"He who knows not and knows that he knows not is simple. Teach him."
OLD ARABIC SAYING
There are other fish in the sea. But to a certain passionately dedicated breed of fisherman, there is only one: a perplexing piscatorial personality known most widely as the striped bass.
Once he has hooked a striper or had one strike at his lure, a man is never the same again. He may lose interest in all other fish. He may lose interest in many things. He may work at a desk, in a shop, he may head a large business. After exposure to the striper, he may continue to go through the motions of attending to such affairs, but his secret thoughts will be of the striper and of how he may meet him once more. He may go out in the bass boats or pound the beaches month after month and year after year and never see a striper. But he will continue to pursue this fish, for the hex is truly upon him. Alone among fishermen, he is able to live interminably on faith and faith alone—faith that somewhere and somehow he will keep his rendezvous with the biggest and most beautiful striper of them all.
This strange love affair between man and fish has long been a source of bewilderment to other kinds of fishermen who believe that the primary purpose of fishing is to catch fish. This, in the view of the striped bass addict, represents the most shallow kind of thinking. As one of the striper men has said, "Did not George Bernard Shaw conduct his romance with Mrs. Patrick Campbell entirely by mail?"
August 26, 1956
That, of course, is no answer at all. Mrs. Patrick Campbell was no fish and George Bernard Shaw was a vegetarian. It seemed that there must be a better answer somewhere and to find it, a thoroughgoing, wholly objective investigation was undertaken and its findings will be herein reported.
First, a personal word from the investigator. It seemed to him that he was ideally qualified. He had lived for a time on Martha's Vineyard, an island lying off the southeast coast of Massachusetts, and was acquainted with quite a few striper fishermen. If one is acquainted with anyone on Martha's Vineyard, one is probably acquainted with a striper fisherman. But, an important point here, although the investigator had been surf casting and boat fishing in the loosest sense of those terms, he had never caught a striper, had never seen one caught, and never seen one alive in the water. He was free of prejudice. He could be impersonal and impartial, a mere seeker of knowledge. He hoped, by questioning those who knew the striper best, to emerge from this inquiry with a dispassionate, clear-cut picture of the fish that would explain its enormous reputation.
It was decided to limit the area of investigation to that section of the Atlantic coast covered by the striper himself in his two great annual migrations. Thus, the investigator took up the trail where the trail began. He made a pilgrimage to Annapolis, Md. and stood on the dock there in the company of Edgar H. Hollis, biologist for the state of Maryland, now actively engaged in striped bass research. Dr. Hollis, a youngish, bespectacled, serene-looking man, pointed out over Chesapeake Bay and said:
"There is the great nursery. A great majority of the middle Atlantic stripers come from here. The bass are spawned in the rivers tributary to the bay and move into its brackish waters almost immediately. At an early age some of them develop the urge to migrate. It becomes a lifelong habit. Those who have this urge are already gone from here and now are spread out along the coast, probably from New Jersey all the way to Massachusetts."
Reverentially, the investigator looked out over the choppy waters of the bay and thought of the millions of stripers there.
"Would they be getting them now at Martha's Vineyard?" he asked.
"They might," said Dr. Hollis.
The investigator thanked him, shook hands, picked up his attaché case and started away.
"They might," Dr. Hollis called softly after him. "And again they might not."
The next day, in a booth at Pete Vincent's Coffee Shop in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, three of the best surf casters on the island sat drinking coffee and discussing the striper. They were Tony Gaspar, the house painter, Percy West, the charter boatman, and Ralph Grant, the trucking contractor.
Gaspar had taken a 33-pound striper from the surf at Squibnocket Beach only two nights before. In his wallet Percy West carried a membership card in the Fifty-Pound Club, an honorary society of those who have taken the big ones. Ralph Grant had taken more 40-pound-plus stripers than he could remember.
As Ralph Grant scribbled on a paper place mat, the three of them discussed the characteristics of the fish. They agreed that he was a night fish, more apt to be taken then than in the daylight hours. They said he was a courageous fish who would go in among the sharks to compete for food. They said he was a fish that sometimes exhibited a great sense of curiosity. He would, they said, follow a plug or a jig through the water just to see what it was, and sometimes he would take a playful whack at it with his tail. Ralph Grant recalled the time a 30-pounder did just that to his lure and hooked himself. Grant landed him anyway—by the tail.
They agreed that they had scant respect for boat fishermen, none at all for bottom fishermen who used live bait and stuck their rods in the sand to await a strike. "I saw," said Percy West, "a guy like that sitting on a camp stool reading a magazine. What kind of fishing is that?"
They laughed as they recalled the lies that striper fishermen tell each other when they find a hot spot. One night, said Percy West, he had a strike just as a jeep drove up to him on the beach. He let the fish run with his line as the intruder called to him, "Any luck?" The fish still running out to sea, Percy yelled back, "Nothing doing here." The jeep drove on and then Percy reeled in his fish.
They said, their eyes glowing, that the big thrill was the strike, when a striper hits hard and the line sings out on the reel. They told of men they knew who were stricken dumb by the excitement, of women who fainted dead away.
Suddenly Tony Gaspar slapped the table and said to the investigator:
"Be in front of the post office at 6 o'clock. I'll take you where there's stripers!"
Promptly at 6 o'clock Tony Gaspar drew up in front of the post office in his four-wheel-drive jeep, an essential piece of equipment for the surf caster who wants to reach the out-of-the-way beaches on Martha's Vineyard. The investigator climbed in.
Tony drove out the blacktop Tisbury Road and turned off on a gravel road and continued along until he came to a gate with a sign on it: "Positively no trespassing."
The gate was open and Tony drove right on through. "I've got permission," he said, "to cut through this property any time I want."
The jeep bounced along the private road until it vanished into sand. In the distance there was the sea and the faint sound of the breakers. Tony shifted gears and the jeep slipped and rocked through the sand like a boat in a gentle swell.
"Whenever I get a big striper," he said suddenly, "somebody says, 'Oh, he's just lucky!'
"There's a lot more to it than luck. Why, lots of times I'll go to a spot and never get out of the jeep. I'll just sit there sizing up the situation, looking to see if there are any slicks on the water, if the birds are feeding, the way the surf is breaking, so on and so forth. If I'm not satisfied with conditions, I'll move on to another spot. It's the same thing with Ralph and Percy and Buddy Oliver and most of the other island surf casters."
By this time the jeep had rolled into a wonderful unspoiled stretch of beach. Tony Gaspar pointed to a nest of speckled gulls' eggs and a little farther on to a nesting gull which, without twitching a feather, calmly watched the wheels of the jeep pass her by.
This was the point along the southern shore of the island that is known as the West Tisbury Opening. It is so called because there is a great freshwater pond adjoining the beach and sometimes the ocean breaks through and the bait fish flee into the fresh water and the larger fish follow them. When the opening is open (it was not this evening), the chances for bass are infinitely better.
As the jeep skidded to a stop, Tony Gaspar looked out at the pounding surf. As the investigator looked around for more gulls' nests, Tony suddenly cried out:
The investigator whirled.
"Right out there! They're here!"
"Who?" cried the investigator.
"The stripers! One just broke out there. Come on, let's get rigged up. We're liable to get fish here tonight."
"I wish I had seen that baby," said the investigator, "I've never seen one alive in the water."
"You're liable to see one tonight," said Tony, already busy with his gear. "I saw that one break sure as I'm standing here and he was some big!"
It was a lovely place to be. There was a wonderful island sunset and later on the surf sparkled in the moonlight. There was exhilaration in the casting alone, not unlike the satisfaction that comes from hitting a golf ball straight and far. The air was clean and bracing. The city was far away. The sand felt good underfoot. The thought of the fish that might be out there just beyond the breakers receded a little. It seemed abundantly clear now that if the striper did not choose to make his appearance this night, well, there always would be other nights. Everything at the moment was in its right and proper place.
"Well," said Tony Gaspar finally, with no trace of disappointment in his voice, "there'll be nothing doing here tonight. Let's head on back to town."
"Do you think," said the investigator, "there might be some stripers over at Cuttyhunk?"
"Maybe," said Tony. "And then again, maybe not. Why don't you go over there and see for yourself?"
"I believe I will, Tony," the investigator said.
A little before noon next day, the investigator walked down the main street of Vineyard Haven, another island town, and turned in at Bangs Market. Mr. Bangs himself, a strong, ruddy-complexioned man of 60 or so, was behind the counter slicing some summer sausage for an order.
"Mr. Bangs," said the investigator, "I don't suppose you remember me, but I spent some time here on the island a few years back and I used to come in here occasionally. I was always partial to your S.S. Pierce line of canned goods and that special olive oil you handle."
Mr. Bangs put the sausage on the scale, peered over his glasses and then cut another couple of slices.
"Your face looks familiar," he said, "but if you're looking for that special olive oil, you're out of luck. A man from Edgartown came in the other day and cleaned me out of my last six cans and I don't know just when I'll be able to get any more of it."
"Oh," said the investigator, "I'm not here looking for olive oil, Mr. Bangs. What I'm doing is conducting an investigation of the striped bass."
Betraying no emotion, Mr. Bangs wrapped up the sausage and looked for the next item on his order list.
"What I wanted to ask you, Mr. Bangs, sir," the investigator went on, "do you still have the grocery store over on Cuttyhunk Island?"
Mr. Bangs looked up.
"I've had that Cuttyhunk store for 20 years," he said, "and another man had it for 50 years before me."
"Well, if I'm not mistaken," said the investigator, "you head on over there in your boat every week or so."
"I have to take over supplies, yes," said Mr. Bangs.
"Could I go with you on your next trip?"
Mr. Bangs ran his thumbs up and down behind his galluses and thought about it.
"What I want to do," said the investigator, "is talk to Coot Hall, the charter boatman, over at Cuttyhunk. I'm told he knows as much about stripers as anybody in this part of the country."
"You're not far wrong there," said Mr. Bangs. "All right. Go have your lunch and meet me down at the wharf at one o'clock. It just so happens I was planning to go to Cuttyhunk this afternoon."
Cuttyhunk is a sparse little island with scarcely a tree worthy of the name. Its population at the height of its summer season is no more than 200, and in the wintertime the head count drops to about 20. Last winter Miss Louise Haskell, the schoolteacher, had only two pupils. A visitor, looking up the steep slope from the dock, gets the impression that he is a world away from everything, but actually the old whaling port of New Bedford lies only 12 miles to the west.
Although Cuttyhunk is an important crossroads of the great migrations, many stripers, and some of the biggest ones, go no farther than Sow and P gs Reef, a graveyard of ancient ships which extends for several miles to sea off Cuttyhunk's southwest end. Stripers love its partially submerged boulders for the eels that abound among them and for the protection they afford the striper himself. It was here, off Cuttyhunk, that the world record bass, that incredible 73-pounder, was taken from a skiff back in 1913 by Charles B. Church. Only last summer, a 68-pounder was taken from a boat in the adjacent waters.
At the end of a two-hour voyage from the Vineyard, the investigator hurried over to the fish wharf where the bass boats were tied up. He inquired his way past Ike and Bob Tilton and Lloyd Bosworth, all well-known Cuttyhunk fishing guides, until he came upon a slight, tight-lipped man, looking about 50 and wearing a swordfisherman's long-peaked cap. He was touching up the paint on a bass boat named the Sea Coot. This was Irvin Winslow Hall, known to thousands of fishermen as Coot. The investigator stated his mission.
After a few moments of silence, Coot Hall put away his paint, wiped his hands on a rag and whistled for his dog, a Kerry blue named Cutty, and soon it came bounding along the wharf. Then Coot invited the investigator to join him and the dog on the front seat of a 1930 Ford truck for a jolting ride up the hill to the Bosworth House where Coot lives during the summertime.
Coot didn't have much to say during dinner, but it was plain that he was thinking hard as he went through three of the nine lobsters that the cook, Len Robinson, put before him and his guest.
Finally Coot Hall pushed his chair back from the table, lit up a cigaret and began to muse aloud:
"Here's something I believe," he said. "Ninety percent of the people in the world would like to go fishing. It's a human instinct. The great majority of people who go fishing just go for the relaxation it gives them. It's not a matter of life and death with them. Now, let's consider the striper fisherman. What kind of character is he? Well, once he's got a taste of it, something drastic happens to him. He'd rather fish than eat or sleep. A smoker will forget to smoke while he's striper fishing and a drinker will forget to drink. Once a striper fisherman is hooked, he's hooked for life. He may try to break away, but he'll come back to it as sure as he lives and breathes. People come here, men and women come here to Cuttyhunk from all over, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago. There's an Englishman who comes all the way from England. There was a fellow from Philadelphia here just the other day, drove all the way, fished all night, played poker all day, went back to Philadelphia with one hour's sleep and said he never felt so refreshed and rejuvenated in his life."
The Kerry blue asked to be let out and Coot got up and opened the door.
"I don't know," he said, sitting down at the table again. "You say, what has this fish got, what's his character, what's his magnetic personality that does things to people. I don't know; it's something you feel."
Coot Hall made a sudden decision. "Come on," he said, "let's go see if there are any around."
It was at sunset, a good time to go. Down at the wharf the dog jumped into the boat and took charge. Coot Hall passed out oilskins and put on his own, turned over the engine and let the investigator take one of the twin tillers and steer the Sea Coot out of the harbor and around the island.
After a while Coot took the tiller forward, waving his hand in dismissal of the investigator as helmsman. It was beginning to get dark now and the Sea Coot moved through a sea wickedly calm, slick as a millpond. Coot pointed ahead. The investigator looked and saw the evil churning of the rip tide breaking over the huge submerged rocks. Coot throttled down for trolling and the Sea Coot moved into the rip. The investigator took his rod and put the butt of it between his knees. Coot came over and moved the rod so that it lay across his legs and then went back a pace and began casting, pinpointing his lure down behind a rock just visible above the water.
"Here's something about the striper," said Coot. "The striper is a fish that eats to live. The bluefish, to take an example, lives to eat. When the striper is feeding, he's liable to hit at any kind of plug that resembles his diet at that time; when he's not feeding, he won't take anything."
"Excuse me, Coot," said the investigator nervously, "but something's grabbing at this line of mine."
Coot put down his own rod and moved over and started pulling in the investigator's line. In a moment, he held up the eelskin lure and pointed to the seaweed caught on it.
"I would have sworn I had a strike there," said the investigator.
"Brother," said Coot, "if the day ever comes when you do have a strike, there won't be any doubt in your mind."
Coot let the line out again and then went back to his artful, whiplike casting. After a while he put his rod in the rack and said:
"The conditions this evening have been ideal for striper fishing. The fact that we're not getting any forces me to conclude that either the bass are not feeding or the bass are not here at all. I guess you might as well reel in and we'll start home."
When the lines were in, Coot reached down and advanced the throttle a little bit.
"That brings to mind," he said, straightening up again, "another point to be considered about striper fishing. It's a democratic sport. You can spend as much as you want or almost as little as you want. A man can troll for bass from a $100,000 yacht if he wants. Or he can spend $75—or maybe half that if he's handy—on a surf casting outfit and fish his head off for practically nothing. A lot of workingmen save all year for two weeks of boat fishing here. They'll throw $5 a week into a kitty as you would in a Christmas club and for two weeks they're in seventh heaven.
"But you get all kinds of people. Policemen, bartenders, mechanics, big business men, celebrities. Perry Como was here with his son, Ronnie, last year and went out with Lloyd Bosworth and got some nice big stripers. A few years ago Mr. Fred Vinson, the Chief Justice of the United States, was here, fishing for stripers. I recall the cook we had at that time sticking his head out the window and yelling, 'Hey, Fred, grub's on the table.' The Chief Justice took that as a matter of course and he yelled back, 'I'm coming on the double.' "
As the Sea Coot turned into the Cuttyhunk harbor, Coot Hall throttled her down and Cutty, the dog, started barking and jumping up on the engine housing and down again as though he were directing the operation himself.
"Coot," said the investigator, "tell me this: do you consider the striped bass a fighter?"
"Not compared to some others," said Coot.
"Is he something out of this world as eating?"
"Don't ask me," said Coot. "I'm no fish eater. Some people find the striper tasty, but I wouldn't say out of this world, no."
"Well, what do you say he's got that brings people back year after year trying to catch him?"
Coot Hall eased the bass boat up against the dock and made her fast. He shed his oilskins and stowed them away in the cabin.
"What I say he's got," said Coot Hall, "is a mind of his own, and damned if anybody can ever figure it out for sure."
Next day, on the ferryboat that runs between Martha's Vineyard and Woods Hole, Mass., the investigator ran into a nonstriper fisherman named James McDaniel who had his car aboard and was on his way to Nova Scotia to visit a boatyard there. The investigator briefed him on the results of his survey so far.
"In other words," said McDaniel, "you've been out with an expert surf caster, Tony Gaspar, and an expert boat fisherman, Coot Hall. Have you seen any bass?"
"No," said the investigator. "But, of course, Tony and Coot have caught hundreds of stripers over the years. That's a matter of record."
McDaniel shrugged his shoulders.
"Do you want to ride part way with me?" he said. "I'm driving to Bar Harbor, Maine to catch the ferry for Yarmouth."
"Well," said the investigator, "I would like to get up to Maine. They tell me the stripers go that far north once in a while. It might be worth checking."
An hour later McDaniel stopped his car at the bridge over the Cape Cod Canal. He pointed to fishermen lining both sides of the canal.
"There they are," he said. "There are your striper fishermen."
"Oh, yes," said the investigator, "I know all about this ditch here. Why, they tell me that in the spring and fall the stripers come through here by the million. One man said he was casting here one night and the canal was choked with bass. They were breaking water and smacking each other, and this man said the peculiar acoustics of the canal, created by those steep banks you see there, made it sound like the reverberation of cannon."
"Have you ever seen a bass taken from the Cape Cod Canal?"
"Not personally, no," said the investigator, "but there's no doubt about the stripers going through here. They go through here and on up the Cape. They get thousands of them at Nauset Beach. I've been there myself and seen it with my own eyes."
"Seen what?" said McDaniel.
"The striper fishermen!" cried the investigator, a little irritably. "Why, you'll see hundreds of beach buggies lined up along Nauset Beach in the early summer and fall. These striper fishermen live in these beach buggies. It's a terrific sight, believe me."
"You've been there while they were taking striped bass? You've seen them brought right up on the beach?"
"No!" exclaimed the investigator. "I personally didn't see that. But all hell had been breaking loose just before I got there. And later I heard that just a few minutes after I left the beach there was a real blitz of stripers. Why, people couldn't give them away, there were that many."
McDaniel started up the car and didn't speak for a long time.
"There's a fellow named Arnold Laine at Provincetown," said the investigator after regaining his composure, "he can smell striped bass. I'm told he can walk along the beach at Provincetown and sniff the air, and if the stripers are out there he can smell them. When he smells them he casts, and they tell me he gets more stripers than anybody on the Cape."
McDaniel said nothing.
"I'll give you the name of the book," the investigator said. "It's Striped Bass Fishing by Lyman and Woolner. It's all written up in there how this Arnold Laine can smell stripers."
There were no further words until the car reached the outskirts of Free-port, Maine. At the side of the road, there was a big signboard reading: "Home of L. L. Bean. Fishing and hunting Headquarters. Open 24 hours a day." This was the famous mailorder house whose catalog, describing each item in terms of its appeal and usefulness to Mr. L. L. Bean himself, is the delight of sportsmen from coast to coast.
"Stop the car," said the investigator. "Let me out at the L. L. Bean store."
McDaniel pulled into the curb.
"I'll wait for you," he said.
The investigator did not expect to find Mr. L. L. Bean himself at the store. If half the tales told in the catalog were true, he would be well into his 80s and probably retired.
"I would like," said the investigator to the receptionist, "to see Mr. L. L. Bean."
"Mr. Bean," said the girl, "is out for his coffee break. Please have a chair."
In a few moments Mr. L. L. Bean himself bounded up the stairs, tall and straight as a beanstalk and jolly as Santa Claus. At his invitation, the investigator followed him into his office and stated his mission.
The smile faded from Mr. Bean's merry face. He looked a little sad. Then he reached down and pulled out a drawer of his desk. He drew out a book, picked up his ballpoint and autographed the flyleaf. He handed it to the investigator.
"All I know about fish," he said softly, "is in this book. Take it with my compliments."
The investigator took the book and got up on his feet.
"Is there anything," he said slowly, "about the striper in here?"
Mr. Bean shook his head.
"I am an Atlantic salmon man."
The investigator did not speak to James McDaniel until the car stopped at the Nova Scotia ferry wharf in Bar Harbor. As he got out of the car, McDaniel said:
"One final word here. When I go fishing, I go to catch fish. I can go out any day in the summertime and get myself a washtub full of scup. That's my idea of fishing."
The investigator walked away without looking around. He walked through the town, and at the main intersection he turned into a drugstore. The proprietor was seated in a rocking chair. He was puffing a pipe. In the breast pocket of his coat were a half dozen cigars. He was reading a paper book entitled How to Stop Smoking.
"What," said the investigator, "is the striped bass situation around here?"
The druggist puffed on his pipe, eyeing the investigator.
"We get a lot of sea bass around here," he said.
The investigator turned on his heel and walked out. A taxicab was passing by and he hailed it and asked to be driven to the airport.
Sometime later, the attractive stewardess on the Northeast Airlines DC-3 announced that-there would be a 20-minute stop at Portland if any passengers cared to stretch their legs.
Stretching his legs around the terminal, the investigator looked at one of his fellow passengers who was standing reading a newspaper. He was William 0. Douglas, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
"Excuse me, Mr. Justice Douglas, sir," he said.
Justice Douglas looked up from his newspaper.
"I am conducting an investigation into the striped bass situation," said the investigator. "I know you're a great fisherman and I wondered if I could get an opinion from you about the striper?"
Justice Douglas rattled his newspaper and shook his head.
"I fish for smallmouth bass," he said.
The investigator thanked him and backed away.
On the plane the investigator took stock. He was beginning to feel as frustrated as Sergeant Joe Friday of the Dragnet television program just before the middle commercial. Where was the truth about the striper? Where, indeed, was the striper?
BIOLOGIST Edgar H. Hollis said of Chesapeake Bay, "There is the great nursery."
TONY GASPAR, the house painter, promised: "I'll take you where there are stripers."
RALPH GRANT, the trucking contractor, talked of hooking stripers by their tails.
PERCY WEST, the charter boatman, spoke of bottom fishing and asked a question.
PAUL B. BANGS supplied the transportation from Martha's Vineyard, where he owns a grocery store, to tiny Cuttyhunk Island across the sound, where he owns another.
COOT HALL, the dean of guides, believes: "The striped bass has a mind of his own."
L.L. BEAN, of old Maine store fame, shook his haed: "I am an Atlantic salmon man."
JUSTICE William O. Douglas rattled his paper and said: "I fish for smallmouth bass."
NEXT WEEK: PART II
Wherein the investigator, pursuing his quest, after 2,000 miles finally comes to grips with the truth—and a striped bass