The best way to fish is alone. The best time to fish is the fall. Believing these simple truths to be self-evident, I set out alone each fall to fish the rivers and creeks that flow out of Virginia into the Chesapeake Bay. It is a good time of year all around. Everybody else in the world is watching a football game. Leaves cover the roadside beer cans, and the traffic is light. Whenever a car appears pulling a boat, I know it is bound for the city, not the sea, for the water skiers have beached their skis and skin divers have taken up bowling. Praise the fall.
In truth, fishermen should do as fish do in the summer—lie low. We should give the beaches to the sunbathers and admit that during this idle season, when the great fiber-glass fleet rules the waterways, the thing to do is haul in our lines and run for cover. Of course, we will never do this. We aren't as smart as fish. We persist in thinking that the summer is big enough for all of us—fishermen, skin divers, water skiers, the whole shebang. What a delusion.
But now it is the fall, and I am driving east on Route 33. Pine trees crowd the shoulders, and the morning sun is hot. In the Tidewater, summer and fall merge with each other so quietly that for a few weeks you need a calendar to tell where you arc. Straddling two seasons, one foot in each, you feel both seasons at once.
At West Point, under a cloud of pulp-mill smoke, I cross the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers, tributaries of the York River, which enters the bay just north of the James. All of these rivers belong to the fall in my mind, the James especially, where I once saw the fall arrive.
I had taken a boat up the river to fish for bass in the mouth of a small creek near Presque Isle Swamp, about 12 miles below Richmond. Here the James takes its time, dawdling along between odorous mud flats, mesmerizing fish and fishermen alike. It just about put me to sleep that day, I recall. After several hours I had had enough, and started back, half paddling, half drifting down the river on the outgoing tide, drowsing among the slumberous sounds of wallowing carp and turtles dropping off logs.
It was a warm day in early October. Most of the clothing I had started out in lay heaped in the bottom of the boat. I was glad the tide and I were going the same way. Farther down the river a handful of gulls was circling a row of stakes that had once supported fishnets. The shoreline slid past, marshy and still. I drifted by a small bay and across a gravel bar. By this time the gulls were wheeling overhead. The fog lifted just enough for me to catch the glimmerings of an idea, something about gulls following stripers.... Oh, nonsense, I thought. Nevertheless, there was the rod resting against the middle seat. All I had to do was pick it up. Why not? I cast into the shore. It was an idle cast and went farther than I had intended it to, landing among a drift of leaves and pine needles. The surface plug bobbed a few times. The leaves bulged and then blew open. It was an astonishing moment. I had often driven hundreds of miles chasing stripers up and down the eastern seaboard, and here I had drifted into a school of them. Later I visualized our paths as two crooked lines, wobbling all over the river, and somehow miraculously bisecting under a flock of gulls. In 10 minutes it was all over. We had drifted apart, and without a motor I had no way of following them. It didn't matter, though. I had four of them, all about six pounds, flopping on top of my clothes.
I don't know of any fish that gives as much pleasure to as many fishermen as the ubiquitous striper. He may not be as dazzling as a bonefish or as much a roughneck as a snook, but he covers more ground than these fish do and so comes into contact with more people. There is nothing provincial about him, either. He can get along in fresh water just as well as he can in salt water, river water as well as ocean water, shallow water or deep water—it's all the same to him. People fish for him in boats, on banks, in the surf or by wading. They use trolling rods, boat rods, casting rods, spinning rods, fly rods and every kind of bait made—wood, plastic, feathered and live. And he survives them all. Praise the striper, I thought, looking at my four, the most democratic fish that swims.
By the time I reached the landing, the temperature had dropped sharply. A chill wind swept across the river. I climbed back into my clothes and walked home smelling of fish. That was six years ago. The sweater is still with me, as is the scent. Maybe nobody else can smell it, after tons of mothballs and innumerable dry cleanings, but I was putting the sweater in the car this morning, prior to setting off down Route 33, and caught a whiff of it again, every bit as strong as that day I passed through a school of stripers.
Stutts Creek, my destination, is one of many tidal creeks found along the Virginia side of the Chesapeake Bay. Itself a branch of the bay, it sprouts still other branches and ends up looking on a map like a tree that has fallen into the bay's marshy fringes. Once a waterway for crabbers and oystermen, it has become in recent years something of a playground as well, conveying many more svelte Chris-Crafts than lumbering work-boats. But like playgrounds everywhere, it is crowded in the summer and all but empty during the winter.
When I fish Stutts Creek I always stay with a man who was raised on it, Norris Richardson, who runs Pine Hall, an inn for fishermen and exhausted city dwellers who drive down on the weekends from Richmond. Pine Hall is a large white house overlooking the creek from a summit of green grass. Norris runs the place as though he were not really trying to, and as a result it is one of the best-run places I know of. You have the comfortable feeling that everyone is there to relax, even the help. Norris is a small, distracted man with an inexhaustible supply of country stories, little pastoral romances about coons and possums and what happened to old Uncle So-and-so when a pail of crabs turned over in his kitchen. Listen to enough of these tales and you forget all about Vietnam and overpopulation. I always like to hear one or two before setting off up the creek. They are like steppingstones to another world.