More than the Fish

Angling for striper with his father-in-law on the Chesapeake Bay, BEAU BEASLEY finally gets why his own father never cared whether he caught much.

Kyle Webster

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one eager to head out for a day of striper fishing on the Chesapeake Bay: The motor of the Grady White fishing boat grumbled as Captain Tommy Mattioli sat us down for a brief safety lesson. He pointed out the life jackets and reminded us to keep our seats while the boat moved, and then we were off—I and my father-in-law, John Johnson, from Washington state, a fly angler from way back and a steelhead junkie. We’d fished all over the Pacific Northwest, but this would be his first saltwater fly-fishing experience.

In many minds, fly-fishing conjures up images of wild, Western freshwater streams and dainty trout. In truth, however, saltwater fly-fishing is the fastest-growing segment of the sport. Saltwater fly anglers may pursue two-pound shad or 40-pound stripers, depending on the time of year and the tactics used. Fresh and saltwater fly anglers pursue their species in the same way, tricking the fish into seeing what they want them to see. But, instead of casting patterns (flies) that resemble crickets, damselflies and frogs, saltwater anglers toss eel, baitfish, shrimp and even crab patterns.

The Chesapeake Bay has long been known as one of the best saltwater angling destinations in the country. From Havre de Grace, Maryland, to Cape Henry, Virginia, the Bay is a sportsman’s paradise of flounder, croaker, black and red drum, cobia, spadefish and Spanish mackerel. But most Bay anglers come in search of the celebrated striped bass that roam the Bay coast by the hundreds of thousands, fall and spring.

Saltwater fly anglers employ two basic methods to search for fish. First, they cast their patterns on sinking lines near structures that hold fish, such as the four mammoth “islands” that support the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Second, they let others do their work for them and follow the sea birds that dive-bomb the water to snatch up the baitfish that flee to the surface in a mad rush to escape underwater predators. (Life’s rough for baitfish.) Now, add to the mix a boat full of happy anglers casting fly lines, and you have a recipe for excitement.

My father, the hardest-working man I’ve ever known, took my younger brother, Jason, and me fishing as much as he could when we were little. He’d load us into his old blue pickup truck and haul us off to a local farm pond outside South Hill. My dad rarely caught a thing because he spent all his time baiting the hooks or untangling the lines of his rambunctious sons. As a boy, I thought it strange that he didn’t seem to care much what he caught; he seemed content just to watch us fish. When my dad died more than a decade ago, I lost not only a beloved parent but my favorite fishing partner.

When I got married, I got more than just a great wife out of the deal: I also gained a father-in-law who happens to be an avid angler. John Johnson, a retired forest ranger, stands about six-and-a-half feet tall, is as lean as a bobcat and knows the woods. Part environmentalist, part survivalist, he’s the man I want by my side if I’m ever lost in the woods or buried by a blizzard on a peak somewhere. Most importantly, though, he’s my best fishing partner. When we visit family in the Northwest, he and I always manage to sneak off to a favorite watering hole. When he and my mother-in-law came to visit us last spring, I was determined to take him to the Bay.

“There they are, boys,” Captain Tommy said, pointing to a flock of seagulls diving at the water. The stripers were in a feeding frenzy. Our boat pulled alongside the school, and the splash of the fish hitting the surface mingled with the cries of the seagulls overhead, just before they plunged into the water. John steadied himself on the deck of the bobbing boat and cast into the deep. Before long, he got his sea legs and was casting like a pro.

“Man, I’m onto something,” John said. He set the hook, at which point his prey took off and his reel began to scream. His rod bent over as the striper took more and more line, going ever deeper and shaking its head to loosen the hook. John slowly began gaining line and pulling the fish closer to the boat. “I think I’ve got him now, Beau,” he said. Apparently spooked by the boat, the fish promptly peeled off another 50 feet of line. A long tug-of-war ensued, after which he did indeed land a beautiful striper. John’s smile was as wide as Montana.

We snapped some pictures, we exchanged high-fives—and then, eventually, we returned to fishing. In all the excitement, I realized that I hadn’t really bothered to fish, myself. I was intent on enjoying the moment, on being a part of someone else’s fantastic fishing experience, on building a shared memory. The episode cast my own memory back to a time when someone else had stood by and watched me fish.

Now that I’m a grown man with children of my own, I understand why my father didn’t care about catching anything. He was sharing moments, building memories for Jason and me. We caught so much more than fish (and, sometimes, no fish at all), and we did it together. That’s what really makes the trip worthwhile.

[Where to go] A chartered parent-child fishing trip requires planning—and those with kids under 10 might even want to wait until their little ones are a bit older. If you have very little fishing experience, tell your captain. It’s his experience you’re relying on for a good day on the water. Not sure if Junior can handle a day on the Bay? Book a half-day trip, just for starters.

Not all guides are up to the challenges of young clients. I have fished with both of the captains I’ve listed below and recommend them not only because of their expertise as guides, but also because they are fathers as well. Both gentlemen are true professionals, and their language and behavior are appropriate for young and old alike.

Captain Tony Harding, Spotsylvania, www.FlyFishTidalVa.com, (540) 582-6396

Captain Tom Mattioli, Hampton, www.Matty-J.com, (804) 314-2672

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