I live on Cape Cod.
This means I have a higher than average chance of becoming an opiate addict, and it takes me way too long to drive anywhere in the summer. Also, I’m lucky enough to have world class fishing right out my front door. Putting aside the ‘Salt Life’ ‘Bloody Decks’ bro culture that comes with this, it’s amazing living somewhere where you need a rod in the car at all times in case you pass blitzing stripers while driving around.
While the Cape is even better known for its fishing than it is the famous family residence of a fallen president, the fly fishing scene here is fragmented at best. With no real central shop to foster community, our disparate pockets of retirees, hippies, Massholes, and influencer wannabes tend to angle with little to no intermingling.
With one exception: Cheeky Schoolie weekend.
Considering the religious fervor New England fishermen hold for striped bass fishing, the Cheeky Schoolie Tourney is our season’s shotgun start. Spring’s annual striper migration from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine’s cold waters is well under way at this point but, being the world’s largest wade-only catch-and-release fly fishing tournament with around 600 participants from all over the world carousing while to casting into a stiff headwind, it feels like opening day.
It’s Saturday at 5:30 AM on West Dennis Beach. The long parking lot teems with bleary-eyed anglers shuffling around in waders, bright sun piercing hangovers cultivated at the evening before‘s kick off party. A pyramid of Red Bull cans is quickly eroded by caffeine-desperate hands into a Sphinx-like pile of cardboard. Spurious advice is meted with abandon, fishing reports, spot tips, and fish stories tangling into each other. At precisely 6 AM Cheeky Reels founder and event organizer Ted Upton clambers atop a Uhaul truck with his megaphone, barks a few quick words, and sends the group scrambling for the waiting herd of sticker-and-rod-rack-bedecked Toyota Tacomas. The lot drains to hasty dust as entrants race for favorite fishing holes, all vying to amass the greatest accumulation of fish inches.
Traditionally, it has taken at least 100” to win, nearly ten feet of 15” and larger striped bass photographed next to a measuring tape and unique identifying puck. Competition is relatively fierce. Prizes include cash, Yeti coolers, Patagonia wadding boots, Thomas & Thomas rods, wine with an apropos striper-adorned label, limited edition bracelets from Sightline Provisions, and, most valuable of all, bragging rights.
For 8 hours, teams of two scour every river, bay, and beachfront the length and breadth of Cape Cod. They flog mightily against crashing waves and gusting winds before finally returning to an aging mid-Cape clam shack to await judgement, crush a buffet, and drink beer. In the end, a husband and wife team dubbed Team Jones took the top prize, secured by the weight of 105 inches of sea-lice-laden fish.
To be clear — it’s not all one big party weekend. The tourney does give back. A lot. 2019’s Cheeky Schoolie Tourney raised over $10,000 for Stripers Forever, gave Keep ‘em Wet a soapbox to instruct on proper catch and release technique, and provided a forum for female fly fishers led by local guide Abby Schuster. In an area normally devoid of fly fishing culture, this has become a bass-centric Bonnaroo.
Okay, but the real best part of Cheeky Schoolie Tourney weekend isn’t free drinks or elbow-to-elbow casting from jetties or ogling new gear. It’s having friends from all over converge to hang and fish our home water in a celebration of community that, while not locally tight-knit, truly stretches around the world. Personal highlights include standing on a barnacle-crusted wall of rocks in pounding surf and howling winds watching Chris Gaggia and Blane Chocklett try not to become entangled in their own lines while crushing fish after fish, Edgar from Sightline finally catching his first striper just hours before flying home, Andy Danylchuck’s son’s skills on the grill, and a full squad toasting to the great Rachel Finn and wishing she could’ve made it (next year!).
Speaking of next year, even though there are now months of epic fishing between now and then, I can’t wait to do it all again.