Sit back, turn up your speakers, relax, and enjoy our 2016 season with us. Thanks, and see you in the surf!
New technologies have ushered in unsuspecting ways of surfcasting. For the first time we can see how lures behave underwater: how they shimmy and move, as well as the attention they get from saltwater critters. Underwater cameras like the Waterwolf and GoPros take us into a “fisheye” view of the underwater world.
I’ll be the first to admit how much seeing new lures work excites me, especially when they are being murdered by bluefish.
In spite of how cool these videos look, new technology should also give us a moment of pause. Particularly, for those of us who use lures to hunt big fish. Seeing fish attack especially wiggly lures may make us assume that they are better fishing catching tools, but in my experience, the opposite is true. Bigger fish will always be taken by lures that move minimally, slowly, and with stealth, not by the ones that attract small fish.
Apex predators have learned to be strategic and purposeful feeders. Rarely will they feed amongst or chase bait around, like small fish.
Gaudy and flashy lures attract small fish and make for the best action on underwater cameras, but they aren’t the most consistent big fish catching tools. Those that are that immediately to mind are bucktail jigs, darters, and needlefish. None of these lures move in ways that excite from a “fisheye” view, but each season, they take the most and biggest fish throughout the Northeast. Lures that move very little most closely resemble baitfish. Fished correctly in current, they appear like baitfish being swept along by current in a very natural vulnerable way. This is enough to entice a big fish to pounce and give you the chance at winning against the fish of a lifetime.
Don’t get me wrong, new technology is cool. But like Facebook, it is changing the way we go about doing the things we love. If we are taught to believe that the best way to catch big fish is to make our lures move the most, than that is how we will fish: by retrieving our lures as fast as we can to make them dance in the water without thinking about where fish are holding, how they expect a baitfish to move, and the proper presentation. All that might matter is the vibration at the end of our lines. We might catch a fish or two here and there, or many in a blitz, but beware the hype.
If you wish to increase the size of your fish and the number of them you catch each season, I suggest fishing differently. Fish in current, keep tension on your line, let your lure sweep in front of structure, and hold on. Choose the lures that work when the water is moving like darters, needlefish, or bucktails, and let the water take them naturally into big fish holding spots under the right conditions. The challenge is enduring the skunking that will inevitably occur to get good at this, but the payoff is big. Surfcasting is hard work, but that’s what makes it so rewarding.
The next time you get out and spend your hard-earned dollars on a lure, think about the type of fishing you wish to do and the type of fish you want to target. I’ve given you three lure options to master as you look ahead to the 2017-18 season. I guarantee they’re worth the effort.
On a separate note, my fishing partner and I both finished the 2016-17 season with two striped bass over 50 lbs., the biggest being 58 lbs., and four fish over 40 lbs. between the the two of us. Pictures, videos, and analysis of the season to follow.
As always, see you in the surf!
Two old fishermen sat on a log staring into the inky darkness draped over a cove at the end of a long, winding path that cut through the woods. They lit cigarettes and kicked out their legs, stretching their aching knees and arthritis. The air was crisp and dry, but comfortable and unusual in August, for most fishermen sought to avoid the discomforts of the hottest summer month and the vicious gnats and cinder worms upon their descent into the intertidal zone at dusk, indoors. The fishermen liked the cove because they’d done well there and seemed to always hold fish throughout the years. The stars shone down on them brightly and one fell out of the sky into the sea, diagonal, across the horizon.
“The last one was nearly four minutes long,” Todd said.
He inhaled a string of smoke and blew it out into still air watching it disintegrate into the lights in the sky. The tide was in as the old men exercised the patience they’d gained over many years of fishing together and spending too much time trying to catch fish outside of the times they were easy to catch. The waves tumbled and turned shelter pebbles and shells in rhythmic and steady repetition, like music to Galen, who was lost in memories of the nights when he and Todd caught so many fish in the cove they’d lost count of time until they were forced to stop when the sun had risen and their position had been compromised.
“They appear to be getting bigger,” Galen said.
“What’s that, the sounds?” Todd asked.
“No, the stars.” Galen said.
“They’re all over the place tonight,” Todd said. “And I am certain they’ll be the last thing I think about before I get planted in the ground.”
“Planted? No-drift,” Galen said.
“You are correct,” his friend replied. “Drift me out of the Narrow River. Scatter my ashes where I stuck the leviathan striped bass by the rock in the river.”
“I still remember the fish,” Galen said. “Nobody believed you when you said you caught it.”
“World records are meant to be broken. Even when people don’t believe you. But you believed it…” Todd said.
“Still do.” Galen said.
“Then, I can’t ask for much more,” Todd said.
He inhaled smoke slowly and murmured something to himself that was distant and incomprehensible. He readjusted the position of his rod and laid down on a flat rock next to the log. They stared into the sky and Todd began humming.
“The fishing has been spotty this season,” Galen said.
“It’s always been spotty,” Todd said, as he pulled his cap over his eyes.
“When it’s spotty, people get lucky,” he continued:
“There’s no shortage of one-hit celebrities – Lucky like a squirrel is when he finds a stash of nuts under a tree in a hole dug out by some other squirrel that either isn’t there, or met his end in the mouth of a coyote.”
“Could happen to any of us,” Galen said.
“What’s that? The nuts or the coyote?” Todd asked.
“Both,” Galen said. “But I’d rather have the nuts.”
“I’d rather have the coyote.” Todd said.
When the wind was out of the southwest, a vibrant full swell pushed heavy sets into the cove. Blankets of white water connecting with the reef churned eddies around its edges, dislodging silver baitfish and stone crabs clinging to bubble-weed. Bass and bluefish corralled bait against the stones like packs of wolves slashing through herds of wild deer. And when the old men found the cove like this they rarely said a word, catching, dehooking, and releasing fish with clinical precision. But the wind had shifted from the North an hour ago and the sea was quiet and serene in the cove.
“Seen the lights out at the cliffs for the past three nights,” Galen said.
“Probably – there are always fish there,” Todd replied.
“Billy likes to spark-plug bass right up next to the cliff. Drops a Menhaden down, three ounces in its gullet, two cranks and wham!” Galen waved his arms in the air and drew a long circle with his right arm and bowed deeply into a phantom hook set. He pulled upwards convincingly.
He laughed and glanced at Todd in the darkness, but could barely make out the unique features of his old friend, so he imagined him as he’d been many moons ago, when he was dusty and lean, chiseled with courageous brown eyes that had witnessed war and erased its images from memory.
From the north side of the cove, a pair of lights came into Galen’s peripheral view. Descending from a garden of ferns were the unmistakable silhouettes of two men. Galen watched them hurry over the stones, without pausing. They came down the path, through a row of washed-up logs, to the front of the end of a fence separating a military base from the Atlantic, took a right past the first point, then moved straight ahead towards two atlas-sized rocks that stood for two-thousand years at the entrance of a footpath that was once overlaid with balsa plank wood by fisherman from another era when striped bass the size of men were commonplace, and where Galen and Todd now sat, sprouting overgrowth and life all over as nature, certain of her power, sought to erase it from the memories of men.
The old men straightened their backs and sat upright. Galen drew his pack close and put out his cigarette in a small pool of water in a hole in the log. The first of the two red lights, walking heavily, was an impressively sized man, who barked orders and opinions at his companion. The companion, Galen observed, was substantially smaller, but carrying himself with a more imposing confidence, lept over structures along the path, lightly, as a mountain billy goat. They stopped their trek at the edge of the water, when the smaller one caught wiff of evaporated nicotine. He nudged his friend in the ribcage, turned and faced the old men.
“Didn’t mean to graveyard your spot,” the tall man said.
“We saw you from the top of the path,” his companion continued. “But we thought you’d left.”
“So we decided it best to check it out,” big said.
He laughed loudly and roughed the pebbles beneath his steel-spiked boots. He lifted his rod up by its full length and placed it atop his shoulder and drew his blades back, amplifying his chest through his wetsuit. His partner was steely dead-eyed and cold looking at the old men sitting on the log.
“We’ve been pounding this spot for the last few seasons,” the big man said.
“But we haven’t seen you here before,” small said.
“Have you been fishing here for long?” the big man asked.
“Generations,” Todd answered.
“Oh, yeah?” The small man looked at his friend and Galen saw him wink through the darkness between them.
“Well, let me tell you something,” big went on: “there ain’t any.”
“You’re wasting your time,” small said.
“My old man always said: pay it forward,” big said.
“If I know it, I should share it,” he continued.
“Thanks,” Galen said.
“What’s your old man’s name?” he asked.
“Ronald Sheldon,” big answered, smartly, smiling.
“Owner of Top of the Dock?” Todd asked.
“You bet,” big said.
“Honest man.” Todd said.
“Fantastic fisherman,” be replied.
For the first time Todd felt uncomfortable on the log that had been his footstool and couch for longer than his tired mind could remember. It felt moist and rough to touch. Galen lit another cigarette and handed it to Todd, who watch the embers burn through the densely packed tobacco and rolling parchment.
“There was a star that lasted nearly for minutes earlier,” Galen said.
“See it?” Todd asked.
“Nope,” big answered.
“We’re fishing.” small said.
“Nobody has any time to stargaze when there are fish in the surf,” he continued: “especially in this spot.”
“Right,” big said. “But there are no fish-so we’re leaving. Charlie-Os is open ‘til 2 a.m. in August. Happy hour for fishermen, who wudda thought?”
“Enough time for a drink,” small said.
“Good luck,” Todd said.
“No such thing,” replied small.
“Fair enough, boys,” big said. “And be careful on these rocks – the can be pretty slippery at high tide, even when it’s calm.”
Small stared through his tall friend and motioned towards the overgrown boardwalk. They switched their headlamps on and turned to face the cove, washing a wave of white light on the reef and rocks covered with sea fauna and birdshit. In the sweep of small’s headlamp, Todd saw a flash of silver zip past the furthest point of the beam. He estimated the fish was close to four-feet in length, and he knew his estimates to be accurate and true. Still, he was silent and reserved in the darkness behind the young men. Big let out a deep-throated belch and said something about bird shit and began to walk towards the path as small lept over the rocks with the grace of an olympic gymnast, two steps behind. The old men watched the lights of youth extinguish into the the dark dense woods and then sat for a long time, smoking, after the lights and sounds had disappeared.
“I saw a bass, way past the reef,” Todd said.
“Me too,” Galen said.
“Top of the Dock. Sheldon. He was a good, honest man. I miss him.” Todd said.
“Was he with you the night you hooked into the leviathan striped bass? Galen asked.
“He helped me weigh it,” Todd said.
Todd bit into the butt of his cigarette, half gone, and stood, stretching his aching back. He swung his pack over his shoulder, cinched his belt tight around his waist and exhaled deeply and descended the rocks down to the edge of the surf using his rod as a walking staff. Galen joined him a short time later and the old men fished for several hours and watched in wonder and awe as the stars fell, one after the other, into the sea.
“What are you doing after your plug is out of the strike zone?” I asked Steve.
“Retrieving,” he replied.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that,” he said.
Turning, he glanced at the black over chartreuse, over white plug I had placed on the counter and nodded, approvingly.
“Montauk special,” he said. “That’s what they call it down there.”
The rock gardens and rips across the northeast flooded my memory as I began to envision the countless spots the “Montauk Special” has taken fish for me throughout the years.
Like most of the lures I fish, the Super Strike Darter is most effective during a very specific span of a retrieve. Timing matters with glide plugs, specifically how long the plug remains in structure.
I don’t expect it to catch fish all the time, or just because I throw it out there. I expect the darter to catch fish only when it passes a very specific part of structure, be it a garage-sized rock, or an inshore reef, or a mussel bed. Otherwise, it is just a piece of plastic floating in fish-less water.
Your retrieve speed should take this fact into account. When we fish, it is easy for us to think about how our retrieves effect the action of the lures we throw.
But while the action of a lure is important, I have found it even more important to modify my retrieve to enable my bait to stay in the area I am targeting for the longest amount of time possible.
Consider this scenario: If I am standing on a rock and casting parallel to the shoreline in a boulder-field, the only two times I am retrieving quickly are a) to pick up slack line when my lure hits the water and 2) when my lure is out of the vicinity of the boulders and I need to get it back. Otherwise, when my lure is close to a rock in the boulder-field, I slow my retrieve speed to a crawl. This enables my lure to stay in the structure longer, increasing the amount of time a fish has to find it.Over the years I’ve observed very proficient surfcasters. Steve McKenna, one of the best, has many stories to tell, but his best advice has always been his dissemination of surfcasting tactics. Learning to modify my retrieve has taught me more about fishing than a specific spot.
A commitment to cast placement and presentation is an attitude the greats seem to share. We must always fish structure because structure holds fish.
So the next time you make a cast to some white-washed rock or structural irregularity, regulate your retrieve to hang in there with the bass.
The darter craze of recent times has taken the broader surfcasting community by storm, and for good reason. Darters account for extraordinary-sized fish. Any cursory internet search will find proof of their effectiveness throughout the striper surf. The darter was even responsible for a Rhode Island sharpie’s-affectionately known as “the fish whisperer”-50-lbs. behemoth last year, one of only two I knew taken from the surf in 2015. The other fell to a rigged eel.
My friend Angus got me started on the darter many seasons ago, and for the past four seasons, aside from a needlefish, it is the only lure I fish when targeting cows. There is no other plug I know that mimics baitfish as accurately, and no better profile for when squid, mackerel, or herring are on a grandmother striper’s menu. My yearly excursions to the New England Aquarium in Boston confirm as much. Baitfish zig-zag through the water and do not shimmy the way metal lip or plastic swimmers. The darter’s sloped forward head enables it to track in a z-like pattern when retrieved.
This is not to say that a darter will automatically catch big bass. It must be used properly to produce.
My friends and I all have our preferred ways of fishing the darter, but I especially like to use a method I call, the sweep and seep. The method is simple and deadly when there are bass around. The technique involves three parts:
First, cast the darter into the desired water. Pick up any slack in the line, but before beginning the retrieve, point the rod tip at water at a slight angle from where the darter landed and sweep the rod forcefully like drawing a large “Z.” The lure will dart and dive dramatically and emit enough vibration to attract bass. I believe this motion appears like a baitfish escaping from the rocks or like a squid chasing down its own bait.
Second, after drawing a “Z” with the darter, I like to begin an agonizingly slow retrieve, with only enough speed to feel tension on the line. The slow retrieve is the seep period, when I envision the lure traveling as slow as a teabag’s essence discharging into clear water. During this period, I expect my plug to get hammered, and most of the time, it does.
Third, I will typically stop the darter midway into my retrieve and use the sweep technique again before repeating a slow seep a second time. Usually this break in my retrieve is enough to entice a big bass that has decision making issues, the most important part of it being the retrieve speed.
The darter may be the most understated lure available to surfcasters today, but it is worth considering when putting together a surf casting lure arsenal. Consider taking a season to master this plug.
Many of us haven’t been disappointed.
Since I began working my summer months at Quaker Lane Bait and Tackle as a Pro Staffer, I’ve met and observed many impressive surfcasters pass through our doors and browse our aisles. Some say a lot, but most say very little, since they are dedicated to what is good and true: a simple shared experience in an intellectually challenging and physically demanding sport framed by a healthy competition and sprinkled with dramatic theater. These guys stand out from tourists and seem to know exactly what they need and where to find it in our shop. I have no problem imagining them approaching their fishing in the same way.
It never ceases to amaze me that after reaching a certain level, surfcasting becomes less a rat race and more of an endless exploration of experiments and experiences, which is kind of like life, if one thinks about it. Most surfcasters who have been around realize that the goal is not what matters, but everything that led up to it. The most elite of us will be ready to take the world record striped bass from shore if he or she meets her.
My point is that any one of us at any time could break fifty or take the world record striped bass as long as we endure the necessary “paying your dues” mandate from the sharpies. It is also true that any uninitiated and unschooled surfcaster may beach a behemoth like a blind squirrel discovering a hidden treasure cove of priceless nuts. My fishing partners “Bart,” Gio, and his brother, Johnny, are each good enough to take the fish of a lifetime when they meet her.
I remember reading somewhere that one good fish a sharpie does not maketh. The speaker is correct. There is a lot more to be gained from the game of surfcasting when we focus on what we know and have learned, what we can do when Mother Nature throws us a curveball, and how we do it, and exploring new environments than the size of the fish we or someone else caught today or yesterday.
There are a lot of hot rods on the market these days, and I own quite a few. However, my preference is a custom rod built by Howard at Galilee Bait and Tackle build on a GSB 1201L blank, trimmed 3″ from each end to make it 9’6″ long or 12″ from the butt to make a 9′ rod. To me, the 9’6″ qualifies as “heavy tackle” and the closest setup I know to the tried and true J. Kennedy Fisher blanks of old.
I marry it to a Van Staal 250 or 200 depending on my mood.
I have never had trouble hooking a big fish and landing it, and it seems whenever I fish another rod I have all sorts of issues, wether straightening hooks or working a big hole in a bass’s mouth. We surfcasters are a superstitious bunch, and when I’m not banging big fish, I blame it on the mystical properties (or lack thereof) of my rod.
I’ve read a lot of stories about surfcasters hooking into big bass that destroyed their gear, but I’ve never had that issue with the 1201L – specifically the 9’6″ – in the areas I fish, even when the current running at max velocity.
The trick I’ve found with the GSB blank-like most tackle-is to have the right mindset; simply trust it; adjust the drag appropriately, set the hook hard, and let the fish fight the rod. No need to do anything dramatic. The rod won’t explode. It’s that simple. I’ve taken multiple 40-pound striped bass and a 50 with the GSB 1201L.
Every rod has a “sweet spot,” a mode when it operates at peak efficiency, if you will.
For the GSB 1201L paired with Van Staal reels the “sweet spot” seems to occur when the drag is tightened all the way down and then loosened one full turn and a half. Under this setting the GSB will bend halfway into the blank and produce just the right amount of parabolic action and lift to win against a big fish.
In my experience, most of the big fish I lose are due to user error or improperly set drags that did not enable my tackle to operate at its sweet spot.
Sometimes I feel like I am more familiar with the intricacies of my tackle than I am with my right hand. My GSB 1201L has effectively become a part of my body and it inspires my confidence.
Confidence catches fish.
Two surfcasters decided to meet up half an hour before their initial appointment at the surf. One of them made the call to meet sooner on a gut feeling that the prime fifteen-minute window of opportunity at their spot would occur earlier than anticipated because the wind had changed direction and was almost certainly going to weed things up.
They arrived at the same time, got suited, and walked a path littered by overgrowth to a transition zone adjacent to a breachway at dusk. The last remnants of the sun’s farewell rays pierced through moderate swells, painting them yellow and gold like a paintbrush.
The two surfcasters talked about getting skunked and the short fish they found at their spot last week and the thirty-inch forty-pound striped bass they made up to laugh about when they came up empty handed and the tattooed guy who came into Quaker Lane Bait earlier and said he worked on a trawl net that netted a ninety-pound bass a few miles off Montauk wondering if they would catch a fish like that that evening.
Patches of weed littered the beach and a solitary plover ran back and forth between the foam of receding waves. The surfcasters passed a family taking pictures of each other but said nothing because they were intent on avoiding distractions that might interfere with their mission and the time required of it.
Both men weren’t in the business of bringing rusted-out pistols to a bear fight. The surfcasters were appropriately geared and meticulous about caring for their tackle.
First glance at the water brought the surfcasters to a standstill immediately. The normally placid seascape was alive and pulsating and breathing like a whirlpool, spewing eddies and nervous water from the edges of garage-sized boulders as the tide flushed out into the Atlantic.
The nearest pool of nervous water was a yard away and he was the first to see it. He’d been fishing a big fish rod for the past two weeks matched with an oversized waterproof reel and an intent to fight a big fish, but until now had nothing to brag about except a forty-one inch bass he caught a week ago by himself after casting for three hours on school nights and was certain that he was definitely now the worst kind of unlucky.
One season ago Howard build him a rod on a blank people told him would be too light to turn a big fish in a boulder field, but it had his wedding date on it, which was enough for him to think about for the two hours he intended to fish and had swapped rods because it made him feel good and he needed it. He remembered this while he impaled an eel on his hook and again after lobbing it into an eddy.
The eel stopped swimming midway into his retrieve and the surfcaster was experienced and knew that no ordinary fish had inhaled his bait because the hit was light and the line was loose so he lowered his rod and waited. He could almost count the number of stars that began to dot the horizon before the bass moved off with the bait and he hit the fish really hard. He hit the fish with the force of countless fruitless hours of casting and seasons of coming up empty after traversing miles of granite and shale rock with rod and reel. He hit the fish with everything he had.
The fish dove straight down. She made a good and long sustained run without stopping. “God,” the surfcaster whispered, “this is a good fish.” The second surfcaster looked up because of the commotion and was quick to action since he dropped his rod and hurried to help his friend land the fish.
The surfcaster was surprised she didn’t fight as hard as some medium fish he’d caught before, but he was still impressed by the sheer power of her runs when she made them.
“She’s smart,” he thought, because she dove towards the rock and bubble weed piles as he held on to her and prayed for his tackle and let her fight the rod with deep and powerful pumps of her tail and did not touch his drag because it was not smart, and he was experienced.
She was swimming against current and nobody for miles heard her run since his drag clicker was removed and he’d stifled his excitement when he saw her. She came side up and the last rays of the sun reflected off her side like a mirror through the purple and orange waves. The surfcaster smelled spring melons and a sweet moist scent as his fish rolled over exposing herself and, displayed, she looked the flag of indefinite defeat.
“The gill plate. The gill plate” he said. His friend grabbed the fish and he remembered once when his other friend had a good grip on the mouth of a big bass but got hit by a wave and the bass rolled out.
“Woah, that’s a huge fish,” his friend said.
“Oh my god.”
They both looked at her and they contemplated dragging her back to the car and hanging her from a certified scale and getting their picture taken with her. They thought about mounting her for the tackle shop and plucking her scales to have Howard epoxy them onto their rods. They thought about the glory and envy she would elicit from the fishing community if they killed her and they knew none of this mattered if they let her live.
Her eyes stared up at them and they felt sad because they knew she was hungry and they had defeated her because of it.
The two surfcasters stared at the fish for a long time and said nothing.
She hiccuped once and the surfcaster decided it was time to put her back so he lifted her and waded chest-deep into the ocean while pointing her towards the tide. He could feel her heartbeat in the water she pumped through her gills, which was warm, gentle, and rhythmic like the sea.
His friend give him a high five after he climbed back onto their rock. For some reason he expected a parade to make its way down the beach to their location or a heavenly sign to reveal itself but all he heard was the gentle buffeting of waves along an unassuming seascape not far from where he’d parked his car. The solitary piping plover, undeterred, still worked the receding foam for its evening meal. He watched the bird skitter along the edge of the surf as they walked back to their cars but he knew he’d unraveled, finally, and nothing about him would ever be the same.
The surfcasters arrived at their cars an hour past sunset. They changed out of their wet clothes and loaded their gear into their trunks and shook hands again as a few cars pulled into the spots next to them and asked them if there were any fish around.
“There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only one you.”
– Ernest Hemingway