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Flavor It Mackerel
by Frank Daignault

hat's a buck an ounce. Does he swim by himself? I asked. Hap withstood the guffaws of the hang-arounds with the light grin that characterizes him.

"French perfume?"

"It's the deluxe paint job."

"Designed to catch fishermen, no doubt."

The iridescent green bomber, with its crooked ribbons of black, lay in the glass case, tempting me much in the way the product of a candy store would cause a small boy to press his nose to the glass. This was not the first mackerel-finished swimmer I had laid eyes on. The first was a creation of my own small boy, for his brand of art on winter nights was to embellish swimmers with certain "fish-catching" features of his choosing. He would darken the eyes, or paint a red mouth with the same dedication another might direct toward model planes. Trying to expand his games, I suggested he try to "mackerelize" a swimmer. He did, and I thought about one of the nights he used it.

We were at the mouth of Pleasant Bay, in Orleans, Massachusetts, and the sun that we cast toward had just dropped out of sight. He and his mother cast light Finland-type swimmers into the eddy that swirled and faded at our feet. Outside a full rise was in progress, and juice poured into the bay. He would toss his boyish creation and sidestep to a fellow whom we did not know. He had the poor guy's ear.

"If you fish P-town, why do you come here?" he asked.

I tried to rescue him from himself: "Dick! Less talk..more plug!"

"He's all right," said the stranger.

In the gathering darkness, I bent an eel-plug to my conventional gear. The lure was large and increased my radius. We had reason to believe that school fish would sometimes follow it, and Dick would make an occasional cast that paralleled mine, trailing slightly.

I don't know if it was his head that we heard, or his tail when he turned, but the subtle sound of this fish was heard by all. It was during that split second that I wondered...Who's got him?

Then I heard, "I'm on Dad!" Dick's drag went into an incessant screech and he followed to the right, out of earshot. I cast a few minutes and went looking for him.

"He won't stop. This is a score!" I flashed my light on his near empty spool. "Take up one number on the drag; if that doesn't stop him, you're going to have to go in. Don't be afraid, I'll be with you."

We were on a peninsula, one side of which was covered with about three feet of water. We would have to wade a tenth of a mile, a thought less than pleasant. The striper sulked, his power subsided and he now pivoted around our point from the current to the relative quiet of the pool. My fears were well founded; two weeks before, in a near identical situation, I had lost a monster when my 20 parted. The lad was using what would qualify as heavy fresh water gear with 12 pound monofilament. He had laid the first coils of recovered line on the spool by walking into the surf and gingerly backing with his tip raised. As he stored line he made compensating adjustments to increase drag. I paced. I worried.

A gallery gathered in the 25 minutes that passed. Runs were as meager as progress and the whole thing smacked of a standoff. We threw out lights on the pool. Thirty feet out, barely rippling the surface...his white underside facing us, reflecting...lay my son's price, 40 pounds of bass. Mother's voice was choked.

"I'll take that one," said some Fridaynighter who was tackling up for the weekend. The firmness in his voice jarred me back from the season that had passed, and I eased from the window...sort of a no-intent drift in the glass case. I hoped he wasn't buying mine. He wasn't, so I put my money down. Hap grinned again.

I guess plugs are like people: if they do a good job they work a lot; if not they make the shelf. Casters favor their pets. While many are bought, few are chosen, and the rest claw for a chance to prove their worth. Their masters will speak of a favorite who catches them all, but that's not giving the others a chance. The relationship that develops between man and plug sometimes has the effect of keeping us in the water a bit longer, for after all with this plug. . .

While it is only part of the story, we all tend to be anxious to test the swimability of our charges, regardless of their finish or color. The deep runners that defy the retrieve, the drummers, the tappers, the quiverers...the ones that seem not to swim at all. Each has its place to suit the mood of the quarry.

I don't like terminal gear with any swimmer, so I tie direct. Many manufacturers urge this in their instructions. The forces generated by the resistance of the swimmer plate are dissipated by the linkage between snap and eye. An over-zealous swimmer could be dampened by the addition of a good sized snap. A second related advantage to tying direct is that you are forced to renew the knot more frequently. The knot, usually the weakest point, deteriorates quickly if you're taking fish. If terminals are too large, they make your presentation unnatural.

Castability weighs heavily in lure appraisal. If you can see or hear the fish you'll want to reach them. In contrast to this, one popular model, with the casting qualities of a marshmallow, really does the job...so much so, it unfortunately has forced many into using lighter line.

If you have fast water, let it work your plug. Make your cast across current and permit your plug to pivot on your tip. Suspend your retrieve until your lure is up against the beach. Be mindful the next guy's waders.

I was making those fast water drifts in a Rhody inlet with my newly acquired plug. A half-hour of don't-lose-the-plug casts, with a sprinkling of backlashes was my game. When my mackerel-finished masterpiece stopped midway in the drift, I was sure I had hung the bottom, and my mental cash register interrupted backlash picking. Perhaps what remained of my "stumpatosis" from fresh water days was what misled me. But then the obvious could easily elude me, for I had not yet acquired faith in this chunk of wood. Twenty-four pounds of very green bass were hustled to the beach without benefit of drag. My plug occupied a place of glory because, for the first time, I was using something that was not a product of someone else's advice.

It was before my time (let's say, before I cared), in the late 50's when live macs made their debut. Pro's tell of the tin boats at Provincetown that would risk the shipping lanes to secure the little beasts. Multiple-lure rigs were jigged in the depths shared by haddock. Pampering masters sought to bring 'em- back-alive to a harvest that made history. It was this need, I suspect, that permeated the development of the live bait well in the smallest of small craft. You had to break 60 to draw a crowd and the monsters, it is said, fairly inhaled the meat...but the word was out and records fell.

The news of success in the north caused this technology to spread and expand. Pump devices that recirculate the water in large trash containers can now be found lashed to the gunwales of any craft devoted to the art. To amplify the fad, it was soon learned that blues, as well, were pushover to the offering. It was inevitable that those who made plugs would rush to offer a replica of what was becoming a universal killer. Their eagerness is demonstrated by the many poppers (which I had always thought represented squid) now sporting the famous paint job.

Paint can be anybody's game and has a place in the artifacts of anglers. A spray-can of fluorescent green, for the undercoating...to act as a background...can be secured for about a dollar. Brush on a black stripe down the center of your creation's back with little thin S's that point downward, toward the flanks. Dick calls them "swiggles." Retain that white belly, for the darkest of fishes has a near-white underside. There are two possible colors for the backs of these critters. A live healthy fish is green. When a mac is sick or injured, it turns blue. For this reason, one plug-maker offers a choice of colors with this in mind. So if you want the quarry to think the offer is a snap, throw blue.

I'm sure that stripers have enough memory to recall what they enjoy, so...even if what you offer is out of place...they might take. But, if there is nothing else to go by, why not "match the hatch?" If the local little league is taking mackerel, don't throw a herring plug. Let me show you what I mean.

It was vacation time on the outer Cape. Everybody was there. While there were some fish around, there was nowhere near the supply that birds on the outside indicated, so we sat around with our binoculars...speculating and bird watching. An acquaintance of ours had taken to a tin boat with a companion, and they heroically steamed out to bird-land. He had been one of us, a surfman, but the turncoat was not roaring into a school of breaking fish. Dick watched with the glasses. I tried to store sleep.

"They're taking fish."

I wrapped a pillow around the other ear.

"We murdered 'um!" was the triumphant announcement on their return. "Mackerel, monster mackerel!"

It never occurred to them to soak one of those macs. We moved the machine and, when we pulled up, Christy was playing Indian. He tested the wind.

"You can smell them: Mackerel! That's why they won't come in. Bass got all they want out there."

During the night, about three, I slipped down the beach on foot with a little sand eel simulator on my spinner and the mac tied to the artillery. The former had an unquestionable reputation for success. The water came over the bard easily now and collected in a trench along the beach. it was a young rip of perhaps 20 minutes. It was still dark and very slow fishing when something nudged my left elbow and sent me up three inches in my waders. It was Christy.

"Nothing?"

"Nothing."

Another familiar silhouette loomed on my left, to the east. Mike. Our minnow plugs were hitting the water in threes to no avail. The sky began to brighten. I traded to the conventional rod and laid the cedar into virgin territory. It drummed a few times in the full bore of the tide, then stopped. Instinctively, I handed back, there was a slash on the surface and, as always, Mike made the announcement.

"Fish on."

Christy cheered.

The next cast was made with a tight spool. A tight spool is usually good for a long cast. Again, the wooden mackerel paid off. Mike was wild.

"The blankety-blank landlord is on again! Chris, what are we doing away from our buggies with these rods?" he squalled.

"Mike! You got any big plugs?" Christy pleaded.

I stumbled to the right while they tied on bigger plugs. By now it was daylight.

Christy dragged his fingers over the treble hooks and cussed, "dull hooks."

Mike glanced at him and changed the subject. "He's all done. The sun's up now."

I backlashed, east for ten more minutes, then hung another fish. This one, the smallest, weighed 25. The other two went 33 and 30. The tide was slack, the sun too high. Forgetting momentarily the paucity of my accomplishments during previous six weeks, I clucked over my prowess, extended my right hand over my forehead, gazed toward the horizon and in my best indian..."Tonight!"

Late in the afternoon, while the rip was making up, machines pulled in. Mackerel plugs hung from every bumper. For all the secrecy that was sworn (there had been others around) there were enough "brothers-in-law" and "I fish with him all the time" for a Mexican ambush. To compound the horror, not one of the four possible sources in town had any plugs left, my runner reported (he had his).

We went dry the next two tides, and our ranks thinned. While we were standing around the next morning, I heard what had happened to the boys the night before. A number of teen-age sons had wandered out at low tide and broken off some goo fish. While they had not taken any, each had been in contact with something good, and they excitedly told of peeling spools and departed swimmers. That night was one of the best of the season. At low tide when I got out there, Christy had a 24-pounder. Every few minutes someone came down.

"Fish on, coming down, where's your plug?" I raised my tip for a fellow, only to dodge Christy who shuffled by in the darkness fast to another. Then my spool tumbled, I followed down to Mike. He cussed.

"What's the matter with me? Uh! Watch it, I'm on too!"

Downstream a quiet pool we could not cross was where we gathered, and they landed theirs while I tried to snub mine down. When I called for the gaff, a face I had never seen in daylight did the job. By 2 a.m., there were a dozen fish taken...nothing less than 20, up to 43 pounds. Only a pair had been caught on other plugs. Comrades now, we toasted our mackerel swimmers...for Roccus' diet had been matched.

Just how far this diet matching can go remains to be seen, for there is little that swims that doesn't at one time or another fall prey. imagine some tribe from the north that turns to drifting live lobsters to set off another cycle of blitz, secrecy, technology and finally the manufactured version. Perhaps the first whimsy model of this folly will be painted red in tribute to the appetite of the fisherman.

Today's heroes are tomorrow's villains I'm sure there will be a day when the "inverted dapper" is a sellout, or when, perhaps, an old killer will make a comeback and the macs will have to move down from the top shelf. But this year, it's the flavor of mackerel. In like the mini...perhaps more a product of fishermen's fancy than that of the fish.

EDITORS NOTE: This article was first printed in Saltwater Sportsman magazine in 1970. It is reprinted here with the permission of Frank Daignault. This article is covered by US Copyright Law, no part or parts may be re-printed, distributed or quoted in any form or any medium without the express written consent of Frank Daignault.

Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Frank Daignault, All Rights Reserved

Frank Daignault is the author of Striper Surf, Twenty Years on the Cape, Striper Hot Spots, The Trophy Striper, Eastern Tides and Fly Fishing the Striper Surf. Autographed books can be purchased directly from Frank; Order Form »

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