Good-bye ice, hello crocuses! At the tail end of a banner year for fishable ice, day and night soon find their balance so we can return to our canoes kayaks and outboards. March for most is just a muddy gateway month, a muted grey watercolor of salted roads edged with dirty snow, dwindling wood piles slumping under old tarps, schools of small finicky cod hanging south of the island and too little daylight. Although she will ultimately unlatch spring’s gate on Thursday, this can be a long few weeks of work eat sleep monotony. For the fisherman, this is a month of tension, of potential energy, of days ready to burst with a thousand natural miracles. Waves of river herring will be trying their damndest to spawn upstream of rivers like the Saugatucket while hungry overwintered stripers are slinking out of the Pettaquamscutt to greet them. Well-rested crabs are clawing up through the mud while flatfish are burying themselves in new sandbars. Fishermen, bottled like champagne, are all fired up, waiting to pop the cork float down the river.
Hopeful anglers celebrate March for leading us to shad blooms, largemouth bass and the promise of early Chesapeake stripers. She reminds us that tip-ups need to be stowed back in buckets along with the hand warmers, sounding weights and Jameson nips, that snow blowers will get moved aside for lawnmowers and that defrosting compost piles will soon release their grips on precious bait worms. Upper Bay waters are finally creeping back up to forty degrees. We have the RISAA fishing show on March 28-30 up in Providence, which is well worth packing a lunch to get us past Tower Hill. All your tackle needs can be filled plus there are several classroom-type seminars on a variety of subjects, making this show perfect for the fishing family. And they serve Narragansett beer.
Over the winter, some guys have plucked a few holdover bass from the Providence River, where the water temps were just above freezing. Lots of hard cores have been swinging shiners or jigging Hali Sukkula rigs under the ice, squinting for orange flags. Worden Pond is finally giving up some decent pike on chunky dead baits, details of which are very hard to come by. A few nice stripers were hauled through the ice on the Housatonic, which is really very cool. Since designated trout waters are closed until Opening Day, most fishing has been through old gear bags and tackle boxes.
However, before say good-bye to winter, tip over the canoes and check our waders for mice, we must honor this month and coming fishing season with a night of mechanical and social maintenance. This annual evening affair borders on sacred for me, up there with my anniversary, Garcia’s birthday and Easter-my earliest date catching a bass from the beach on Block Island. We combine the necessary pedestrian routine of gear cleaning with the excited unwrapping of new lures, hopes, plans and conversations.
As tradition dictates, our time is dedicated to cleaning surf and stream rods, oiling favorite reels and changing out last year’s brittle mono or braided bird nests. Washtubs are placed on tables with warm soapy water and towels get positioned exactly where my wife says they will be. With a menu of stouts and porters, the work begins, starting with the stories, and they can come quickly. Universally, fishing stories tend to be animated, requiring several hand gestures and little eye contact while remaining minimally accurate and largely exaggerated. Repetition does not increase accuracy.
But we are here for the gear. My old friend Mackie Swienton at Twin Maples on Block Island often said too many fishermen use too much oil on their reels. He also told me kids today don’t listen and there is a lot to learn from am talk radio. With his heavenly guidance, lube is applied in modest, correct doses after reels get long baths to remove stubborn salts. Spools of 30 pound mono and 50 pound braid are evenly wound onto reels both new and seasoned. Talk gets louder as terminal tackle gets replaced, shiny hooks are crimped and secret spots from last autumn fall from loosened lips. It’s also time to retire the tired; that chewed and chipped blue/white pencil popper you fed to all those bluefish last year: hang it on the wall, call it art.
We toast to the great days and nights ahead for the South County fisherman along the sea and in the warming fresh waters. Once all is clean and retuned, glasses are emptied and one last Big One story gets repeated, then it’s easy to see the lights of April, Easter and the west wall.
Even though by month’s end we will be basking in more than 12 hours of daylight, some will still see March as dismal. For fishermen, it’s a reminder of splashing bass, waves of alewives and gulls circling off Monahan’s. After this important night, it’s all about new hope, new spots and thankfully, new stories.