MANCHESTER-BY-THE-SEA — It’s 4 a.m. and 18-year-old Finn Hawley is in a shed behind his house, doing what he does most days, which is preparing to go fishing for striped bass.
Hawley is a lanky teen, just under 6 feet 4 inches tall, and despite the pre-dawn hour, he has an unapologetic enthusiasm about him as he rushes around getting his gear together. All around him are rods and reels, waders and wetsuits, and he is quickly selecting lures from the dozens that hang neatly above a work table and stuffing them into his plug bag.
“The fall run is heating up and there’s some big fish out there,” he says with a racing excitement.
As he gets ready to pile into his pickup truck and head out toward the surf, he grabs perhaps his most important piece of gear — a waterproof backpack full of camera equipment.
That’s because Hawley is attempting something that has really never been done before. He’s hoping to carve out a career as an “influencer” in the world of striper fishing.
The premier saltwater game fish of the Northeastern United States, the striped bass is the centerpiece of a massive recreational fishing industry. But what it does not have, unlike many other outdoor activities, is a face to go with it, the person you think of when you think of chasing stripers. There are some personalities associated with stalwart publications like On the Water magazine on Cape Cod and the Surfcaster’s Journal on Long Island, and legendary anglers like John Skinner in New York and Janet Messineo on Martha’s Vineyard. But striper fishing still lacks a social media star for the social media age.
Enter Hawley, who has steadily built an online following through his teenage years, and — now that he’s preparing to graduate from high school next spring — is ready to do it professionally. It’s an unconventional goal for a high school senior, and Hawley, who grew up in a home on a cliff overlooking Singing Beach, is fortunate to have the cushion to try. But his particular fishing passion — surfcasting from shore, rather than from a boat — has long been a blue-collar domain, where success cannot be bought but must be earned.
“Surfcasters know there’s no substitute for hard work and putting in the hours,” said Joe Dion, the owner of Poombah Plugs, a New York-based tackle company. “You can’t fake that on social media, because at the end of the day he’s posting pictures of big fish, and you need to be out there all hours to do that.” And once those photos began carrying the hashtag #poombahplugs — after Dion recruited Hawley to his “pro staff” team with a modest sponsorship deal — Dion said he’s seen a clear spike in business.
Hawley has always been interested in “catching things,” his father, Andy, says, and growing up was constantly coming home with frogs and insects. For a while, he dreamed of becoming an entomologist, but his learning disabilities — dyslexia and dyscalculia — make reading, writing, and basic arithmetic a huge struggle. As he got older, “he came to realize that going to college and doing heavy science-based work was going to be a challenge for him,” his father said.
So as he made his way though high school, Hawley began to wonder if it might be possible to turn his burgeoning social media popularity into a career.
Hawley started his Instagram account, Striped Bass Hunt, before his freshman year at Manchester-Essex Regional High School, and it grew slowly at first, just clips and photos of a baby-faced kid catching lots of fish. But it just so happened that his older brother, Gus, was an aspiring filmmaker, looking for something to train his camera on. With Gus behind the lens, Hawley’s fanbase grew, and they started a video podcast on YouTube, developed some tutorials, and began dabbling in short documentaries of Hawley fishing, including one that captured his successful quest to catch a 50-pound bass, a landmark few anglers ever achieve.
Then in the spring of 2020, with the world locking down because of COVID-19, the brothers undertook a massive project, a 10-episode season of “The Striped Bass Hunt Show,” following Hawley from the arrival of the first “schoolies” in the spring through the end of the run in the fall. They spent untold hours shooting — much of it in the middle of the night when the fishing is best — and even more hours editing. Each 20-minute episode looks more like something you’d see on Netflix than something made by two teenagers.
It wasn’t a viral hit or anything — the most popular episode has just over 2,000 views on YouTube — but people in the industry noticed. Soon, Hawley had sponsorship deals with Poombah, Lamiglas Rods, and the apparel company Stormr. In August of 2020, he achieved a childhood dream; his photo was on the cover of On the Water magazine, holding a 47-inch striper. That same summer, he launched a kids surf fishing camp that became so popular so quickly, entirely via word of mouth, that this summer he cut the number of sessions in half so he could begin working as a guide for adults — a key to making this whole professional surfcaster thing work — and so he would have some time to fish himself.
All the while, he was doing double duty on the brand building: His brother had gone off to college at the University of British Columbia to study engineering, so Hawley was operating as a one-man band, trying to land big fish and capture it on film at the same time.
At 4:15 a.m. on this day, Hawley was standing on the shore of a small cove, flashlight in hand, looking for signs of bass.
“If there’s bait here, I’ve learned there will be bass on Singing Beach,” he said, and his light soon revealed thousands and thousands of tiny silversides. “Oh, yeah. This is what we’re looking for,” he whisper-shouted, and quickly shot a video for Instagram before extinguishing his light to just listen for a few minutes, as the striped bass literally slurped the tiny bait into their mouths. He cast a couple times, but knew the bait was too small. So he hustled to his truck and over to Singing Beach, where he spent the dawn casting plugs into the surf without luck.
He will spend the rest of the morning “running and gunning,” which is the way he likes to fish the fall run. This means lots of driving around Cape Ann, looking for telltale signs of bass — diving birds, dense packs of small fish, feeding frenzies in the water.
He sees something he likes off a rocky section of Gloucester, puts on special boots with spikes to grip the seaweed-covered rocks, and hustles to the shoreline. He tries several lures but nothing is biting. That’s when he checks his phone.
Surfcasting is a small community, and he’s always pestering the older guys with questions, and they’re always responding with a blend of help and hazing. One of them has sent him a text message stating that the fish are blitzing, a dream scenario where a school of bass congregates to corner and feast on a school of bait. Hawley asks where. “In the ocean,” comes the reply.
“I love it,” he says. “Whenever they do that to me, it feels like they’re telling me I’m slowly earning my way into the club, but I’m not there yet, which is how it should be.”
It’s humbling, he says. But if he’s come this far already, it makes him think that this crazy idea of his might just work.
And with that, he reared back on his rod and let his lure fly into the unknown, curious to see if anything is going to bite.