Christmas came early for me last December when I received a copy of Seasons of the Striper, Bill Sisson’s beautifully written tribute to a magnificent fish and a life well spent in pursuit of that fish. A career journalist and the former editor of Soundings and Anglers Journal magazines, Sisson is an admitted striper nut, having chased this most democratic of saltwater game fish since he was a child growing up in South County, Rhode Island. The numerous entertaining anecdotes, written with humor and humility, sprinkled throughout the book provide glimpses of the author’s formative fishing years, which were shaped in large part by his Swamp Yankee forebears and neighbors—salt-of-the-earth watermen and -women who possessed intimate knowledge of the marine world and its inhabitants.
“Sixty years is a long time to do any one thing, including chasing after a fish,” Sisson writes in ‘Education of Bass Bum.’ “And except for a few years in the 1970s when I roamed the West, I have been a faithful parishioner in the church of striped bass, following them from the Bay of Fundy to the Chesapeake. For decades, and sometimes at the expense of family and work, striped bass have been the focus of my time, energy, and passion. I have felt most like a kid when plotting fishing strategies, tinkering with boats and gear, and embarking into new waters. The fish has been a constant and worthy object of my obsession, curiosity, and dreams.”
For those of us who share the author’s love of striper fishing, whether amid crashing surf or from the deck of a boat, Seasons of the Striper reminds us why we are willing to spend so much time, money, and energy connecting with them. Because it’s not just about the fish, of course; as Sisson well knows, striper fishing involves the attendant pleasures of blitz- and skunk-forged camaraderie, lasting friendships, favorite gear, and a deep understanding and appreciation of the natural world that comes from years of trying to figure out the mysterious workings of one’s quarry.
“I fish in a world that moves with rhythms as old as the tides,” Sisson writes, “one based on moon cycles, water temperature, winds, and signals from plants, trees, birds and bait.”
As the title implies, a good chunk of the book is devoted to the changing seasons along the striper coast and their many moods, from the heady days of the fish’s spring arrival through the steamy dog days of summer, and finally the bittersweet exodus of late fall, when massive schools of bass hammer peanut bunker one day before mysteriously vanishing the next.
“The last fish I hook is the best of the day,” Sisson recalls in ‘Fall: The Hungry Season.’ “It runs well, then burrows its face into the sticky bottom, leveraging off the rear set of trebles on a plug I’d never fished before. Fall is about living these moments: the lovely, late-afternoon flurry of fish, the sweet balm of a warm evening as the sun sets and the moon rises, a willing pod of fish, and a beach empty of all but a friend.”
For Sisson, each month in the striper calendar elicits a unique set of experiences and emotions to be savored. Our fishing years are not infinite, after all.
Other chapters are devoted to fly, surf, and boat fishing, as well as an appreciation of the fish itself and its ability to occupy such a vast range of habitats, from roaring tide rips to peaceful salt ponds. “I was barely out of boyhood the first time I saw a striper race up the back of a big, green breaker, chasing bait a moment before the wave toppled in a roar of foam and spray,” Sisson remembers. “A year or two later, my adrenaline surged again when a bass shot diagonally across the face of a reared-up storm wave and snared my Hopkins jig as improbably as a wide receiver makes a fingertip catch. I was in my early teens, and I stood transfixed. Is there anything this fish can’t do?”
An early chapter on striper fishing history contains remarkable photos dating back to the late 1800s, when bass were caught by well-heeled members of exclusive fishing clubs scattered along the Northeast coast. The size of the fish taken on the crude tackle and shorebound tactics of day is jaw-dropping, and provides an important context to our place in the evolution of the sport and the health of the species.
While Seasons would certainly stand on the merits of the writing alone, it’s presented in a large, “coffee-table” format and accompanied by stunning photographs by Tom Lynch, Pat Ford, James Manning, Jay Fleming, and others. These images capture the majesty of the fish, the excitement of the pursuit in often nasty conditions, and the exquisite beauty of the environment in which the game is played.
Seasons of the Striper is sweeping in its scope and appreciation of our most sought-after and, many would argue, most important marine game species, as told by a true, insightful, and humble fisherman. This homage to one man’s worthy obsession and a storied fish deserves a place in the pantheon of great fishing literature.