A DATE WITH NEMESIS

Striped bass in the rips off Nantucket met theirs when two longtime angling companions sallied forth to the fray
October 01, 1978

The joke was 20 years old and weak enough, even when it was first hatched aboard Brennan's old Hillman wagon as we trundled south through Ireland, along County Wexford hedges creamy with meadowsweet and richly entangled with July honeysuckle. For a while he had been silent, polishing the words, no doubt. Then he came out with it. "Nemesis approaches at 40 miles per hour," he announced. Half a mile back we had nearly hit a nun who was dreamily cycling along on the wrong side of the road, missing her by a rosary width. I naturally thought Brennan had this in mind. I should have known better. What Brennan had in mind was fish. Unknown to the schools of bass hanging in the slack water, waiting to feed over Splaugh Reef when the tide started to run, Nemesis Brennan was sneaking up on them.

Twenty years later here I was, ready and waiting to bang the ball back at him, outside U.S. Customs at JFK. "Nemesis approaches, hey?" I said to the disheveled figure with the rod tubes. "By way of Dublin, Shannon and New York. At 500 miles per hour and 33,000 feet...." If I hadn't said it first, Brennan would have; no score had been kept, but one of us had come out with some sort of variation on the greeting since that first trip in 1958. Each year since then we had met to go bass fishing. Not a single year had we missed. In the early days, Nemesis traveled slowly enough, at around 20 knots aboard the old St. David, the ferryboat that plied between Wales and Ireland. The trips to our home-and-home meetings on the surf beaches of the two countries had speeded up when a regular air service started and really began to move when the first short-haul jets came in. But this was the first time that Nemesis had crossed the Atlantic.

By necessity. You do not toss away a 20-year-old fishing partnership just because one of its members has migrated 3,000 miles west. The 1977 Annual Outing would not be held in County Wexford or County Kerry or on the coast of west Wales. Instead, it was going to be in Massachusetts, terra incognita for both of us, like a country on one of those old maps inscribed "Here be dragons" when the cartographer could think of nothing better.

Well, perhaps that was a slight exaggeration. For a very long time, out there on the Celtic fringe, Brennan and I had thought longingly of going after striped bass, those fish that looked so similar to our own sea bass except in two particulars. Ours were pure silver, with no lateral stripes. And they were very much smaller than stripers. In Kerry, a seven-pound bass was more than acceptable, a 10-pounder a more-than-viable reason for a late night at Tom Fitzgerald's bar. It was hard to believe in 40-and 50-pounders. The fever to catch one had grown strong enough to turn both of us into propagandists, trying to persuade our respective Ministries of Fisheries that striped bass should be introduced to the eastern side of the Atlantic. No chance. Who could tell the effect stripers would have on our native Atlantic salmon—invading the estuaries, maybe, to feast on smolts migrating to the sea.

So, possibly, even if I had not crossed the Atlantic to live and speeded up the process, Brennan and I would have made the trip someday. As it was, as I stood there relieving Brennan of his duty-free Scotch and cramming him into a cab, it seemed to me that it might have been better had we made that east-west trip together. I had been in the U.S. for several months and so I felt responsible for the weather, for the time of year I had picked, for the guide. From what I had heard and read, the place seemed right: Nantucket was classic ground. I was remembering, though, how critical weather could be. The saddest words in the English language, Brennan once claimed, were in the sentence found all too frequently in the weather section of the Irish Times on the morning we started a trip: A NORTHEASTERLY AIRSTREAM COVERS IRELAND, a wind that would flatten the surf, making it fit only for water skiers. We would drive away from Shannon, and a little south of Limerick we would start to look for a particular tall factory chimney, for the plume of white vapor that would tell us whether or not the wind was the sou'westerly we wanted, not too gentle, not too strong. We were lucky about one time in five.

We flew to Boston and then out across Cape Cod. I didn't even know what weather you needed in Nantucket, or at least which way you needed the wind to blow, but we could see that there was a lot of it. Below, whitecaps flecked the sea, and when we saw the island, lines of surf were curling in, how high we couldn't tell. "Nemesis arriving by air," I told Brennan, "without a single clue." In Kerry we would know what to do. We could go to Tom Fitzgerald's and be told that the surf was great last Wednesday and there was this woman down from Dublin on holiday, never had a rod in her hand before, and you wouldn't believe it but that evening she walks into the bar with the biggest.... We wouldn't be happy, but we'd feel at home.

That was the shape we were in when Bob Francis found us, bewildered, disoriented and, in Brennan's case, jet-lagged. Francis was a small man, lean, with an elfish look enhanced by a woolly cap and red flannel shirt worn outside his trousers, his machine-gun speech and rapid movement. It was with no surprise that I later learned he had been the master barber of Nantucket for 20 years. Snip! The rod holders were in the back of his wagon. Snap! So were the tackle boxes, the bags and ourselves. No time to take in the island, a pattern of small hills and scrub woodland in fall colors, little weathered houses and then, incongruously, a cobbled street. "Stones came from England," Francis rapped out. "Come back as ballast on the whalers." He pulled up at a tree-shaded house. On the sidewalk was a hitching post surmounted by the head of a horse in cast iron. "Not genuine," he snapped. "Put there for show. Come on in."

A long time ago Brennan and I decided that on the Annual Outing, hotels were not for us. Or at least hotels built since, say, 1930. At one time we used to patronize Benner's Hotel in Dingle, County Kerry, where a 30-pound salmon from Castle Island glowered down on the tiny lobby, and the manageress, Miss Maloney, didn't believe you could register until she had brought you a full and gratis glass of Powers whiskey. But when Miss Maloney retired they put down a new carpet and tricked out the bar with a lot of plastic and chrome, so we migrated to Mrs. MacNamara's on the far side of the Connor Pass where we felt at home again, even after her son bought her the color TV.

So I had made no hotel reservation for the Nantucket trip, relying on Francis' telephone promise. "Best food on the island, in my place," he had claimed. That might be so. Meantime, I reasoned, if we stayed at his house we wouldn't have problems like securing a box lunch at 4 a.m.

That afternoon I was pleased to notice that at least the infrastructure of our trip was in good shape. For lunch there was homemade chowder at the Francises', and the significant fact soon emerged that the kitchen was going to be the social center. And later we found that even if Tom Fitzgerald's bar was 3,000 miles away, the Nantucket Anglers' Club, a short walk from Francis' house, was no mean substitute.

By then we needed solace. We stood out on the deck of the club and listened to a northeaster rattle the rigging of the yachts in the marina and howl through the little town. It didn't look good for the next morning. Francis hung moodily over the rail and wondered aloud if he could charter one of the big boats to use instead of his own 26-footer. We went back inside to stare at the 60-pound striper set up on the wall, until I sensed that Brennan was getting homesick for Miss Maloney's salmon.

Next morning we woke early, well before the 4:30 a.m. call that Bob had promised us, mainly because Brennan was still operating on Dublin time, five hours ahead of EST. We listened for wind but we couldn't hear it, maybe because the town was sheltered. We also lacked an indicator, like the skeleton of an old apple tree in Mrs. MacNamara's yard on which rooks would settle if the wind was not too hard; you could pick them out black against the false dawn. But in Nantucket we had no such guide. We had to wait until Bob appeared and be content with his "We'll go and take a look."

The street still black, we lumbered out of the door bundled up like Michelin men and saw the stars fade as we drove out to the dock, white tails of rabbits bobbing out of the headlights, the profile of the low hills beginning to show and then the sea. Sheltered here, of course, but a sharp ripple over the gray showing that the outside would be rough going. It was the same low, gray seascape that you see in protected water from the Baltic to County Wexford and on west, the same skeins of geese arrowing through the growing light, the same ribs of old hulks showing through the muddy grass.

We were going to head out. The sea would be up, Francis shouted over the engine noise, but that meant good fishing if we could get to the right rips. The wind was easier than the previous day and the forecast said it would go on dropping. He was steering the McKenzie bass boat straight for a line of breakers that had to be the sandbar that protected the harbor. As we closed on it, though, we saw a gap, fully big enough for Brennan's old station wagon. "Nemesis is about to get a wet rear," I told him.

Another correct prediction. Two wild minutes, though, and we were through, punching into a steep chop that was manageable enough. Ahead of us was the first of the tide rips, but we turned from it and ran close under the land until we were in the lee of a sandspit that cut across the weather, forming a small area of comparative calm. Francis stopped the engine. "Now cast," he said.

Striper experts Brennan and I were not. But a minimum of research had taught us that this was not the kind of locale where bass might be expected. We looked at one another, shrugged and did as he asked. "All wrong!" Francis yelled. Brennan bridled, as well he might. The poppers had gone out straight and true, a good 50 yards or thereabouts. For 30 years, ever since he caught his first mackerel off the end of the North Wall dock-in Dublin, Brennan had reckoned he could cast. And Gaelic football players active in that same city less than 20 years since would have recognized the full red flush now rising up to his cheekbones. "How do you mean, wrong?" he said. It seemed like a full three-second pause before he pronounced the last word.

You don't practice the barber's art for long without learning a little tact. Francis saw his error. "Let me tell you," he said, somewhat dramatically. "Every time I turn my motor off at the end of a trip, I say Thank you, God!' No matter how smart you are, no matter how educated you are, you can make a mistake with a plug. In the excitement. Lose an eye. Both eyes. Had one up my nose once. Bunch of men from Maryland. So now I have this drill. First man goes into the stern, backs up, watching his plug all the time. Casts overhead. Moves up. Second man into the stern, backs up, casts. Soon as his plug gets within 18 yards of the boat, caster drops his rod tip to stop the plug's action. If a fish hits a plug that close to the boat, then comes loose, that thing is going to fly back like a bullet. I'm sorry," he said. "I spoke rough."

Brennan's flush had died away. After all, what Francis had said was reasonable. Except, possibly, for that 18-yard bit. Wouldn't it be natural to say 20 yards, or 15? Francis had either conducted a series of controlled experiments with some physicist from MIT, or there was something just a touch obsessional in his makeup. Not that that would be very unusual in a fishing guide.

But for the moment we seemed to have satisfied him. We swung away from the sheltered water and bounced out toward the nearest rip, a quartering sea lashing us with spray. As Francis worked the boat into range, Brennan and I lined up the casts like jets at O'Hare in the rush hour, moving up slowly until the tower gave us clearance. "Rod down!" I snarled at Brennan before Francis had a chance, thereby failing to spot soon enough the heavy brown swirl at my own popper. "See that?" I roared at Brennan.

"I was watching my own plug," he said virtuously. I cast again. So did he. No results. No results, either, for the next 10 minutes as we drifted parallel with the rip. I've blown it, I thought. All those miles of travel, all those months of making arrangements, and the one chance I would get to show Brennan a striper had gone. The way I was feeling, even the weather would deteriorate and keep us from trying the next rip, and my natural pessimism interpreted the fact that Francis kept heading out as a sign that he probably didn't know what to do next.

But he did. "Miles and miles of rips off this island," he shouted suddenly over the engine roar, "and only about one in 10 of them holds the bass. Don't know why. They all look the same, a lot of them have the right depth, between eight feet and 12 feet, but they never have a fish on 'em. Maybe it's the way the sand eels bunch. Maybe they can't hear the motor so good in some places."

We hung on in a sea that was still wild, heading toward yet another confused area of white water. "Don't cast yet," Francis called as we came in close. We patrolled it slowly, bunched in the shelter of the wheelhouse as the McKenzie rolled and bucked eccentrically. "Can you see them?" Francis shouted.

In a moment we saw them. The rip was not a regular pattern of breaking waves. Close up, it had almost as much variation in it as a salmon river: an area of boiling water that heaved and eddied, but where there was no break, perhaps because the tide had scoured a deeper hole there. It was like a salmon pool between shallow, stony runs. Only this was a striper pool and the fish were as thick in it as salmon in the Junction Pool at Kelso on the Scottish Tweed at the height of the spring run. They were there like chunks of brown driftwood, more than we could count, breaking the surface sometimes, head-and-tailing like salmon.

Brennan was very moved. "Janey Mac!" he roared, lapsing into Dublinese. "Didja ever see the like of them fellas!" Francis got the anchor down and killed the motor. Fleetingly I hoped it would hold in the sea that was running, but there was no time to worry long about that. Brennan's plug flew out, he took half a turn of the reel and he was into a fish. Seconds later so was I and so was Francis. We stumbled to keep balance as we fought the fish, ducking under arms, passing rods around bodies, in a kind of wild, intoxicated square dance. "Keep your rod tips low!" Francis took time to scream. His own was high in the air. Then, somehow, he gaffed his fish and swung it aboard. The maniacal scene in the cockpit was resolved somewhat, with just two stripers left to land. They fought hard and doggedly, but we were down-tide from them and we had all the advantage. It was still 10 minutes, though, before Brennan had his at the side of the boat.

Once it was aboard, he knelt beside it. "Meet Nemesis," I said as I still struggled with my own, but Brennan was rapt. "Striper, eh?" he was murmuring. "So that's a striper...." Soon, I was looking at mine, also. So similar to our own bass, the same outline, the same look of brutal power and greed. But so much bigger. Twenty, 25 pounds, Francis guessed, average for him, one supposed, but to us magnificent. "Wait, now, till I get a picture," said Brennan.

Francis was shocked. "Pictures on the way home," he yelled. "Get out at those fish again!" Dutifully we obliged. Coming out, we had been heavily wrapped in sweaters, parkas and slickers. Now, as the fish kept coming and we fought them, we peeled off our outer skins one by one, ignoring the spray. For two hours, barely a cast went to waste. At no time were all three rods unemployed. The two fish boxes we had brought filled fast; soon stripers were being stacked in a hastily contrived corral of fuel tanks and buckets. The average size of the fish was 20 pounds; the best, caught by Brennan, weighed 37 pounds, we found later. Total catch, more than 400 pounds.

And then, as suddenly as it began, the action stopped. "Tide has eased," Francis said. "Fish moved off." We hauled anchor and turned for home.

That evening we celebrated by looking at the Muppets on TV. So far as we were concerned, we could have been in Paris on Bastille night instead of Nantucket and it would have made no difference. We weren't going out. The hard-fighting fish, the beating we'd taken at sea had put us into that cozy, unquestioning lotus-eater's mood in which you sit, with the ice slowly melting in your drink, and watch midevening TV, about your intellectual limit. There was also the warm feeling that the 1977 Annual Outing was already a success. Certainly we had caught more and bigger fish than on any previous one. If we had any doubts at all, they were overlaid very effectively that evening. We retired early; another predawn call lay ahead.

The wind had shifted; that was the first discovery we made next morning. It had gone around to the south, and the significance of that, as we found when we went to sea, was that instead of being able to anchor downtide of that fertile rip we would have to look for holding ground uptide—otherwise, with the wind hard against us, we would have to move so close to put the fish within casting range that we would probably spook them. The stripers proved to be still there in strength. They hit plugs with as much avidity as they had done the previous day. The difference now was that we had to bring them in against the tide.

Landing every striper was a war of attrition as the fish hung in the strong current and the line sang dangerously. Well, fishing can be like that at times. But this was the Annual Outing. Brennan and I had not fished together for 20 years without learning that there are times when, if you feel like it, you pause for a while. So, after an hour, we paused.

It was not a popular move. "Let's get those fish in, hey?" said our guide. Brennan looked at me. He was making the same connection as I was. Neither of us knew much about the mores of bass fishing on this side of the Atlantic, and the previous day we had been too intoxicated with instant success to worry much about the ritual thumping over the head of each striper as it was landed. For years we had released almost every one of our own bass, taking home a couple apiece, maybe, at the end of the trip. Possibly it would be different in Massachusetts, but I suspected that not every striper angler would approve of what we were doing.

"John Ferguson," I said to Brennan. He knew who I meant. John Ferguson, the best bass guide on Splaugh Reef, County Wexford, Ireland, wind-reddened face, collarless flannel shirt, in one of those cloth caps they call "ratters" shouting, "Haul 'em!" as small war parties of bass detached themselves from the main school and hit the long, twinkling spoons we used there. Ferguson, hating the six-pound-test line we used, closing his eyes in frustration as the reel drags buzzed and added a minute or two to the time elapsed before the bass would be safely flapping in the fish box that would be shipped to market in Dublin that evening. It looked very much as if Brennan and I were still in the business of filling fish boxes for other people.

As I have suggested, though, Bob Francis could pick up a hint. One reason why we had had to opt for the down-tide position was that balsa swimming plugs had proved more effective than poppers and you could cast them nowhere near as far as the latter against the wind. Poppers were more fun, though. You might not get as many strikes, but you got some, and they were visual strikes. Ferguson never gave his clients priority over the fish box, but now Francis proved that he was capable of rising above the price of bass. "We'll haul and go round," he said. "Try poppers."

"You know something?" he went on. "I'm about the only guide left here who would take you casting. Everybody else, it's all wire-line trolling. Can't stand to do that." On the Annual Outing, Brennan and I don't care for too much tension. An olive branch offered is an olive branch received. We have also been at it long enough to know when to give a really good opening to a guide.

"Uh, how does the fishing here compare with, what's the other island? Martha's Vineyard? Cuttyhunk?" I asked him.

Francis savored the moment before replying. "Cuttyhunk?" he said. "Well, now, most of them Cuttyhunk bass are down deep. I went over there with three fellers from Nantucket one time, fished two nights. Fished them Sows and Pigs, whatever they call 'em. We did fairly well, but the bass were down deep. Like in North Truro. 'Course, they catch a lot of bass in them places...." He paused to give emphasis to the payoff. "Only, there, a lot of bass means about five."

We made a long detour around the rip, came up on the other side and started to throw poppers into the wind. The scoring rate dropped but the bass still came steadily. Then I hit one far out, so that I didn't see the fish strike. It behaved like the others for a moment or two, giving that solid old brick wall imitation, then moved irresistibly to the left, taking line.

"You may have Bosco," Francis said.

The 15-pound outfit made no impression. The bass moved back, almost to the place where it had been hooked, then swung right. "Who's Bosco?" I asked. I should have known better. Wherever there are fishermen there are Boscos, though they have different names. I once knew of a 50-pound northern pike called the Green Devil that was 31 pounds when it was caught. What I should have asked was, "How big is Bosco?" But I got the answer anyway.

"Big bass. Eighty pounds. Could be more. Passes this way every year, busts two or three people up. So take it easy on him."

Bosco, if it was Bosco, would not let me take it easy. It was 20 minutes before I had him coming toward the boat. "Bosco meets Nemesis," Brennan said, predictably I thought.

It was not to be. "Not Bosco," yelled Francis, peering into the water from the bow. " 'Bout a 30-pounder, foul-hooked in the shoulder...." No wonder it had been able to take command. Every time I had tried to shift him he was broadside to me.

But Bosco made our trip. Brennan and I fished two more days. We caught three-quarters of a ton of bass, a total somewhat shameful to our essentially puritanical natures. But the fishing was no longer mechanical. Every cast was aimed at Bosco.

We failed to catch him. No harm in that. Bosco lives! Nemesis Brennan and I will continue, God willing, to search him out in future years: sometimes he will be a striper, sometimes, maybe, a channel bass, sometimes a silver bass from an Irish beach. On the whole, I hope we never catch him.

ILLUSTRATIONGEORGE BOOTH"That evening we watched TV. The beating we'd taken at sea had put us in a lotus-eater's mood." THREE ILLUSTRATIONSGEORGE BOOTH

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)