“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.

Doldrums 30

I have never missed fish with a retrieve too slow, but I have missed fish because a retrieve was too fast. Photo: Gio Rivera

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.

 

A Superstrike Darter. Copyright OTW magazine.

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.

Copyright, newenglandsurfcasting.com

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.

High40s

This fish in the 40s fell for a live eel fished on the GSB 1201L. The rod performed flawlessly. photo: newenglandsurfcasting

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.

“The gill!”

“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.

By NEWENGLANDSURFCASTING

Captain Israel was searching for a place to relax, wandering around his boat with a partly peeled egg like someone who wished to rid himself of the burden of time. He finally sat down at the back of his boat and deposited the remainder of his egg into the sea.

He removed a frozen block of chum from a white box stamped The Blue Marlin Company, Islamorada, FL. and dropped it into the water and watched as a blizzard of dead fish flakes fanned out into the current.

“Just keep your jig moving,” he muttered, not bothering to glance at his companion, Frank. “What you catch is what we’ll chunk. It’ll be a special day if we catch a spinner shark.” He gazed at the wind-swept sea. “I know where they are.”

Israel watched as Frank set the hook on a Spanish mackerel. The inshore rod and reel setup sang proudly as the fish pulled back on his fishing charter.

Capt. Israel took his cell phone out of his pocket, glanced at the screen and wiped egg shell from his chin with the same hand towel he used to clean shrimp gum out from under his fingernails. They were fishing on an inshore 22-feet Mako, twenty miles away from inhabitable land, surrounded by water.

For several hours, the men took turns fishing and resting without ever actually saying a word. Both were in familiar territory; they gazed into the Gulf of Mexico in long drawn out periods of silence.

When Israel was a child, his father took him to New Hampshire to fish for lake trout the day after he graduated 7th grade. In the glow of false dawn, the two shared hard boiled eggs and the young fisherman ran to open his little tackle box to sort through his things, savoring the fresh smell of rust-encrusted hooks, mildew, and expiring bait. He selected the brightest spinning baits from the box.

Israel and his father caught more lake trout than he could count that morning. In the evening they smoked the trout and shared cornbread with Israel’s mother as the sun set over the White Mountains.

Every fish that tugged the captain’s line in Islamorada was a powerful reminder of mountain fern, smoked fish, and the last meal he would share with his parents. He swore to the gods that he would never leave Islamorada, even if he had to.

The first shark of the afternoon hit Frank’s bait hard. He let it run for ten yards before setting the hook.

“If she jumps, you know she’s a spinner shark,” said Capt. Israel. “But you’ll know it’s a blacktip if she fights you hard for a while. Keep tension on the line so it doesn’t throw the hook. Blacktip sharks are fun, but spinners are something special.” Frank saw the captain’s eyebrows twitch through his polarized lenses. He smiled.

When he was in college, Israel used his kayak to break the ice sheets of the Providence River to catch stripers in the warm water outflows of the river power plant during the coldest days of February.

He expected college to prepare him for a life of affluence like his Cuban grandparents wanted and pursued his studies to the highest honors and distinctions, which eventually led him to chartering fishing trips in the coastal United States, but he couldn’t have foreseen the challenges to come from ill-managed fisheries and rising sea levels; now, he wished to endure the hardship of fishing for he loved being on the water and catching fish: of this he was certain.

Frank’s rod bent into a giant “U” shape and he struggled with the weight at the end of his line. Capt. Israel took the rod and landed the shark for Chuck and snipped the line to let the shark free. He grabbed a new rod from the center console of the boat and hand-fed a bloody mackerel head into the channel.

“Just watch,” he said and waited.

Beneath the boat, swirling clouds of sediment upwelled by a school of mullet buffeted the bilge. Both men could hear the tail slaps of mullet. A spinner shark jumped clear out of the water fifty yards from the Mako. Capt. Israel pulled back hard, gave it two cranks, and felt the hook penetrate. For a moment both fishermen stared at the full body of a shark suspended and shimmering in the mid-day sun. The dream of renunciation, it occurred to both men, was in the Islamorada Backcountry.

Capt. Israel handed the rod to Frank. He removed a camera from his left breast pocket but replaced it when the spinner bit through the steel leader and slipped back into the sea. Chuck reeled in what was left of the line.

“Damn near landed that shark,” Capt. Gabriel said.

It was a moment that both fishermen could not quite forget, since once it had passed, and they went back to their usual quiet routine.

On the way back to the marina Frank and Captain Israel talked – about inconsequential, unobtrusive things, and the challenges of turning a profit out of fishing – without feeling too much intimacy.

Jerry Sylvester had a storied and successful career fishing for bass along Rhode Island’s southern coastline.  He was known for catching big fish with startling consistency and was a guide to many notable personalities such as Clark Gable. It is rumored (mainly because he said so) that Sylvester hooked, but lost a bass in the 60 – 80 lb. range from the surf.

Without a doubt, Jerry Sylvester ranks among most colorful and mystical surf fishermen in Rhode Island. Quite a few of his direct and indirect proteges continue to fish “Jerry’s Rocks” searching for the fish that bested him many moons ago. I count myself as one of them.

Among Sylvester’s many accomplishments, his contribution to our collective surfcasting knowledge and consciousness is the most well known. In Saltwater Fishing is Easy, Jerry discusses the water conditions striped bass prefer, specifically whitewater.

It’s widely understood that bass cruise under white water carpets, but Jerry teaches us that not all whitewater is created equal, and not every whitewater blanket shelters bass.

Jerry writes that the most productive white water looks like “champagne.” This type of whitewater smells like aroma therapy and feels like jacuzzi treatment to wader-clad legs. It is oxygenated and clean. Find it and bass will be swimming in it.

On the other hand, there are certain types of whitewater conditions that are unproductive, specifically whitewater blankets created by a current push aimed directly at the shore, or swells emanating from an offshore hurricane. Under these conditions, bass prefer to shelter in the backsides of inlets or seek out deeper water. Regardless of how rough these conditions are, champagne whitewater is almost always better to fish than the latter.

I confess: I am a big white water nut. When champagne whitewater is set up on a reef due to wind and surf conditions, I experience the same emotions I had when I first discovered ice cream. I will, quite literally, lose my pants when I find champagne whitewater (read: put on my waders).

If we were to invite Sylvester into a conversation on whitewater today, I am sure he would say more about the topic than what he writes in Saltwater Fishing is Easy. I am certain he would draw our attention to an even better type of whitewater: champagne whitewater colliding with current sweep.

Most of us who have spent a significant amount of time at the oceans edge understand that each stretch of coastline is profoundly effected by where the moon rises and sets; along some stretches of coastline, currents are pulled from left to right or right to left; along other stretches of coastline, currents may be pulled directly into the shore.

The most productive of these options are when currents are being pulled horizontally due to where the moon is located relative to your position. When met with the rush of a flood or ebb tide, the combined hydraulic pressures creates what I call, champagne whitewater swirl. These conditions feature the best of whitewater and also behaves like a whirlpool that traps and distorts bait to great effect. Find these conditions at slack tide (be it ebb or flood) and you may have made an appointment with the fish of a lifetime.

Locating these conditions takes time. It is difficult. Surfcasting is hard work, especially for those who work full-time like me. Still, sometimes the stars align and every minute and hour invested into the game is rewarded.

SwirlbassMay

This, my friends, is when saltwater fishing is really easy.