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Seasoned Salt
by Chris Chivers

n the past decade, as striped bass have rebounded and resumed their blitz over New England's legendary surf fishing grounds, one man has served as a guide to countless new members of the surf casting cult. He is Frank Daignault,Frank Daignault a former rod and reel commercial fisherman whose trilogy of books has provided a road map to fishing success and a romance with the sport. (Now six books!)

His works include the recently re-released Twenty Years on the Cape: My Time as a Surfcaster, an autobiography about raising his family among the dunes; Striper Surf, a how-to tome on striped bass fishing in the suds; and Striper Hot Spots, an inventory of fishing holes complete with the best tides for each and directions to good parking. The Trophy Striper, published in September 1999 is another How To, for the serious surf fisherman looking for the Big Bass that are present today.

There are many measures, most of them foolish, by which we judge fishing success. Daignault transcends them all and should be seen as a cultural treasure, a man who has evolved with the sport and documented its trends through firsthand observations.

We caught up with Daignault in the lull between spring turkey hunting and the first push of large bass. Ever opinionated, he sounded off about those who hesitate eating an occasional keeper, and he took a strong stand against poppers, one of the favored plugs of the surf casting fraternity. And, as usual, he broke into long riffs of fishing stories – one of the joys of the sport.

When did you catch your first striped bass?

It wasn't an exciting situation. I was a teenager on the Warren River, where I was last night. On the Warren River Bridge feeding sandworms in the current in a rising tide. It was a 16 or 17 inch fish. It had to be 16 at the time, for the maximum size limit. And I'm sure that we were trying to make it 16. It was that close (laughs).)

What year was that?

That would have been summer of ’50.

And when did you get serious?

First, I had to tear away. Every young man goes though the teenage years when he is chasing the girls, and Joyce and I were married very young. I was 20, she was 17. That was 40 years ago. And as soon as we married, I went right back to fishing and hunting.

In 1960, we hit bluefish in Charlestown, and nobody knew what they were. We were on the east side of Charlestown breachway, and we couldn't see the bluefish, but we could watch the rods arch in progression towards us. You know how the fishermen set, and bend the rods and then back away from the water? You could see them coming, you knew they were coming down the beach, progressing. I wrote about this in Jack Fallon’s book. All about Surf Fishing. I called it “Farewell to Arms,” because it was in October and November, and it was the first year that I missed hunting; I was surf casting.

And I got in a little deeper and a little deeper. In 1962 or '63, my brother took me to Nauset Beach (Cape Cod), and we had a blitz in October. And I met a gentleman in my brother's club by the name of Charlie Cinto. Charlie was a boat fisherman from Provincetown. But in those days, in the 1960's, the P—town boat fisherman used to stop at Nauset. They'd give their chase vehicles to their wives to take home, and they would take the big camp vehicles out onto Nauset Beach for the last weekend of the season, traditionally it was Columbus Day.

Charlie got a pair of striped bass when two schools of fish collided in the middle of the beach. He was just sitting there, having breakfast, and he saw the birds working, ran out, and watched one of his rods go down. He set and got a 49 pounder. And the next fish he got was 51. About four or five years later, Charlie tied the all-tackle world record, at Cuttyhunk, with a 73 pounder. All of these things had a profound influence on my interest in striped bass.

One thing that has made you such a popular figure is the way you made fishing a cornerstone of your family. How did this come to be?

Joyce and I were buried in kids. We didn't have any money. I was a machinist at the time, and Joyce was home with the babies, and the only way we could do things, and enjoy life and get away, was to pile everybody into a camper and head to the beach. That's what we did.

Our first camper was a 1947 or '49, I forget, International walk-in van, two wheel drive – a bread truck. Probably had over 100,00 miles on it. We rigged it up with bunks and creature comforts, and off we went, the six of us.

Since 1950, when you caught your first bass, how has it changed?

I think everybody knows how it has changed. It's no longer cool to kill fish in any facet of rod-and-reel fishing. It's probably unpopular, but I'm going to say it, and I don't have any problem if you want to write it. Having talked to thousands of surf casters in my seminars in the last few years, no one has ever asked me, with all of the hundred of questions I have entertained, anything about cooking and eating striped bass.

I'm a consummate carnivore. We just had a taste from last winter's good hunt. We were having it as an hors d'oeuvre, waiting for you. I could show you venison from the remains of four deer. You want pheasant pate? I've got you a pheasant. We love game. Game is part of our life. It's part of our lifestyle. It's part of the reason why we hunt. It's the reward. You stalk this thing, you find it, you're in contest with it, and you win. You get to consume it. This is as old as man himself.

They don't do that with fish, and I'm not sure that's really healthy in the long-term scheme of things. I'm not advocating the wholesale slaughter of fish, buy they're not killing any. It tells you something about what they're after. They don't seem to know. My opinion is that these people are missing something.

I'm being facetious, but let me see if I got this right? You put back the striped bass, and you go to the market and you buy an endangered groundfish, like a cod? Hello?

That addresses a change in attitude. How have changes in fishing styles affected the sport?

Changes. Spinning dominated fishing 35 years ago, 40 years ago, and it still does. People who know my writing know that I've always been an advocate of conventional tackle. Conventional tackle gives you the power and strength over the fish of your dreams. When I talk to my readers at seminars, invariably they'll talk about keepers. Especially when we were talking about the 18 pound keepers, when we used to have a 36 inch size limit. They ask me, “Why aren't I getting any keepers?”

Well I say, for one thing, the requirement is a little steep for what is out there. But usually, when I pull them aside and we get to talking. I'll ask, “Did you break any fish off last year?”

“Well, three or four?” they say.

I tell them, “Those are the keepers.”

And it always turns out that they use spinning tackle. If they used conventional tackle, it would allay that problem. The magazines have been teaching people the wrong way. They've been teaching people that light tackle is sporting. But light tackle is easy to use. Heavy tackle is hard to use. I know people who cannot fish conventional tackle, no matter what you do to try to teach them. Conventional tackle is tough.

I have a rig that I love to use in Charlestown: 50 pound mono, with an 8/0 or a 9/0 bucktail jig. And I have to pick out a place to sit, a fighting chair of stone, so that I can stop that brute when it takes my jig. And I have chosen a jig that will not straighten out; it's not like a plug. That fish is not going to break me off. The drag is set. But the drag washers come out the side of the reel in a paste from the cult tackle to use. It may not be sporting in the definition of the “Big Three” in New York, but it's difficult.

Tell the reader what you mean: The Big Three?

Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, Sports Afield. We have a culture that has been trained by the media. And some of the things that they have been taught are not necessarily so. I advocate heavy tackle because it keeps people from retching in the dunes over the fish of their dreams.

What lures do you recommend with conventional tackle?

For one thing, you need a heavier lure, but not as much heavier as an awful lot of people seem to think. I'll give you an example. An ounce and an eighth floater Rebel handles very, very nicely, especially on the new lines. Small eels don't wing the way you want'em. But a fairly heavy, well built, 15 or 16-inch live eel, which is a good size that people use on a regular basis, weighs about three-and-a-quarter-ounces, casts beautifully.

Bucktail jigs on conventional tackle, are perfect.

I fish conventional tackle with either 30-pound mono or 45-pound micron, with a 7-inch floater. Rebel and teaser. That's my first choice.

Are there any other insights into lure selection?

I have a right to engage in “theoretics,” just like my readers do, and they come up with some wacky ones. I have often felt that everybody on the striper coast is using the same thing, and that striped bass, after a while, are “Pavlovian”; Aw chrissakes, there goes another Rebel. I took one of them at Montauk, and it hurt. I'm exaggerating my point, but this is why a lot of new stuff works, because the bass have never seen it before. They haven't been released from it yet.

In my day, back in the old so-called glory days of striper fishing, we killed everything, so they weren't taught anything. But now we've got fish that are learning, and they are being sent back with an experience. How many times they need to have that experience before they really shut down would be an interesting and difficult thing to answer.

Copyright 1998 - 2011 C.J. Chivers, All Rights Reserved
Articles by C.J. Chivers

Seasoned Salt - Frank Daignault Interview
The Legendary Return of Big Bass
Red Gills, The Lure That Got Away

C.J. Chivers, copyright © 2010 - 2011, C.J. ChiversCHRIS CHIVERS, a native of Rhode Island, is a much traveled senior international correspondent for the New York Times. He is currently embedded with US combat troops in Afghanistan. His New York Times, At War blog and his book, THE GUN make incredible reading ( Follow Chris in Afghanistan or wherever he may be on assignment on Twitter @cjchivers.

Chris has also been a contributor to Wildlife Conservation, Tide, and Fly Fishing in Salt Waters. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for USA Today. His work has also been published in Field & Stream, The Globe and Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, On The Water, Surfer, Longboard Magazine, E: The Environmental Magazine, Yankee and Cornell Magazine. His essays on military and environmental affairs have also been printed in The Daily News, The Nation and The Navy Times.

In 1995 he was awarded a Pulitzer International Traveling Fellowship and in 1996 he received the Livingston Award for International Reporting for “Empty Nets: Atlantic Banks in Peril,” a series on the collapse of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic.

Chris is a graduate of Cornell University and has an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He is a former Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. During his six years in the Marines he was a specialist in helicopter assault forces and is a combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm.

Autographed copies of all six of Frank Daignault's books are available directly from Frank, please go HERE.

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