hile surfcasting in Rhode Island in the fall of 88, George Schirmer of Moorestown, N. J. beached a 52 pounder, his first 50. It was the best of a pile of bass taken by him and his three buddies in two nights. He later found out that same weekend that he had won a brand new Mercedes in a raffle at home. George had bought the last ticket.
Such weird experiences may be why people love to gamble. They will risk a dollar for a chance to win a million without regard for the fact that the odds are 100 million against them. We all worship at the altar of chance, because a wild card drifting in the deck of any sport can create bizarre results where games are won on the good or bad bounce of the ball. So it is with fishing where we venture our time and efforts in the often dismal hope of finding that prize striper. This chapter could be filled with examples of how luck influences virtually every sport, but it will be limited to something most intriguing --memorable stripers.
In the early 60's, while attending a Massachusetts Beach Buggy Association annual dinner, I was getting drinks at the bar when the band stopped playing as everyone in the hall rose and began to applaud. A young man, maybe in his high twenties, came into the crowded hall of several hundred surf fishers and their spouses. He was smiling and waiving warmly to the crowd. The Governor?, I thought. No, he had taken the largest striped bass ever caught from shore at the time -- nearly 70 pounds. This was double the weight of the average striper club's fish-of-the-year 30 years later. Still, there has never been a time when that kind of bass did not lift people off of their seats.
My dinner was ruined that evening, because I spent all my time following the celebrity for a chance to talk to him, to hear something of what it had been like to catch that kind of fish. Finally, when the evening was winding down and many had left, I cornered him alone. After shaking his hand and introducing myself, I plied him with my prepared barrage of questions. During our conversation about the fight of such a big striper, he told me that he didn't have any means of comparison because he had never caught another striper other than that monster which was one of the biggest bass ever taken in sport fishing. How can that be possible? A person catches the largest striper in a generation and catches no other of any size? How can that sort of thing happen?
Around the same year, mid 60s give or take, Del Barber, a Charlestown, R.I. surfcaster, became subject to incessant needling from one of the women who camped with her husband on the beach there and who wanted to learn how to fish with live eels. They were part of a highly social crowd of members of the then Rhode Island Beach Buggy Association that enjoyed picnics, cookouts, and family gatherings punctuated by some surfcasting for stripers. Del, who had held any number of offices in the association and who was esteemed as a proficient surfcaster, was the perfect person for the teaching job. One evening, as the sun sagged low on the horizon, dozens of beach goer families were strewn along the shore in those aluminum folding lawn chairs that weve all seen. He walked her down to a gentle surf amid the guffaws and catcalls of both of their families and friends. It was one of those non-events, it seemed, that otherwise bored people seek to turn into a momentous occasion.
Playing up his part as a competent instructor, rolling his eyes with poorly hidden grins, Del began with, "This here is an eel. That there is the ocean. Now, you open this here bail and just cast it out and reel it in slow. If you get a bite, let him take it for a few seconds, then let him have it with a sharp tug. Here, you try it."
The lady made a so-so cast, closed the bail haltingly, reached down to lift an errant coil of line from around the crank, then complained to Del that she had a problem.
"I'm already stuck. Crissakes, I knew I wasn't cut out for this"
"Take it easy. Maybe the eel is a little too frisky yet," Del cautioned, as he noticed the line lifting under some unforeseen force.
"Set!", he urged, as the line went taught and the rod began to bend as she tried to react to his advice.
By now she was backing with a severely bowed surfrod while a crowd of silent, intent, beach friends formed an astonished gallery along the shore and something peeled line off the reel. Del was grinning with delight while the poor woman was unsure if this was some kind of esoteric beach buggy association prank. Near dark, a breaking wave slid the monster onto the shore of East Beach and Del scurried down to lift it to the dry sand. Word spread like fire through the large slack jawed crowd that had gathered that the 55 pounder had been caught on a first, first cast.
"I mean, like, what is the big deal? The men put on all this stuff like they were going to a war or something. I mean, ya know, it is only a stupid fish. Like its not like I'm mad at this thing that I want to put a hook into its mouth and pull it up out of the ocean. I thought I was stuck."
When the mackerel are running, they can draw concentrations of light tackle anglers from all over. If the macks are tinkers, say under 10 inches, they pan-fry nicely. The bigger ones, and I've seen them up to four pounds, can be filleted for cooking or chunked for use on the bottom as bait. They are on the oily side but, for that reason, are favored by some fish eaters. Moreover, at the larger end of their size, they will take small striper lures -- especially Fjords and Kastmasters -- and even pull drag from the reels of heavy surf tackle. A story that is repeated every few years, one which is heard more when the big bass are around, is the one about a gang of people using light tackle to catch mackerel. Invariably, during the melee, someone is fighting a mackerel when a moby striper comes along and eats the mackerel. Of course, the bass was hooked when it swallowed the mackerel and, often, the striper was landed and weighed in at over 50 pounds. What gets no attention is the number of times that it happens when the unsuspecting pan fisher -- often, but not necessarily a kid -- breaks off while fighting a mackerel. I have seen these sudden break-offs with kids catching mackerel and we will never know what did it. Maybe we don't want to know.
An old saying whispered at the altar of luck is that it is better to be lucky than good. That is fine, if it is one or the other, but how many times have you heard it said that some people are both lucky and good, two elements that when combined can produce miraculous results. Stuart Jones, who has become a pen pal from earlier books, was fishing wrong on the beach at Chatham Inlet when he got the fishing surprise of his life. I say wrong because I have taught my readers to fish at night with a plug; he was using a chunk in the daytime and not even watching his spiked rod. His little girl, Lindsey, age six, pointed to the rod and shouted "Daddy!" With 20 pound spinning tackle, Jones beached a 57 pound lineside. It garnered the Massachusetts Governor's Cup for the 1994 season.
Jones' story qualifies in this chapter about luck, because he combines his trophy striper encounter with a well honed checklist of skills. He knew how to fish bait, in this case a chunk, which is the striper coast's most popular method. Stu was savy enough not to fish stripers with a wire leader. He saw no harm in having a line in the water at what is probably the most popular surfcasting spot in the northwest Atlantic, as he was at the beach on vacation with the family anyway. And, once fast to the fish of his life, he did not blow it by pulling against this monster until his line broke. What was lucky about the event was the year in which it took place. That season, few fish exceeding 50 pounds were caught anywhere let alone in Massachusetts. The notion that Lady Luck's best work comes from situations where she gets a little help from the angler seems to manifest itself here. I'm convinced that those encountering the most "luck" are those who, because of their experience, have seen enough of these things to be ready for just about anything. As a boy hunting with my father and brother, Papa used to say -- whenever a grouse rocketed out of a thicket -- "You can't get lucky if your gun don't go off."
Just south of Highland Light, during a quarter moon in '77, I had a nice firm take while retrieving a rigged eel. Hauling back, I felt the momentary weight of a fish followed by the give of having failed to hook it. But what I noticed right away was that the weight and resistance of my eel had changed, been reduced, so that it was much lighter. I knew immediately that my bait, while still there, was smaller and only one thing could trim it -- bluefish. Nothing rips a striper fisher more than to have an eel, which has had twenty minutes of rigging time put into it, cut and compromised. I was miffed with a capitol P. You have to understand that this story takes more time in the telling than in the living, that only seconds went by between the take and the suspicion that a blue had cut it. I did not yet know what my bait looked like. Anyway, I kept right on pumping the eel as though nothing had happened, figuring that the only way I could get even was to keep fishing and catch the bugger. The bait didn't go 10 yards before it was taken down a second time in the same retrieve. This time I hooked it and kind of hoped that I could even the score. However, this, I could tell, was no bluefish. And, a few minutes later, I beached the nicest striper of our season, 51 pounds. Looking down upon it in the wet sand, I just knew what I was going to find. It was a case of confirming something about which I was certain. There, front hook buried deep in its maw, was half of a rigged eel, its lower section trimmed away by the bluefish.