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Surfcast? Are You Crazy?
by Frank Daignault

“Surfcasting is often fishing where you are not supposed to be, when no one would preferably choose to fish, for anything you can get.”

uintessentially simple, here is how surfcasting is these days: You go down to the shore to fish the simple way by walking the beach and casting a lure or bait in the ocean. You don’t have to register a boat, buy a ransom in electronics, or fork over hefty mooring or docking fees. Just go the way your father and uncle did, back when only girls wore earrings and boys sported tattoos.

Anywhere on the Striper Coast, it is possible to approach the shore, walk to the water’s edge, and look in either direction to a coastline that begins in Canada and ends in Mexico. Sure, there are complexities where, for example, in one state no one can own below the “mean high water mark” - an arbitrary point loosely defined by law. I always thought that if nobody knew where that point was, I wouldn’t have to worry and I fished where I thought it might be good. But they solved the problem of assuring exclusivity soon after the invention of the auto with parking bans. They learned how to tow autos before they ever learned to push them. Thus, while no community would dare ban something as benign as surf-fishing, they all but remind surfcasters they can keep fishing while their car is being towed.

You don’t realize how small surf fishing is until you see it dwarfed by the towing industry. Indeed, an entire sub-culture exists where campaign contributions made in exchange for tow truck licensing form the basis for the privilege of being the one who generates that pit in your chest the moment you thought your car was stolen. Its almost a relief to find it was towed until you realize you practically have to buy it back – if it can be found somewhere in that “storage area” suitable for a football stadium. For your failure to have been dropped off by helicopter, you get to forage down row upon row of out-of-town, stickerless vehicles among an army of waderclad interlopers who parked in the same coastal community.

In Massachusetts, if you have a deed from the King of England, there are many locations where ownership of the shore goes out so many yards below the low water mark which means that people actually own parts of the ocean’s bottom. In one coastal town, over 40 years ago, a person was shot dead for trespassing while in the water. Of course the shooter and the shootee were quarreling over a boat and salvage rights, but it still points out that all the rules of access to the “surf” in surf fishing are not the same.

Surfcasters are always crying about access, which was a big factor in establishing “Seashore Parks”. The idea was - and it does sound good on paper - that if the area was a park controlled by the Federal government access could be guaranteed. After all, no one ever wanted a Sheraton on Race Point. So, the government brought in a bunch of men in uniforms and cowboy hats with guns, sold permits, enforced a book of regulations thicker than the national budget while a staff of accountants did the payroll. Never mind that the permits are all sold before the fishing even starts. Nothing is perfect.

By any reasonable measure all sport fishing is one of two things: boat fishing and surf fishing. When fishing in a boat, it is possible to travel miles of open sea with a sonar device that detects the location and quantity of gamefish. It is not refined enough yet to positively define the species, so boating for fish could cause anglers to waste their time if they are fishing for 40 pound stripers while actually they are over 40 pound cod. Still, what surfcaster would not give anything he has two of for one of those gizmos? When they fish the beach they don’t know if they are fishing wrong among several tons of gamefish or right in an empty sea. Let’s get real about comparisons. Ever been in a fishing contest?

Whenever a fishing contest is held they have a prize for the biggest striper of the overall contest, the biggest one from a boat, and the biggest one from shore. Clearly, somebody is going to get two prizes. Do you want to guess whether a shore fisher or boater is going to get two? The last contest I was in, the grand prize for the tournament winner was a very large boat, trailer and motor. Now, why would they do that? Here I was trying to win this thing when it dawned on me, ‘What is a surfcaster going to do with the grand prize?’ Apparently, it has never been a problem for contest officials, which tells you something about a surf fisherman’s chance of winning. It didn’t matter because the winner had a boat and caught a 57 pounder. I did win the shore division and they gave me a lawn mower. I don’t blame the officials for the fact that A) The other guy ended up with two boats, and B) Real surfcasters do not mow their lawns. You can drive down any street on the Striper Coast and figure out which homeowners are surfcasters by the height of their grass.

On the outside chance that you are new to fishing, the drill is that boat fishers go out in the day and surf fishers usually fish at night. Fishing from boats, they would do better at night but they already have more fish than they want to pull on. Besides, nights are kept for wearing a blue blazer with gold buttons at the “club”. And if you have to ask what and where the “club” is, they would not let you in anyway even with the proper attire and suitable inclination.

Shore fishers, on the other hand, and I promise to move this along real soon, suffer most from the problem of proving to their wives, girl friends, or both that they have actually been fishing all those lonely nights. You did not hear it here, but surf fishers often don’t get a thing either at home or the beach. Even the Biblical Peter was smart enough to use a net and set it from a boat. I was not there, but if he was a good husband, I’ll bet Peter spent nights with his wife like the other boatmen of the time. Back to the beach from which your car has been towed.

Face it, cultural traditions define that sleep should be done at night. Tell that to the army of shore fishers on the two seven mile banks of the Cape Cod Canal. Sure, like you, I have, at numerous times in my life – hurricanes, funerals, weddings – social commitments formulated by people who lack clear understanding of seasonal imperatives (read fishing season) crawled under the covers of my bed in the dark. Weird as it felt, it was usually because the fish had finished in their migration, the tide was wrong, or my cardiologist and shrink had gotten together and given me something very strong and controlled. Even then I have nightmared vividly about some blitz on some beach that I had never been on in real life, which made it all the more horrible. If you want to catch, you fish at night. ** In contrast, your boating counterpart uses alarm clock money to buy sunscreen, a comparison about which I don’t like to think about or even remind readers. Still, realism is an integral element to surfcasting. The other morning, while moving my spoon through the corn flakes, varying the depth and speed of the implement, my old surf buddy, Sonny, came to mind.

He was the first person I ever knew who said “anything I can get” whenever he was asked about what he was fishing for. I know we have all heard it, but he did it more to hammer home the idea that hurling something out into a dark and hostile sea, an elemental fury, really, was fishing the hard way. We have all heard the saying, when asked what we are fishing for - Sonny was the first person I ever heard say that Originated by an acquaintance, Sonny, it is what he has said fishing for 40 years. That is because no one knows better than he how hard it is to work all day, fish all night, then go into detail trying to explain about getting nothing when he was supposed to be after a particular species, say the wily striped bass. If he were dishonest, he would say he was fishing for stripers. However, the truth is that he will take whatever he can get, in spite of his broader application of effort toward anything. Maybe he is a wimp. After working all day, he is usually too tired to stand in the rotation of his favorite jetty only to wait his turn to drift a plug, which he hopes will not be taken because if he gets something and does not return it he is all done fishing. Sonny knows that he can choose to return it, if it is a keeper. Still, it is so rare that he is confronted by such issues, that he views any catch as a kind of a validation for his identity as well as preservation of his marriage. Mumbling and staggering through the night, you can only go home dry so many times before your wife hires a detective and puts a tail on you.

For that reason, along with others, Sonny blinks his eyes, nods, and rocks through his mid-watch hunts for stripers, often missing a turn while the others walk around him, all because he is a surfcaster. So what if his car is towed or he is too late for a permit to the Seashore Park, he remains part of a rapidly shrinking breed of masochists engaged in the sporting traditions of the Striper Coast. Sonny is not likely to stop doing what he was taught how to do by his father or uncle because the surf is a place where the work ethic is alive and well, because surfcasting is not, after all, about catching fish. It is about doing things the hard way when you know alternatives are available. It is about what you love. Those who have to be told that left the beach a long time ago – and you know where they are fishing. And, unlike the world they left, they are in serious trouble if they are fishing for anything they can get. End

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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Fly Fishing the Striper Surf