Lady Luck

While surfcasting in Rhode Island in the fall of ’88, George Schirmer of Moorestown, New Jersey, beached a 52-pound striper, his first fish in the 50-pound class. 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 to the fact that the odds are 100 million to one. 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 striped bass fishing, where we venture our time and effort in the faint chance of finding that prize fish.

In the early ’60s, while attending the annual dinner of the Massachusetts Beach Buggy Association, I was getting drinks at the bar when the band stopped playing and everyone in the hail began to applaud. The Governor? I thought. A young man, maybe in his late 20s, entered the crowded hall packed with several hundred surfmen and their spouses. He was smiling and waving warmly to the crowd. As I soon learned, this man had taken the largest striped bass ever caught from shore at the time, a fish of nearly 70 pounds.

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 a striper prior to his record fish. I was dumbfounded. How could that be possible? A person catches the largest striper of his generation without ever having caught one of any size?

Around the same year, mid-’60s, give or take, Del Barber, a Rhode Island surfcaster, became subject to incessant needling from one of the women who camped with her husband on the beach at Charlestown and who wanted to learn how to fish with live eels. They were part of a highly social crowd. of members of the now-defunct Rhode Island Beach Buggy Association who 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 and dozens of beach families were strewn along the shore in their folding lawn chairs, Del walked his student down to a gentle surf amid the guffaws and catcalls of families and friends. It was one of those non-events, it seemed, that otherwise bored people 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, 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 handle, then complained to Del that she had a problem.

“I’m already stuck,” she whined. “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 unseen force.

“Set!” he urged, as the line came taught and the rod began to bend.

The woman suddenly found herself with a severely bowed surf rod while a crowd of silent, intent beach friends formed an astonished gallery along the shore. Del was grinning with delight while the poor woman wondered if this was some kind of prank played on novitiate surfcasters. Near dark, a breaking wave slid the monster onto the shore of East Beach and Del scurried down to drag it onto dry sand. Word spread like fire through the slack-jawed crowd that a 55-pounder had been caught on a first, first cast!

When the mackerel are running, they can draw concentrations of light-tackle anglers from all over. A story that is repeated every few years, especially when the big bass are around, is the one about a gang of people who are enjoying fast action with a school of mackerel when a Moby striper comes along and inhales someone’s fish. Of course, the bass is hooked when it swallows the mackerel and turns out to weigh over 50 pounds. What gets no attention, however, is the number of times an angler — often, but not necessarily, a kid – gets broken off while fighting a mackerel. I have seen these sudden break-offs, and will never know what did it. Maybe I 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, 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 if they want to catch big fish. Jones, on the other hand, was fishing a chunk bait in the daytime and not even paying attention when his little girl, Lindsey, pointed to the bucking rod in the sand spike and shouted “Daddy!” Jones wound up beaching a 57-pound linesider that garnered the Massachusetts Governor’s Cup for the 1994 season.

Jones’ story almost doesn’t qualify for this treatise on luck because he always employs 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 also savvy enough not to use a wire leader, and saw no harm in having a line in the water at what is probably the most popular surfcasting spot in the northwest Atlantic. Moreover, once fast to the fish of his life, he did not blow it by pulling against the 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 occurs in situations where she gets a little help from the angler seems to manifest itself here. I’m convinced that fishermen who encounter the most “luck” are those who, because of their experience, have seen enough things to be ready for just about anything.

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. What I noticed right away was that the weight and resistance of my eel had been reduced, so that it was much lighter. I knew immediately that a bluefish had been at work. Nothing rips a striper fisherman more than to have an eel, which required 20 minutes of rigging time, trimmed by a bluefish. I was miffed with a capital P, but 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 blue bugger.

The bait hadn’t gone ten yards before it was taken down a second time. This time I hooked the fish, but I could tell it was no blue. A few minutes later, I beached the nicest striper of the season, a 51-pounder.

Looking down upon it in the wet sand, I knew what I was going to find. There, with the front hook buried deep in the fish’s maw, was my rigged eel with its lower half trimmed away.

Let’s speculate about what might have happened. Had the bluefish struck just a little deeper, he would have cut my mono leader. With no bait, or hook, there would have been no bass. Could the blue, in taking the eel, have drawn attention to the bait that might otherwise have gone unnoticed by this fine striper? If so, I should sing the praises of bluefish for the rest of my days. Might a less-experienced surfcaster have stopped the retrieve after the cutoff and just cranked in without action? Would such a change in retrieve have made any difference? What if I had caught the blue, which is something I might normally want to do? Can you picture me gloating over a 16-pound bluefish while a 50-pound-plus striper — which might have started to move on the bait — swam away? Yes, I was lucky that night, but many aspects of what happened could never have taken place with a less-experienced angler.

The biggest bass I have ever caught, a mere 53-pounder, put more fear into me than any bass I have ever hooked. My wife Joyce and I were into an unforgettable take of big fish at Nauset Beach’s Refrigerator Hole. Flanked by sandbars, the hole was dark and deep at this stage of the tide. At first we hauled a few fish from the center, but the action settled into both ends where water was washing over the bars, each of us fishing at opposing ends with rigged eels. They were all big fish, with nothing under 30 pounds and at least half over 40.

We must have put a dozen on the beach when we noticed a drop-off in the action. Considering the number of fish that had thrown the hook, we assumed that probably every bass in the hole must have had a bad experience with the rigged eels, so we switched to Rebel swimming plugs fished behind little soft-plastic sand eel imitations on droppers.

With this change, the blitz fishing started all over again. Apparently, the bass were less wary of the small lures and plugs. We split to the bars, cast at the same time, and hooked up at the same time. A little later, maybe after the third fish on the plug, I had a routine take. Only this time the fish went and went and went, out over the bars on the outside, screaming into dry line on the spool of my conventional reel. I was fishing with 50-pound braided line and a pool cue of a surf rod. No shore fisherman could have had stronger. Having hauled on stripers over 40 pounds for most of the night, I had a fresh mastery of what was needed, yet I was still anxious. When the line reached the bare spool, I grasped it with my fingers and thumb. Joyce, her rod now spiked on the bumper of the beach buggy, was beside me with a gaff, and we were both staring in silence out into the darkened Atlantic.

I had never felt anything like this fish. Pumping the rod and following with turns of the reel, I stored line for a few yards, then lost a little as the fish ran. Eventually, I began to win the battle, gaining more line than the fish could take. Then we saw the dark shape in the foam of the first wave as it washed up exhausted. Joyce ran down, gaffed its jaw and dragged it shoreward. As I fell in behind to cut off any escape, I gasped, for I saw that the last hook of my plug was caught in the striper’s anal vent. That, dear reader, is what you call luck. How does that sort of thing happen? I know exactly. The striper had struck the teaser, and when I felt the bump I set the hook of the plug in its vent. Plain, dumb luck!

How many times have we said “if we only knew?” The year our son Dick joined us on the beach while on leave from the Coast Guard, we got into a nice hit of fish that had been randomly storming the shore. Each night it was a case of hunting-them down, and some nights we couldn’t find them at all.

One night, a half dozen of us had gathered on a small sandbar, where we were doing well on bass from 30 pounds up. It was a little crowded, but no one was in any position to complain. Dick had just slid a 41-pounder to the top of the beach when we could see a buggy coming down the shore toward us. All of us had to be thinking the same thing: What can we do to make this person think that the fishing isn’t any good? If we all stopped fishing, the person might pass. Then again, he might get out and take someone’s spot. The safe thing was to keep fishing, to hold the spot. Dick, however, wanting to send the message that fishing was poor, walked away from where he had just caught the 41. The lone surfcaster pulled up, walked over to Dick’s bootprints, made one cast, and hooked and landed a 51-pounder — a size striper that to this day, in 35 years of fishing, Dick has never taken.

If we only knew. Sometimes I think it’s better that we don’t know.

Frank Daignault is a legendary surf fisherman and longtime contributor to Salt Water Sportsman. He is author of Twenty Years on the Cape, Striper Surf and the recently released The Trophy Striper, from which this story is excerpted.

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