The Mayor of Monomoy

Two hundred yards away, countless shrieks erupts from the uninhabited shores of South Monomoy Island as an ornithologist passes through a colony of nesting terns. Here, on the only wilderness area in southern New England, hundreds of birds wheel into an avian tornado and rise above the sandy island. North and South Monomoy were separated from the mainland in 1958, and this terminal moraine from the last glacier is still unstable as the occasional screaming November storm rips new channels and redistributes its white quartz sand. Least terns, common terns, and the endangered roseate join 200 feet above the marsh grass and then settle as the naturalist moves on. “Featherhead” mutters captain Tony Biski. I’m not sure of it’s an epithet for the lone biologist or he just prefers the sound to something more formal. Tony likes colorful speech and delights in the way words sound in the brisk salt air. He calls his many stories “antidotes”, and as he leaves the dock he often exclaims “We’re off like a prom dress”, but beneath the ex-bar room bouncer’s formidable hulk is the soul of a poet.

We’re drifting just off the shore of South Monomoy, but we don’t see any fish. It’s almost low tide, the sky is as bright and sharp as a Wyoming September, and if there were any bass around it would be hard to miss them. A half mile away, across a shimmering, glassy flat the unmistakable silhouette of a flats boat slides along a channel. It’s so calm we can hear a fly reel buzzing in the distance as a fish pulls line. “Richie’s guy’s tight”, says Tony. How Tony can tell it’s Rich Benson, along with Tony one of the pioneers of Monomoy Flats fishing, is beyond my landlocked perception. We don’t head that way. Tony has “his” area of the flats as does Richie and other local guides. They do cross turf and radio each other when they find fish, but the ethics out here—for now—are far more civil than those in the Florida Keys or the Madison River. One mainland guide appears to be completely numb to the unwritten rules of the flats and consistently motors into places where other boats have found fish, but thankfully he is an aberration.

It’s hard to keep secrets out here. Usually, when Tony is crowded by another boat, he looks away, slumps down in the boat, and becomes uncharacteristically quiet. But one afternoon, a civilian (in other words not another guide) motored into a cove loaded with spooky bass, less than 100 yards from Tony’s boat. He raised his substantial frame onto the bow and boomed “What do you think you are doing?”

“I’m just tryin to have myself some fun”, the intruder called back.

“Well have yourself some fun somewhere else”.

On a calm day, sound carries beyond comprehension, and most of the fleet heard the exchange. The next morning at the Fishing the Cape fly shop, as guides lingered around the coffeepot, the buzz was that Tony had lost his temper.

“Man, you really hammered that guy yesterday.” “It’s about time somebody said something.”

“I never heard you yell like that. You must have been really pissed.”

He’s a big man, and like many powerful individuals he’s slow to lose his temper. In fact, nothing moves fast in Tony’s world if he can help it. But he puts in an exhausting day on the flats, more from emotional fatigue than physical, although he thinks nothing at pushing his 20-foot Jones Brothers 50 yards off a shallow flat while three people sit in the boat, drinking water and eating sandwiches.

I did see him move like a flash once, in his old boat, a 21-foot Barcone . Spike Hamer, one of Tony’s regular clients, had taken a very large bass in shallow water on a crab fly and wanted to take the fish back to Vermont to eat. That day, Tony had three clients plus me, far more weight in the boat than usual. Tony, standing in the shallows off the stern, gutted the fish. Three saucer-sized crabs slipped from the fish’s stomach. The four of us moved to the stern, gawking at the huge crustaceans and wondering how we would cast a fly that big.

“Hey, watch the boat”, Tony yelled. The four of us looked around for this boat he was so interested in.

“The BOAT!” He repeated. “MY BOAT!”

With the four of us at one end, the transom was almost under water. We all ran to the bow like a bunch of Keystone Cops in waders.

“Get out, you fools!” Maybe it wasn’t quite fools he called us, but close enough. Tony hopped into the stern as we jumped off the bow. I swear he looked as nimble as Clint Eastwood jumping on a horse. He turned the key, jammed the throttle, and fishtailed around the cove a half-dozen times as water poured out of the scuppers.

This big man, who a friend of mine calls a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and Tony Soprano, full of good cheer and lots of salty tales that keep his clients in stitches throughout the day, starts every day full of anxiety. He rolls out of bed, and, listening to the wind howling outside his comfortable inland house, mutters “Oh shit”. He lights a Marlboro on the way down the stairs and grinds coffee for his daily cappuccino. He switches on the Weather Channel, then a weather radio, then his modem squeals as the radar web site shows the menacing band of a squall that may or may not kiss the flats. Somehow he sorts his game plan out as he stares silently at the computer monitor and the digitally generated voice of the weather radio and sappy music of the Weather Channel blend into a cacophony. As he rolls into Saquatucket Harbor and unloads his truck, the first smile of the day crosses his rugged face as tourists cross the parking lot and walk up the gangplank for the day boat to Nantucket. “Have a nice day on Martha’s Vineyard”, he calls cheerfully as the bewildered passengers run around the boat looking for the captain.

Fishing for striped bass in shallow water off Cape Cod is not, as some people believe, a recent discovery. Nor is fishing for stripers with a fly rod. But the fish, with their cyclic abundance, tend to get forgotten by generations, then rediscovered as the populations regain historical peaks. Stalking bass on the Brewster Flats, in Cape Cod Bay, has been practiced as long as fishermen have chased bass. But fishing from flats boats, or wading the hard white sand flats and aquarium-clear waters off the open ocean, just south of Chatham, is a recent discovery. Always a great spot for surf fishing, a giant storm in the 1971 blew a hole in the middle of Monomoy Island, covering a huge expanse of eel grass with firmly-packed sand. And new flats are lost and formed each year. Just ten years ago, Hurricane Bob sliced a hole in the South Beach area of Nauset, opening a raw channel into Pleasant Bay, sealing the end of Chatham Harbor’s access to Chatham Roads, but now making it possible to walk from Chatham three miles out onto the barrier beach.

This instability creates a fishery that, along with the cyclic abundance of striped bass, bluefish, bonito, false albacore, and recently weakfish (they’re baaaack) is never easy to predict. Tony spends almost every day, eight hours a day, studying the channels and currents off Monomoy, but every spring he buys a new aerial photo before the season starts.

About four years ago a storm cut a new channel into one of the barrier beaches and the spot became “The New Cut” to Tony. Last summer, after many sparse days in his usual prime spots, Tony noticed that the New Cut was filling in, blocking bass from swarming from the open ocean to Nantucket Sound via The River of Life at high tide. “It’s over”, he moaned to me over the phone all summer, “I haven’t seen a bass in my usual spots in weeks”. I don’t agree with him, preferring to think that the bass stayed off South Beach, in the open ocean, because massive schools of big sand eels parked there for the entire summer. All winter long, no one knows what winter’s storms are doing to the flats, and on his maiden voyage to the flats in May he may find a New New Cut.

Although you can’t always catch stripers the way you want to, if visiting anglers and charter captains are flexible they can always tangle with something. Tony’s flats had a bad spell last summer, so he swallowed his pride and parked off the beach, throwing Clousers and Deceivers into fish that busted bait on the surface all day long. Some of his better clients caught well over 30 fish a day. But as with any kind of fly fishing where your fortune depends on migratory species, productive days are precious. “People come here expecting to catch 20-pounders all day long, or they count fish and aren’t happy when they only catch a dozen”. This is his mantra every morning on his way to Chatham Provisions to pick up a few of Howie’s giant sandwiches, the best on Cape Cod.

“And they all want to come in the middle of the summer, when the kids are on vacation and the water’s warm. Why don’t they come in May when there’s stupid fish all over the place, or September. September we’re loaded with albies” (false albacore). I’ve seen both ends of that spectrum and it’s a shame he and the other Cape guides have weeklong blank spots with no customers in their log books at the shoulder ends of the season.

May can be cold, as it takes water a lot longer to warm than air. So when people on land are sweltering over Memorial Day barbecues, it can be pretty uncomfortable off Monomoy when water temperatures hover around 55 °--especially with a 20-knot wind. But when migrating stripers and blues first come from offshore covered with sea lice, they push into shallow bays, where the water can be 15 ° warmer and baitfish are packed into estuaries. The fish have not been pounded by Rebel plugs, Clousers, or live eels yet, and they’re not to suspicious at mealtime. You don’t see any jet skis. Most sailboats are still in the harbor. And weekend Boston Whalers are still sitting on trailers in back yards.

Still, you take your chances in May. A few years ago, Tony E-mailed me just before Memorial Day: “Get your ass down here. Tie Yellow Gurglers. Patty put clean sheets on the guest bed.” Bass were everywhere, and typical of early migrants, they were all over surface flies: Poppers, heavily dresssed Deceivers, and Jack Gartsides simple but effective Gurgler fly, basically a foam-backed giant Humpy with bucktail streaming off the bend of the hook.

As soon as I arrived on the Cape the wind blew northeast at almost gale force, making most of the usual places unfishable, five-foot seas making standing in the boat a joke, the water filled with debris. But he found one cove in the lee, and as he motored close to the shallows we saw swirls everywhere. Giant bass were hovering just under the surface. Maybe they were there to get out of the weather. The calm water might have provided a refuge for baitfish. One thing was clear—the fish had just arrived from the Chesapeake and they had not been fished over this season. If you lined them, the fish would swirl and spook, but if you could get a fly off to the side of a pod, three or four fish would turn and inhale the fly with a boil that looked like someone tossed a bowling ball off a bridge. Although the only baitfish we saw were tiny, young-of-the-year sand eels, the best flies were big yellow Gurglers and six-inch Chartreuse Deceivers. Hardly matching the hatch. And we did not see another boat for three days. Our only witnesses were a couple of young women on the beach, desperately trying to sunbathe despite the biting northeast wind. They stood up to watch the show and looked pretty good from a distance.

For the rest of May and through the end of June that season, Tony and his clients enjoyed almost constant action on poppers and Gurglers. (Once the fish settle in for the summer they become shy and lose their aggressive surface orientation.) Yet the next season, we could barely interest a fish in a Gurgler, and what had become his go-to fly got pushed to the crowded rusty corners of seldom-used fly boxes. Why fly preference should change from year to year with a migratory species is beyond me, but like the absence of fish on the flats last summer, it may have something to do with changing bait populations.

Just as the guides on the south Cape have many options for finding fish, fishermen have lots of options and every captain has his specialty. If you hire a flats boat, you’ll sight-cast to fish in shallow water and see them coming from a long way off if there is sun on the water. Each captain does things a little differently, and Tony recognizes them from a mile away. “OK, now look over there”, he’ll say. “That’s ‘Will the Thrill’ Raye. See how his baseball cap is pulled down tight? And he’s always busy, always moving around, fixing tackle or tying knots. And there’s Dave Steeves. He’s about the opposite—steady, low key.” Even offshore, when most of the boats are chasing fishing breaking in schools of baitfish, Tony still recognizes, respects, and acknowledges the stars. “The big guy over there in the Jones Brothers is Bill Cooling He’s always testing the envelope, always in the white water. “There’s Jeff Walters coming in from chasing tuna on a fly on the ‘Strip Tease’”. Bob Luce’s slip is two boats down from Tony’s in Saquatucket Harbor, yet their methods could not be further apart. Bob specializes in catching giant bass from the offshore rips, and his 31-foot Duffy diesel, the “Striper”, can run the 17 miles to the shoals off Nantucket in less than two hours. It’s mostly fishing with 11-weight rods and fast-sinking lines, but he seldom returns to the harbor without a fish box full of stripers in excess of 20 pounds.

If you get queasy at the thought of fishing from a boat, there are a couple of superb “land captains” in the area. Tony has taught me how to recognize them, even from a mile across the flats. “See those two specks over there, with a short one next to a taller one? The guys that look like Siamese twins? That’s George. No doubt about it.”

George Ryan, short, gravelly voiced and constantly baked like a lobster from the wind and sun, takes his clients from Outermost Harbor to the flats on the Water Shuttle, which runs between the mainland and the outer beaches and North Monomoy Island on a regular basis throughout the day. George never strays more than a few feet from his clients and amuses them with salty tales while spotting fish. You can always tell my old friend Randy Jones. Like George, he takes his clients across on the Taxi, but Randy carries a small stepladder with him, giving him the same sighting advantage as a flats boat but with much less chance of spooking the fish. Of course, he doesn’t have the mobility of a flats boat. To find fish moving through a channel, he often slogs across a mile of squishy mud to get to the hard sand flats where the fish are moving—dragging the ladder! These guys are tough.

And nobody does it quite like Tony. But his style is not for everyone. His preferred method is to idle carefully into about six feet of water, watching the temperature gauge while scanning for the pale gray/green/silver shadows of moving stripers. The open ocean during midsummer averages in the mid to high 50s, yet water on some parts of the flats may be in the 70s. Unlike Long Island Sound, where you mainly find fish feeding in shallow water at night and look for cooler water, here bass feed best in the warmest water you can find, at the lowest moving tide and in the shallowest water. Provided nobody is running over the fish and driving them to deeper water.

You can run across a 50-foot channel and find water temperatures ten degrees higher on the other shore, so Tony has spent the past ten years watching currents, tracing the flood of cold ocean water as it meets water that has baked on the flats. The algorithm is totally incomprehensible to me after years of trying to figure it out. I’ll say “Tony, why don’t we try Cormorant Island?”

“How many times do I have to tell you, it’s a full moon, strong tides, and the water’s going to be freezing over there. Just keep throwing your damn fly out there and let me be the captain.” Maybe damn isn’t quite what he says.

Once Tony finds fish, he’ll slip back into deep water as quietly as possible, motor down the shore, and pull his boat onto a flat where clients can get out and wade. Usually, when you find fish they’re concentrated. The makeup of the schools varies, from tight schools of hundreds of 20-inch bass to more spread-out schools of bigger fish. Almost always, somewhere in the area will be pairs or singles of big bruisers, fish over three feet long.

Like most things in Tony’s life, approaching the fish is not done in haste. While I am typically ready to chew through my wader suspenders and will launch myself off the stern as soon as the water is shallow enough to wade, with clients on board I have to do it Tony’s way. Check rods, leaders, watch from the high vantage point of the boat to see if any fish are in close. Then Tony shoos his clients off in the direction of the fish like a mother dropping off her kids at school. “See what you can do. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Then he’ll fiddle with the anchor to make sure the boat won’t get grounded by a falling tide. Light a Marlboro. Look around for oystercatchers, his favorite bird. If you want casting lessons you’ve come with the wrong captain. If you need you nose wiped every few minutes you’ve missed your boat, so to speak. Whether it’s calculated on his part or just the way things work in Tony’s World, I believe fishermen learn more from his methods than when standing in a boat obeying the captain’s every command. By wading onto the flats alone you learn to tell the deeper green water from the shallower yellowish look of the bars. You try to spot fish on your own, distinguishing between the slower-moving, dark brown horseshoe crabs from the faster, more erratic movements and greenish cast of stripers. Or on occasion the neurotic movements and sickle-shaped tail of a giant bluefish.

By the time Tony ambles over, usually in shorts and bare feet, even in 60-° water, you’re ready for some words of wisdom. “Turn around and see what’s behind you.” While you’ve been staring into the five-foot water in front of you, a pair of 20-pound fish backdoor you, sliding through two feet of water, looking for shrimp. “The shallower you wade, the better you’ll be able to spot fish. Plus, the bigger ones like the really skinny water. You get up to your waist, you can’t see them coming.”

“Don’t go running down the beach like a wild dog!” (This one is usually reserved for me). “Walk slowly until you start seeing fish. Figure out their pattern. The schools will string out along the edge and it gets like a highway. Try to get the fish coming straight at you. That’s your best angle. Then stay put.” If it all goes right, you can sometimes find a spot where bass are coming at you from all directions. As you risk whiplash trying to figure out which fish to cast to, Tony stands at your side, cupping his hands in prayer, looking to the sky, mouthing “Thank you, Lord.”

At rare times bass on the flats are aggressive and will slam a fly cast right to them and stripper through the water. However, after being hammered by fishermen for a month, things get sticky. There can be days when you’ll cast over thousands of bass and never hook up. Seldom at a loss for pithy expressions, all Tony can say on these days is “Hey, wanna go see the seals?” There is one tiny sand spit off North Monomoy that hosts hundreds of gray seals, and gliding the boat into their bawling, midst while they perform an underwater ballet under the hull is a real crowd-pleaser. He’s even confessed to me a desire to turn his boat the “Take It EZ” into a seal watch operation. Especially on days when we’ve been skunked. “Look at the shit eating grin on that guy’s face”, he’ll say as we pass a boat full of seal-watchers driven by a smiling captain. “He always makes his people happy. The seals are always there. That’s what I should be doing, not chasing these stupid bass all over Nantucket Sound”. Maybe stupid wasn’t quite the word he used. Close enough.

The doldrums can sometimes be cured by going smaller, sparser, and deeper. Tony will often set up his fishermen with a sparse olive Clouser or Monomoy Flatwing, a long fluorocarbon leader testing at 8 or 10 pounds, and a Clear-Tip intermediate or full-sinking line. “Figure out where the fish will be in ten seconds, cast there, let the fly settle to the bottom. When he gets close strip it once. If he follows keep stripping.” Since these fish are eating crabs and shrimp as well as baitfish, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that techniques that work on bonefish and permit work on stripers. I’ve had success on really snotty fish casting a crab fly in their path and just letting it settle to the bottom without any added motion. Just like permit fishing. And don’t worry about knowing if a striper has eaten your crab. The line will tighten and keep pulling until you set the hook. When the fish on the flats get impossible Tony always has other options up his sleeve. He constantly scans the deeper water offshore for birds, and if he spots what looks like a school of bluefish or bass busting bait on top (they hardly ever do it on the flats), he might round up his charges and suggest a boat ride. Fish in deeper water feeding at the surface are invariably easier that cruisers on the flats and some days you have to swallow your pride and chase the easy targets.

Ironically, as Tony’s bookings dwindle in late August and September, false albacore, and less commonly bonito and Spanish mackerel invade the bait-rich waters of the lower Cape. Sometimes they’ll run the edges of the flats but most often it’s boat fishing, anchoring up just offshore and waiting for schools to blast by the boat. Despite the abundance of gamefish in his playground, mediocre or disappointing days outnumber great ones about three to one. Anybody who tells you otherwise has an IV hookup to chamber-of-commerce propaganda. One week last June, on the first day of a four-day charter for some of Tony’s best regular clients, the wind blew southwest so hard he couldn’t get out of the harbor. He asked me to play land captain for them, as Tony is not fond of long walks. He calls the hike over the sand to Nauset Inlet the Bataan Death March.

For the next couple of days the weather didn’t improve much, but at least he could get the boat out of the harbor. It was too cloudy to spot fish on the flats and too rough to fish the outside rips. We finally ended up tucking his Jones Brothers way back inside Stage Harbor, dredging a few schoolies on sinking lines, threading our way between moorings, watching a guy bull raking for clams from his boat, suffering through the loud radio of some carpenters working on a nearby beach house. It was one of those times you feel foolish sitting there with a little fish pole in your hands while real men do real jobs.

Tony and I went back to his house that afternoon pretty sour. But after dinner the sun came out and the wind seemed to slack. “Let’s go take a boat ride”, he said. We motored down the shore a mile or so, and the world suddenly hushed, like the way a trout stream feels at dusk. A few heavy fish swirled close to the surface, and when the wind finally died we saw a line of fins glinting in the warm evening light, stretched to the west as far as we could see. Most of the fish were over 20 pounds and there were hundreds of them. We drifted down that line a dozen times and we only caught a couple of fish, but they were strong, silvery, and coated with sea lice. On the last drift, Tony spotted something on the surface and as we drifted closer the shape turned into a tiny duckling. As the boat drew up to the little bird it spun upside down, righted itself, then whirled around 360 ° like a wind-up toy. “Oh, man, where’s its mother?” Tony looked around in panic. The duckling was a half-mile off shore, all alone, in the middle of huge ocean predators. It had probably gotten lost in the rough weather of the past couple of days. We mumbled a few words about picking it up, taking it to shore, not interfering with nature, would the bass eat it. Tony started the engine and we rode the sunset back to the harbor in silence. As we drifted into the slip, he broke the silence and said, “What do you have to remember right here?”

“Don’t hit the dock?” I suggested.

“No, you idiot”. Maybe it wasn’t quite idiot he called me. “Let the wind be your friend.” Then his voice lowered and the big man said, “What do you think happened to that little guy out there?”

Tony’s Tips for Great Striper Fishing

  • Watch the water temperature. Look for water temperatures on the flats between 68° and 74 °.
  • The tide waits for no man.
  • Anchor up on breaking fish, don’t chase them and don’t drift through them. It’s hard to get a good presentation on feeding fish when the boat is moving.
  • Blind-fish over channels at high tide. Look for them in the shallows from two hours into a falling tide through an hour before high tide.
  • Don’t leave fish to find fish.
  • Stay shallow so you get a better sighting angle. Plus the biggest fish often cruise the skinniest water.
  • When you find stripers on the flats, figure out their highways, then stay put and let them come to you.
  • Use intermediate or sink-tip lines and lead the fish so your fly runs along the bottom as they approach.
  • Go early; stay late.

 

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