On the Run: An Angler's Journey Down the Striper Coast

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9780060087456: On the Run: An Angler's Journey Down the Striper Coast

Each autumn, one of nature's most magnificent dramas plays out when striped bass undertake a journey from the northeastern United States to the Outer Banks of North Carolina in search of food and warmer seas. As the first schools move south from Maine, their numbers increase until there are 25 million stripers coursing down the coast. This roiling seaside show also attracts bigger predators, swooping seabirds, and a fanatical brotherhood of fishermen.

Writer and angler David DiBenedetto followed the fall run, as this great migration is called, for three months in the autumn of 2001. To do so, he lived according to the rhythm of the tides and the stripers' night-owl tendencies. As the fish swam south, the author found himself pursuing them by every means that humans have conceived, from extreme surf casting to free diving.

On the Run is much more than the story of the ultimate fishing road trip. It offers vivid portrayals of the zany and obsessive characters DiBenedetto met on his travels -- including the country's most daring fisherman; an underwater videographer who chucked his corporate job in favor of filming striped bass; and the reclusive angler who claims that catching the world-record striper in 1982 sent his life into a tailspin. Along his route, the author also delves into the natural history and biology of this great game fish, and depicts the colorful cultures of the seaside communities where the striped bass reigns supreme.

The power and savagery of nature is never more evident than during the stripers' fall run, and DiBenedetto captures it all in this engaging work. Whether you are an outdoor enthusiast, an adventure lover, or simply a fan of fine writing, On the Run will have you hooked from the start.

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About the Author:

David DiBenedetto, a native of Savannah, Georgia, is the articles editor at Field & Stream. He has written for Men's Journal, Rolling Stone, and Salt Water Sportsman. In his free time he can be found fishing for stripers on Long Island Sound and in the surf at Montauk, New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

"I don't advise peeing in your wet suit," shouted Paul Melnyk. "You'll get a mean rash."

"I'll keep that in mind," I hollered into the wind, my words quickly blown back into my face.

Truth was, whizzing in my neoprene bodysuit was the least of my worries. I was standing at the edge of the roiling Atlantic in Montauk, New York. Clouds covered the sliver of a moon, the chilly October night as black as the bottom of a well. In a few minutes I would follow Melnyk into the ocean.

We planned to lie on our backs, fishing rods held under our arms, and kick our way three hundred yards offshore. Once there, we would float on the current that ran parallel to the beach, casting live eels for striped bass. After we were carried for a half mile or so, we would kick back to where we started and begin the drift again. Melnyk, a Montauk local who invented this form of angling, calls it skishing (a cross between skiing and fishing, since large stripers often towed him like a water-skier). As one guide told me before my skishing adventure, Melnyk was on "the extreme end of extreme."

The night before our trip, a surf fisherman, with both feet on shore, had landed a fifty-pound striper, and Melnyk wanted to best that mark. He was sure the fish was an indication of a school of trophy striped bass in the area. There was no turning back. We huddled behind a large dune to zip our wet suits and run through an equipment check. Head-lamp? Check. Whistle? Check. Pliers? Check. Knife? Check.

"If a shark grabs me, I expect you to fight him off with your knife," said Melnyk, trying to loosen up the situation. His levity was lost on me. I knew enough about the area to realize that the threat of sharks was no joke. A little more than a decade back, a Montauk charter boat had landed a monstrous great white (seventeen feet, 3,427 pounds) that had been snacking on a dead whale not far from the point, and just that summer a fourteen-foot mako had been pilfering stripers from the ends of fishermen's lines and ramming boats near Cape Cod. Up and down the East Coast, 2001 had been the summer of the shark.

There were also rip currents, some of which ran at eight knots. If we got caught in the wrong place, we would be shot out into the ocean as if on a water-park ride.

"Let's do this before I chicken out," I said.

"Okay. Remember, this is a shore break. It's dangerous surf. These waves can pick you up and slam you on the beach. It'll ruin your week. Once we clear them it's easy sailing -- make that kicking."

We waded in. The surf zone was a cauldron of white water, and beyond it the sea's lumps melded with the sky. When the water reached our knees, we dropped on our backs and pulled on our flippers. With the waves rushing to shore, it was a clumsy endeavor, and twice I rolled face first into the water before succeeding.

"Ready?" yelled Melnyk.

"Ready."

"Kick, kick, kick, kick."

When my flippers gained purchase, I zipped ahead into the wash.

"Stay with me, Dave."

We were kicking side by side when the first breaker rushed over us. I swallowed a mouthful of seawater and bobbed to the surface. Melnyk hooted with delight. The next wave lifted me up and carried me tumbling back where I'd started.

"Come on, Dave. Kick, kick, kick!" coaxed Melnyk. I gathered myself and pushed off again. In less than thirty seconds we were out of the surf, rising and falling on the choppy waves of the ocean. At fifty-six degrees, the water breaching our wet suits was breath-stealing.

"Is this living or what?" screamed Melnyk. "We're on the edge, man."

"How much farther?"

"About a hundred kicks."

On the crest of each wave I could see the shore. TV sets were flashing muted blues and reds in the windows of the beach motels above the dunes. I found myself envious of the occupants, who had little fear of disappearing into the Atlantic. Suddenly there was a surface commotion just in front of our heads, like a broom slapping the water. "Just a flock of sea ducks riding out the weather," said Melnyk. "We probably scared the shit out of them."

"Likewise."

Eventually Melnyk yelled, "We're here, man." We stopped kicking. The thick wet suits provided enough buoyancy to keep us chest high in the gin-clear water. I flipped my headlamp on; it illuminated a circle in front of me, the strobe reaching toward the bottom. I could see my purple flippers flexing as I flutter-kicked to stabilize myself. I wondered what could see me from below, and inched closer to Melnyk.

Melnyk kept each eel in an individual sandwich-size Ziploc bag for easy handling. He passed one to me. It squirmed within its plastic confines as I hooked it through the jaw. With the hook in place I pulled hard, ripping the bag and freeing the eel. It danced on the end of my line. If I didn't cast soon, it would tie itself and the line into a slimy knot.

I turned my light off. Melnyk already had his eel in the water. He was floating about ten feet from me. His black neoprene hood combined with his surf rod rising from the surface made him look like a seagoing knight, his trusty steed a sea creature from Proteus's flock. As I went to cast, Melnyk's rod quivered, then bent deeply. He reared back on the fish, then yelled, "Oh baby, they're here."

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