By Peter Fritsch
Dad died in February having never acquired the one material possession I can ever remember him coveting: a Jeep. He had his reasons for never pulling the trigger. Too much money. Not practical. Can you see your mother climbing into one of those things?
So, soon after he died, I bought a boat. I named her “Beep’s Jeep” – after my nephew’s name for dad, “Beepa.”
Beep’s Jeep is a 22’ nearshore boat with a generous beam and low freeboard that draws just 11 inches of water. She has a device called a jack plate attached to the transom that can raise and lower the outboard without changing the angle of the propeller shaft. All of which is to say: she’s the nautical equivalent of a Jeep and can take you places most boats can’t; up on plane, she can run flat out at 50 mph in little more than a foot of water.
Dad’s dream was to drive his Jeep around his retirement home in Chatham, MA, and over the sand dunes of Nauset Beach, the outermost beach on Cape Cod. My dream is related: I wanted to get to Nauset’s geographic extension, the shallow sand flats of Monomoy Island, a constantly shifting, seven-mile-long mass of sand born of pulverized moraines left by retreating glaciers some 20,000 years ago.
There, I would fish.
Monomoy, a Wampanoag name taken from an Algonquin word meaning “a mighty rush of water,” has long been a wild place. Great whites hunt grey seals near its eastern shore. Coyotes swim across from the mainland to raid the nests of dowitchers, godwits and plovers. Centuries ago, pirates called “mooncussers” would lure ships onto Monomoy’s dangerous shoals with decoy lanterns – a ruse frustrated on moonlit nights (thus the cussing). In Captains Courageous, Rudyard Kipling describes the island as haunted by a yo-ho, “the disembodied spirit of a sailor drowned off Monomoy Point. It stalks forth in the darkness of night, hails with a cavernous ‘yo-ho,’ and then proceeds to chase you about.”
Legend aside, Monomoy today is much as Kipling and the Wampanoag found it, though it’s no longer inhabited (since 1944 it’s been a wildlife refuge). Its currents remain wicked, its rip tides and shoals dangerous even with the advantages of modern navigation equipment. Blinding fog can roll in from Nantucket in no time and turn a bluebird day of fishing for blues and stripers into a nerve-wracking return to harbor. When the wind kicks up from the southwest at over 20 knots you had better know what you’re doing out there.
As a kid, I knew none of this. We never had a boat and knew precious little about the watery world beyond the dock. My Cape Cod was limited to my grandmother’s house, Friday night band concerts, the Ben Franklin Five and Dime, and foraging for hermit crabs at Cockle Cove Beach. The closest we ever got to Monomoy was when Dad would take us to Drew’s Sport Shop to buy some sandworms. We’d then head for the bridge by Stage Harbor Marine, the boatyard nearest to the island, and fish for flounder. Even caught a few.
I launched Beep’s Jeep at Stage Harbor many times this summer, trailering her down from what is now my mom’s house. I’d have to pick my days wisely: my boat is more suited to the relative calm of the Florida Keys than the North Atlantic. I’d carefully check the wind and tides and, to be safe, consult my brother Andy, a Cape Cod captain who carries a master’s license for 500-ton ships and has seen it all – a lot anyway — on the high seas.
Out I’d push through the no-wake zone, past the commercial fishing boats with hokey names (the Hakuna Matata) and the plush pleasure craft, past the terns working bait balls and the new McMansions taunting the gods of global warming behind giant rock revetments on the shores of Morris Island. Once past the decommissioned Stage Harbor lighthouse, I could open her up.
With just enough tide I could defy the buoys and nautical charts and cut over the flats, due south. Only the thin dunes of North Monomoy then separated me from the ocean. Head due east from there and you won’t find land again until the Azores of Portugal.
I got an early start one clear morning and headed for an area the locals call Crab Creek, a spot on the west side of the Monomoy flats just below a small island called Minimoy. My aim was to sight fish striped bass cruising the flats for crabs, shrimp and other forage. I’d long thought that once the weather turns warmer the big bass head for deeper waters and could only be caught in the rips, jigging deep holes or trolling lead-core line. But there is a hardcore fly fishing community on the Cape that knows better. I now had the means to see for myself.
I anchored Beep’s Jeep in two feet of water and began to walk the flats in my bare feet (a mistake I paid for and won’t repeat), head on swivel, looking for fish. A friend, Chris, an experienced fly fisherman, accompanied me. Not another soul in sight. We carried 8 weight rods with full sinking line to 10-12 feet of level, 15-pound fluorocarbon tippet tied to small, weighted green crab patterns. We came up on a small, exposed sand bar and stopped. A nearly 40-inch striper passed 10 feet in front of us in 18 inches of water. Holy. Shit.
Before long, we were seeing them everywhere. The trick, however, is to see them before they see you. Which is not easy. Fish see very well broadside but have a bit of a blind spot directly in front of them, especially if they are nose down, rooting through the sand with the single-minded purpose of finding protein. The winning technique is somewhat akin to bone or permit fishing in the tropics: make a precise cast in front of a cruising fish – but not too close to spook him – then let the crab and line settle on the bottom, drive your rod down into the sand and begin stripping line in short bursts, with pauses, to mimic confused, fleeing prey.
To see a 30-inch wild animal turn on your fly, charge it, take it and then run 50 yards across the sand after you set the hook is about the most exhilarating thing I have experienced in my brief life as a fly fisherman.
These weren’t the blitzing slobs I’d catch with Dad or Andy on the odd charter trip as a kid. You never saw those fish until they were at the boat. And you never really knew how you caught them. These were discerning diners you had to sell on each menu item, each and every time. In a place I never really knew existed.
I spent many hours this summer walking those and other flats around Monomoy. Beep’s Jeep took me places I’d never been. Eventually I learned to tell the difference between a fish and the trail of a horseshoe crab and how to use the waves as windows. I’d spook more fish than I’d catch, but most days I’d find at least one or two slot fish.
Too often, I would be head down, so focused on finding fish that I’d fail to fully appreciate where I was and how lucky I was to be there. I had that thought one day as I climbed back aboard my boat, the falling tide threatening to strand me. I stood on the bow and looked up to see a cotillion of terns bank sharply in front of a towering white cumulus hovering over Nantucket in the distance before settling gently on a sand bar exposed by the outgoing tide.
The view from Dad’s jeep was – there’s no better word for it – glorious.
— Peter Fritsch is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor who lives in Maryland and wished he’d taken up fly fishing decades ago.