Stutts Creek enters the bay between two islands lying just off the mainland. One of these, Gwynn Island, is a well-known vacation spot, but the other, Rigby Island, is little more than an exposed sandbar. There is a channel between the islands, but elsewhere the water is shallow and marshy.
Stripers seem to regard the bay as a school they have to complete before graduating into the Atlantic Ocean. The school lasts four years. A few dropouts may tackle the ocean sooner than that, but the majority are content to wait until graduation day. Then they are ready to join the big ocean community on the outside. At least, this is what a tagging program instigated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission indicates. The young striper just out of school tends to stay pretty close to home for the first year or so, but as his size increases so does his boldness, and off he goes to prowl the New England coast 700 miles away. In the fall he frequently returns, packing weights of 20 and 30 pounds. It is a curious fact that stripers reach the bay about the same time that alumni are arriving in Charlottesville, Va. to watch Mr. Jefferson's eleven take another licking, but if you think that homecoming is worth watching you ought to see what happens when the Old Boys get together in the bay. It's an alumni secretary's dream. Gulls throw up tents all over the place, covering the big feeds, and the campus becomes one huge thrashing contest. Before long the racket reaches the shore, and here comes a fleet of fishermen pounding out to join in the fun.
It's great sport if you like that sort of thing, and most striper fishermen do, but not caring for homecomings myself, in Charlottesville or the bay, I cut the motor and drift into the shallows behind Rigby Island. It's quieter there. You can hear the tide running through the grass. I toss out the anchor, rig up a rod, stuff my pockets with flies, climb into a pair of boots and wade off in search of a few first-graders.
Cold nights have distilled the water. Croakers, spot, crabs, nettles—all of summer's impedimenta—have been frozen out, and the once-green marsh is now the color of bronze. A line of pine trees stands on the far shore; nearer, dead limbs mark an oyster bed. Where the bay has breached Rigby Island slightly left of center, the tide crosses a sandbar and then spreads out over the marsh, dividing it into a number of small grassy clumps. The water is a hard, glinty, blue.
I have never yet caught a fish on a first cast, nor have I ever made a first cast without thinking I would catch a fish. My heart pounds, my hands shake. I tie on a white streamer, wet it with saliva so that it will sink fast, and drop it at the edge of the marsh. It crosses the tide on a series of swift jerks and returns to my feet untouched. I pick it up and cast again. By the 15th cast my hands are steady and my heart has resumed its normal tempo. Now begins the long haul.
Stripers like moving water, and when the tide is slack so are they. I walk along casting. Hours pass. I switch to a popping bug and try that until the marsh is brimful of water and a gold chain leads across it to where the sun is settling into a thicket of trees. Lights appear on shore. Gulls are coming in to roost on the channel markers. Soon it will be dark. I want a fish to whack the popper-right out of the water, and I hold onto this hope as long as there is light. Then, when there is no more light, I return to Pine Hall.
So begins the first of many fall weekends on Stutts Creek. As the days shorten, my clothes increase. Sweaters pile up. By December I look like a woolen balloon with legs. Norris Richardson's dogs jump aside when they see me coming. Some mornings dawn fair, others overcast and wet. The best mornings are those when frost covers the ground and a brittle stillness films the creek. Coming up, the sun looks like a forest fire. The worst mornings come out of Canada on a northwest wind that wants to shred you alive, and you need more than sweaters to keep warm. Some fishermen use insulated underwear, some carry bottles, some turn on the furnace words of the English language. I resort to fantasy myself. As soon as numbness reaches the top of my waders, I wrap myself in the vision of a big striper who has gotten tired of homecoming and returned to the shallows of his youth. I see him passing through the inlet just as I am rounding the marsh directly in front of him. There was a time when he would not enter the shallows without company, but now that he has grown up the rewards of fellowship have diminished and he finds that the marsh is something of a relief after the tumult of the bay. So here he is enjoying the freedom of being alone, and here I am doing the same—smothered in wool, walking toward him. I see him nudge the grass. His tail lifts a cloud of sand, then carries him into the mouth of a small feeder creek. (In actual fact, there is such a creek, though it lies closer to Pine Hall than it does in my fantasy. I never pass it without thinking what a wonderful place it would be to catch a striper—smooth sandy bottom, tufts of grass choking the mouth, a line of pine trees to break the wind.) Once he is in the creek, however, the striper finds that the water is not as deep as it appeared to be on the outside and he starts back, cruising like a porpoise. By then I have planted a popper squarely in the middle of the opening, and when he is within sight of it I twitch the line and the popper jumps forward. You can guess the rest.
It is astonishing how much heat a scene like that can generate.
For a moment last Thanksgiving Day I thought I had caught this fish. I went out early in the morning and fished straight through until dusk. It was a cold, blustery day. The wind piled up big waves and hurled them at the shore. Casting a heavy saltwater fly rod is hard work in itself, but casting it in the wind for seven or eight hours is pure torture. In the middle of the afternoon I found three small fish, 2- and 3-pounders, huddled up in a pocket of deep water, but catching them had rekindled no fires, and by evening I was numb and sore all over.
Even my fantasy had quit working. The tide had just about run itself out, and so had I. I switched to a spinning rod, a less taxing instrument than a fly rod, and waded out along a point of land for a few final casts. I tossed the lure, a weighted jig, into a trench the tide had dug between two sandbars. It was an ordinary sort of place, a place you fish because you know you should rather than because it appeals to you. I had fished the place many times before, ever since Brook Jones, a fine fisherman from Richmond, had pointed it out to me. Brook takes fish out of it all the time, but I had never had much luck with it. Today was different. The lure bounced down one wall of the trench, disappeared in deep water, then climbed up the other wall. It had just reached the top when a shadow rose off the bottom and pulled it back down. I knew it was a big fish by the size of the shadow. He lunged around in the depths for a while, then plowed off across the shallows with a second fish right behind him. Why the second fish, I don't know. Perhaps the two of them had been lying in the trench getting fat together. In any case, the follower soon veered off in the direction of the channel while my fish bore straight ahead. There is nothing spectacular about the way stripers behave after they arc hooked. A heavy fish simply lays into a line and bulls his way along. He's a plodder. I could have let this striper run a mile before he reached anything to break off on, but it had been a long cold day and I was taking no chances. I could plod, too. So I set a hard drag and in lime wore him down the way you break horses—with sheer force.