If you’re an angler who grew up in North America, it’s almost guaranteed that your first love was largemouth bass. For some, it might have been trout, instead, but largemouth bass are almost undoubtedly “America’s Fish.” And for that reason they’ll always hold a special place in our hearts and be tough to top. Your first fish was probably a largemouth, you most likely catch up with your oldest friends while targeting them, and those really old pictures that your mom breaks out, where you’re wearing a Batman bathing suit and have a bowl cut… you’re probably holding a bass in those pictures.
I’d never question or challenge the lore of the largemouth in my, or any American’s, personal past. It’s been an honor, a privilege and a pleasure to target them from Oklahoma to Florida to South Carolina following the B.A.S.S. trail and I certainly learned how much there was that I didn’t know about catching them in the process.
But you know what makes that place you went on family vacations as a kid so special? Perhaps a bunch of things, but foremost among them was that you had to come back, you had to return, it was a limited-time, expiring offer which made every second seemingly more magical.
And I believe that all of us have that fish that, if not first in our book of sacred species, is a close second, and that fish for me is the striped bass.
I was lucky to target stripers from a young age, because our enormous Irish-Catholic family (six aunts, one uncle and a dozen-plus cousins) rented and shared a house on Cape Cod since 1989. Later I’d live on the Cape, then New Jersey and now Boston, and continue to fall in love with them, but it was those first stripers that were caught before I could even drive that endeared them to me more than anything.
And I’ve asked myself repeatedly what it is about these fish that makes them so utterly lovable. Sure, they’re beautiful, they taste great (should you decide to eat one), they fight hard and grow to pretty impressive sizes, but that’s true of a lot of inshore species. And claiming an undying allegiance just because Field & Stream Fishing Editor Joe Cermele designed me a striper tattoo when I interned at F&S seems like a cop-out. There was a reason I was so willing to have a striped bass on my shoulder forever, and it was formed in my soul long before the tattoo artist left the image of a striper on my skin.
I think the thing that is so endearing about stripers is that they bring the mystery of the Atlantic right to our wader boots. These fish, which swim enormous distances from Maine to North Carolina, and range far offshore beyond any angler’s cast, have the curiosity, the decency and the courage to come right within casting distance of any angler with a rod and good timing.
For that moment while we’re connected with one, we’re connected with something more: everything the fish represents, the beauty of the migration, the mystery of the Atlantic, the incredible ability for the species to survive and thrive despite hardship imposed upon it by human beings, and we are connected by the thinnest of possible measures, only a line. When a striper hits a bucktail or a bait, it is almost like hearing a faint whisper on the wind in response to a prayer. We cast, and we pray, with almost certain knowledge that it matters, but that does not change the fact that every surf striper, like every answered prayer, still feels like a miracle come true. And it, I believe, is for one simple reason. No matter how strong our faith in God, we must rationally allow for the possibility that he does not exist, that we are animals, products of evolution, and nothing more.
And along those same lines, every cast we make into the surf is one that might very well be into a portion of ocean empty of striped bass. They may have migrated further down the coast, or be offshore, out of casting distance. On a lake or pond, the body of water is finite enough that it stands to reason that bass must be somewhere, and if we fail to catch them, it’s a reflection upon our inability to do so, not their presence or lack thereof. But with striped bass, no matter how resolute our faith, our rational brain must admit that our attempt might be an exercise in futility. So, every time that it’s not, is though a miracle has transpired before our eyes.