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A Passion for Stripers

Bill Sisson grew up along the shore in Watch Hill and describes himself as, “one of a small group of gangly, feral boys who spent hours at the Watch Hill Lighthouse scouring the low-tide rocks for lost fishing gear, terrifying both fish and one another with their hand-sharpened spears.” For several summers Bill practically lived in a cove by the lighthouse where a local lobsterman, Fred Buckley, kept his skiff. Although they were not related Bill called the lobsterman Uncle Fred. Those experiences with Uncle Fred helped shape Bill’s perception of watermen, striped bass, and boats. Seasons of the Striper is Bill’s personal journey to discovering his passion for the world of striped bass, one of America’s greatest game fish.
Like images in an old photo album, Bill describes his long-ago childhood. “As a boy in the early 60s, my world revolved around a town dock and the seawalls of Watch Hill Harbor. There I spent hours hand-lining cunners, netting blue crabs, and fishing tinker mackerel, snapper blues, and winter flounder.” And, “I had an uncle, my aunt’s husband from Tennessee and he started to take me fishing down in Weekapaug. He rigged up a little fly rod for me with a little spinning reel, with a little Atom popper. I had rubber boots up to my knees and we’d bounce down there and fish the surf. I’d stand there and move my feet back and forth so my boots would sink into the sand, skip some stones, and cast until I got bored, then I’d watch him cast. There were never any fish but I still enjoyed it.”

The Sisson family has a long history in Watch Hill. Hattie Sisson Berentsen, Bill’s grandmother, started Sisson’s Restaurant in Watch Hill in 1913. In the 1920’s she purchased two properties including a block of stores on Bay Street that became known as the Sisson/Kidwell Block. Bill’s father, David Sisson, was a prominent Watch Hill businessman who owned several businesses in Watch Hill including a luncheonette, a large variety store, and a men’s shop. He and his sister managed the Sisson Block.
“I worked summers in my father’s store in Watch Hill. It was a combination pharmacy, hardware store, and gift shop, with a big candy counter, two long shelves of magazines and comics, cigars, cigarettes, sunglasses, and sunblock. We sold thumbtacks, light bulbs, hammers, handlines, Kastmasters, pocket watches, and postcards.”
“The arrangement with my father was like a company store. He kept track of my hours and held my wages. I pestered him to let me use my earnings to purchase a proper surf rod. Finally, he drove me to the Weekapaug Tackle Shop, watched while I received a quick casting lesson in the breach way, then he brought me back to work with a nine-foot rod and a black Penn 710 reel. It was an important moment in my young fishing life. With this proper surf outfit, I could at last fish the beaches and rocks with the adults. Later, I caught my first striper at the Watch Hill Lighthouse and I was on my way.”
Bill started writing seriously after graduating from URI with a degree in journalism. “I was a stringer for The Providence Journal throughout college. They had a Westerly office then. I worked at Soundings when it was all newsprint, I loved writing, and I got hooked on it.”
In 2014 Bill founded Anglers Journal, an upscale quarterly that combined high-quality writing with high-end photography. The concept for Anglers Journal in many ways was the precursor to Seasons of the Striper.
“The idea of writing a book is something that’s been in my head for over twenty years,” said Bill. “I started taking notes long ago and I’ve got boxes of notes of fishing trips from the Chesapeake Bay to Nova Scotia. Jim Muschett of Rizzoli is an Anglers Journal fan. He emailed me and said how much he loved the new magazine. We started a conversation and at one point talked about a book. They do coffee table books. They’re gorgeous photo-heavy books. I pitched him and said there has never been anything like this done before on stripers. I think the fish and the people who chase them deserve this. He said to write a proposal, which I did. Rizzoli accepted and I spent the next eight months at the dining room table, where I knocked out thirty-five thousand words.”
Part memoir, part history, and part adventure story, Season of the Striper is a remarkable story featuring haunting Thoreau-like prose and incredible photography. It paints a vivid picture of the world of the striped bass angler and their obsession with pursuing the great American game fish.
Bill’s description of what it was like to grow up in Watch Hill sixty years ago is warmly written and takes the reader back to a kinder, gentler time. He has a strong connection to the past, particularly to his great grandfather who lost a leg in the Civil War and fished commercially after that. “I’m imagining William B. Sisson riding beside me in my Down East skiff as the wind strengthens and the seas build with the flood. My family has worked these waters for generations. I skirt the empty rip and study the seas in the fading light. It’s bigger and steeper than I’d hoped. No other boats are working this reef this evening. I’m fishing alone, except for the old timer in my head. To keep the bow from getting knocked sideways, I drift it under power, with one hand working both the throttle and wheel and the other holding the rod. I’ve fished this way before.” ‘You can make it through there, son,’ “he whispers.” ‘You’re not going to get any fish unless you go back in there anyway. You know that. The fish are in the second or third wave.’
In this unique and remarkable book, you follow the changing seasons with Bill as he chases the striped bass migrating along the rugged east coast. You can feel the tug of surf on your legs, the sand in your waders, and the sting of salt on your face as Bill fishes the surf and takes us along for the ride as he navigates the dangers of the powerful rips in his skiff. A pleasure to flip through, to read, or to display proudly on the coffee table, Season of the Striper is a book that should be at the top of everyone’s angler reading list.