Thirty-five miles south of Cape Cod's elbow, just off the southeast tip of Nantucket Island, a 10-mile-long stretch of shifting sandbars called Old Man Shoals churns the Atlantic into a convulsive horror for boatmen. It is cold off Nantucket in late fall. When the wind comes down from the north or northeast, Old Man Shoals is not a good place to be—that is, unless you happen to be a striped bass or one of that obsessed army who must pursue this most charismatic of East Coast game fish regardless of the cost. Why the name Old Man Shoals? No one seems to know, but after spending a day there in a November gale I offer this explanation. It is called Old Man because of the way it makes you feel when you fish there this time of year. You are soaked and chilled from a biting shower of salt spray, bruised and sore from being thrown around in the boat's cockpit by mountainous waves and, woe of woes, seasick.
In November, over the bars and shoals of Nantucket's east and southeast shore, huge schools of migrating stripers linger on until the third week of the month in some years, long after others of their species have yielded to cold water and northeast storms and disappeared to the south. No one is certain why they remain or from where they have come; but they are there, and they are hungry. Mindful of the market price of the delicately flavored bass, a few charter-boat skippers single-mindedly chase them from dawn to dusk through waters that would keep a destroyer at dockside. Their sport-fishing parties gone for the year, these modern Ahabs head for Nantucket and a physically taxing combination of sporting and commercial madness.
The most persistent and well-known of the striped-bass zealots is Irving (Bud) Henderson, skipper of the 30-foot Mackenzie bass boat, Li'l Darlin', based at Harwich's Wychmere Harbor. A Boston outdoor writer who had gone out with him a year ago reported that in less than seven hours they had landed 1,000 pounds of bass, some as large as 35 pounds. All but a few of the fish had been taken on handlines. I wondered what a big bass would feel like at the end of a handline, with no reel drag or rod to absorb its powerful rushes.
Bud Henderson agreed to take me out the first week of November; we would leave the harbor before dawn. At 2:30 a.m. the thermometer at my home outside of Boston read 36�, and I remembered it was November and I was going fishing 30 miles at sea. I had been ice fishing in warmer weather.
At 5 a.m., in the dark beside the pier, the radio in Bud Henderson's boat forecast northeast winds from 25 to 35 mph, the perfect prescription for trouble in the waters we were to fish. The skippers of two other boats listened to the forecast and climbed into their cars and went back home to bed. But Henderson had been averaging about $100 worth of bass each day, and he was going fishing. Heading into dark Nantucket Sound, the boat rose and fell in six-foot swells, and three or four times each minute it was like coming to a sudden stop in a high-speed elevator. At 6:15, while going through a rip west of Monomoy Island, a wave broke completely over the boat. Waves of 10 to 12 feet crashed wildly by on all sides, "Look ahead!" Henderson shouted. "Don't look back unless you wanna get scared. You know who the smart fishermen were today, don't you?" he added. "The ones who stayed home. It's too rough to turn back, so we might as well fish." I grinned weakly, trying to ignore hints of wooziness at the bottom of my rib cage.
Now it was light enough to see seven or eight miles in any direction, and in all that water ours was the only boat. Bob Luce, a Boston machinist who hadn't gone a week without striper fishing in eight months, ducked into the cabin and came out with five 125-foot coils of nylon monofilament handline, three testing 180 and two testing 80 pounds. To each of these was tied a size 7/0 lead-head No-Alibi lure.
Three miles to the southwest Nantucket's Great Point was visible for the first time. The previous Friday afternoon Henderson had taken 1,280 pounds of bass, including a 54-pounder, from the rips just west of the point. We cruised slowly two miles off the beach. Once I was sure I had seen at least an acre of feeding bass on the other side of the rip, and Al Ristori, a Garcia Fishing Tackle representative, kept seeing diving birds. Bud Henderson called no false alarms though, and we perked up when he suddenly gunned the engine and pointed to the southwest. Just over a mile away, what looked like a little cloud with a thousand wings was hovering over a very rough stretch of water. This was our first glimpse of Old Man Shoals.
Three of the lines were fastened to points along the stern, and the other two to 14-foot outriggers. Foot-long pieces of heavy, stretchy rubber at the boat end of the lines would act as cushions against the strikes of large fish. Henderson tipped each lure with a five-inch strip of pork rind, and as the boat neared the rip we threw all five lines over. We stood with our legs braced against the gunwales of the pitching boat, jerking the lines back and forth to make the lures breathe, and waiting tensely and expectantly.
We edged alongside the shoals, and suddenly there were fish flying through the air, bouncing off our backs, hitting against our legs. In less than two minutes eight bass flopped onto the deck. None was under 10 pounds; one was more than three feet long and looked to be at least 30 pounds, far larger than any I had ever caught. It was a mesmerizing scene and all I could do was stare at the fish.
Henderson's voice cut short my reverie. "Hey, grab your outrigger line," he shouted into my ear as he lobbed a 15-pound striper into the fish box. I snatched the line from the outrigger, jerked in a foot or two and then had it yanked away. I felt like a child with a Great Dane on a leash. It was embarrassing. Bob Luce had two more bass in the boat and I was still working on this one. Luce edged over, and together we hauled the fish, hand over hand, to the side of the boat, where Henderson gaffed it, a 27-pound striper. I was uneasy killing such a wonderful fish without giving it a real chance.