Dawn came early on the longest day of the year.
The summer solstice was Thursday, the day Capt. Bob Francis had agreed to carry a couple of interlopers from Washington to the happy summer feeding grounds of the East Coast giant striped bass.
"Four o'clock," said the captain. "That's when I'll be leaving my house. Now, get a good night's sleep." For a denizen of the Chesapeake Bay, where decent striped bass fishing has not existed for five years, it is not easy to sleep on noghts like these.
Not when the captain had just finished describing the one night two weeks before when he boated 65 stripers averaging 20 pounds apiece.
Not when he'd just come in from an evening trip on which he found the bass tearing up bait on the surface and caught nine just before dark. "We left them there," said Francis, "and they'll be there in the morning."
Nantucket, paradise of scrub oak, pine and stunted schrubs, lies 30 miles at sea off Cape Cod. It's been home to Francis all his life. He started guiding fishing parties on the beach in an old Model A Ford when he was a high school senior.
"He's the best boathandler I've seen." said Bill Pew, who runs the tackle shop here. "He can put you on the edge of a rift or a shoal and keep you there in a five-knot tide."
Francis picked us up at 4:05 and drove down the back sand roads to Madaket, where he keeps his 26-foot McKenzie sea skiff.
The tide is so stiff you don't dock a boat here. Francis rowed out to his mooring, left the rowboat on the buoy and came back to fetch us in the skiff.
The sky was already aglow. We made for the channel and out to open water, past the low profile of Esther Island and Tuckernuck, two miles off shore.
As we rounded a point on Tuckernuck where a tidal rip roared we saw a surf caster, pitching and retrieving, alone on the lonely beach.
"The fish are out a little farther than normal," said Francis. "Usually we catch them right here near the island."
He throttled back two miles farther out. "Tim's going to give you a casting lesson," he said.
Francis fumed and sputtered as Tim Traver, his mate, led my partner Bill through the paces. Bill is a freshwater fisherman and had never used the stout 10 1/2-foot surf rod Francis favored for casting off the boat.
"Damnit, man, don't hit the boat with the rod," he growled.
Bill got it down to where he could send the sleek Rebel swimming plug out 50 yards. Then it was my turn. I cast once and retrieved the plug.
"Not bad," said Traver.
I cast again, going with the breeze and away from the orange solar ball emerging over the wind-whipped water.
"There he is!"
I felt the line jerk and snapped back to set the hook. Fish on, and a big one.
The captain grabbed the rod. Bill cast it hurriedly. Francis heaved out his shiny lure.
"There he is! There he is!"
"Timmy, quick drop the anchor," Francis shouted. "We're in them."
We had been fishing five minutes. Three rods were bowed with the weight of deep-running bass, as they call stripers here.
And while we pumped and reeled, easing the big fish to the boat and trying not to bust the rods or the 20-pound-test lines, we saw a sight Chesapeake anglers haven't seen for years, except in their dreams.
First came the birds, seagulls nipping at the white caps, picking off sand eels the stripers were driving to the surface. Then the fish came up, all around us and within 10 feet of the boat, rolling and snapping their jaws at the skittering bait.
"Bulldozers," said Francis. "There's 50 pounders in there, guaranteed."
You could have cast a poptop in and skimmed it across the surface and a striper would have taken it. But we were helpless, all lines already occupied.
We watched the fish slurp and flap away.
"They're moving," the captain said. "We'll find them again."
We landed the three stripers. The veteran captain got his in first. It weighed 30 pounds. Bill's came in next at about 35. Then came mine, a four-foot monster of 40 pounds.
But we never found the school again.
Four times more big stripers hit the lures before the sun was high and the tide gave out. Francis landed another 30-pounder and Traver boated one about 20 pounds. Bill and I each let one get away against our wills.
Later we moved in closer to shore and fished the shoals, and Francis showed us his technique for leading the boat easily against the edge of breaking waves, positioning it so we could cast over the bar and drag the lure back like wounded bait fish surging with the tide.
It was a thrill to watch, but it brought us no more fish.
While striper (rockfish) stocks decline dramatically in Maryland and Virginia, cape Cod and the islands off Massachusetts have yet to feel the full effects of dropping populations.
This is the summer home for mature stripers, most of which migrate to the Chesapeake in the spring to spawn.
Ben Florence, the striper specialist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is not surprised that there are still great concentrations of stripers here.
"Those 40-pounders probably were born in 1964," he said. "The 30-pounders I'll bet are 1970 fish."
But 1970 was the last time stripers had what the biologist call a dominant class, which means an excellent reproduction year.
Fishing has been so good hereabouts that in some places commercial fishermen are selling stripers to the market for as little as 55 cents a pound.
Francis says the bonanza should continue through most of July, though the height of the season is May and June. In late July and August the action switches to bluefish, and then the stripers return in the fall.
Surf casting off the beach has been wild here, as well. One day early this month two commercial surfcasters caught 70 stripers off Tuckernut, averaging 20 pounds apiece.
Nantucketers like Francis are not easily convinced that a crisis situation exists in the reproduction of stripers. They acknowledge that there are few small fish these days, but it doesn't alarm them.
"This is the most unbelievable year I've ever seen for catching big fish on light tackle," he said.
I can believe it.