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The Return to Heavy Tackle
by Joe Lyons Offsite Link

You're going to need a bigger boat
“You're going to need a bigger boat”

hat 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 area.

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 Memorial Day.

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 to breaking.

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 GamakatsuOffsite Link 4x-6X strong Owner Offsite Link and VMC hooks on plugs and abrasion resistant leader materials Offsite Link 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 fish.

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 the knots.

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.End

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 Offsite Link page on Offsite Link where you will find his complete Guiding information.

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