The Return to Heavy Tackle
by Joe Lyons
“You're going to need a bigger boat”
deadpan expression on the ashen-face of Chief Brody, Roy Schrieder's character
from the movie, Jaws, after his first encounter with the man-eating
shark, was unforgettable. Chief Brody did not like the water, was not
a sportsman, yet his initial assessment of whether they would be successful
in their attempt to defeat the twenty-five foot great white shark proved
to be prophetic.
For striped bass anglers who came to the sport in the early 1990's, things
were just the opposite. We did not need a bigger boat, or even a heavier
rod. With several large year-classes of fish still under what constituted
the size requirements of a legal 'keeper,' anglers adapted their tackle
and tactics to better match their quarry, and to effectively present the
lighter lures and jigs to the smaller striped bass that were so abundant.
But as the decade drew to a close, things began to change. The chances
of tangling with fish best measured in pounds rather than inches, grew
with each passing season. Among anglers for whom size truly does matter,
gearing 'up' and moving back to the heavier tackle so prevalent in the
60's, 70's and 80's.
Along the southern coast of Rhode Island, where I've done most of my fishing,
the transition is now complete. For many, this shift has been necessitated
by encounters of surfcasters with larger fish that have ended with the
fish winning. My lighter gear still sees action through Aril and early
May, but when the big fish arrive, my light tackle is retired for the
remainder of the season.
When surfcasting, I believe in being ready for what I really want, not
for what is most likely to come along. Though many respected anglers prefer
light spinning, as a surfcaster, I've often viewed light spinning as something
that tipped the odds more toward losing a good fish than landing it. Maybe
it speaks more about where I've fished, than how I think. Most of my favorite
spots are populated with barnacle-covered rocks. A 9-11-foot rod with
a stiff tip and less flex through the mid-section allows me to better
steer a hooked fish where I'd like her to go, not where she wishes. Even
if I have a clear shot at fighting and landing a fish without obstructions,
a hard running striper can change direction, which can lead to slack line,
or the running line coming into contact with sharp gill plates. Particularly
in shallow water, I've had fish run straight in at me, which can result
in slack line. At the end of outflows or along steep drop-off where deeper
water is found, I've had them sulk so stubbornly that I thought I was
hung up on an obstruction. In times like these, heavy gear is a necessity.
The properties of stiffness with respect to flex on a fishing rod are
collectively known as the rod's 'backbone.' This stiffness is what gives
the surfcaster more pulling power, which is needed when attempting to
maneuver a fish around rocks or points, or simply to a favorable landing
Monofilament lines of greater than twenty-five pound test tend not to
cast very well with spinning gear. With braided lines, I find that thirty-pound
test is very prone to failing from small nicks. It's for these reasons
that I tend to like 20-pound mono or fifty pound braid for my fishing.
Also, with any line, it's important to note that line tests do not take
into consideration shock, which occurs when a slack line tightens quickly
or you set a hook with force. Line tests are proven against steady pressure.
The breaking point of line due to shock is something you usually find
out by sad surprise.
It's not just the line that you have to worry about, either. Striped Bass
between twenty-five to forty-pounds are at their fighting best. The resistance
they put into a fight can be startling the first few times you encounter
them. In other words; it's a new ball game. Anglers who came of age post-moratorium,
who cut their teeth on schoolies discovered that even a marginal keeper-sized
fish could get into the rocks, bend back a cheap hook, pop a poorly tied
knot, or fray a leader to half its breaking strength in a major hurry.
Which brings us to the hobgoblin that pains every surfcaster who has ever
lost a big fish: mistakes.
The first largish fish an angler hooks into tend to over-excite the inexperienced
to the point that they make mistakes. Usually, if you look back on how
you fought and lost a good fish, and are honest with yourself, you'll
find you made a mistake. Usually,the fish did not beat you, you beat yourself.
I've seen fishermen reach for the drag knob before the first run was over
or attempt to reel frantically against a running fish - big mistakes.
Heavier line and tackle can better accommodate a hard fighting bass, and
even make up for a mistake or two on the part of the angler - provided
the fish is not too big. You can make and recover from mistakes on smaller
fish, but with the bigger ones - you don't get second chance.
The 2003 season in Rhode Island saw the largest, extended run of big fish
in my experience. The run of big fish along the Jersey shore in the spring,
and the big fish that hung around Block Island that summer - not to mention
Newport angler Iron Mike Everin's summer sixty - all served to reinforce
the commonly held belief that bigger fish were indeed becoming more common.
Locally, the 2009 season produced at least on shore-caught fifty before
Rod, line, and lure manufacturers also took note of the renewed presence
of larger fish and were again offering surfcasters a greater variety of
heavy tackle choices. Fifty-pound test braids with the diameter of twelve-pound-test
monofilament were on many reels, and those reels were mounted on the latest
generation of light but incredibly powerful surf rods designed to cast
heavy lures great distances. These new rods have the backbone to pull
a heavy fish from behind a rock or up a steep drop off, something the
early graphite rods could never do. From lifelike soft baits, to holographic
crank baits, to plugs that utilize the finest components and 4X strong
trebles, an ever-increasing array of lures for big stripers emerged.
Perhaps the best best advancement in surfcasting has been the improvement
in line. Breakage due to nicks or from applying too much pressure on a
heavy fish has always been the most frequent cause of the loss of fish.
But with many surfcasters now using the new generation 30-50-pound test
braid, or hybrid monofilament, line failure has become less frequent.
Fifty-pound-test braid is as close to impossible to break as any line
that has ever been available to surfcasters - as long as it not nicked.
Braid is made up of a weave of micro fibers, with almost no stretch. With
braided line, you can feel subtle hits and with less diameter, they cast
considerably further. That's the upside. The downside is that when braid
is frayed or nicked, its breaking strength falls dramatically. The hybrid
monofilament lines do not test as high in breaking strength with respect
to diameter, but they are very resilient and are less apt to break if
they are nicked. Keeping yourself open to the option of monofilament is
a good idea. A little line stretch is not a bad thing - I prefer stretching
If you find yourself leafing through rod manufacturers' catalogs, you'll
note that surf rods rated for 1 to 3 ounces are rare, which was not the
case just a few years ago. Most of the more popular surfcasting striper
rods are now rated for 1 to 5 ounces with a sweet spot - the weight at
which the rod performs to its maximum capability - approaching three ounces.
A rod that loads at two and half ounces is heavy indeed, but if it can
throw lures an ounce or two above and below as well, you'll have a real
surf fishing tool.
If you are a believer in the 'big plug, big fish' theory, you have little
choice but to fish the bigger rods. The most popular surfcasting lures
are through-wired plugs, often of two ounces or more. Popular styles like
large Danny-type swimmers, large needlefish, darters - all demand a heavy
rod to deliver them beyond the foam line, to the second bar, or the far
drop off - where monster-sized stripers often lurk.
The surfcasting community has embraced the concept of high end, unparalleled
gear right down to their choices for terminal tackle. High-end swivels
by KROK and SPRO, top quality heavy-duty hooks by Gamakatsu,
4x-6X strong Owner and VMC hooks on plugs and abrasion resistant leader materials
have become standard equipment for many surfcasters. There is a large
contingent of serious surfcasters who insist on top quality for everything
that comes between them and their quarry. It's no surprise that the prepared
are the most successful. Putting your money into quality line and terminal
tackle is the most cost-effective way to upgrade. You can catch a big
fish with a decent reel and rod, but old or cheap line and bargain terminal
tackle do not hold up to the stress a big fish can exert.
While getting to know some of the best surfcasters in Rhode Island for
a profile series that I wrote for On The Water, I was struck by the differences
between them. I had a pre-conceived notion that they would be somehow
similar in personality, which was dead wrong. But one thing they all seemed
to have in common was that they paid close attention to details relating
to line and terminal tackle. Each had lost his share of large fish and
explained that losing some big fish is inevitable. However, the fish that
were lost beat these guys; they did not beat themselves. That's the distinction
between the average surfcaster and the upper tier. It's this attention
to the small details - taking the time to re-tie a knot, or double check
a leader, or replace a stressed hook on a plug - that separates the elite
from the average angler. Top surfcasters eliminate all the variables at
their command that contribute to failure before they hook into trophy
If you decide to go for heavy gear you must be aware that you'll face
a few new challenges. Throwing heavy lures, for example, tends to stress
knots to the point that they will fail far more quickly and more often
than when using lighter lures. If your line gives way, inspect the broken
end. If the line is curled or twisted, it's a sure sign of knot failure.
Take time to either change your leaders frequently or at least re-tie
Knot failure, often mistakenly interpreted as line breakage, is what often
turns people away from braid. Braids are very slippery, so the common
three-and-a-half-turn clinch knot will not hold. (But seven-turn, Improved
Clinch Knot will hold.) Most people go with the Palomar Knot when using
braid. A Triple Surgeon's Knot is a good choice to tie on a monofilament
leader and if you're tying on a swivel or tying directly to the lure,
go with the Palomar or whichever knot is recommended by the line manufacturer.
If you have your drag socked down and your bail closes on the cast, the
shock to the line can stress all the knots from the running line through
the leader system. If this happens, be sure to take the time to check
each one and re-tie as needed. The fish will wait! Also, don't forget
to back off the drag when changing between single hook offerings (like
you use when throwing eels) to plugs - that mistake cost me dearly one
morning on Block Island.
I'm not sure if anything really changes, or things just go in circles
and cycles - but I'm leaning to the latter. For a while, it seemed as
though there was a certain negative stigma attached to using heavy gear.
The notion was that it was somehow unsporting, or the mark of an inexperienced
angler. I'm not sure how much that was genuine and how much was manufactured
by people who had something to gain by popularizing light tackle. The
truth is that not only is there nothing wrong with using heavier surfcasting
gear, but with the fish you may encounter today, it just makes sense.
It is a highly effective and rewarding style of fishing and anyone who
tells you differently most likely has never experienced the thrill of
a big striper crashing an oversized Danny at grey dawn.
The use of heavy tackle, particularly for surfcasting, is not a fashion
- it's a tradition born of necessity. Surfcasting's old guard was armed
to the teeth with heavy line and stiff rods and the kind of fish fighting
know-how that you don't get with only one or two large fish under your
belt. The experience of fighting a big fish is another matter, more complicated
than simply upgrading our gear. But by using appropriately heavy gear
for big, hard fighting fish, we are taking an important step to tilt the
odds more in our favor for the next chance that is certain to come.
Copyright © 2009 - 2013 Joe Lyons, All Rights Reserved
Articles by Joe Lyons
Joe Lyons has been a surfcaster for over twenty years on the rocks and beaches of Rhode Island and Block Island. An accomplished writer he is a regular contributer to several New England and Northeast fishing magazines. In 2002 he put his experience and knowledge to "good use" by becoming a professional surfcasting guide in Rhode Island and Block Island. Among his many clients has been Peter Kaminsky, the well known writer for the New York Times and author of numerous books on fishing and many other subjects.
Joe resides in West Warwick, RI 02893 and can be reached by calling (401) 615-2636 or by the Contact Us page on Surfcasting-RhodeIsland.com where you will find his complete Guiding information.