Monday, June 13, 2016

When It All Comes Together

Editor's note: The following is a guest post from my good friend Aaron Swanson. We shared a tide together for three nights this spring in search of a fish, up to that point, we had never come in contact with. I think his story does a fine job of connecting the events that unfolded to the much bigger picture that can sometimes get lost in the fray. 

I’m staring up at the tip of my rod, framed in a smoky haze of clouds and moon light.  I give the rod a few soft bounces. My hand cranks slowly, just keeping my reel moving. I think of nothing in particular, then, there is a sudden sensation I can’t quite place. 

It’s like the ground I’m standing on is alive. The rocks are crawling around, over my feet. I’m happy to be dressed in waders when I realize there is something climbing on my heavy boot. Peering down into the inky knee-deep water reveals no clue to what it is. Experience eventually fills the wonder in my mind; it keeps me from flailing my legs about to shake off the unseen visitor. I am merely a barrier to a horseshoe crab, seeking to participate in an ancient ritual. My foot mistaken for a prehistoric looking partner to latch onto, ride into the wave wash and create a new lineage.  The new generation will play an unlikely part of sustaining life around the world. 

Springtime in the northern hemisphere provides the opportunity to observe the interconnectedness of life. Watching the interaction of species in my corner of the globe to serves as a reminder of how we are all part of one big world. The horseshoe crab in particular, alien and otherworldly looking is a perfect example of how the small things in life are often the big things.

The crabs are remarkable beyond their longevity as a species. Other animals rely heavily on these dinosaurs, including humans. It’s hard to believe a better chemical compound isn’t available to test for the presence of bacteria in medical equipment. Horseshoe crab blood is used just for this purpose. The same crabs little brothers pick up at the beach, to scare and chase their sisters with, legs flailing and tails wagging. Strange ways we are tied together, though certainly more glamorous than when we chop them up for eel bait.

I witnessed a part of this year’s horseshoe crab spawning migration as I do most years, creeping around in the water with a fishing rod in hand and bag full of lures slung over my shoulder. The convergence of species in the coastal shallows makes up a snapshot of the web of life. How it works and how long it’s been working.  I’m out targeting fish that are there to spawn. The crabs are there to do the same.  Eggs they lay sustain vast species of shorebirds whose migrations are timed perfectly with the event. They need them to refuel on their journey in their own quest for finding a mate and rearing a new generation.

My rod snaps forward as the metronomic cast and slow retrieve of my lure leaves me in contemplative state, waiting for the telltale bump of a fish.  

I consider how these shorebirds became so reliant upon the crabs. Certainly in a different way than humans have. The fact their arrival is timed precisely when food sources like the crab eggs become abundant enough to sustain them is one of those things in nature I think can be too easily taken for granted. 

The roped off areas I observed on the walk out on the beach are meant to protect piping plover nests. They demonstrate the impacts people have on these places and cycles. Our presence and activity, even if unintentional, can interrupt these cycles to the point where a species could be lost. Tightly flocked shorebirds buzz by in the evening sky, just out of casting range. An oyster catcher struts around on the beach behind me, punctuating the night with sharp calls.

My rod jolts and flexes and I go from not thinking about anything, to the depths of considering the circle of life, to laser focus. I keep steady pressure on the fish now surging at the end of my line, using all its power to try and free itself from the meal that unexpectedly is now pulling against it.

The Native Americans called this fish Squeteague. The name was given many years ago by people who came to the same beaches to reap the same bountiful convergence I see here today. Squeteague show up seasonally where I fish. Though they can be caught for a portion of the warmer months, they are most available to the shore-bound rod and reel angler during a relatively short window. They are here to do the same thing as the crab hitching a ride on my foot – spawn. They come in around the moon tides during the spring, drawn to the sandy bars and estuary mouths where the water warms to just the right temperature. The same place the crabs, fish and birds have come for thousands of years. People, like me, have always followed.

This year, rather than just looking for stripers or bluefish like I usually do during this part of the month, a friend and I chose to focus on what many anglers consider an elusive quarry. We set a goal to finally catch a species new to both of us – the Squeteague. In all the years we fished saltwater together, regardless of their rumored presence, neither of us incidentally landed one of these seemingly mysterious fish.  If we were going to get one - we had to make a point of targeting them. A few token purchases at the bait shop paid the price to get enough information to set us in the right direction. The moon and tide aligned to set the conditions that gave us the best chance at contacting our targeted quarry. Wives were informed: it didn’t matter how many nights it would take, we’d keep going until it happened. 

The spots where these fish tend to congregate aren’t really a secret. They look for a certain type of structure at a certain time of year with a particular purpose – and they’ve been doing so for a long time. This means, where I live, if you’re targeting them at the “right” time you’ll have plenty of company.  It is almost overwhelming how many anglers flock to the scene, adding to the amount of biomass already present. This is spring run fishing in the tightly populated east coast – the annual migrations draw people to them as they always have. As foreign as it is for me to fish so close to other people, I feel happy to be a part of it. 

Every moment I play the fish is another it grows closer to gaining its freedom. Although the drag on the reel is set so the fish can be played lightly – much lighter than I would the typical bass or bluefish – I tense with each run. 

Squeteague are also known as weakfish. The modern name for this species of Drum, comes from rod and reel anglers who use hooks to catch them, rather than nets weirs and spears as the native people did. They came to be called “weak” because their mouths, when penetrated by a steel hook tear easily, leading to disappointment and frustration.

As the fish draws closer I can tell it’s different than the other predatory fish I target. There are more headshakes and somersaults than a sulking striper, and it gave no blistering bluefish runs during our contest. A worthy fighter in its own right, this one just feels different than any other saltwater game fish I have played. The fish makes a last stand, forcing me to pause my backward steps up onto the beach. This is the critical moment. If I’m to win this battle I can’t let it go on any longer. I regain control of the fish, step back up onto the dry sand and there it is. A speckled beauty slides out of the foamy wave wash onto the beach. My first weakfish.

Over the next few nights we observed what was to be a solid run of these fish. There were two remarkable nights in particular when more than a few good sized fish hit the beach with many anglers cashing in on the action. During one of the busiest periods I’d landed enough nice sized fish to satisfy not only the goal we set but a season’s worth of weakfishing. I took a minute to look around and soak in the scene around me.  The crabs paired where the waves met the beach, the random shrieks of busy shore birds, the anglers posed in their fighting stances, rods bent, engaged in silent battles. 

This is why we fish; things change with time but life’s elements will continue to converge as they have for generations. I was there in the moment with it all coming together around me. And when it all comes together, it’s pretty incredible.

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