Striped Bass Cryptology

stripedbasscryptology

Our

boat decks were awash in a sickly green light, like nuclear phosphorescence.

I played out cord, lowering the submersible fish light and thus diminishing the greenness on deck as it sank deeper. We were night fishing, suspended in our center console boat between the blank black lake below and the twinkling lamps of the stars above. A bank of clouds hid the gibbous moon, which nevertheless threatened to break free. Minutes passed, and baitfish began to flit into the light—tentative at first, like moths to an emerald flame, then in force. Within an hour we had a tornado of bait, circling, pulsating: a perfect beacon of light and food for striped bass.


Baitfish come into the labratory.
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The clock struck 1 a.m., and my friend Bearded Jay tuned the boat’s AM radio. I was just giving our chicken halves one last flip on the charcoal grill when the familiar theme song punched through the static: “From the heartland of America and the gateway to the West: Good morning, good evening, wherever you may be, across the nation, around the world. I’m George Noory.” Once a plain-vanilla conservative talk radio program, Coast to Coast AM was burdened from the start with the undesirable 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. time slot, and soon turned weird. The show is our constant companion, a colorful audio counterpart to our all-night expeditions. Tonight’s lead stories, all given equal billing: Obamacare, the perpetual crisis in the Middle East and the Puerto Rican chupacabra.

Our first rod started bucking just as my friend finished tearing into his chicken. He lunged over our bait cooler, its circulator bubbling to keep our purchased baitfish alive, and quickly reeled up a surprise walleye. “Bonus fish,” he grunted, tossing it in the cooler. (Walleye were by-catch on this striper-fishing trip, but still amazingly good eating.) Our baitfishing efforts were really just something to keep us occupied. Thirty yards away, another light hung suspended from a buoy. I scanned it, noting the flash of circling bait below. Our fly rods were strung and ready. Tonight’s real goal was to catch a monster striper on the fly in the green circle of our second floating light.

When down-lining live bait, you’ve usually got about an hour before the baitfish must be checked and, if necessary, replaced. As I moved around the boat, systematically re-baiting our hooks and casting a handful of dead shad aside, the voice on the radio introduced the show’s first guest for that segment. He was a self-professed “crypto-zoologist,” who billed himself as an expert on the Puerto Rican chupacabra. The chupacabra is a relatively recent entry into the annals of crypto-zoology, or the search for fictional beasts like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. Billed as a type of demon-spawn which eats goats and souls with equal relish, it most likely originated with one extremely mangy coyote.

When a big striper crosses an underwater light, it can feel like a celestial event.

The chupacabra is, of course, completely imaginary. Crypto-zoologists engage in the same kinds of overnight “expeditions” to find them that we were attempting with our fishing trip that evening. This was the fourth or fifth all-night trip my friend and I had taken in his boat. Each of our past efforts had failed to produce a fly-caught striper for different reasons: temperatures so cold our fly lines froze; the full moon drawing the bait off our lights; once, we even approached too close to a dock and had a drunken homeowner open fire on us with his pistol. All-night fishing is draining—especially when you don’t catch anything. Unsurprisingly, the stripers we sought had begun to attain quasi-mythical status. To us, they had become just as imaginary as the chupacabra.

When a big striper crosses an underwater light, it can feel like a celestial event. I saw the first bulge in the tornado of bait just as the chupacabra expert gave way to the call-in segment. Hanging suspended in the water, the eerie green light beneath my buoy mirrored the orb of the moon above, each in line with the other. But only the light in the depths had a black shadow circling, like a dirigible looping my artificial satellite. “Dude,” I said, watching the dark shape swish after bait. “Better get ready to move.” It was just after 2:45 a.m. My friend quickly manned the trolling motor as I stretched my fly line. At night, when it is cool, fly line coils like telephone cord, and I knew we would only get one shot. I prepped about 60 feet and checked the point on my hook. I stood poised on the front deck with my fly rod dangling, line stacked in even loops at my feet, and prepared for the shot.


The expeditioneers at work.

Noory’s callers tend toward the schizophrenic, some literally relaying what the voices in their heads tell them to say. As the first caller linked up the chupacabra with the birth of the President, I could almost visualize the red yarn strung from picture to picture on the wall of his dimly lit basement. At times on these trips, I’ve felt just as delusional as some of these guys, but not tonight. For once, I had a target, a tangible goal in sight. The striper on the lights was easily a 20-pound beast. Deep water distorts light, skewing the location of things, so you don’t want to cast your fly directly at the light itself. Instead, I waited for a crossing shot, aiming for the darkness opposite the fish to take advantage of the striper’s light blindness. Ideally, the fish would not perceive the fly until it was already well into the drink, limping lamely through the orb of light like an injured baitfish as I stripped it back towards the boat.

I timed the circling fish, waiting for him to reach the apogee of his orbit. “Three, two, one…” I counted down as my friend killed the trolling motor. On the radio, the caller veered even further from reality, and Noory cut him off just as my fly snicked into the darkness opposite the buoy. Sixty feet. “One strip per second,” I reminded myself, since I needed the fly to twitch as I piled my line back at my feet on the retrieve. I wanted it to look injured.

The baitfish tornado parted like a curtain as the dark mass accelerated toward my fly. My eyes locked on the fish, my body tensed to punch back the moment he bit… and my line came taut. Too early! As I whipped my head back towards the fly, I already knew what had happened. A precocious white bass, eager enough to shoulder in on the big brute’s turf, had snatched my fly. I quickly landed him; four pounds, no more. As I expected, the commotion had startled the 20 pounder. Big fish do not get that way by being stupid.

My friend and I fished out the evening but we knew it was just for show. Our cooler was full; walleye and white bass, and one small striper caught on sunk bait. The experiment had failed, but at least this time we had seen the possibility of success. Our striper had come in, awash in our mad-scientist light, then, just like the chupacabra, had melted away into the night.

This article originally ran in the November 2013 issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

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