CHAPTER 10 – American Cousins
Swimming With Stripers
Standing on the beach at Ditch Plains, Mike Oliver passed me the binoculars to observe birds working over a shoal of fish on the distant horizon. Other anglers watched in awe, and very few words were spoken. Some claim that the autumn shoals of striped bass, bluefish and bait species heading south past Montauk Point, Long Island, USA, is the greatest migration on earth.
For seven previous days Mike, Malcolm Gilbert, John Quinlan and I had at times struggled against big seas and strong winds, but thankfully conditions moderated. The first week produced 128 bass and 41 bluefish. The second week the fishing improved so much that trying to keep an accurate record was impossible, perhaps around 300 bass and 150 bluefish.
One memorable session was under the cliffs at Caswells. During a conversation with a local he casually said he had taken his dog for a walk and seen plenty of birds diving close to the shore. We headed to the nearest access point. It was low water and there was a swell breaking over a shallow beach made up of boulders. Mike was wearing a wet suit that was perfect for the conditions. By deep wading he managed to climb onto a large boulder that allowed casting into the target zone. The bass had driven baitfish into the rocks and at times it was a fish a cast. Three times he was washed off the rock, but the wet suit allowed him to float and scramble back again. Twenty two bass up to 86cm were caught. I played it extra safe and positioned myself behind a large boulder that broke the force of the surf. Considering the conditions I was pleased to catch three stripers by casting a bucktail into a cauldron of white water.
One of Malcolm and John’s best days was at Camp Hero when a shoal of small bass had baitfish pinned against the shore for most of the day. John decided to fish a Bunker fly on a floating line. Around fifty bass up to 5lb were caught close to the shoreline.
For a few days during the second week the cold mercurial north Atlantic allowed us to play tag with striped bass and bluefish along the sandy southern shoreline of eastern Long Island. It was a challenge trying to find fish on a beach over eighty miles long. First we purchased an access permit at Hither Hills State Park Campground. It is also advisable to fill up with plenty of petrol because ploughing through sand with a four-wheel drive drinks the fuel. We were not alone, other surfcasters constantly patrolled and many eyes diligently read the water and swapped information on mobile phones. The plan was to start at Ditch Plains and visit every vantage point westward. Hours passed as we navigated our way through dunes, reversed out of sand drifts and searched for obscure narrow tracks.
It came together near Amagansett. Using binoculars we could see a cluster of beach buggies and figures standing on the strand line. Bunker (menhaden) were being driven onto the beach by predators. Birds circled and dived pinpointing the shoal. Throughout the latter part of my adult life I have tried to cultivate a stoic philosophy, it proved difficult to practice at this moment, and I could not resist the old war cry of “Geronimo!” The average size of bluefish in the first blitz was around 3lb, followed by other tens of larger fish of 4 to 9lb. Striped bass could be caught close-in, where they mopped up injured and dead menhaden. The fish moved steadily along the shoreline, so the trucks played a continuous game of leapfrog. At low water it is possible to appreciate the beach structure and range depths, which can otherwise be deceptive. It is best not to wade unless the bottom is visible, especially where two streams converge. They make obvious focal points for bass.
Malcolm borrowed my fly rod and within ten minutes was playing a striper of 6lb. I was impressed! He later confessed to baiting the fly with a small live bunker that was washed up at his feet. Don’t ask for a description of how he managed to cast, members of the ‘old school’ would not have approved! Two days later Mike used his fly rod to beach a striped bass of around 10lb on a Bozo hair fly. He used a 10-weight blank that he had custom-built for saltwater use. A fast sinking Teeny 350 helped get the fly down quickly before the waves picked up the line. Leaders were kept short – about three feet – to keep the fly level with the line. Tippets of 30lb fluorocarbon avoided tangles and withstood the attention of blues, and didn’t fray on the gill plates of a large bass.
Paul Melynk, a respected local angling guide, gave us the following advice about landing a big striper – a trophy fish will make a spirited first run followed by a weaker second; however, don’t take it for granted that the fight is over, when the fish’s belly hits the beach be prepared, because a last ditch effort may catch you off-guard.
A 1½ oz Dexter Wedge proved to be a killer lure for the bluefish. It is similar to a Kastmaster. After unhooking 18 fish with pliers the treble had twisted so much I had to replace it. Dressing the lure with a bucktail skirt seemed to make it more attractive to stripers. Large Storm Shads are good for bass but the problem is that bluefish bite off the tails. A Boga Grip tool is useful for unhooking fish. It is a device that grips the mouth but does not injure the fish. Bluefish are regarded as second-best, even though they fight much harder than bass. Fish over 5lb had the drag screaming as they made powerful runs. Some jumped out of the water and managed to throw the hook. It didn’t matter because it was possible to get another take within a few casts.
Bucktails seem to be the first choice for surfcasters. Coarse deer hair about four inches long is bound onto a jig head. The most popular size at Montauk Point is 1½ oz, which is unlikely to snag. Adding a strip of ‘Uncle Josh Sea Rind’ certainly improves the number of hook-ups. Alternatively a plastic curly tail could be used. When fishing over clean ground some anglers add a teaser fly about thirty inches above the bucktail, and often a fish will take it. The lure is twitched sink-and-draw style with a longer pause if the water is deep.
Most anglers favour large plugs such as Needlefish, Pencils, Bottles and Darters. I have no experience of these and there is much for me to learn. The choice in tackle shops is bewildering. During our stay most of the heaviest stripers were caught after dark using large black Darters.
American anglers don’t do things by half. The majority of four-wheel drive vehicles are customised to carry an assortment of fully-rigged tackle, so that no time is lost in repeated tackling up. The rod holders are made from heavy aluminium with stainless steel bolts, fitted to the bumper bar. Neoprene clothing is popular, with a quick release wader belt from which lure bags are hung. During my stay I was knocked over four times by heavy waves, so it was important that wading belts were correctly fitted. ‘Korkers’ are strap-on rugged rubber sandals fitted with carbide, steel studs that give traction, and are essential on the treacherous steep rocks at Montauk Point.
The favoured reel is the Penn 6500SS, a true workhorse, but personally I prefer the smaller 5500SS or 4500SS lightweight graphite versions. Malcolm enjoyed intoxicating fun using an ultra lightweight rod with a tiny Penn 4300SS. Long Island sand is infamous for clogging up reels, and one of my Penns just seized up. Occasionally it is possible that a session could result in bass of 8 to 15lb with the chance of much bigger fish. Suffice to say it is wise to use much heavier tackle. Many regard the Van Staal reels highly, being manufactured to exacting standards with a sealed mechanism that does not allow sand or water into the gears. Braid is the most popular line.
Montauk Point is justifiably known as the surfcasting capital of the world. Visitors are assessed by their ability. At the top are a small select group called ‘Sharpies’ – mostly local and having extensive knowledge about tides and fish. Bottom of the heap are ‘Googens’ who are novices and beginners. In between are ‘Wabbits’ who have enough experience to get lucky now and again.
An extreme form of fishing is practiced called ‘Skishing’ that relies on the buoyancy of a 5mm wet suit. Risk-takers swim out to sea and float with the tide. Live eels around 18 inches long are attached to a 7/0 circle hook tied to thirty inches of 40lb leader. The eels weigh about 3oz and are allowed to swim freely without any weight. Continuous casting and retrieving does not allow the bait to twist itself into a knot. On a calm moonlight night the adventurous can really go ‘swimming with stripers’.
The facilities for charter boat fishing are unsurpassed, with every taste catered for. Large party boats sail twice daily from Montauk harbour for bass, bluefish and fluke. Each angler is allowed to retain two bass over 28 inches (71cm). The fishing is mostly drifting using diamond-shaped jigs. The boats are considerably larger than ordinary UK charter vessels and a blast is sounded before the start of the drift, and another at the end. The boat is positioned alternatively to port/starboard of the drift line so that anglers on both sides of the vessel have the same chance over the whole trip. Bookings are not always necessary in midweek. Long distance offshore trips to an area known as ‘The Canyons’ are available for sharks, Bluefin tuna and other big game. Fly fishermen can charter specially adapted craft for day or half day. Often this fishing is practised very close to the shore, occasionally within range of surfcasters. New York based journalist Peter Kaminsky has written an excellent book The Moon Pulled up an Acre of Bass, which describes a sabbatical dedicated to fly fishing at in the area.
I had the good fortune to be invited out by Captain Jack Passie on his boat ‘Windy’. The technique was to troll artificial squid lures using single-strand wire line. He instructed me to hold the rod downwards with my left hand on the butt and my right gripping above the multiplier reel. Lures sink at rate of 10 feet per 100 feet of wire, and on the spools we used the line was marked with different colours. We allowed line out until a certain colour came off the reel then engaged the brake. The lures were then jigged constantly. Considering the size of the fish, the takes are often quite gentle.
When a striper was hooked it had to be winched in without stopping, because if you tried to pump it the fish would throw the hook. It was like working on a slave ship! When the tide eased we each changed to an umbrella rig. This consisted of a sinker having stainless steel spreader booms, each boom suspending a small rubber eel. When trolled the whole arrangement appeared like two groups of shoal fish, four small ones with four larger ones below. Each rubber eel is on a snood which attaches to a spreader boom via a quick-release swivel, so that different colours can be tried easily, and the whole snood can be unclipped for dealing with difficult fish. This was leisurely trolling – you just sit in the chair and wait. However, hooking numerous bluefish on the same rig made it hard work reeling in. Our total catch was forty-three striped bass plus many bluefish. The size of the bass averaged around 11lb.
On the final day it is customary to have an early morning session before packing for home. Mike and I went to False Bar where there were a few stripers and some small blues. Malcolm and John tried Shagwon point. Just after dawn John hooked into the final and largest bass of the trip. It weighed 18lb exactly, 36 inches (91cm) total length and was 13 years old.
When I had caught my first striped bass I was going to measure, weigh and take scale samples. A local angler said forcefully, “You’re going to put that fish back”. I complied. American anglers deserve their bountiful fishing.
Driving back slowly along Route 27 Mike selected the easy-listening channel. Van Morrison was singing ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ as we entered town. It seemed that everything is possible in the United States if you can find that special spark. The American dream is getting to me.
Historical note: This article first appeared in BASS magazine no.114 Summer 2005.
Photo: Tom Cosford
© Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society 2008