ighting a striped bass is like fighting a person. The take feels like a reverse punch, like a human being grabbed your line and hauled back on it as hard as they could.
I’ve seen unprepared anglers have the rod jerked right out of their hands. To win this fight, you have to punch back; hammer the hook home and sock that fish in the mouth. They don’t like it. The first pump of the head is like a dog trying to kill a rabbit: shake, shake, thump. That’s the critical moment, when you’ll know whether or not your hook went home.
In a canoe, you will slide towards the fish as he plows back toward you, like a garden tiller in reverse. It’s easier to stand, which means sometimes you end up controlling the fish with your legs, like you’re water skiing. If he runs toward the boat, stomp your foot down hard and startle him back. It’s tug of war, and you will either meet in the middle or the rope will part, most likely dumping you in the drink.
Stripers up to twenty five pounds roam my water like drunks in a back alley. They have no particular place to be. They just want to find the bait, which will hunker and cower behind whatever obstruction it can fit its collective mass into. Find the bait yourself and you’ll also find the stripers. Some anglers search for them with spinning tackle, then when they locate a school, they switch over to fly rods. I prefer to stick with flies, for the same reason a bow hunter only picks up a rifle when the season is drawing to an end and the freezer’s still empty. Greater challenge equates to greater reward. Maybe I’m prideful, but so is this fish.
Stripers are schooling predators. They will ball up in a hole, and they like to strike upwards, then turn and yank down as they crush your fly in their surprisingly powerful jaws. Usually there’s one big brute surrounded by his flunkies, like a mob boss in the back of a warehouse. If you hook one, you want to move it out of its lie as soon as possible so it doesn’t blow the rest of the hole.
Of course that’s not always possible. Herman Melville wrote about whalers being towed for miles, in their whale-boats with bottoms so thin they were “like critical ice.” One guy’s whole job was to keep bailing water onto the line connecting them to Leviathan so the rope wouldn’t set fire to the boat gunnels as it played out. They called it a Nantucket sleigh-ride.
In a canoe, lashed to a big striper, the same thing happens. I’ve been towed over a hundred yards, controlling the boat with my hips, turning its head like a runaway horse-and-carriage, forcing the fish unwillingly away from tree trunks, rocks and strainers.
There have never been sleigh rides in the South. We have tractor pulls, and striped bass.
This article originally ran in Issue 5.1 of The Flyfish Journal.