Nick and I could already hear the commotion as we clamored down the gravel slope. Our guts were tightly wrought with anticipation. This was the night we had been waiting for; one we had planned and figured for. It had been a dry spring, and Nick was kicking up a thick cloud of dust by his awkward descent. I was trying desperately to keep up with him, and the dust did not faze me, nor the coughing that ensued. My mind was fixed on the imminent task. As a formality, I thought through my checklist one last time. There was no doubt that we were prepared.
When we reached our destination, the path at the base of the decline, Nick and I peered curiously over the short fence separating us from the edge of the corrugated steel retaining wall. The wall was brick red and encrusted with barnacles and blue mussels, which were exposed with each ebbing tide. Its job was to contain and direct the tidal water of the canal. Seventy-five yards away, across the waterway, there was an identical structure. The scene was shrouded in the darkness of a new moon, so neither of us could actually see any of this, yet the mind’s eye provided a collage of memories. We had been to this place a hundred times before.
We could hear clearly now the ruckus that we had noticed on the way down. There were distinctive claps, slaps and pops ringing out continuously both north and south of where we were standing. This commotion could have easily riled our fishermen’s instincts, but we fancied it a minor distraction, our minds set on a quarry that would never be so brazen. Our eyes scanned the pitch-black night, laboring to adjust still from the bright lights of the 7-Eleven where we had just purchased our evening rations. As our vision began to adapt to the evening conditions, we assessed the situation. The first sign that we were on the right track was initially more easily smelled than seen. The bottom third of the three-foot high chain link fence held the odoriferous remnants of the afternoon’s tide, mostly green algae and dead crabs. Normally, the water would never come so high as to reach the path. The wall must have been insufficient earlier, we concluded, allowing water and debris to escape the canal. Indeed, even on the highest full moon tides, we had never seen so much water there. This night was special, the kind that seeds legends.
Extraordinary conditions trigger unusual aggression in big fish. A good nor’easter had been battering the New Jersey coastline for two days and nights, unrelenting in its pounding wind and waves, yet eerily lacking of rain. On top of the storm, the inland waterway was faced with a spring tide due to the alignment of the earth, sun and moon – it would likely be the highest water of the year. We were counting on it. Nick and I had been preparing for two years, patiently awaiting such an auspicious convergence of tide, weather and fish. Like pro ball players finding comfort in the start of a big game, our heart rates quieted to a familiar pace. We settled into our element and began our routine.
The canal was known locally for its small yet abundant fish. On calm, clear nights, it was not uncommon to see folks on the canal in 16-foot Boston Whalers drifting sandworms or crabs for schoolie stripers and weakfish. Considering those small fish, onlookers would have snickered when they saw our heavy-duty gear. We rested our rods on the fence, as well as the bamboo handled gaff and Nick’s giant net. The net was outfitted with an eight-foot aluminum handle that was useful for raising fish out of the water and over the wall. The basket of that net could easily have accommodated a large dog. The rods we would use were massive (mine was nine and a half feet long) and we both had Calcutta 700 reels loaded with 80-pound test super line. Our leaders were eight feet of 120-pound fluorocarbon. We looked more apt to be fishing for marlin or Buicks than for striped bass. If any other fishermen were to see us that night, we knew that we would have some serious explaining to do, so we had agreed to lie if that situation arose. We had no intention of sharing our secrets with anyone. I dug through my kit bag to produce the components we would need to fashion our terminal tackle. The old canvas bag kept no secrets as my fingers navigated confidently through the worn compartments. Slides, beads, clips and a single 5/0 circle hook were to be married to create our aptly named fish finder rigs. In moments I had retrieved all the necessary ingredients and handed them to Nick for assembly. Deftly, he tied one perfect knot after the other. Darkness was no hindrance to his accuracy, nor to my faith in his knot tying ability.
I had brought a homemade battery-powered aerator that we clipped to the side of the five-gallon, eel infested bait bucket. It was an old paint pail, the inside of which Nick had painted black. Darkening the inside of the bucket was a trick that we had learned from an old timer. It kept the eels dark, as they were known to change color like chameleons to match their surroundings. There were times when those whitened eels might have been very effective, but not this night. These fish would be too wily to fall for that old trick. We also added ice to the eels’ water, which served to slow them down and made them much easier to handle. Baiting a hook with a live eel was sometimes more of an adventure than fishing with them. They’re lively little buggers, those eels. Actually, Nick and I despised those nasty, slimy things. Unfortunately for us eel haters, it has been proven that big eels are the best bait going for big stripers. That cold April night, we intended to catch very big stripers.
Once the vitality – however fleeting – of our bait had been secured with our makeshift aeration system, we set out toward our spot. We had always made a point of parking our car far away from the location that we were going to fish and accepting the task of lugging our equipment. We were far from anonymity in the local fishing community, a serious problem for those of us who strive to maintain some equivocation about fishing locations or technique. By virtue of station, we had been driven to become clandestine fishermen. And so we headed south through the darkness.
Our spot was easy for us to locate. On the far side of the canal, there glimmered a silvery bit of Christmas garland that had been stuck in the chain link for as long as I could remember. It was dingy, faded and old, yet somehow it always mustered the strength to be our beacon as it reflected the faint glow of a streetlight above us. Graciously, we aligned ourselves with this faithful companion. I observed for the first time that the retaining wall was higher here. Unlike where we had started out at, this section of fence showed no signs of having been submerged that afternoon. We were pleased by the prospect of staying dry at the peak tide. Just a tick farther south, the black silhouette of the Route 88 Bridge towered into the sky. The relentless wind of that evening coaxed a spectral moan from the massive cables that suspend the structure over the span.
The spot that we would fish was the gravesite of the old canal bridge, the one that was there in my youth, a bridge that so many had forgotten. The builders of the new bridge were faced with a dilemma in the disposal of the old one. The least costly solution, and that which was carried through, was to unceremoniously drop the span directly into the water below. I always thought that to be an ironic demise for a bridge which had managed to stay above the canal for nearly 75 years. The effect on the canal was a modest standing wave where the current flowed over the submerged structure. As often happens with underwater structure, a deep trough had formed on each side of it. In times such as this of very high water, the wave became enormous, impassable by all but the bravest captains and most buoyant craft. Before having seen it that night, neither of us would have believed the potential magnitude of that wave. Nick guessed that it stood a full twenty feet high, big enough to engulf any hapless drifters. The rushing water emitted a deep, droning growl that resounded with the moan of the bridge cables in an unearthly chorus. The hair on my neck and arms stood erect from the haunting scene. We concurred that this was an exceptional night.
It was no secret to many Jersey fishermen that the water of the canal was often teeming with bait and game. However, only a few painstakingly secretive fishermen had ever been privy to the cows. “Cow” was the name given to female striped bass that had managed to develop into giants. Typically, anglers would only see stripers in the three to twenty pound range; the better anglers could even catch fish up to 35 pounds with some consistency. None of those could be classified as a cow. Cow stripers are the really big girls, 45 pounds or more. Fish don’t get to be that size accidentally. They are the grande dames of the brine. They are more intelligent, more cunning and more athletic than the others: the Academic All-Americans of fish. The biggest fish are prone to stay in a favorite spot year round rather than migrate. Cows especially prefer the deep, dark recesses of the least accessible parts of tidal inland waters. Places like the hole lying between the garland and us, over forty feet beneath the surface. All of the pieces of our grand plan were in place. We had chosen this spot carefully, and with much scrutiny. Nick pointed out that the massive standing wave was just beginning to wane as the tide reached its peak. The heavy water was not quite ready to allow us access. We tried to remain patient. It was only about two in the morning, and we figured that we had about three quarters of an hour to kill before the tide would slow to fishable conditions.
Nick produced a pint of Maker’s Mark from his inside jacket pocket, took a swallow of the bourbon and handed me the bottle. Each time we were together, I seemed to notice his height with renewed familiarity. He was built like one of those beach volleyball players with surfer-good looks and a tattooed smile. We all called him Magnum, but I wasn’t sure why. Nicky Magnum. I’d like to think that it had something to do with that fact that there was always more with him; like a magnum of wine that never seems to run out. More likely, though, he was given the nickname by some co-ed at ‘Nova who was impressed by his extra size, hence assigning him the name she saw on the condom wrapper. He liked to call me Singles. As always, the first gulp of Maker’s gave me a shudder and Nick’s standard comment, “Singles, you are one Sally Struthers bitch,” brought a grin to my twisted face. The buttered hard rolls that we had bought earlier at 7-Eleven made good buffers for the alcohol, so we continued passing and slugging until the bottle was empty. Sated, we decided that it was time to fish.
I was the first to make a cast. An 8-ounce sinker dragged my bait quickly to the bottom where the eel quickly regained some freedom to swim, thanks to the fish finder rig. The eel became excited by this false sense of liberation, and I could feel its erratic movement through the line. Eels were generally quite cooperative in that way. I stayed by the fence, loosely gripping the handle of my rod, waiting for the telltale calm of the eel that would be my first indicator of a strike. Nick mimicked my routine about twenty yards to my right, in the other hole. There was still just enough tide flow that we each had to retrieve and recast every five minutes or so – just right, actually, to cover a lot of ground. The problem with a drift like that is constant snagging. In fact, the snagging is the reason that these fish are essentially untouched. Most anglers loathe a hole like this. It is typically one to be avoided lest the fisherman risk losing a lot of tackle. It was our idea that in using extra heavy gear, we would be able to consistently free our snags. Both of us beamed with pride as we realized how right we were.
Nick was the first to get a strike. I happened to glance in his direction, as fishermen often do, to assess his progress. At that moment, I saw the rod nearly get jerked from his grip. He quickly composed himself. His instincts took over. These were critical seconds for a fisherman; there would be no time for decisions, only reactions would do. The fish peeled line as Nick allowed it to swim off with the eel for what looked like a ten count before he engaged the reel and leaned back hard into a strong hookset. Nothing. With no shame or regret, Nick promptly retrieved what was left. There remained only the front three or four inches of his bait, still gasping, eyes wide with fear. No words were said, but we each understood that we were that much closer to catching our first cow. My anticipation grew as I recast into a familiar spot. My eel had barely reached bottom when I felt the strike. I was ill prepared and reacted rashly, setting the hook solidly into something unflappable. At first, it seemed as though I might have been mistaken – perhaps I had snagged. Erasing my doubt, the fish began to swim slowly to the north. I nodded at Nick, alerting him to the situation. My loyal, magnanimous friend flipped his rod into the bushes and sprinted to my side. This fish was as much his as it was mine, and he would do anything to help get it to the net.
She was a stubborn old girl, unwavering in her determination to swim north. The wily fish was taking advantage of what little current remained in the canal. My job was to apply as much pressure as the line would allow in an effort to turn her head. The rod, which had previously seemed so extravagant, was doubled over under the stress.
I followed the deliberate fish for ten minutes and close to 50 yards before there was any change. It felt like an hour. The line went suddenly slack, and I knew she had broken off somehow. Dejectedly, I turned towards Nick and tossed my rod to the ground. In silence, we traded puzzled expressions that implied specific questions; there was no reason that I should have lost that fish. My rod then sprang to life and slammed into the fence with a loud clang. The fish was still on! With fresh steps, I leapt to the rod and resumed the fight. Nick laughed aloud and danced foolishly on the sandy path. The big fish was rejuvenated by our energy and showed herself with a tremendous dancing display, the likes of which I had never before seen from a striper. She erupted from the water, her entire length revealed. She seemed to hold above the surface in freeze-frame. I gasped at the sight and figured the fish to be over four feet long and at least fifty pounds. This was easily the largest bass that I had ever seen. I was astonished by her enthusiastic display in view of the expectation that such an old fish would single-mindedly bulldog her way through a battle. Playfully, she flirted with the currents and eddies. Astutely, she dove into rocks and barnacles, hoping to sever the leader from her jaw. Intent on proving her grace, she swam in great sweeping arcs. She commanded our respect by testing the limits of my tackle.
Nick and I lost count of how many times she had traversed the distance between the steel walls. Finally, she came to our spot at the fence. Her powerful shoulders breached the surface and she paused, gazing at us through eyes that reminded me of that new moon – black surrounded by a faintly glowing halo of light. The fish rolled like a great whale in the water before us, proudly displaying her golden hued, line-flanked sides – she was flawless. The display appeared more a gesture of gratitude than of submission. In revealing herself, she had presented us with her most precious gift. Maybe we provided a thrill for the fish, equal to that which she had provided to us. As Nick reached for the long handled net, the stately fish decided that she had seen enough. She released the hook and slipped away. As abruptly as she had come into our lives, she was gone. I felt a shiver and a lump in my throat. I was blinded as my eyes welled with tears. I had never been so elated. I was overcome by the magnitude of the fish. More than that, I was enraptured by the magnitude of our accomplishment. Nick and I caught three more big fish that night, each one larger than that first. The biggest was close to 65 pounds, a record in most states. None of those fish, though, could compare to the grandeur of the first. She was the fruit of our years of labor. She was the prize, those other fish were just gravy. We released them all and took no pictures. We had no need for documentation. No detail of that night would ever escape our memories.
The net handle failed on the last fish of the night, as I tried to jockey it over the chain link fence. On cue, the tide completed its turn and the wave was resurrected. The graying sky and singing robins signaled the approach of dawn. We fled the scene quickly, before the morning light could make our location public.
Someone did see us, though. Likely, there had been someone loitering up on the new bridge. Rumors immediately began to resurface amongst the locals about cow stripers in the canal. As always, Nick and I continued to disavow those claims and eschew any association with the events. “Nobody has ever seen any of these so-called cows,” we’d say. “It’s purely legend.” The canal, we’d tell folks, is just chock full of bait and little fish. Oh, and lots of snags.