I generally went to bed around midnight, read myself to sleep, and woke up around seven. But after dinner the night before my rendezvous with Rip, I loaded my gear into my car, set my alarm for 1:30, and went to bed. Naturally I lay awake imagining myself casting to giant wakes in shallow water. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I let myself fall asleep, the alarm would fail to wake me up.

I stared into the darkness until around one in the morning. Then I got up, put on the coffee, and fried myself some eggs and bacon. I left my house a little before two for the long drive in the dark to Duxbury.

I found myself feeling quite virtuous about it, too. The houses and gas stations along the roadways were darkened, and I figured the occasional other vehicle I saw on the highway was headed home. They were at the end of something. Me, I was at the beginning. I had the jump on everybody.

When I got there, Rip was already messing around in his boat. He looked at his watch and said, “Let’s get going.” He made no mention of my virtue.

We rigged our rods by flashlight, and then Rip cranked up his outboard and maneuvered his boat among the black silhouettes of the sailboats and yachts that were moored in the harbor. A bell buoy clanged hollowly in the misty darkness. Gulls and cormorants perched on the pilings.
We cleared the harbor as the purple sky was beginning to fade to pewter, and we beached Rip’s boat on a half-tide mud flat just as the first pale blush of pink appeared on the eastern horizon.

We stepped out of the boat. Rip pointed. “There,” he whispered. “Let’s go!”

It took a minute for my eyes to adjust. Then I saw them. Wakes. Swirls. Shadows. Here and there, a fin breaking the surface. Stripers, big ones, cruising the flats chasing bait and grubbing for worms and crabs.

* * *

In my youth, I was a confirmed Night Person. I did my most creative and efficient work in the blackest hours after midnight. I went to bed late and slept late, and that didn’t even count the parties.

As I grew older, it changed. For a while there, I was a Morning Person. Nothing ridiculous. Seven to noon saw me at my best, such as it was.

Now I don’t know what you’d call me. A Daybreak Person, maybe. I want to be outdoors at first light, the magic hour before sunrise. I want to be there when it happens, and I’m willing to give up a night’s sleep for it.

That morning many years ago with Rip Cunningham made me a convert. Oh, I still need a reasonable hope for good fishing. You can’t talk me into getting up to meet a six o’clock tee time, or to go jogging, or to catch a commuter train.

But if you put a mug of black coffee in my hand and remind me of what it’s like just when the sky fades from purple to gray and the stars begin to wink out and a thin mist blankets the water’s surface, if you help me remember the way Bighorn brown trout sip Trico spinners on a late-August dawn, or how largemouth bass hump and slosh in weedy coves at first light in July, I’ll be there. You won’t have to ask me twice.

* * *

Fred Jennings guides for stripers in the tidal creeks that fill and drain the marshes along the Massachusetts north shore. He follows the tides in his canoe and catches striped bass on trout-weight rods. Fred has devised an algorithm for predicting how good the fishing will be, a complicated factoring of variables that include tide, sunrise, moon phase, season, wind direction, air and water temperatures, and a few mysterious unknowns. He calls it the Estimated Fishing Quality Index – EFQI. As far as I can determine, the key variable is time of day, and the prime time of day is daybreak. What Fred calls “peak dawns” or “magic mornings” occur when the sun rises precisely three hours after the turn of the high tide.

He wants to be in his canoe an hour before that.

Fred’s guide fee follows a sliding scale depending on the day’s EFQI. I know of no other guide who does this, but it makes sense. He charges most for a peak dawn – a “platinum morning” — when tide and time line up perfectly. Supply and demand, explains Fred, who’s an economist by trade. By his calculations, only twelve platinum mornings occur between May and October, one every two weeks, and those are the days that everybody who reads his EFQI charts wants to book.

I’ve left my house at 2:00 AM several times for a rendezvous with Fred Jennings to witness a peak dawn on his marsh. The water lies flat calm under a wispy blanket of mist, and feeding stripers leave wakes and swirls around the clam flats and against the mud banks. It is, truly, magical.

* * *

It stands to reason that fish are happier, less guarded, hungrier, and more aggressive at first light after the lulling comfort of darkness. Nighttime shelters them from their predators. Water temperatures cool down to their comfort zones. Insects and baitfish are slow and naïve and vulnerable in the early hours. Fish – saltwater and freshwater alike – are ready to go prowling in that marginal time between night and day.

But it’s more than that. Fishermen are energized and predatory, too. Or at least this fisherman is.
Somehow the world feels a lot different – more alive, more optimistic — when I’m leaving for an outdoor rendezvous before dawn on a summer’s morning than it does when I’m coming home at that time.

“The morning,” said Thoreau, “which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.”

* * *

Rip and I immediately got into fish in the gray twilight. Then he stopped casting and whispered, “Lookit that.” He pointed to the east.

I looked just in time to see, suddenly and all at once, the sun crack the line between ocean and sky. It was like turning on the lights. Day — literally — broke, and the night was abruptly and entirely gone, and I found myself smiling, because I was there, and you weren’t.

* * *

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone.

3 thoughts on “Story: “First Light” by William G. Tapply”

  1. Great article and very helpful for someone living on the coast of Massachusetts.

    Would you clarify” 3 hours after the turn of the high tide?” Does that mean 3 hours after the peak of high tide going to a low tide mark as the tide is receding?

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