The Mast-Head: Again at the Water’s Edge

    Down at the beach at about 4:20 on Tuesday morning to fish yet again, I stood at the water’s edge, batting at mosquitoes, just as the eastern sky was getting pink and orange. My wife says that I am obsessed, crazy to be getting up so early, but the way I see it, with three kids and only the shortest breaks between the newspaper and responsibilities around the house, I have to take my relaxation when and where I can find it.
    The striped bass came in right about 4:40, as they have for a couple of weeks. As best I can tell some small species of sand eel appears to rise out of the bottom at about that time, and the bass are there waiting for an easy meal. For 10 or 15 minutes, the quiet of the morning is broken by the sound of the big fish breaking water. From time to time, one will jump clear of the surface for reasons only it can know. As fast as they appear, they move on. A few swirls can be seen here and there, but the real action is over until the next dawn.
    Tuesday, I caught one small bass and two fluke, one big enough to take home for dinner. The bass were all over the place, but, as usual the past week or so, I could not get a decent-size one to pick up the lure.
    A black skimmer came by before there was much light, working the edge just off the beach. It’s interesting to consider how they do it, flying rapidly with their lower beaks dragging in the water, presumably to flip small fish and shrimp swimming near the surface into their gullets.
    Watching this skimmer pass, I wondered how this adaptation came about, it seems out of nowhere, unrelated to the way the rest of the bird world feeds. Once there was a bit more light, a tern arrived to begin dive-bombing on the sand eels in what seemed to me a more sensible bit of evolutionary expression.
    When the bass are feeding heavily, they drive sand eels up onto the beach. The small fish die quickly, and thousands of sand fleas hop up from their burrows to dine on them.
    By 5:15, the beach quiets down. A few bass are flipping out in the bay, but the crazy, pre-dawn urgency is over. All this has been happening here every spring not only in the decades I have lived in this house by the beach, but probably since the end of the last ice age, and until about three weeks ago, I never knew about any of it. This I find the most interesting observation of all, my own ignorance.