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Asleep at the Wheel
by Bob D'Amico
First Published 1998

all is a great time to fish at Island Beach State Park, the sun bathers are gone, the pseudo surf fishermen in their Range Rovers along with the wife, the kids, friends of the family, wimpy dogs, badminton nets and two surf rods have packed it in till June. On top of this, the entire beach from Gillikins south to the Inlet is open to 4 x 4's. Sure the weekends are crowded with guys looking for striped bass but weekdays the place is nearly deserted, it's heaven on a beach.

Well, not one hundred percent deserted, people do come and stroll the beach and horse back riders visit, chop up the 4 x 4 tracks and leave piles of biological refuse. Also a lot of schools from around the state bus in kids for nature field trips. They park the buses in the pavilion lots and the kids along with their teachers stream onto the now closed bathing beach and stroll along in groups picking up shells and other "stuff" that's been washed up by the ocean. I've observed that there's an order and social structure to the whole thing. A group of very young kids stick together, close to their teacher, older kids, say 5th or 6th graders break up into smaller gender based groups with at least three or four boys off by themselves screwing around. One of them invariably is the reincarnation of Eddie Haskell, remember him, the smart mouthed friend of Wally's from the old TV show, Leave It to Beaver. Then there's the young teens, the social structure, totally degenerated into chaos as they spread out all over the place. They remind me of why I never wanted to be a teacher. I like to fish certain parts of the bathing beach area at this time and generally don't mind any of the kids running about or the inevitable questions. I try to avoid them if I can but that isn't always possible.

One weekday in October I got down to Island Beach extra early because high tide, the moon phase and sun rise were in "perfect unison" and although I still don't understand how all that works it seems that I have better luck and/or fish a bit smarter than other times. That morning I had parked my Jeep on Gillikins, tied on one of those beautiful new $9.00 Japanese made minnow lures, you know the ones with the "...highly reflective holographic finish, with three dimensional eyes and molded, extremely durable body." I tossed my surf bag with the rest of my usual assortment over my shoulder and started plugging Northbound.


Going north is good, one of these mornings I hope to meet the Gov up near "the cottage" so I can thank her for reducing my income taxes which had the effect of super boosting my property taxes. I might also complain about the biological horse refuse on the beach but since we live in the same county, she's up in the "Horsey Hills" while I'm down in the Route 22 Deer Kill, Strip Mall, Stop Light and Carbon Monoxide "Corridor" I don't think she'd be too interested. Well anyway, I trudged along casting that $9.00 Japanese, holographic wonder not doing any good at all when I hooked a decent bluefish, played with it for awhile and then brought it into the wash. I had to work to get the lure free, "guesstimated" that the bluefish weighed around eight or nine pounds and then released it. I felt great until I took a close look at my "highly reflective holographic finish, with three dimensional eyes and molded, extremely durable" $9.00 Japanese lure. It looked like someone had tried to force it through a meat grinder, scratched, chipped, gouged, one broken eye and the lip was cracked. Although it was no longer pretty I started casting it again but with the lip cracked it wouldn't run anywhere near true on the retrieve, more like a drunk porpoise, so I switched to one of my "old standby" wooden American plugs and took three, very fat, "nearly keeper" bass.

It was nearly 9:00 AM and I was well past the Gov's "cottage" when a bank of clouds drifted in off the ocean and poured rain and more rain. I was wearing neoprene waders and my lucky dark green "waxed" foul weather coat but hadn't yet given it it's semi-annual wax application because it's a total pain and takes at least an hour of hard work. In less than 15 minutes I was soaked through, across my shoulders, down my back and could feel the dampness creeping under the waders. Then I made the mistake of getting into the surf too deep and realized that the leak I had repaired in the crotch of the waders wasn't perfect, so now I was wet in the worst of all places. Although the rain was subsiding and clouds moving off I was so uncomfortable that I started the long trudge back to the Jeep down at Gillikins where dry clothes were waiting. Trudge is a good word, especially if you're wearing neoprene boot foot waders.Frank Daignault Why can't they make light weight, breathable, polar fleece or down insulated waders with ultra-lite "air glide step" boots WITHOUT seams in the crotch? I'll bet some Japanese company could make em and they'd be "extremely durable."

The rain had stopped and the sun was out when I finally got back to the Jeep. I stripped off the waders and wet clothes, for dry jeans, socks, T shirt, an old sweatshirt and a light jacket. I put on my old green Red Ball rubber boots and a much older, formerly yellow, pair of Red Ball foul weather overalls. I always feel like the New Jersey version of Frank Daignault when I fish in my Red Ball boots and overalls. Now if I could only learn how to smell bass in the surf.

In the Jeep I made my way south down into the bathing beach area and plugged a few of my favorite spots even though the tide was ebbing pretty fast and with it goes my confidence. There was a bunch of kids tramping down the beach with their teacher in the lead from one direction and from the other I could see gulls rapidly winging their way towards me while crash diving the surf. I figured they must be following a school of blues slaughtering mullet so Eddie Haskell character from Leave It to BeaverI tied on my best and oldest lure, a black over silver Rebel and started casting. The kids and gulls arrived at nearly the same time, these were the 5th and 6th grade variety which includes the separate "screw off group" of boys plus a reincarnated Eddie Haskell.

The boys and Eddie approached as I was feverishly casting.

"Catch anything?"
"Bluefish and two small stripers"
"Can't you cast any farther than that, my Uncle Joe can cast a half a mile"
"Good, Please move back"
"You should use a big spoon"
"Try to hit a bird"
followed by Eddie mumbling "I can fish better than that."

My manhood was miraculously saved as a good bluefish whacked the Rebel and the fight was on. The fish reversed course heading south with me trailed by Eddie, the other critics and gathering more kids and finally the teacher as well. I was trying not to put too much pressure on the blue since I was only using 15 pound line without a wire leader. Okay call me dumb but I don't like wire.

The fish put up a good fight, I had the whole class close around me as I got the blue into the first wave and then slid it up into the wash and dry sand. It was a beauty, pure muscle flopping around with a mouth still chomping as I very carefully extracted two sets of trebles from its jaw. The girls were making girl sounds and even Eddie had shut up when I hoisted it up and started to head back for the Jeep to get my scale.

"Are you going to eat it?"
"No I'm going to weigh it and let it go."
"Oh please don't kill it, Mister!"
"I'm just gonna weigh it."
"Oh, Oh, it can't breathe!"
"It's not going to die, promise."

Back at the Jeep the blue weighed between 15 and 15 and ½ pounds on my brass tube scale. Some of the kids wanted a closer look at its teeth and I held it up with a few girls gathered around while others took pictures. I returned the bluefish to the water, it whacked spray up in my face as I let it go and I silently thanked it for proving that I was a master surf caster and a real man. As the kids wandered away I heard Eddie say "Big deal, my Uncle Joe caught a 70 pound bluefish off the pier in Asbury Park."

I kept at it for awhile, following the gulls but the blues had moved farther off and I simply can't cast a Rebel a half mile like Eddie's Uncle Joe. Returning, I jumped in the Jeep and moved back north to another hole and rammed home two aluminum sand spikes with my trusty mallet. I attached a high low rig to my old eleven foot fiberglas rod and baited it with clams. On my light weight rod I set up with mullet then cast them both out. The big rod went in the spike while I held onto the one with the mullet for a quick strike at any tail chomping blues that passed by. Thirty minutes went by with no action but then I picked up a few small bass on the mullet rig, go figure that one out. As luck would have it another class out on field trip came marching by only this was a young group, maybe first or second graders. The kids and their teacher all gathered around as I caught and released a small striper while Eddie Haskell popped off about the 100 pound striped bass his father caught on Long Beach Island.

Don't you just love people telling you how everything is better on Long Beach Island, someday I'm going to respond....If it's so damn good what are you doing here, slumming? And, oh yeah did you ever notice that on weekdays you very often see couples that don't look like they should be together? I mean the guy is usually ten, fifteen or even twenty years older than the girl. What's going on here? Could it be what I think it is or am I just getting old and cynical?

Okay back to the story. I re-baited the mullet rig, to the abhorrence of the little girls, and then showed them how to shuck a live clam. This was deemed cruel by the teacher although the boys thought it was pretty neat. She gathered her class together and led her charges down the beach with Eddie Junior proclaiming "I always eat raw clams when I go to the beach, …my Dad does too catch bigger fish."

1993 Jeep

With both rods now in the sand spikes I climbed in the Jeep, switched on the ignition, tuned the radio to my favorite oldie's station, took out a sandwich, ate and relaxed as Frank Sinatra crooned away. The last thing I remember was hearing "Ole Blue Eyes" belt out "Fly Me to the Moon" before being awakened by someone knocking on the door window. It was Eddie Haskell Junior, "Hey Mister, your rod is going to break!" The kids and their teacher were back and my twelve foot surf rod was bouncing, throbbing and bending in the sand spike as if it had a life of its own. I leapt from the truck, nearly knocking over Eddie, grabbed the rod just before the spike slowly fell down and then set the hook. The teacher said that as they came back up the beach they could see my rod bending and moving for several minutes, I guess there was no need to set the hook.

The fish had pulled off over two thirds of my line but still had a lot of fight left in it and I carefully screwed down my drag to try to regain the line. I brought it into the first wave and saw the silver and white of a linesider before a wave crested over her and she made one last desperate run for deep water. After a few more minutes I had a beautiful striper on the beach, she was hooked in the hard gristle of her lower jaw which fortunately kept the hook in without tearing her mouth or lip.

The bass was 39 inches long and on my scale weighed 26 pounds even. This was a real keeper, the 3rd biggest bass I had taken all year but the chant "Let it Go, Let it Go" was started by the teacher and picked up by the assembled kids. Sheepishly I took the fish back as deep into the surf as I could go, it didn't matter that I would get soaked. I pushed and pulled her back and forth to get the water flowing through her gills and let her go. She was spent and tired and moved off slowly but she deserved to live, no master surfcaster had beaten her, it was rod, reel and sand spike she battled for her freedom while me, a tired middle aged man, I had been asleep at the wheel. End

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