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The Legendary Return of Big Bass
by Chris Chivers

When the phone rang three Sundays back and Suzanne told me it was Bob Celico, I knew something big had happened. This is mid-fall, after all, when these types of calls come in. I dropped into the chair and lifted the phone to my ear. “So tell me” I said, "what happened.” And then I listened as my friend’s voice came back so clear and excited that I soon felt as if I were interviewing the survivor of a spectacular accident.

Here is his tale. Two nights earlier, standing in the cold sand of Westerly’s Napatree Point (RI), as the tide ebbed to low and the wet rocks began to poke through the retreating water, Bob Celico turned his back to the wind and faced a twinkling surf. He slid a hook through the nose of a squirming eel, and sweeping an 11 foot - long rod over his head, he heaved the bait into the darkness and slowly reeled it back, repeating this over and over until his shoulder grew tired. And then something rare happened. A school of enormous fish passed by.

In two hours of fishing he will never forget, Bob Celico beached striped bass that weighed 43, 33 , 30, 24, 17 and 10 pounds. He also caught a little one about 6 pounds, which most surfcasters will recognize as a more typical catch. This is an event worthy of pause. Forget the busy surf of 1998. It wasn't too long ago that there was no reason whatsoever for Bob Celico or anyone else to go out into a cold night on Napatree Point and chase striped bass. In the 1970s and 1980s, these fish, celebrated as food and sport throughout American history, had succumbed to the combined effects of market pressure, pollution and fishery regulators who were hesitant to regulate fisheries.

Bob Celico

Reduced to isolated schools, New England's second most important fish resource (behind the cod) was on the verge of disappearing.

The recovery is the stuff of conservation legend. In 1978, John N. Cole, the founder of The Maine Times, published a book called Striper: A Story of Fish and Man that chronicled his years after returning from World War II, when he hauled big, pale fish from the surf of eastern Long Island. It was an experience, he wrote, that has “...held my being in place ever since.” Cole's book ended: “Ten years from now, at its current rate of decline, the striped bass will no longer roam the inshore waters of the Atlantic from Cape Charles to St. John. The northeastern migratory striped bass, that creature with its genesis in the great glaciers, will have vanished as a viable species. Along with Jim, Peter, Ted and the good friends I fished with during that luminous and tumultuous seven years at the Atlantic's rim, the striped bass will also die. After that, I am not certain that I shall want to live.”

Not long after the book was published, a fisherman gave US Senator John Chafee a copy, and he read it at his beach house in Matunuck. By the time the senator had read Cole's last words, striped bass had a defender in the capital. In 1984, after years of speeches and lobbying, Chafee convinced his peers in Congress to pass a moratorium on striped bass netting and to underwrite more bass research. Following Chafee’s lead, coastal states began to work together to protect all but the largest bass from fishermen. By wildlife standards, these measures were not extreme. Many threatened species receive strict, sudden protections while researchers monitor the survivors. But by the standards of fisheries, 1984 marked a severe shift – a region's historic resource was abruptly closed down.

Flash forward to election week. On that Tuesday, as the Journal staff geared up for coverage that would keep us busy all night, reporter Tom Mooney strode my way from his end of the newsroom. He arrived at my cubicle and broke into a riff about his weekend kayak trip. Big schools of young bass were up all across the mouth of Narragansett Bay, he said , from Mackerel Cove, in Jamestown, to the Coast Guard House in Narragansett. Hundreds of seabirds were wheeling from above, hundreds of bass were thrashing from below. Minnows leapt into the air while splashes boiled around them. Mooney was in the midst of it all, alternately paddling his kayak and casting his fly rod. So many striped bass were passing underneath him that he rested his rod at his side, one of the fish grabbed his streamer and pulled it overboard. He hasn't seen it since.

Now it was my turn, and Mooney fell silent and smiling.

On Monday night, I had stalked the boulders of Point Judith and tried to trick a few bass of my own. Before coming home, I had a 12 pounder, not remarkable as striped bass go, at least not until you cover it with lemon, wine and garlic and slide it into the broiler. I didn't have a story like Tom's, but I had one hell of a midnight dinner planned after the poll results came in. Then, with my bad habit of burying the lead, I told him about Bob Celico and the trip of his life. What? Mooney said. How big? I said it again; 43, 33 , 30, 24, 17, 10, 6. A few minutes later, Tom Mooney, who had been assigned to cover what was expected to be a photo-finish governor's race, grabbed a phone to call his brother and tell him of the fishing.

Myrth York and Linc Almond would have to wait.

Of course, the pace couldn't last. Last Thursday, I got another call from Bob Celico, who said there was a lull in the fishing, still we planned an all-nighter in the cold foam – where to meet, when, what to bring – and talked cheerfully about the prospects.

For the record, for those fishermen among you who want to tail us, or think we're holding back some key bits of information, let me say this: Bob Celico is not some outdoor guru. He doesn't edit a fishing magazine, or run a baitshop, or take customers out for $450 chartering trips. At 44, he is a self-employed Westerly contractor, a father of two, a guy who goes fishing from the shore with his cousin and his dog and sometimes he takes me. Granted, he is observant and dedicated, fishing three or four nights a week with top-flight tackle and trading information with anglers who have similar drive. But he experiences world-class fishing 10 minutes from his house not because he has a magic touch, a secret spot or lure that he ties on only when no one is looking. He experiences world-class fishing from the beaches of Rhode Island because, now and then, it is there.

Earlier in this column, I suggested that what happened on Napatree Point was an accident. It was not an accident. Rhode Island's big run of bass this fall is a triumph of good politics and conservation, and a lesson in the restorative powers of nature when it is given half a chance.

Most of our local fisheries are in disarray because we haven't taken note of this lesson. Cod are a mess, as are swordfish, and haddock and bluefin tuna, and some say, lobsters. But that's not my worry tonight. I am sitting at home at my desk, a freshly oiled reel shining nearby, planning my remaining trips to the beach before the last of big schools of bass migrate south for the winter. And, as I think back on that Sunday night phone call, I can hear once again Bob Celico’s young sons raising a ruckus in the background: Nicholas 18 months, and Jonathan, three months and loud as a whistle. In 10 years or so, they'll be following their father and dog into the night, lobbing eels and wooden plugs over the booming black waves.

If the conservation holds up, now and then the Celico family will have big nights wrestling big fish under a chilly moon. And every so often, Nicholas and Jonathan will hear those dark tales that have entered New England's coastal lore. The tales begin like this, and they should not be forgotten: Once, there were no bass.

Copyright 1998 - 2014 C.J. Chivers, All Rights Reserved
Articles by C.J. Chivers

Seasoned Salt - Frank Daignault Interview
The Legendary Return of Big Bass
Red Gills, The Lure That Got Away

C.J. Chivers, copyright © 2010 - 2011, C.J. ChiversCHRIS CHIVERS, a native of Rhode Island, is a much traveled senior international correspondent for the New York Times. He is currently embedded with US combat troops in Afghanistan. His New York Times, At War blog and his book, THE GUN make incredible reading ( Follow Chris in Afghanistan or wherever he may be on assignment on Twitter @cjchivers.

Chris has also been a contributor to Wildlife Conservation, Tide, and Fly Fishing in Salt Waters. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for USA Today. His work has also been published in Field & Stream, The Globe and Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, On The Water, Surfer, Longboard Magazine, E: The Environmental Magazine, Yankee and Cornell Magazine. His essays on military and environmental affairs have also been printed in The Daily News, The Nation and The Navy Times.

In 1995 he was awarded a Pulitzer International Traveling Fellowship and in 1996 he received the Livingston Award for International Reporting for “Empty Nets: Atlantic Banks in Peril,” a series on the collapse of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic.

Chris is a graduate of Cornell University and has an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He is a former Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. During his six years in the Marines he was a specialist in helicopter assault forces and is a combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm.

Autographed copies of all six of Frank Daignault's books are available directly from Frank, please go HERE.

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