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An Excerpt from Twenty Years on the Cape
by Frank Daignault
Race Point on Cape Cod, August 1976

hen the Petty Officer of the watch hoisted the second storm flag at the Coast Guard station in town, none of us were surprised. There had been some talk the night before that a hurricane was coming up the coast. Now its status had been upgraded from Watch to Warning. Of course when word of this was received by the North District Ranger, he ordered all the self-contained vehicles off the beach.

Within an hour the hundred odd families were out of Race City towing their boats, the husbands driving the big rigs and the wives behind the wheels of the chases. The caravan of walk-ins and pickup campers ended at the Race Beach parking lot spilling kids all over the place who excitedly asked questions about the impending storm. Still, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, but there was a humid, almost stagnant pungency to the air. I went back to bed.

Two hours later Carol told me that she had talked to Vince and had seen Conrad going out on the beach. Unable to bear the thought that somebody might be doing it without me, I slid into hippers and whipped the Scout west. By then a south wind had freshened over the dunes and I could make out that the tide force down from Race Light was stronger than usual.

Once on the waterline trail, I could see several small four wheelers gathered at the Second Rip beside a line of casters, two leaning into fish and another bent over the sand beside his buggy. Out from the bank, a few bursts of white. Bluefish.

Twenty Years on the CapeWhat a time this would be to take in a good load of bluefish. So often it is not what you catch, but what you are paid. Late summer, blues can go as low as eight cents per pound. Then, unaccountably, through some mystery of supply and demand, they can be 15. But rarely these days worth they worth fishing for because they can tear up more equipment than the price that they bring at the dock. It only takes the ruination of one load of braided micron, or the loss of two plugs, to burn up the take from the first box of fish. We avoided them, selling only what was incidental to our striper fishing. But today was a different story, what with the entire East Coast commercial fishery battened down for the hurricane. In two days, the storm gone, there would be a lot of fish markets looking for something to put on the shelves. We had seen this before and knew that bluefish might make 30 cents -- well worth the effort when they are all over the place.

The Striper Swiper sailed easily with the wind behind and I snubbed the spool to tighten the line just before it landed, threw the clutch, then started the rhythmic popping. A swirl developed behind it, then another, just before the line lifted from an oily sea. On then off. The popper skittered from the sudden loss in tension, but before I could reel up the slack, another blue took it down. Meanwhile, Vince, Conrad and the others whom I did not know, were all hauling. Line snapped from the drag, my fish sounding and lunging seaward; then it was off. Running backwards, I fought the current to get the popper back to the surface where it threw water once before being inhaled. Vince was batting his fish and Conrad kicking his. More dry line left the spool as my bluefish ran. Vince was on again! Then my fish broke the surface once and was off. Conrad hauled back on another. Now, with my plug on the top, I had it popping quickly, yet never saw the take. On. Conrad was backing. Now when the line left my spool, serious concerns came to mind as to whether or not I might run out. These bluefish were playing a relay game with my plug and I wasn't doing too well. This last fish was so far out when it broke that I didn't believe it was mine.

Leaden clouds scudded over the dune tops, the wind seeming to pick up. Conrad was bent over in the sand, Vince was chasing in the surf, one guy was smoking a cigarette, and all the others were fighting fish. My first blue had been brought to within 200 feet of my furthest cast. Then Conrad dropped a short lob 20 feet, popped it twice, hooked up and backed the chopper onto the sand. I managed five turns. What in hell was I doing in the freaking shipping lanes with all these fish against the beach' They had fish laying all over the place and I, with a 45 pound line, hadn't landed a fish.

I horsed backwards towards the buggy, spiked the rod, picked up another, laid it short, and gasped at the sight of frantic lunges. At last we were open for business.

Now the wind was gusting at 50, the clouds appearing to labor their way into closing the gap between them as they cleared the dunes. I had three on the sand, the other stick still bouncing from the relay fish. A few raindrops made their way across my fore, then stopped. The others were cleaning up the beach, preparing to leave. I bounced another blue to the sand, then fought my way into an oilskin slicker that was stiff from the heat of the buggy.

Vince jazzed his Bronco, calling to me to leave the poor fish alone, and Conrad threw me a half wave, half salute. The others must have left while I was engaged. By now the monotony of jostling with bluefish had taken hold, allowing my mind to ponder the storm.

What is a hurricane like? How do they come? Is it a progressive thing, or does the tempest come over the top of the grass, upon you so suddenly that there is no time to reach shelter? If it does, when it does, is it enough to push a man into the water? Where were the others gone? In either direction there was neither man nor buggy. Race City had certainly proven its mobility. A Wrigleys wrapper scurried past from my right, the only evidence that man, other than myself, had been there in a hundred years. On the outside I could see the lines of whitecaps heading west. The surf had started to bulge more now, a sweep moving on my hippers sending water onto my trousers.

Only the snap was showing on this bluefish, so I opened it and left the plug so as to put on another. Dropping my cast short, at the end of the sweep, I allowed it to laze long enough to be eaten. It gets no easier than this.

Still, the impending storm had taken a positive hold upon my mind. I wanted to forget the eerie fear that the air was giving me. How can the wind blow so hard, in such an open place, yet taste so foul, so stagnant. Even the rain, now pelting at a steady rate from the southeast, did nothing to cleanse it. The horrors were taking over. With the buggy facing the east, this hard driving rain could find its way, somehow, into the wires. I could picture myself walking out, but what of the Scout laying on the beach in a hurricane? Would it be there when I came back? Screw this, I thought.

Tidying up the yard, I bounced the bluefish two at a time into the box. Now that I had decided, I couldn't get the hell out of there fast enough. Race Station had disappeared in a shroud of gray, there were no boats at sea, no planes in the sky. I could read the headlines: "Man dies in Cape Hurricane."

I was running now, picking up the pliers, billy, and knife thinking out loud, for who could hear. "I am getting the f--- out of here."

The Scout was not wet, only my pants. The track was not windblown soft, it was windblown hard and easy going. I made beautiful time until I recognized that one of the surfrods was bending more than even a hurricane wind might do. I had neglected to reel in my shipping lane, relay fish.

The thought crossed my mind to cut it, for I had no stomach for one last bluefish. But 30 cents a pound was a five dollar bill here. I cranked and pumped, then snubbed down the star on the squidder to put on some serious line. In no time I had the exhausted blue in the wash, maybe 15 pounds. I could see the yellow tint of his belly when I lifted the rod in time with a bulge in the surf. Then the plug came back over my shoulder.

Whipping the family chase, you would have thought that somebody was out for my life and I covered the mile of beach in scant seconds. And when I climbed the last dune hill of the trail, I slowed it down to a lazy ride for all to see how easy it is to push a hurricane.

The temporary Race City was buttoned tight, the buggies crowded together both for space and breaking the wind. Joyce and the girls didn't let anyone see them, but they were glad that I was back. I drank a little whisky, then climbed into soft and warm bag in the top bunk for a sleep of dreams.

I don't know how long I was out, maybe two hours, when a roar, accompanied by a lapse in the rain, woke me while the buggy listed on its springs. No doubt what we felt was the 90 mile gust that Chatham radar reported later. The recent advisories had placed the storm center at the mouth of the Connecticut River with winds on the outside well east of the Cape. There was relief that we were being spared the full force of the hurricane, what little we did have passing quickly. By early afternoon the rain had stopped and everybody was anxious to get back out on the beach, wondering if they were going to be credited with a half day for the time spent in the parking lot.

The passage of all this low pressure caused a surge of wind out of the sou'west that I knew would have Race Point in a dither. But everybody was standing around kicking tires, waiting for clearance from the authorities. We fired up the two machines amid a torrent of "It's guys like you that spoil it for everybody" and went fishing. Somebody had to make certain the beach was safe.

Cutting the first track through what had been Race City, and soon would be again, was a strange, lonely feeling similar to that which had driven me out of there last time out. I backed the big truck away from the waterline, leaving it for the boatmen, Joyce shut the Scout down, and we leveled the camper. Then, in my most authoritative voice, "I hereby proclaim this here beach, all its entitlements, all that the eye can see, as Daignault-land." Whereupon the girls applauded and Joyce rolled her eyes because that is what mothers are supposed to do when fathers act like children.

Joyce and I were suited into waders and oilskin tops within minutes. When we rounded the curve of the beach at Race Light, we could clearly see the water still heaving from the storm, the wind pushing the tops off the foamers down the front side so that everything was white. Thousands of the big clumsy gulls hovered, dove, then hurried only to change direction as if unable to sort what part of the blitz they wanted to be in. It was the most delicious mess a surfcaster ever saw! We were on right away, Joyce straining to get a fish up, then a wave broke and her ankle deep water went waist deep and her 12-ish pound school bass was behind her. We kept this up for an hour, the fish roughly half blues, when Paulie Hoercher pulled up beside us on low beach.

"Hello Nutbag," he said, "I knew it had to be you that cut the track."

"Find your own blitz," I told him, and with that he kissed Joyce, as he always does, and went to work with us.

Paulie, beautiful Paulie, a New Yorker that we had come to love. When he came in from the city, he always stopped to read my pulse. As a NY fireman, he would trade vacation, fill in for other firefighters trading days, wangling, finagling, to spend more of his life in the Cape surf. He would be with us for weeks, disappear for a week, then be back on another vacation. I used to tell him that I hated the thought that all those New York City cats were not safe while he was on Cape Cod because, what with his tiny, 5 foot four inch frame, he was the official cat saver of the department. But that was only part of him because when on the Cape he was a pair of balls in waders that would disappear in the foam, then pop into view while talking himself in a trance, driving plugs over the wave tops.

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Copyright 1998-2014 Frank Daignault, All Rights Reserved

Frank Daignault
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. Autographed copies of any of these books can be ordered directly from Frank, HERE.

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