“What’s it going to be today, slam or crash?”
Dave Skok asks this question as he winds down a narrow residential street outside of Boston proper. We’re driving to fish one of his favorite walk-in spots. The neighborhood streets are lined with cars, and he’s talking about fish and scanning the water out his driver’s side window so he doesn’t see the impending head-on with a Suburban that’s barreling toward us downhill.
From my view it looks like it’s going to be crash.
Skok hits his brakes and dodges right and keeps talking about the tide and the angle of the sun and the water clarity. As she swerves around him, the woman driving the Suburban shoots him a death stare. He catches her eye and yells a suggestion about the color of her baseball cap, and then the moment is quickly forgotten.
Skok has created his own fly-fishing lexicon, and in his world “slam” means catching fish until your arms fall off. “Crash” means the opposite, like getting skunked.
Skok slams way more than he crashes, mostly because he knows how and where to find striped bass, bluefish, bonito, and false albacore around Boston. He’s developed a rotation of local flats he can wade and fish for striped bass by sight, including this one, a neighborhood rife with dangerous oversized sport utes. There’s no public parking, so Skok pulls into a friend’s driveway, kicks off his flip-flops, and walks barefoot down the street to the beach.
It’s a hot summer day and there are bathers in the water and kids digging in the sand and pasty adults catching rays in their loungers. Undeterred, Skok scrambles goatlike down the riprap at one end of the beach, clips on his stripping basket, and begins a stalk through knee-deep water. A couple of guys saunter down to the water with beers in their hands to watch. Skok looks intense, moving with stealth and purpose and seemingly focused on the water, until it becomes apparent that he’s moving closer and closer to a woman in a bikini. Her boyfriend says something to Skok first, probably launching a fishing conversation he would rather not be having. One of the beer drinkers on shore tips his bottle towards the threesome and notes, “The fishing looks pretty good today.”
On his website, Skok has a few words of endorsement from the late great Jack Gartside, with whom he shares a common thread of humor. Gartside referred to him as “a dude who likes stripers and strippers.” Gartside was a sort of mentor and kindred spirit to Skok. The two grew tight not long after Gartside moved to a house about three blocks from Skok in Winthrop. Both tied flies commercially and preferred wade fishing to boat fishing. It made for any easy friendship.
“He was great for a lot of reasons,” said Skok of Gartside, “but he would go fishing every day or any day.”
Skok found someone he could call to hit the flats on a Wednesday, a fishing partner who matched him in wit and ability. “He was a deadly fisherman,” said Skok. “Always fishing on or near the surface, rarely casting more than 40 feet but with great style, fly always in the water, never long in the air.”
When Gartside lost his battle with cancer in 2009, Skok eulogized him in a piece for The Drake. He misses his friend most on those random weekdays. “Smoking was his profession more than fly tying,” says Skok in reflection, perhaps recognizing the irony that he’s saying this while holding a cigarette.
We don’t find any fish on the swimming beach, and Skok declares it decroded (a term he borrowed from Napoleon Dynamite). After a couple of phone calls, he lines up a friend with a boat and we decide to switch gears for tomorrow’s fishing. Rich Armstrong with Boston Fishstix has a bead on some bass and bluefish in the harbor, so we ditch the wading boots and the stripping baskets and re-rig for boat fishing.
At daybreak Dave backs his old Jeep Cherokee into a parking space in the marina lot where Rich moors his boat. His 16-foot Great Canadian canoe is strapped on top. The canoe juts out behind his car, blocking the sidewalk and catching the Harbormaster’s eye. He walks over and addresses Skok. “What’s with your canoe?”
“Oh I know, I’ve been meaning to wax it for a long time.”
“Somebody’s going to smack their head on this, pal. I don’t want to see you get sued.”
Dave takes a drag from his smoke and says, “Yeah, well, all they’d get from me is a pile of nicotine-stained chicken feathers.”
Skok started tying flies at age 10, already absorbed in all things fishing. His reasoning was clear. Freshwater flies cost $1.60 apiece. He could buy three packs of baseball cards for that. Tying seemed like a better deal. He got pretty good at it, tying trout flies commercially by age 16. For saltwater flies, he started with Deceivers and poppers made from lobster buoy foam, and quickly evolved as the fishery revived.
At 20 Skok created his most well-known pattern, the Mushmouth. Angel Hair, Super Hair, and Flashabou tied on with mono thread, the spine bolstered by Softex, the eyes epoxied onto the head. The Mushmouth was born out of endless days in the 90’s chasing striped bass around Boston and New England. The fish were in thick on the beaches and as Skok recalls, “My memory clouds into one big striper orgy back then.”
He designed the fly for situations when the fish were keyed in on smaller baits but would hit something with a larger profile if it was flashy enough. It’s an archetype fly along the lines of a Surf Candy, Deceiver, or Clouser. The materials and profile can be adapted into different styles and sizes to match what the fish are chasing.
Armstrong pulls away from the marina in his 22-foot center console and heads into the network of 34 islands that create different bays, shoals, and rips that hold fish. Large bluefish are congregating outside the main harbor, but in the early morning hours the striped bass are holding on the surface inside, and Armstrong wants to capitalize before heading to his day job as the Director of Corporate and Institutional Relations for the Boston Ballet.
Armstrong runs his boat past Logan Airport with planes low on approach and swings east to follow some birds he’s spotted out near the Boston Light. It’s glass calm at sunrise and wisps of fog hang over water. Dave asks the question again, “Slam or crash?” The fish show themselves and Skok hops on the bow, unfurling long effortless casts with full sink line and retrieving a Mushmouth through the mix. The other rod on board is rigged with floating line and a Gartside Gurgler; popping along the surface it adds to the chorus of busting fish, distant outboards and squawking gulls. Moments later, Skok’s rod is bent. The harbor is not decroded.
The intensity builds a few hundred yards away where bass have pinned bait against the beach in a small cove. Armstrong sets up his boat and makes a cast with the floating line. A boil erupts up beneath the gurgler, which is inhaled by a 32-inch bass. Five or six other boats clue in to the action and it’s on to the next set of birds.
The search is interrupted by an unexpected find, a huge pod of tinker mackerel that are gathered along the edge of a channel. Armstrong and Skok are as giddy about finding the six-inch baitfish as they are the bass. They spend 45 minutes observing the school, waiting for the tide to turn to see if any big girls know about it, too. Rich has to get back to his office, but they formulate plans for more fishing after work. Skok has the image of those tinker mackerel burned into his mind and that afternoon he sits down at his vise to abide.
Skok occupies the left half of a duplex just blocks from the water in Winthrop. Fly rods and gear litter the front hall and the steps leading to the main apartment. The back of the duplex is clearly the focal point of the residence, his tying room. The perimeter of the room is lined with plastic bins filled with fur and feathers and hooks, jars of head cement, tubes of superglue and epoxy. On the wall hang the plaques from his Martha’s Vineyard Derby wins and his IGFA world record bonito on the fly. Hundreds of compact disks lie around in and out of their cases. His bookshelves hold hardcover copies of books like Cod, The Origin of Species, The Old Man and the Sea, and A River Runs Through It. In the center of the room sits an oversized desk with a vise where Skok spends more hours than you can imagine hunched over in a chair with roller wheels that are totally gunked with hair, thread and feathers.
Skok turns on some music and starts the process of assembling a half-and-half that will match the tinker mackerel from the harbor. From the chaos that surrounds him he pulls materials from memory as if he has them all filed under the Dewey decimal system. His hands start working and spinning and clipping and the fly takes shape in a way that seems like second nature.
“There’s hardly ever a day when I don’t sit down and tie a fly or two,” he says. “Maybe not Christmas. Not out of respect, but because there’s no open water to fish.”
Some days, to fill commercial orders, Skok will sit at the vise for 10 hours straight, cranking up tunes on his CD player and getting into a rhythmic tying groove. It’s what he does, along with photography and shore guiding, to support his fishing habits.
How often does he fish? “Oh, I don’t know, a whole shitload?” he shrugs, “Sometimes every day, sometimes not for a week, sometimes all day, sometimes for just an hour.” Doing some quick math in his head he estimates an average of three times a week for six months of the year, plus long stretches during the Derby. Plus the freshwater trout trips and the occasional run down to Florida.
Any angler who thinks he’s hardcore, claiming to live some dirtbag variation of the trout bum lifestyle, should spend time with Dave Skok for a reality check. Fly fishing is not just part of who he is, it’s what he is. He’s not fueled by any ambitions to be known as the best fly tyer or striper fisherman on foot, just by the prospect of chasing fish. “It’s what I do,” he says. At 36 he has no other plans.
After the vise session, we head up the street for a beer and a steak bomb, a New England delicacy made from chopped beef with onions, peppers, salami, pepperoni, mushrooms and provolone cheese melted on a hero roll.
Dave can talk about anything, and in the booth at the sub shop he pontificates on the virtue of the steak bomb and how it compares to the Philly cheese steak and why his old Jeep Cherokee is better than any 21st century SUV (the new ones don’t have any ground clearance) and what’s going on with the daily horoscopes. He’s wound tight and rarely idle, but he’s also able to shrug off the bother and the details that consume the lives of many.
If he didn’t find fish today, then maybe tomorrow one of his beaches will be less decroded or the big bass will be on the tinkers or the bonito will show up. If not tomorrow, then there’s always the next day.
Excerpted from The Blitz: Fly Fishing The Atlantic Migration, Departure Publishing, 2011.