Monday, August 5, 2013

Stripers Were My Elk

My father and I with some hefty stripers, around 1973
Written in 2001, this essay was published in the anthology, "American Nature Writing 2002" edited by John A. Murray.

It was a cool September evening and I was seventeen, on my way to pick up a date for a high school dance, when I caught a glimpse of the rising moon. Bright and fat as a peach, it stirred in me inexplicable urges. I rushed back home, grabbed the keys to Dad’s boat, and headed for offshore islands in search of striped bass. In my delirium I had forgotten my date. But it was, after all, a striper moon.

The incident inspired my oldest brother to create a collage of images clipped from magazines. On a beach in the foreground stood a beautiful woman glancing longingly out to sea. Far in the distance was a figure fishing from a boat, a small Boston Whaler like my father’s. The caption read, “Oh well. . . I guess he’d rather chase bass.”

Adaptable, migratory, alluring, striped bass are more like elk than any other fish I know. Like elk, female bass are called cows. In countless hours of pursuit, their enigmatic lurking have haunted and taunted and baffled me. Stripers, like elk, have the power to take you over.

“That is the magic that rides the striper’s shoulders as it swims through the ageless pattern of its autumnal migration, south along the shore and deep into the souls of the men who live on it,” wrote John N. Cole in his 1978 book Striper. This book was a revelation for me. Although I was a senior in high school, Striper was the first book that I truly read and enjoyed. Cole tells of his passion for stripers and fishing and how both shaped his life, his values, and his thoughts. I could relate.

I had already spent a childhood, and then some, chasing stripers along the shores and islands of my Connecticut coastal home. One of my earliest memories is of a dusk-to-dawn foray in a boat. Still too young to fish seriously, I napped to the rocking of waves, and woke to the screech of monofilament rapidly departing a reel, my dad hooking and fighting a big bass, working the fish close enough to the boat to gaff. When he hoisted the fish over the gunwale, I was enchanted by the lean, pearly white giant scribed with vivid black stripes, its grand, sharp-edged dorsal fin and sweet, pungent odor. Later, I came to savor the white flesh which is, as 1600s-era New England fisherman William Wood noted, “One of the best fishes in the country . . . a delicate, fine, fat, faste fish.”

Known to reach 125 pounds, these anadromous fish commonly weigh 40 pounds or more and live twenty to thirty years, torpedoing up and down the New England coast, their powerful tails and armor-like scales chiseled by the harsh, rocky surf where sea and land meet.

But even as Cole’s book captured the magic of striped bass and the joys of fishing for them, it also clarified what I was already feeling about the striper’s future—and my own. “Ten years from now, at its current rate of decline, the striped bass will no longer roam the inshore waters of the Atlantic from Cape Charles to the St. John,” he wrote. “The northeastern migratory striped bass, that creature with its genesis in the great glaciers, will have vanished as a viable species.”

From the start, my father taught me conservation basics: to keep only what I would eat, to fish fairly and honestly with respect for the quarry. Later, he showed me the varied ways of pipers and horseshoe crabs, jellyfish and sea robins, scallops and mussels, and all that makes up the world of the striper. Eventually he also spoke of the importance of clean water and healthy estuaries for stripers and all ocean creatures.

From spring through fall, from shore and by boat, mostly at night and on rainy or overcast days, I madly pursued these fish as they migrated between their spawning grounds, in Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River estuaries, and their summering grounds, as far north as Maine. Along the way, I sometimes caught bluefish and weakfish, dug clams, trapped lobsters, netted blue crabs and jigged for flounder. But always stripers swam through my thoughts.

I cast hefty plugs from the surf. I drifted chunks of mackerel, eel, and sandworms from the boat. I anchored off islands, hooked three-pound baitfish called bunkers through their backs and let them send distress signals out among the barnacled-covered boulders where I hoped a huge striper lay waiting. I constantly hounded my father with questions: Do you think the cows are coming through? Where’s the best place to fish tonight? Can you go? Can you leave work early? Can I skip school?

Like elk, stripers temp you to extremes. There was the night the surf slammed our small boat into a reef, swamping us in the dark, frigid Atlantic where we struggled, neat to hypothermia, for our lives. Once, a rogue wave filled my waders, stole my breath and pulled me under. Failed engines left me drifting helpless in dark, foggy, rough seas. But there were countless crisp, starry nights flanked by brilliant crimson sunsets and sunrises. There was the amiable smell and bitter taste of saltwater; the feel of salt spray, sun, and wind; the clamorous, rapacious cries of seagulls, terns, and cormorants.

Between bouts of fishing, I slept on the fiberglass deck of the boat or on island beaches rife with sand fleas. Resting during one spontaneous four-day striper binge, I was awakened by the Coast Guard. They were combing the reefs and islands after my distraught mother reported me lost at sea. Thereafter I was confined to shore for a while but still managed to fish the surf. In an area otherwise congested with humanity, the beach, bass, sea, and islands were my wilderness. Later, I recognized my pleasure in Thomas McGuane’s collection of essays, An Outside Chance, in which he tells of fishing for stripers in Sakonnet, Rhode Island, within casting distance from mansions: And, to a great extent, this is the character of bass fishing from the beach,” he writes. “In very civilized times it is reassuring to know that wild fish will run so close that a man on foot and within earshot of lawn mowers can touch their wildness with a fishing rod.”

I remember one night in particular, with my father, anchored alongside a narrow reef, stretching nearly a mile from a sumac-covered island to a boat-wrecking pile of barnacled rock exposed only at low tide. It’s an unusual reef because the ride flows over it in the same direction whether coming in or going out. The trick is to stay close to where reef meets Island as the tidal current flows through the eel grass carrying food to hungry, waiting bass. Suddenly my bunker began to splash along the surface and in the moonlight I could see the fins and wake of a long, lean striper slice towards my bait. Then there was a brief chaos of sound and flying water as though a flat rock had fallen from the moon. Then silence, and a dead rod, my bunker now floating motionless.

When I began to reel in, my father hissed, “Wait!” Soon we saw a swirl, followed by a huge dorsal fin, then a tail, moving with leisurely purpose toward my bunker. Like some great cat batting a mouse, the big bass had stunned my bunker with his powerful tail. Now he snatched it up and ran, the line, lots of it, spooling freely in the general direction of Long Island. I counted anxiously to ten, flipped the bail switch, leaned back with all my weight, and drove a 4/0-size hook into the bass’s jaw. In the twenty minutes before the fish came to gaff, I was as alive as it is possible to be.

Sometimes, particularly on cold, overcast autumn days, I would spot a mad swarm of seagulls and terns fiving the surf, picking at bait fish frantically sandwiched between sky and boiling bass. There might be time to drift close and cast a Goo-Goo-Eyes lure among the fray. I would swim the big plug across the surface, tracking the swirls as a fish closed in. Then the horde of bass and baitfish would vanish as quickly as they had appeared, leaving me to wonder where they had gone and why. There was so much mystery about them, so much to learn.

My father, Edward Stalling Sr., with a 48 lb striped bass, around 1974
Happy that I shared his passion, my father taught me the most promising reefs and jetties to fish at certain seasons and tides, his knowledge based on a lifetime of fishing this shoreline and keeping meticulous notes, always searching for patterns and cycles. He might have caught a great silvery beast under the full moon off the southeast of corner of a particular rocky island in late October, when the tide was two hours out. Or he might have seen a school of cow stripers throwing shadows like a squadron of dirigibles on a certain grassy sandbar the first week of June as the tide began to turn and rise. So we studied tide charts and calendars and fished those places when the conditions seemed ideal. The stripers weren’t always there, but we found them often enough to keep us hungry to learn more. The pursuit of stripers, like hunting elk, requires knowledge, time, patience and persistence.

My father loved to show me the best places to look for stripers, but he also took me to the place where he used to look for them—the salt marshes that are now Saugutuck Estates, the estuaries turned golf-course resorts, the brackish waters, where freshwater meets salt, that are now industrial dumping grounds. I was baffled by those who would fish for and eat stripers, yet think nothing of filling in salt marsh to build a new home—just as I am now puzzled by those who hunt and eat elk, yet glibly build houses in the heart of elk habitat. Later, through books and college, I learned of ecology and biology, and Leopoldian notions of a conservation ethic. But such studies were affirmations of what striped bass, and my father, had already taught me.

Like elk, stripers once numbered in the millions. In 1614, a Captain John Smith, sailing off the coast of New England, reported, “I myselfe at the turning of the tyde have seene such multitudes passe out of a pounde that it seemed to me that one mighte go over their backs drishod.” The fish spawned in every major tributary from Virginia to Maine, and were so numerous the colonists used them for fertilizer. In 1629, colonists passed the first conservation law of the New World, forbidding the use of stripers for fertilizer. 

In 1879, trainloads of striped bass began making overland journeys from New Jersey to San Francisco as part of a zealous effort to establish a West Coast fishery. It worked. Stripers now range from California to British Columbia. When the Army Corps of Engineers built the Santee and Pinopolis dams in the 1940s, they unwittingly trapped spawning stripers that had run up South Carolina’s Santee and Cooper Rivers from the Atlantic. Surprisingly, these fish survived and thrived, living year-round in freshwater. Fishery biologists have since stocked this strain in reservoirs across the country, including labyrinthine Lake Powell at the border of Utah and Arizona. They’ve also mixed the eggs and sperm of stripers and white bass, creating a hybrid that is stocked in lakes and raised commercially for food. Good, I once thought. Why not spread the majestic striper wealth!

But now I wonder how this quintessential East Coast native is affecting aquatic species endemic to North America’s Pacific coastline. Should a fish that historically has spent ninety-nine percent of its life in saltwater displace the native fish, amphibians, and other wildlife that evolved, adapted, and live in rivers and lakes? Do stripers belong in a man-made lake that was once a maze of beautiful desert canyons? Should we devise our own species from two wild fish to suit our whims? Is this desire to improve upon nature like moving elk to Alaska or red deer to North America? Are hatchery-reared fresh water stripers any wilder than domesticated elk behind game-farm fences?

By 1979, when I was a senior in high school, the future of stripers looked dim. My dad and I caught our share of older, bigger fish, but the number of young bass had plummeted, and we no longer ate their sweet meat. PCBs had contaminated their flesh. These toxic chemicals had worked their way from industrial plants along the Hudson and Chesapeake estuaries into the wild food chain all up and down the East Coast. That year, Congress enacted the Emergency Striped Bass Act, directing the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service to investigate the causes of decline and recommend restoration measures. The resulting efforts have mostly focused on fishing restriction and raising stripers in hatcheries.

At meetings of the local striped-bass club, in which my father served as president, I observed heated debate about the causes and cures for the striper decline. It was popular, if not easy, to blame the commercial fishermen. I despised those who would haul stripers from the surf with nets. But later, when I read Peter Matthiessen’s book Men’s Lives, a tribute to Long Island haul seiners, I had second thoughts. Matthiessen relates eminent striped-bass biologist Dr. Edward Raney’s view on whether commercial fishermen are the real bogeymen: “If the sportsmen would put equal energy into the correction of known contributing causes to scarcity of stripers, the future of the species would be far brighter.”

Striper populations periodically cycle up and down, but each “high” in the cycle is a bit lower. With our proclivity for damming rivers, filling wetlands, and dumping chemicals, we’ve destroyed the spawning and rearing habitats needed to restore their numbers to Captain Smith’s days. With stripers, as with elk, few people seem willing to address the bedrock issues of habitat, pollution, human greed, population and consumption. But, like elk, stripers are astonishingly tenacious, surviving in spite of our continued desecration of their home.

Although they have recently made yet another remarkable come-back, nobody seems to fully understand why. Fishing regulations and hatchery-reared stocking may have contributed, and certainly efforts to reduce contaminations in the Hudson River have helped. But the Chesapeake—where nine-tenths of the East Coast’s migratory stripers spawn and spend the first three years of their lives—is still laden with acid rain, aluminum, sewage, chlorine, and industrial and agricultural chemicals that poison water, deplete oxygen, and decimate aquatic nutrients and vegetation vital to striper eggs, larvae and fry.

Cleaning up the Chesapeake, like protecting elk winter range and migratory corridors, is the key to the species’ survival and viability, Even if the Chesapeake is cleansed, though, it seems sad and unwise for so much of the striper’s fate to precariously hang on the health of one estuary.

I’ve known striped-bass fishermen who love to catch the fish but care little about protecting the waters in which the great bass dwell, A fellow elk hunter recently confided that he’s more concerned about bowhunting opportunity than elk. I can only wonder why the magic of the species—and the oceans or mountains—elude such people.

Me, packing out an elk in the wilds of Montana
In 1985 a forestry job brought me to Montana and elk. I fell in love all over again. I began summer mornings with devout studies of Olaus J. Murie’s Elk of North America and the Wildlife Management Institute’s Elk of North America: Ecology and Management. I spent every day I could pursuing and watching elk, year-round, on foot, snowshoes, and skis through steep alder and ninebark jungles.

Elk have lured me through many long, lonely nights of extremes in cold, snowy mountains. I’ve hunted hard, killed elk, and savored their flesh. And in the countless hours and miles of unpredictable adventure chasing these magnificent creatures, I’ve come to deeply cherish elk and the land they animate.

As with stripers, my devotion to elk and elk hunting kindled concern for their well-being and their habitat. Like the East Coast stripers migrating through the shadows of the most heavily industrialized and populated stretch of the United States, elk continue to adapt to and survive human expansion and development. But how much can they stand, and how long can they continue to adjust and subsist? And what will they become in the process? Stripers cruising a desert lake are like elk that become dependent on human feedgrounds. They seem different, something less, not the enigmatic, wild animals that can evoke our passion and our stewardship.

Elk have become my stripers, and stripers were my elk, and through an obsessive quest for these mysterious beasts I’ve come to admire all that they are and all that sustains them. From the barnacles, plankton, and sharks of striper country to the lichen, sedges, and grizzlies of elk country, I relish and respect what makes these creatures whole—and how they, and their habitat, have helped make me whole. In Striper, John Cole wrote, “If we allow fish and fishermen to vanish, we deny our heirs this critical opportunity to find themselves in the nets they pull from the sea.” The same can be said of elk and elk hunters.

My father, Edward C. Stalling Sr. 1925-2003
When I used to walk with my father along the rocky Connecticut shore where he spent nearly eight decades fishing for stripers, he would often show me where, as a boy, he and his pals would skinny-dip, steal corn, hunt ducks, dig clams and oysters, catch blue crabs, and fish. In his youth the Connecticut coast still held wild expanses of hardwoods, miles of rugged, empty oceanfront, small farms, and fishing villages. But cornfields are now country clubs, and duck marshes have become gated communities. 

My father would often tell me of a moonlit night in his youth when he watched, for hours, the green backs and spiny dorsal fins of thousands of bass (some the size of punching bags) as they pushed their way through shallow reef over a sandbar, headed for southern breeding grounds. I have never seen such a gathering of stripers, but his stories still feed my dreams.

When my father used to visit me in Montana, he would see the same forces whittling away at the country. When he reminisced, I would hear a wistfulness born out of his vanished youth, but beneath this lied a deeper sorrow for all the wild country that has vanished with it.

Stripers and elk have furnished me immeasurable adventure, joy, and nourishment. I do what I can to aid efforts that sustain the wildness on which they, and I, depend. When I am old, I hope to look with content, not sorrow, at oceans and mountains still clean and wild—a world where stripers and elk still captivate and inspire their pursuers. 

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