Stars and Stripers
by Alan Landry
an, is it cold! This wind is cutting right through me like a howling, icy knife. Even with these neoprene gloves, my fingers are dead numb. I can’t believe that this the very first fishing outing that I’ve made in well over two years and it’s just a few days short of the Thanksgiving holiday. I’ve been away from the flow of time and tide at this great beach for so very long. I may be too late. The season might have passed me by. I just might have missed it.
Tony Stezko Jr. took a 73 pounder on a night just like this, at a place just like this. There has to be one big, old striped bass moving south. There just has to be. I’ve waited so long for for this moment, it can’t be too late! It’s going to happen! It’s got to happen!
It came as one of life’s little surprises, and put an end to my constant hunt for striped bass when my National Guard unit was activated and deployed to Iraq. Before I knew what hit me, I was standing on the runway with my field gear and my duffel bag, staring up at the giant military transport that would whisk me off to the far side of the globe.
A hero? Me? Hardly. That’s a word that is much overused these days. A patriot? Certainly. My grandfather endured the global carnage of World War II, and my father survived the steaming green hell of Viet Nam. I guess that it was to honor their sacrifices that I joined the Guards. As a citizen soldier of this great nation I would do my part to protect “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” You know, the Great American Dream.
Admittedly, it was a very small part that I was playing but it unexpectedly grew to fill my life. For a young guy whose world revolved around that ribbon of sand and rock between the Merrimac River and Napatree Point, getting sent to the other side of the planet shook up my well ordered universe.
Some soldiers are prone to suffer from culture shock. Getting thrust into contact with different people and the different ways of life in strange lands are very hard to get used to. Personally, I suffered from landscape shock. I found that Iraq was worlds apart from our beautiful New England. That country could well be on another planet, it’s a landscape of no joy. The hills there are craggy, barren and scrub covered, not lushly forested like Vermont or New Hampshire or Western Massachusetts. In the vast, flat desert lands, the swirling, gritty sand is a constant enemy, to the point of blocking out sunlight; so unlike the clean salted sands of Cape Cod.
As much as I looked forward to the letters from my folks and my girlfriend, which did help ease the jolt of suddenly being 100% military, 24-7, the letters from my salt encrusted fishing partner were truly bittersweet.
His letters were not like your typical letters from home, they were more like a disjointed fishing log. Just like his speech pattern, his letters were totally lacking in syntax. Here’s an excerpt from a letter in May: “Herring at our spot....Real thin this year....Got a few though....Some nice bass“; Excerpt from a letter in late June: “Damn bluefish razor lips...$1.25 an eel...Vibrating tooth machines....Hate to feed ‘em”; This one is from a letter in July: “East end of the Canal....Smoked ‘em....Good old Gibbs’ Canal Special....Yellow.....Breaking tide”; How could I forget his letter from September? “Hatches Harbor....Last night....Wind started Northeast...... Breezed up good....Whumped ‘em....Every One around 25.....That’s pounds, son”. Well, he certainly painted a colorful picture, but it was a picture that I wasn’t in.
I knew that he knew, pleasantries and personal day to day stuff were totally unnecessary in our communication. I also knew that he wasn’t trying to rub my face in it that I was missing out on the action at the coast. In his own way, he was just trying to keep me informed and a part of the surf fishing community that I so desperately missed.
A particular letter from him really cheered my up on one level and then broke my heart on the next level. In that letter he included a round bumper sticker. It was a great image of a striped bass that had red, white and blue stars and stripes on it. It also had the words “Stars & Stripers” printed over the fish.
That sticker took on a greater significance when I read his explanation that it had been painted and designed by local Truro artist Debi Thomas. She had painted it, for all the right reasons, on September 11th, 2001. With a lump in my throat I realized that for me that sticker kind of said it all.
With all of the affection and ceremony that went into the painting of the nose art on World War Two bombers, I lovingly placed the sticker on my Humvee. Every tank, vehicle, or large weapon system had moral boosting slogans painted on by the troops. They usually read things like “So Long, Saddam” or “Baghdad or Bust”, or “This one’s for you.” That “Stars and Stripers” sticker became my personal good luck charm. Every time I passed by it I would give it a pat for luck. I’d look at it constantly, and smile. When I was asked about it, I would immediately launch into a long-winded dissertation on the merits of striped bass as the great American game fish. My platoon buddies would usually walk away shaking their heads, with their eyes glazing over, but I didn’t care. I was holding my identity and my world together with my fishing memories.
I’ve been home on leave now for 16 hours, and my parents just can’t believe that I’ve put off the big home coming party that they’ve planned for me, and that I have gone off fishing. My girlfriend is upset, but knows me well enough to not be really too surprised. And my fishing buddy? I can see his silhouette in the dark down the beach, just to my left. I can also just barely hear his rambling monologue directed to the waves. “Too late, too late.....Well, maybe some yet.....She’s gonna be a big one, damn it”.
One thing about fishing in late November, you’re not going to bump into too many fishermen hogging the good holes. All New England surfcasters are well aware of the potential of intercepting large feeding fish moving south, but nearly all of them are put off by the discomfort of actually being at the surf’s edge at this time of year.
It’s been a brutal, cold, fish less night so far, but the tide is well down and it’s about an hour until low water. I’m getting that tingling, confident feeling looking at this long sandbar that juts off the point. It has such great structure, it’s a natural bait trap.
Even with this wind I know that I can cast this python of an eel right up on top of that wave-crashed bar. It’s been so long since I’ve held a rod and reel, but the skills that have been honed over hundreds of long nights are not lost.
It’s too dark to actually see it happen, but I know that my eel has disappeared into the white foaming water on the top of the bar. With a few slow, steady turns of the handle I can maintain contact with the eel as it is swept over the inside edge of the bar. That eel is now in the sweet spot of the pocket, and is suddenly vibrating and swimming away with a real sense of urgency.
The pickup is too aggressive to mistake for anything else. God, how I live for this game! Reactions and instinct take over and I immediately step forward and drop the rod tip, and flip open the bail arm. The line is cleanly speeding off the reel as the big fish moves away with my eel clamped in its maw.
I suppose that at this very moment, back in Iraq the faithful are facing East and sending out their prayers. Well, I’m also facing East, and I’m sending out my prayers too!
Ah yes.....Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Striped Bass....The Great American Dream! Stars and Stripers forever!
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