Each fall, scores of anglers chase striped bass along the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic aboard a diverse armada of boats, from 50-foot convertibles working the steep rips off Nantucket, Montauk and Block Island to those fishing from center consoles, skiffs, aluminum boats and kayaks. In this excerpt from Seasons of the Striper, a new book from Rizzoli New York, author Bill Sisson describes an obsessive striper fisherman’s indoctrination into boats.
FRED THE LOBSTERMAN is standing aft in his wooden skiff, one hand holding the extended tiller, the other on his hip. Dressed in torn khaki pants, a short-sleeve shirt, and knee-high rubber boots, he pulls the pipe from his teeth and points to a distant buoy. He is lean and tanned and his arms are muscular from hand-hauling lobster traps on the shallow reefs off Watch Hill, Rhode Island. “Hold on now,” Fred said as we begin to swing east, moving over a reef. “Hold tight. It’s going to get bouncy.” His 18-foot lobster skiff is rough, worn, and powered by a smoky old Evinrude of maybe 50 horsepower. I am sitting on the forward bench seat, just a kid. This is my first-ever run onto the series of reefs. The water seems alive with small, standing waves, which buffet the flat-bottom skiff, shoving it around. I’m startled but not frightened. I lift myself off the seat with my hands to soften the pounding on my tailbone as Fred steers toward one of his buoys. Gazing shoreward at the Watch Hill Lighthouse, I easily pick out the rocks I stand on to cast seaward for stripers. For the first time, I am seeing the scene from the sea—the granite light tower, the white buildings with their red hip roofs, the carpets of white water draining off the rocks as the surf rolls over them. So mesmerizing is this turned-around perspective that even 50 years later it feels like last week. The tide is almost slack as Fred approaches one of his buoys, snares the line with a boat hook, and begins hauling hand over hand. I sit there, all eyes, soaking it in.
TO THIS ADOLESCENT, Fred Buckley was as large as the sun. He was as tough and tenacious as the herring gulls trailing his skiff. (His wife was my godmother, Aunt Loretta, and he was always Uncle Fred to me. My parents were such close friends with them that our two families, for a time, shared a house.) I was one of a small group of gangly, feral boys who spent hours at the Watch Hill Lighthouse, where Fred’s father was once the assistant keeper. We fished, scoured the low-tide rocks for lost plugs, and terrified both fish and one another with our hand-sharpened spears. For several summers, I practically lived in the cove where Fred kept his skiff, and often watched him come and go from the reefs. Those seasons forever shaped my perception of watermen, striped bass, and boats. They left me with a lifelong appreciation for the beauty, the utility, and, in the right hands, the seaworthiness of small craft, especially those derived from workboats. It was early exposure to form following function, and it served me well later in life when my growing obsession with stripers beckoned me into my own boats.
FOR STRIPED BASS FISHING, there is no single “right” boat. You can catch them from aluminum boats, kayaks, and skiffs; from both small outboard center consoles and large ones; from pulling boats or 55-foot convertibles. The type of boat is rarely the deciding factor in whether you catch fish or not. The boat gets you out and back, but it is on you to figure out the fish. I like simple, open boats, especially those with workboat roots. Dependability and reliability rank high on my list of necessary traits. It’s a practical perspective, again informed by my years of watching Fred and others like him. Watermen like Fred typically can’t afford to be sentimental about their boats; they treat them as tools. Indeed, boats are primarily transportation. But if you are fortunate, you fall in love, and they become part of the family.
On the water, functionality is its own form of luxury, more important than padded bolsters, dive doors, top-end speed, passenger capacity, and other specs. Boats, like people, are more than the sum of their parts. I try to view them holistically, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and asking them only to do that for which they were designed and built. And sometimes just a bit more. Fred taught me by example how important it is to run small boats with the wind, swells, and current. Not to fight the conditions or bash into them head-on, but rather to blend and bend. You work the angles so you don’t hurt the boat or beat up the passengers. I am imprinted with the graceful movement of the eelgrass meadows waving in the current and swells just beyond Fred’s boat ramp. The eelgrass modeled everything you need to know about bending to conditions. I’ve fished thousands of hours over several decades from a fleet of small outboard boats. They’ve included center consoles, walkarounds, a power cat, and Down East skiffs, all less than 25 feet long. They were solid, dependable, well-maintained boats that have allowed my partners and me to fish hard, season after season. We caught plenty of fish and always made it home, often after midnight. My fishing partners and I leave an ever-shifting wake separating calculated risks from recklessness. Our ability to spot the line fades as the fish grow larger and the season grows older. We are wise enough to factor that fade into our decisions, but it’s often not black and white. Is the risk worth the reward? Some nights we charge into the rips or make long, foolish runs in too much weather. Chastened, we later retreat and mutter about finding a bigger boat. We have to know how much our boats can handle. I have pushed myself into increasingly challenging conditions in daylight—more wind, bigger seas—just to see how well my boats perform. All boats have a little “something” you need to know about them, and this you learn only by logging many hours in varied conditions.
Years ago, someone revealed to me the formula for a long and happy boating life: buy the smallest boat that will get the job done, not the largest one you can afford. The right boat could be a 20-footer or a 60-footer, depending on where you fish, what you fish for, and how far you run. A corollary to this credo comes from a technical expert I know who works on the most complicated boat systems imaginable. He said the best way to ensure the most time on the water is to buy the simplest boat possible: “That’s how you keep the sun on your back and the wind in your face.” Bruce Freeman, my fishing partner for a decade, and I fished with hunger and intensity. Neither of us had much money. We ran small, simple boats on lean budgets. I was a reporter raising kids and living paycheck to paycheck, and he was a boatwright who worked in a yard a stone’s throw from my office. Forged of frugal Swamp Yankee stock, I was raised to see the virtue of moderation in all things, including boats. Modest power, modest cost, modest speed. The two of us were often undergunned in our 17- and 18-footers, but we were both comfortable on the water—I grew up snorkeling and surfing, and Bruce led sea kayaking trips in Alaska in the 1970s. Good at reading the water and the weather, we also learned to recognize which spots to avoid on certain winds and tides, and we memorized or marked the locations of rocks, sandbars, unlit markers, and other obstructions to fishing at night.
MY FIRST BOAT WAS AN 18-FOOT Tashmoo lobster skiff built on Martha’s Vineyard. She was simple and sea-kindly, with a strong sheer, low freeboard, ample flare, and a tumblehome transom. Wet but sure-footed, she carried me through the fall rips when larger boats with more power retreated for quieter waters. The builder, Dan West, called her a “seagoing miniature.” She was that and more, possessing that bit of magic you always seek in a boat. The skiff and I had an agreement. I promised to maintain her properly and not push her too hard. She held up her end of the bargain by always getting me home. Her hull was graceful and well-proportioned—built for comfort, not speed. Pull back on the throttle, and she’d bring you back to the dock in dicey conditions. The Tashmoo’s lines were clean and graceful, a direct descendent of an old wooden lobster skiff that West had found deteriorating in a Menemsha salt marsh on Martha’s Vineyard. He pulled a plug off the tired workboat and began producing Tashmoos in fiberglass, turning out faithful reproductions of the original skiffs that were built near Eastport, Maine, at least a half-century earlier. She was specifically designed for working inshore waters, and West kept her original pedigree undiluted instead of trying to make her be too many things for too many people. The late Norwegian sailor Erling Tambs might have called her the “embodiment of usefulness.”
My skiff was a sea swallow—small, light, well-balanced, nimble, and sturdy—a pure organic shape. She was out of step with the high-horsepower creations streaming in from points outside, but she was completely at home fishing nearshore waters and the small islands of birds, silversides, and bass. She cost $4,800 new, unrigged, which even a young reporter with a new child could afford with a small loan. It took me several years to connect the dots and see the relationship between Fred’s skiffs and my first boat; I’m certain the old lobsterman was smiling from on high. Both were purpose-built with a distinctive regional design.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a French writer, poet, and aviation pioneer. In his book Wind, Sand and Stars, he extolled the value of winnowing man-made contraptions down to their essences: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.” Saint-Exupéry, who also wrote The Little Prince, disappeared in 1944 during a flight over the Mediterranean while serving with a French air squadron. The author believed an aircraft built properly would be a “form flawless in its perfection, completely disengaged from its matrix, a sort of spontaneous whole, its parts mysteriously fused together and resembling in their unity a poem.” I would argue that the same applies to a boat. Too many boats today lack this poetry. Fish long and hard enough, and eventually you will be caught out in more wind and in larger seas than you’d planned for. That’s an unassailable truth of striped bass fishing. What’s also true is that a well-built small boat can absorb far more punishment than its skipper ever anticipated or feared. Of course, that’s assuming the skipper knows the strengths and weaknesses of the craft and also makes smart decisions. Even the best small boat can be overwhelmed in steep, breaking seas or, worse, if caught inside breaking surf on a lee shore. At one time, I questioned if I was fishing hard enough simply because I hadn’t sunk a boat. Silly, of course, but a reasonable concern given the way we were fishing.
FRED’S SKIFF WAS PERCHED at the top of a wooden ramp that descends about 60 feet from a seawall into a cove along the lighthouse point, which was protected from swells by a small jetty. His workboat reminded me of a scruffy herring gull—territorial and roughed up by life, but still capable. Worn and low-sided, she carried totes, bait, a couple of six-gallon fuel tanks, oars, a gaff, and other tools of the inshore lobsterman’s trade. These included a spinning rod and a peach basket from which Fred hung lures he plucked off his pot warps. The lobsterman was opportunistic when it came to fishing for stripers. When they were busting all over the top, he’d stop hauling and catch them until they disappeared. It’s just what you did. On Christmas and my birthday, I’d receive a neatly wrapped box from my godmother and Uncle Fred. Inside were a couple of nearly new plugs or jigs that Fred had harvested off his lines. To me, they were more valuable than anything bought from a tackle shop. When it was time to launch the skiff, Fred would summon us kids from the water and our summer-long daydreams. We quickly assembled around the bow and along the gunwales, eager and usually dripping wet from spearfishing. After wetting the planks with buckets of seawater, we launched the nameless skiff using Norwegian steam—muscle power. On his command, we’d press all the lean, springy muscles of our backs and shoulders and legs into the task of sliding the skiff seaward. “Come on boys,” Fred would growl. “On three now.” And once inertia was overcome, “Keep her moving. Keep her moving. Watch yourself.” We all knew who really made the boat move. Fred had powerful, ropey forearms and defined biceps. But we loved being part of it all: the boats, fish, lobsters, our expanding salty vernacular, and, perhaps most powerful, the sense that this was where we belonged. That we were locals, and most everyone else was an outsider. I found my people at an early age.
Seasons of the Striper: Pursing the Great American Gamefish from Rizzoli New York is now available at bookstores and on Amazon.