Memories of Nauset Beach
by Frank Daignault
hen I saw Nauset Beach for the first time in mid-October 1962, there was just enough frost in the air to boot stripers south from the Maritimes. My first daybreak there, I saw a collection of buggies a mile south down the beach where people were collected in a group. I remember thinking that they were throwing bread in the water, because there was a ton of birds flying around then landing right in front of the buggies.All the vehicles above us were rushing past toward the bread and birds, so we joined in the chase. Amid the group, there were two women in pajamas who were in the water over their knees. I was thinking to myself how stupid it was not to bother to suit up at this time of the year when one of them hooked up.
What we didn't know at the time was that the same thing was happening a few miles to the north, and a collection of buggies had picked up on that blitz as well. Now our action started to move north with bursts of white marking the school's progress, and the end buggies turned around and started jockeying to get ahead without overshooting the fish. It was all stripers, decent ones around six pounds. Out of sight and between the two schools, a friend from our club, Charley Cinto, was frying breakfast with two baited rods spiked outside his rig. Knowing nothing of what was happening along the beach, Charley really wasn't watching, and he never had a clue until someone in one of the machines coming past blew a horn; at the same time, one of his poles went down flat with a good take. When he grabbed the stick that was squeaking line off the spool, there must have been 40 or 50 buggies collected around him, the two schools of fish having collided in front of Charlie's buggy. The gang gasped when they saw the fish that later weighed 51 pounds. For me, it was a realization of what real striped bass could be as well as the kind of fish that Nauset Beach could produce. No sooner had Charley rinsed and stowed it when his other stick went down hard. After a few minutes of back and forth, he landed the second one leaving those of us who had seen it slack-jawed with astonishment. It turned out to be 49 pounds. It was then that I decided that Nauset Beach had to be a pretty good place if a boat fisherman from P-Town could take two fish that totaled 100 pounds fishing the beach.
An interesting digression about Charley Cinto: Five years later, while fishing with Captain Frank Sabatowski on the June Bug at Cuttyhunk, Cinto boated a 73 pound lineside, which was at the time the largest bass taken since the World Record Charles Church fish. Disqualified by the IGFA because of wire line and treble hooks on his plug, Cinto's was still the biggest striper in over 50 years.
A lot of the big fishing books make rocket science out of reading the beach. Viewing it as a fine art, they exhort the virtues of knowing how to discern good shoreline structure then try to teach it. Nonetheless, I have always felt that reading the beach was a thing that came naturally. It seems to me that a raging surf would cause bait to tumble, that escape was through deep channels, that holes covered the backs of gamefish, and that corners were traps. The more complicated the structure, the more likely it was for an element that appealed to stripers to present itself. It then remained only to find this stuff. That is what I liked about Nauset Beach: The place was 11 miles of bars, holes and sloughs. Also, trying to unravel Nauset's secrets was part of the fun and challenge of the high surf and the best opportunities were furthest down the beach toward the inlet.
I had fished enough stripers to realize that current was another thing that appealed to them. We hated driving the full length of the beach but had heard many times that the end had more current. At a place called Long Bar, there were more buggies in one half mile of shore than the whole beach put together. The first minute that I saw the place two things struck me: structure and current. But the odd thing about how the bar was configured was that it was not an outside bar like those along the beach. Rather, it was a continuation of the beach straight south. And, the top dry beach fell gradually away west in a rounding apparently caused by the currents of rising water rushing into Pleasant Bay. There was a sharp three foot drop off behind Long Bar which doesn't sound like much unless you are at the top of your waders and a raging sea is booming over your shoulders. You have to experience that in the deep night to understand its terror. Thus, the further south one went on Long Bar, the further one ended up from the safety of the dry beach. The collection of fishing rigs tended to be where the bar touched shore. At low tide, the surf fishers stretched southward. However, once the water started coming, each individual had his own idea of when to leave. There were times when I used to believe that for some it was a manhood thing about how long to stretch a stay on Long Bar; but I was later to learn that the greatest cause for delay were the shoals of stripers sliding over the top of Long Bar on their way to Chatham Inlet. That is why it is impossible to talk about Long Bar without including Chatham Inlet, the former a product of the sizzling tide rips of the inlet.
Back in the sixties, the way to fish Nauset Beach was to dunk seaworms on the bottom with a pyramid sinker. Surf fishers, mostly using spinning tackle, would bait a pair of lines, cast as far as they could, sand spike the rods and watch them. The true old timers would reminisce about the days when they used to plug the beach, but by 35 years ago there was no longer any apparent interest in casting plugs. Bait fishing at Long Bar was done mostly at low tide; still, after the tide was given a few hours to fill behind the bar, some of the sharpies used to fish worms from the top beach. I wish that I could say that I was responsible for bringing plug fishing back to Nauset; but the truth of the matter is that I only gave it a boost.
One night, after eating and changing clothes from my adventures on a rising bar, I heard a pop just down the banking from the buggy followed shortly by another. We had done a lot of plugging elsewhere in the previous years, but, having been convinced that Nauset bass didn't like plugs, I felt a little dumb casting a swimmer into the waves. You can imagine my surprise when a schoolie took it down. Worse, meeting other casters plugging quietly behind the bar proved to me that this revitalization of plugging was another of the beach's secrets. Because bait fishing dominated, there was a tendency to plug more where the water moved too fast for a sinker to hold bottom. Thus, the closer we got to Chatham Inlet, the more likely we were to plug and find others doing the same. An evolution in methods was falling into place where plug fishing was returning. At first, many of us fished both ways; eventually, our plug fishing so dominated that we stopped coming onto the beach with worms.
Our Worst Fears
y the time we had fished Nauset Beach a few years, some very strange things had taken a positive hold upon my mind. I came to think of little else but striped bass. Those few times when I slept at night, I dreamed of stripers finding their way upstream in the little brooks of my boyhood. Then, on groggy mornings, I would move my spoon through the corn flakes at varying speeds and levels. Off season, I would pore over my log books for evidence of something I might have failed to learn from experience. I had a haunting sense that I was missing something in my surfcasting even when I had caught a ton of fish. Indeed, striped bass had taken an absolute grip of me -- so much so that all of life's meaning was confined to two, incessant fears: We could lose access to the beach; and, we could lose stripers.
The beach buggy thing had gone totally out of control. What with four-wheel-drive, the campers got bigger and more efficient. As a home on wheels, families were on the beach, mine no exception. The towns sought ways to control it, and many individuals sought ways to make beach use less attractive. There was a polarization between the towns and folks from inland. Tank traps -- deep pits covered with newspapers, snow fence and sand that would stop a big truck cold -- were sometimes dug on the beach trails much to both sides' embarrassment. Some of the guys used to say that our salvation was in a wider use, a use where the townies, who so opposed us, would come on the beach themselves.
The logic was that if they used the beach, and at the time you could count on one hand the ones that did, it would be necessary for them to discriminate against outsiders, a thing that the law would never allow. The truth is that in time the visionaries proved to be correct. We did see the day when friendships developed between the Worcester crowd, the Rhode Island guys and the "townies". The tribal thing died and I doubt that anyone missed it. However, what we never dreamed was that the beach could be taken naturally.
I should have known that something funny was going on, although I think some of the older guys might have. When we first started going to Chatham Inlet, you could sometimes hear the casters on Morris Island, sometimes see them straight across the water lighting their cigarettes. Over the years, and it could never be observed in one season, Morris Island and its casters were moving to the right. Also, the ride down the beach was getting longer. It was okay with me because the longer the ride, the less likely others would come and I loved the inlet like no place on the planet. Near the Second Coast Guard Station, the actual building long having been moved to a safer beach, the land was still intact, because the Mass Beach Buggy Association had succeeded in building up a little sand with a combination of snow fence and sweat. Late in the summer of 1986, just south of the Second CG Station, opposite the Chatham Light, I rough-measured the high water front to the high mark on Pleasant Bay; it turned out to be something like 55 feet. Kind of thin it seemed to me. I meant to write something about it for one of the surf pieces I often did. I wanted to say that maybe the beach was like a rubber band and that you can only stretch it so much, make it so thin, before it finally breaks. But between the fall fishing and the hunting season, I never got around to it. That was too bad, because I would have been famous.
January 2, 1987. The nor'easter buffeted Nauset Beach with 60 knot winds only a few hours after the Petty Officer at Chatham Station hoisted the storm flags. On the barrier beach, the vibrations of falling walls of water pounded their relentless sibilance upon the sand. As the tide rose, the lower spots yielded rivulets of sea toward Pleasant Bay. While small at first, they grew enough to overpower the barrier, each powerful comber pounding its adversary weaker. Tufts of dune grass broke free from the dying beach, ripping sand, some stored over the centuries, until a breach from an Atlantic gone amuck slid into Pleasant Bay. One wild night destroyed something that had withstood centuries. Within a few months, the opening was over a half mile wide. No one would ever again cast the Chatham Inlet we had known. And having already lost the striped bass, both of our most incessant fears had been realized.
It is no secret that the striper has come back. One could effectively argue that our inlets have simply been exchanged. Nevertheless, there is no denying that over a third of Nauset Beach, now South Island, is gone for those of us who had plied the beach trails of Nauset. What has it done either to or for the fishing? How can we compare and contrast them?
The exchange of water is more efficient in the new inlet and water moves more quickly as a result. A consequence of this is a higher high tide and a lower low tide. Said differently, the water levels of Pleasant Bay are not running behind sea level the way they once did. The deeper channel favors the south side of the inlet and the north edge is more shoal water, more sandy. That is not to say that they don't have their blitzes from the seven or so mile Nauset Beach approach. The Chatham Inlet of the outside beach is one of the best locations of the striper surf, the second best. We say this in part because of the constraints placed upon access. Most of the summer fishers are not permitted to drive the last mile of beach. Even then, there is a barrier a quarter mile from the inlet flow that has proven unpopular with most drivers who dislike being away from their gear. We can also be certain that the inlet influences a major portion of the beach, creating bars and hiding holes for good fish -- readable, fishable water. However, the best place on the striper coast, on the other hand, is a Chatham Inlet that you can drive and walk to, the one at the Chatham Station parking lot. Here, a caster who wades carelessly could find himself in fast and deep water with two steps. Some nights, and I have experienced this many times since the loss of the old inlet that I once so loved, you can hear the plop of a fish slashing down a baitfish in the quiet yet ominous fast water channel. An hour each side of low tide on the Boston chart, our favorite time, there is plenty of depth and current for a fish. Method wise everything seems to work. A couple of years ago, the Governor's Cup was taken there in full daylight -- a 57 pounder with a chunk on the bottom. Most of us plug swimmers after dark and my wife, Joyce, took two 17 pounders on the same cast, the second fish on a teaser. Because there is little surf, it is popular with fly fishers. The mark of a good spot is that everything seems to work.
A strange thing comes to mind about our fears: Along with the striper coming back in numbers heretofore unknown, we have a better, easier inlet.
Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Frank Daignault, All Rights Reserved
Frank Daignault is the author of Striper Surf, Twenty Years on the Cape, Striper Hot Spots, The Trophy Striper, Eastern Tides and Fly Fishing the Striper Surf.
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Articles by Frank Daignault