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The Question Answered on the Surf
by J. David Weidner

still could not believe it was June 3rd. The Weather Channel stated that New Jersey had just experienced a record low "high" temperature for the day-58 degrees! We had experienced a stiff Northeast wind, rain, and overcast sky for three days that had seemed like forever. Ten to 25 knot winds made the surf impossible to fish. The striped bass and blues, in my humble opinion, had not yet made their serious arrival on the Jersey surf, as they had the year before: I remember having caught both bass and blues on the surf of Lavallette, New Jersey, in mid-May of 1996.

My theory was that a slight decrease in wind speed would possibly allow me the opportunity to fish. The waiting game began, and I am not all that patient when it comes to getting out of the house to fish or hunt. Unfortunately, mother nature always runs her own schedule. The tide chart indicated that tomorrow would bring an 8:30 AM high tide, perfect for an early morning attempt at catching my first keeper bass of the year. I would have only a few hours to fish before I would have to return to work out of my home office.

At dusk the wind began to subside and the skies began to clear. The winds finally began to subside in Hamilton Square, near Trenton, where we stow our gear and call home; but who knew what the conditions would be on the beach? Trying to pass the long hours before dawn, and not wanting to risk losing a fish because of even a tiny nick, I put new line on my Penn Squidder - a costly mistake could not be tolerated near the rocks of the jetty.

I prepared a fish finder rig, complete with a 24 inch leader, barrel swivel, and a fish finder slide. I would use a custom 9-foot surf rod, built by my grandfather in the 1960's. Yes, a bit long for jetty casting, but I felt the rod and the nostalgia behind its use might somehow bring me some much needed luck.

Normally, I have trouble sleeping prior to hunting trips, not before a relaxing day at the beach with a surf pole; but the thought of getting to the beach to fish after a long two weeks, and finally to catch a large striped bass, haunted me. The alarm woke me at 4:00 AM. I kissed my wife Kathy and three-year-old daughter Heather. "Good luck," Kathy whispered as I tip-toed down the stairs and out the door.

I pulled into the tackle shop just as it opened. I figured fresh clams would be an ideal breakfast for a striper prowling the suds. A few fellow fishermen apparently had the same idea. Six fresh surf clams would probably hold me throughout the in-coming tide, as long as the calico crabs didn't have other ideas. It's amazing what short order those crabs can make of clam baits. My good friend John Angelini, who introduced me to surf fishing for striped bass, always said, "Dave, if the crabs are out of the sand and eating your bait, there won't be any stripers around." His theory has remained, to a larger extent, true; but I still continue to fish, even when crabs abound.

I arrived at the jetty as the first hint of dawn colored the eastern horizon. With no one in sight, I would have the whole jetty to myself. The waves pounded against the shore and the bottom appeared to be well churned from the past few days of high winds and surf. A light breeze began to pick up, and I could sense that the wind direction was finally beginning to switch.

The first whole clam hit the water in the "pocket," just past the breakers, where I had scored several times on keeper stripers in previous years. I stood on my favorite jetty rock and began the wait. Thirty minutes passed and then tap, tap. My heart skipped a beat, and I set the hook. "Gotta be small whatever it is," I said to myself. After a minute, I pulled a beautiful sea robin across the rocks, removed the hook, and returned the scavenger to the water. It burns me up to see "fishermen" toss these animals into the rocks or onto the beach, so as not to catch them again: even sea robins have a place in the fragile ecosystem.

Five clams, another bait-stealing sea robin, and a skate later I began to wonder where the bass were. Admittedly, surf conditions appeared to be less than ideal. I switched sides on the jetty at least 20 times and kept casting the bait into what I thought might be attractive striper water.

The northeast side of the jetty appeared to calm just slightly as the wind began to shift. One clam left. I was beginning to get desperate. High tide was in 20 minutes, and I decided to cut the clam foot in half, trying to extend my trip. Another tap, but this time, as I set the hook, I felt nothing. I had lost the clam. Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs and a full count. I rigged the last clam, binding it to the hook with some stretch string.

And then the pitch. I tossed the rig just past the breakers on the north side of the jetty and waited.

There was no tap, tap - just a sharp pick-up. The bat cracked, and I set the hook hard. I knew in a moment I wasn't dealing with another sea robin or skate. First, just heavy weight, and then the line began to scream from the reel. The striper came immediately to the surface of the water, turned, and slapped her big tail against the surface. Seconds latter, I couldn't retrieve line fast enough as the fish made a big run right toward the jetty and its numerous sharp rocks, just waiting to end my dream. My thought, as I had often been told, was to "pull toward the beach and get moving." I knew if the fish swam toward the top of the jetty, there was little chance of keeping the line off the rocks and guiding her to the other side of the jetty and onto the beach. At high tide, the front 25 yards of the jetty were partially submerged, and the crashing waves would allow me zero opportunity to control the fish.

There are many times in a fight with a big fish that a fisherman needs to make a fast decision. Sometimes these decisions are good; usually they're bad. Often you focus on when to let the fish control the fight and when you must take control, make the fish do what you want it to do. At times you must take the chance of muscling the fish at the risk of losing the fight. Now, during this split second in time, I had to make that decision, and it came almost as instinct (but I'd like to think that my experience on the rocks also played a significant part).

My Korkers clicked across the slippery wet rocks as I made way toward the beach. By this time a small crowd had gathered. I needed to beach this fish in the heavy surf. Line still pulled from the reel when I realized that I had no idea if the fish had made it to the top of the jetty. I was so intent on not falling on my ass and on making sure my drag was properly set that I had totally forgotten the business at had - landing that fish!

I hit the beach and ran north, picking up line as fast as I could. I could feel the fish moving around the rocks of the jetty, trying to bulldog me and shaking her head the whole time. At one moment it felt as if she had lodged in a large rock on the jetty. "Move!" I cried. I couldn't get her to budge. Then in an instant, again, she came to the top of the water. The surface appeared to boil 75 yards out. At least she was away from the rocks! Heart pounding, I pumped the rod and slowly began to pick up more line. She was starting to yield, and then I saw her swimming sideways in a breaker. Want a sight! Now I needed to time the final landing with the incoming breakers.

I thought I had her once, and then she changed her mind and made one last run out past the breakers and toward the rocks My nerves were shattered. Finally, I pulled the striper into an incoming breaker and ran forward just as a wave began to break on the shore, helping me guide the fish to the soft sand. I grabbed her bottom jaw just as the ocean started to recede, in its attempt to reclaim her. The fish's tail dragged along the sand as I pulled her onto the beach. The fight was over; I smiled as I removed the hook, firmly imbedded in the roof of her mouth.

We sat on the beach together, the striper and I, as I admired its beauty. I raised my rod to the heavens and thought of my grandfather who had fought many a similar striper challenge when he was alive, thanking him for guiding me this morning. Then, with a little coaxing and some fresh water in her gills, the striper slid back into the water. No more clams. No need for any, now that I had once again answered the question as to why I love the challenge of striper fishing in the surf.End

Copyright 1998 - 2007 J. David Weidner, All Rights Reserved
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