It’s the circumstances surrounding a catch, not the fish themselves, that often dictate what a fish means to us and why.
Two fish made this past weekend one of the most memorable of my fishing life. It’s the context, I’d argue, in which a fish is caught that gives it its value to us as anglers.
The first was, by almost any other measure, a relatively insignificant catch: It was a bluefish, about 18 inches long, that I unhooked and released back into the Ocean Beach surf.
But on any given day, there’s absolutely nothing I’d rather be doing than fishing the surf, and living in Upstate New York, I get a chance to target stripers and bluefish a half a dozen times per year if I’m lucky.
Luckily, a friend and former college roommate, Curt Dircks, and I have kept an annual tradition alive that has us fishing the surf in Ocean Beach, New York (on Fire Island) at least once in the Spring and once in the Fall, and often times a handful of times throughout the year.
We had a trip set for this past weekend, but anglers know better than most that life rarely goes according to plan.
Dircks, a new father, was also in the midst of starting a new job, and still trying his best to keep a tradition alive. Work held him up, but he told me to head out to Fire Island (accessible by ferry only) and start fishing while he made his way out from New York City.
After waking up at five a.m. in Utica, New York, and driving the five hours, I couldn’t argue with getting a head start.
Fishing the surf is the most fascinating and engaging type of fishing I’ve ever had the good fortune to try. If you’re a restless soul that likes to keep moving and searching, it can be especially endearing. Because conditions are always changing in the surf (the tide is either dropping or rising, winds are switching, fronts are coming and going) there’s always the possibility that feeding fish will show up in front of you at any given moment. When you consider that these feeding fish, off the coast of Long Island, anyway, are striped bass that can reach 80 pounds, or bluefish that can travel in schools so vicious that they’ll turn bunker pods into oily shreds in a matter of minutes, it’s an exciting proposition.
On Friday afternoon we were looking at light winds out of the south and west, but the strength was predicted to increase substantially into Saturday morning. Forecasters were throwing around words like ‘gale’ when talking about Saturday’s weather. Winds out of the South and West usually give me hope, because they’re brining warm, dry air, which should lift the barometer, and make fish more likely to feed. Typically an east wind, brining moisture and colder air, will have fish moving off the beach, and less likely to feed (“When the wind’s from the east, fish bite the least…”)
By the time I’d made it over to the island, suited up in waders and a dry top, and onto the beach, the light south winds were picking up. It’s also worth considering that while a prevailing wind might be good in the sense that it’ll make nearby schools of fish more likely to feed, casting with it is a different story. From Fire Island, a 27-mile-long barrier island south of Bay Shore, New York, casting into a south wind can be challenging, to say the least. I switched from a 1/2-ounce bucktail to a 4-inch, 3-ounce diamond jig in hopes of punching through the wind. A diamond jig is a relatively simple lure, that can imitate a variety of baitfish, and particularly a large sand eel, like the ones I was seeing dart through the waves crashing at my feet. After about an hour of hurling the jig into the wind, moving down to stretches where drop-offs are nearer to shore, and thinking “this was easier ten years ago,” I was retrieving a cast when I got a vicious hit.
When I went to cast again, the line parted and the jig went sailing. I felt the fluorocarbon leader and noticed, albeit too late, that it was frayed. This could only mean one thing: bluefish.
I tied another diamond jig on and kept casting and connected with my first fish at about 5 p.m. It had been 12 hours Since I’d dragged myself out of bed, it had been close to six hours in my Jeep, navigating metro area traffic for my least favorite hour of driving, and finally, I was fighting a fish in the surf.
It was not a 20-pound striper, as it turned out, but if you love the surf, and get to fish it as seldom as I do, then when you are bringing in any fish after months without setting foot on a beach, it’s a surreal and incredible feeling. Bluefish are especially promising, in my humble opinion, because where there’s one, there’s typically a ton, so hooking up with a blue in the surf often means you’re in for a day of fighting and releasing them. That would not end up being the case for us, but landing that first bluefish, it certainly seemed possible. Once you’ve landed the first fish, once the “skunk is off,” then everything else about a trip is gravy on top.
It’s a good thing that bluefish cooperated, too, because for the next seven hours, despite switching to a variety of different bucktail colors and working more than a half-mile of shoreline, I couldn’t find another fish in the surf. It’s worth noting here that one of the elements that, for me, makes surf fishing so incredible is that even when the target species isn’t cooperating, you’re still liable to see things like… oh, I don’t know, humpback whales breaching off the beach, which, when you think about it, is something people up and down the coast are paying good money for on whale watches. To see a whale breach from shore never ceases to amaze me.
After waking at sunrise and spending four hours in the surf without a fish, it was decision time. Weather forecasters were calling for heavy rain and potential storms on Sunday. I would not suggest carrying a 10-foot rod, a backpack with a change of clothes and other necessities and twenty pounds of surf gear through the pouring rain unless you absolutely have to. For five minutes at a time, over the course of Saturday morning, I agonized over the decision whether or not to take my surf bluefish and beat the weather off the island, or stay and fish through it. I checked the forecast for Upstate New York, and it looked much more promising, so I decided turn Sunday into a trout-targeting day.
I caught and early afternoon ferry and returned to Upstate New York, and the next day hit Nine-mile creek in Onondaga County.
When I arrived at 1 p.m., I took my trout set-up off the top of my Jeep, where I keep it in a Thule rack designed for skis, to find that the handle was actually missing off of the reel. Somehow, no doubt owing to the fact that my Jeep shakes considerably at certain speeds (which I’m looking into), the handle to my trout reel had actually come loose. If that seems impossible, as it certainly did to me as I stood there in awe looking at the set-up like a kid looking a Christmas tree devoid of presents on December 25th, all I can offer is that I have no other explanation for a runaway reel handle.
I was about to cut my losses and head home when I remembered that a Bass Pro Shops was only 20 minutes away in Auburn, New York. I made the 20-minute drive, and the sales associates in the fishing department, God bless ’em, gave me the reel handle I needed. That truly was an act of kindness that made an enormous difference in my weekend.
I fished nearly a mile of stream, landing only one small brown trout. I tried to keep reminding myself that, amidst a global pandemic, with runaway reel parts, just to be fishing at all was great fortune.
Then, about 45 minutes after last light, I cast into a promising pool about a half mile from where I’d parked and started fishing.
I could not turn, stop, or control the fish that took the Phoebe Wobbler with the 5’6″ rod. It darted back toward a sunken branch, and then under a cut bank. Despite turning up the drag and bending the rod in half, I simply could not change this fish’s direction. For five minutes that felt like forty, this fish tore downstream, into brush, and beneath undercut banks. For several moments during the fight, I wondered what the hell I would do if I lost this fish — how I’d ever stop thinking about it. You’re wondering to yourself: “Do I horse him in, for fear of a longer fight giving him the advantage, or just let him run and keep the pressure on?”
By some miracle that I doubt I’ll ever understand, with 10-pound-test braided line on a 5’6″ ultralight rod, I brought the trout to shore.
It measured 21 inches and change, and had the Phoebe so embedded in its jaw that one of the treble hooks broke off as I tried to work it free.
After staring in utter awe at the best brown trout I’ve ever caught in my life, I tried to revive him in the current. It took two or three minutes that seemed to last forever, but finally he gave a shake of his tale and darted back into the current.
In a forty-eight hour span I’d managed to land a bluefish from the Long Island surf and a brown trout from an upstate stream. I’d had a surf rod bent on one of nature’s most violent feeding machines while whales breached on the horizon, and had somehow brought a trout more than half the length of my arm to shore in the complete dark on an ultralight rod. I felt, and not for the first time, like perhaps the luckiest guy in the world at that moment.
I wondered if any other sport could give us that sense as often as fishing seems to for me.