As I sit at my computer writing this in the early afternoon, I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to see the words I’m typing. I am absolutely exhausted, and not from pre-Fourth of July celebrations or the sticky heat. No, I’m tuckered out from an early wake-up call and a fantastic day of fishing with great friends, new and old.
The adventure began at 2:50 AM when my alarm went off. Though it was ridiculously early, I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready for the morning of fishing ahead of me. By 3:30, I was on the way to Newburyport with my buddy Brendan and his grandfather, Mike. On the way, both Brendan and Mike couldn’t say enough good things about Kyle, the guide that would be taking us out. I was excited already.
When we arrived at the docks, there were already a couple schoolies busting under the marina light. The wind was light, the temperature just a tad chilly, and the sky dusted in a few benign-looking clouds – perfect fishing weather. Though we got there slightly early, Kyle was just a minute or two behind us, and ready to go immediately. Right away, you could tell Kyle was a fishy dude. He fishes about five days a week, and it shows by the way he talks about the sport. He enthusiastically chatted about his new 25-foot boat, which he had already caught a number of tuna out of. Of course, he’d also been whacking the stripers, including one that went just a half-inch short of 50. We all certainly hoped we could connect with a few today.
We started the day off on the Joppa Flats as the sun still struggled to peek over the horizon and through the clouds. Casting Sluggos, we hoped to connect with a late-season flats dweller, but alas, no dice. Typically Joppa is a better spot in June, when a myriad of bait is present in the shallow water.
Next we headed out of the mouth of the Merrimack and towards slightly deeper water. In the early morning haze, I could make out just one other boat in the river mouth, which can get pretty packed on occasions. But as they say, the early bird gets the worm, or in this case the mackerel we were after for bait.
Once we got to the spot, it didn’t take long at all to get on fish. At first it was Brendan hauling the mackerel up one fish at a time. But once the chum slick got going, it was hard to keep the fish off the Sabiki rigs. Each of us hauled up a full stringer – five fish – on nearly every drop until we had just about completely filled the livewell. Honestly, I would have been content staying out there and fishing for mackerel all day. Once you had a couple fish on, they put up a solid fight on the light tackle. I even said to Brendan that I’d consider returning with a five-weight fly rod and a couple tiny Clousers.
With bait in the livewell and light in the sky, we headed to a familiar striper spot for me: the mouth of the Parker River. With nobody on the beach and just a couple other boats around, we had nearly the entire channel to ourselves as the outgoing tide dumped bait and nutrients from the river. Kyle got the boat in position for a drift while the rest of us chucked out live mackerel. The Baitrunner reels we were using were new to me, so I was happy when Kyle explained how easy they were to use (or so he made it seem).
Brendan was the first to hook up. While it was just a schoolie, the fish pulled hard on the light tackle and gave us some energy. Mike was next to hook up with a similar-sized fish, but I still remained fishless. I had a couple nice takes, with the fish screaming line out of the bait clicker. However, when I engaged the drag and got ready to reel, the fish would be gone. This was a common theme throughout the day, and luckily I wasn’t the only one affected by it. Once, I even had a decent striper follow my mack’ all the way up to the boat and take a chunk out of it, but I fumbled the rod and missed it.
Finally, about halfway through our second or third drift, the line started screaming from my reel and I flipped the lever to fight the fish. This time, the rod doubled over with the weight of a good fish. Before I could even start reeling, he ripped some line from the spool in a short burst, then continued to dig for the bottom. When I could, I tried to turn his head and get him going in the right direction, but it certainly wasn’t easy. I knew right away it was a decent fish, and quickly hollered for the net.
When I first saw color, I thought I had hooked the fish of the year – at least a 40 incher! But once it was in the net, I realized it was a slightly smaller, albeit respectable, slot-length striped bass. When measured, it went a healthy 30.5″, a new personal best! I was elated to finally be on the board, and with a nice fish at that.
As we continued our drifts through the river channel, we each picked up another schoolie. But like I mentioned earlier, we were plagued by missed fish. For each striper we landed, we easily dropped five more. As bass and fly anglers, we must be used to setting the hook hard as soon as we receive a bite, which didn’t translate well to the circle hooks which you don’t need to set. Even still, most of the time we deliberately didn’t set the hook and still lost the fish. But how could you be mad about a few lost fish on a day as beautiful as it was? Regardless, we were still catching stripers.
After a little while of fishing the Parker, we shifted back to the mouth of the Merrimack. By this point the river was pretty packed with competing anglers, but we still found our spot in the drift line. While we were marking plenty of fish, we simply couldn’t get any to commit to our baits here. At first, a couple of the surrounding boats got the occasional fish, but after a little while, the action seemed to die. The fish were still around, but they seemed to have a case of lockjaw with the slack tide.
The coolest part about fishing the river mouth was the sturgeon. Every once in a while, a massive, prehistoric fish would launch itself through the water and crash back down, making quite the performance. It was a spectacle I had been waiting quite a while to see and felt privileged to witness.
Not so long ago, both the shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon weren’t doing so well. Their populations crashed as a result of damming and habitat degradation. And while these are still major issues in the drainages these beasts inhabit, steps have been taken to ensure a healthy recovery of both endangered species. Their comeback story hasn’t received the attention it deserves, though it serves as a model for successful conservation practices.
By about 9:00, all four of us were tuckered out and ready to head back in. As the catcher of the smallest fish of the day (or maybe just because he is crazy), Brendan bit the head off one of the dead mackerels as a parting ritual to the ocean, rivers, and the fish within them.
As with Brendan and Mike, I can’t recommend Kyle highly enough. He was a super chill dude, except for when you hooked a fish, in which case he got pretty excited. It was obvious he wanted us to catch fish, and took joy in the success of his clients. If you want to fish with Kyle for stripers, bottom fish, or even tuna, check out his website: masscharterfishing.com. It’s sure to be a great time.