Category Archives: bluefish

If You Build It…

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The finished fillet table, constructed and stained.

To build something, anything, there are two necessary ingredients: You need a careful plan that allows for some error, and determination to create a desired, finished product. This is true of building a friendship, a magazine, or a fillet table.

In 2004, during my freshman year at Syracuse University, I met another freshman named Curt Dircks. The first thing I do, when moving into any type of residence, is put up photographs of fish. Filling an apartment, a dorm room or a house with images of the water reminds me, between trips, of a part of my journey that has brought more joy, excitement and wonder into my life than all other elements combined.

So, as you might imagine, it didn’t take long for Dircks, a fellow freshman and striper nut, and I to strike up a friendship talking about the water and what we love so much about it.

In 2004 we took what would be the first of thirteen years worth of fishing trips to Fire Island, a thin, 32-mile-long barrier island south of Bayshore, New York where his family has owned a small cottage for decades.

During those first years, the conversation went something like: “Do you want to go back this fall?” By now, it has evolved into a short exchange of dates during which we’re both free. “How about the 13th?” “Perfect.”

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Dircks and I holding a pair of bluefish during an incredible blitz in 2011.

Dircks has moved from New Jersey to San Diego and back to New York City, while I’ve moved from New Jersey to Cape Cod, back to New Jersey, down to Florida and finally up to Salem, Massachusetts.

Life had changed for both of us, but the tradition did not.

This past fall we decided to attempt to construct a fillet table. We’re not ‘sharpies’ by any means, but we’d filleted enough striped bass on newspapers on the back deck to realize that there must be a better way.

We discussed table size, placement, stain color, and amenities like a slot to hold a fillet knife, a ruler on a lip at the table’s base to double-check fish length, and a back panel with a wood-burned quote so that something that was utilitarian in function might have a bit of sentiment, a little soul.

I researched fitting quotes for a week prior to first fall trip, and we decided on one, from a hero of mine, Ernest Hemingway. “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when the luck comes, you are ready.” The quote comes from Santiago, Hemingway’s famous protagonist in The Old Man and the Sea. I borrowed an electric wood-burner from an artistic aunt, Bridget Roberts, and we were set.

I thought the quote was fitting, because a fillet table is about being exact, keeping only fish that are big enough to kill, and attempting to pay homage to the nature of the pursuit by getting every ounce of meat off the striped bass that you are lucky to harvest.

Dircks is pragmatic, punctual and prepared. I, on the other hand, will lose track of time in the surf, walking a few football fields (okay, running) at the sight of dropping birds, and can spend an hour searching for the perfect quote.

A pragmatic person will think, and understandably so, that a fillet table will be a useful tool  when preparing striped bass of legal size that we will catch in the future. A guy who looks for signs and believes in omens will inherently wonder whether that type of hubris would be frowned on by the Fishing Gods. It perhaps warrants mentioning that we’ve never brought a banana on any trip, or even had them the house. There are some superstitions no fisherman in his or her right mind fools with.

I can’t say, in all honesty, that I did ‘half’ the work on the table. When we’re on the island, I’m constantly wondering if there are bass pushing bait right into the beach. It’s hard to drag myself away from the wash to sleep, let alone work on something besides fishing during daylight hours.

I did wood-burn the quote into the table’s back panel, and help with some sanding and staining, but the credit for much of the table’s construction goes to Dircks.

In my mind’s eye, I secretly envisioned the table being taken out and placed on the brackets we’d screwed into the back deck, and being removed at the end of every trip without ever holding a fish. I just couldn’t help but wonder if ‘preparing’ to catch fish you could legally kill wasn’t some kind of bad luck.

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The first striped bass that made it to the table.

Then, on the second trip of the fall, I hooked into bass that felt slightly larger than the shorter fish we’d been catching earlier that morning.

Throwing a green bucktail with a matching pork-rind trailer, I hooked and landed a 31-inch striped bass, three inches larger than they need to be to legally keep.

There are few things in the world I like as much as the feeling of a bass that you know is slightly larger than the rest you’ve been catching, hitting your bucktail as you hop it along the ocean floor.

We’d just finished the table, and we carefully set it on the rail of the back deck and filleted our first striped bass on it.

There are, undoubtedly, more superstitions involved with the sport of fishing than almost any other pursuit in human history (except, maybe, baseball).

But preparing to catch fish that you might have the chance to bring back to family for dinner, and creating a table that ultimately aids in that effort, is not bad luck. In fact, it might have even helped, as far as I’m concerned now. I guess you’ve got to believe something’s possible, and perhaps even likely, before undertaking a single step toward achieving it.

 

 

 

Appreciate the Little Things: We’re All Lucky

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Even the craziest of catches is a story, and we’re all lucky to be doing this.

I was fishing on Fire Island with a friend this past spring, heaving a bucktail into a beautiful churning surf, when… about 50 yards out, the bucktail stopped cold.

“This is it,” I thought. “This is the 20-pound striped bass I’ve been waiting for. This is the fish that I’ve dreamt of, the fish that I’ve driven miles for, the fish that I woke up before sunrise for.”

Seconds after the rod bent, I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t snagged on bottom, but it wasn’t a fighting fish at the end of the line. Whatever I was pulling in was coming in slowly and awkwardly. I thought at first that it must have been a clump of mung or seaweed.

Five minutes later, I had my answer. I’d somehow snagged a skate in the surf and I even brought it to the beach.

At the time I was, as you can imagine, terribly disappointed. We had caught striped bass to 20 pounds on Fire Island, we’d run into bluefish blitzes where we’d caught and released dozens of fish, many more than 10 pounds. But as I look back I can’t help but laugh. What are the odds that, casting from a beach, I’d hit with a bucktail, a skate on the ocean’s floor, hook it, and even manage to bring it to the beach?

As we sat on the back deck of his cabin between tides, we Googled “eating skate,” just to see if there was any precedent for actually targeting, keeping and cooking this species.

When the weekend was over and I returned on the ferry back to mainland Long Island and then back to Boston, the sentiment of disappointment (despite one small bluefish that we killed, kept and ate, I might add) subsided.

I’d snagged a skate in the surf: Something that I’d never done before or even thought was possible. And more importantly, I was out there, hip-deep in the crashing Atlantic, doing something that I loved.

As I prepare to head back down for the annual Fall trip, I’m still hoping we run into a bluefish blitz or that stripers are pushing bait right up onto the beach.

But… I’m not cursing the skate. It was an experience, a story. How lucky was I, how lucky are we, just to be out there, doing something we love, especially in such a beautiful place?

How foolish does it seem to consider a lack of cooperating fish, or the target species in any event, as “bad luck”? Being diagnosed with an incurable illness? Being the victim of the violence that’s sadly becoming more prevalent in our country? That… THAT is “bad luck.”

Roaming a beach, heaving a bucktail into a beautiful sunrise? That’s a winning lottery ticket whether we realize it or not. And fish? Fish will come and go, and if we’re out there enough, we’ll get our share, or more than our share if we’re “lucky.”

But I always wonder: “What if I were brought up in a household where I was never exposed to this stuff, never got an appreciation for it? What if I lived in a country where this type of activity or passion wasn’t even feasible?” “What if I hadn’t met other people who share the same enthusiasm for the sport?”

All of which got me to thinking: Whether it’s a blitz or a seemingly fish-less ocean that you’re dragging a lure through… whether it’s 65 degrees and sunny or 45 degrees and pouring rain… whether you’re using the latest G. Loomis GLX rod and a Van Staal reel or a decade-old, banged-up, Walmart-bought rod and a rusty Penn reel…

If you’re out there, if you’re in it, immersed in the natural beauty of the environment and the excitement of the sport… you’re “lucky.” Damn lucky.

The Surf

10498073_10101737155687926_2101954513048375227_oI’ll be the first to admit I don’t fish the surf as much as I’d like, but it’s absolutely my favorite type of fishing. And it’s hard to say exactly why, but I’ll try.

It doesn’t have as much to do with the fish, for me, as one might guess. Don’t get me wrong — that feeling when your bucktail stops and line starts peeling off the reel in the opposite direction is amazing — but that’s not quite it.

Putting on still-wet waders before sunup isn’t terribly pleasant, and neither is trying to get the feeling back in your hands after an hour on the beach on an October morning.

But that first moment when you walk down to the beach, and see the sun pulling itself up out of the ocean, with perhaps a few birds diving off in the distance… for a moment… absolutely anything is possible. If you remember that feeling when, as a kid, you saw a handful of presents underneath the tree on Christmas morning — presents that might be anything — you might know what I’m talking about.

Mark Twain said: “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.” After a few casts, depending upon the day, the fish and the lure you’ve chosen… you might start to understand how the remainder of the day will go…

But in that first moment of setting a wader boot on the beach, absolutely anything is possible. Maybe there will be so many bluefish pushing bunker up onto the beach that they’ll be flipping from the surf onto the sand. Maybe you’ll cast fruitlessly for hours, or, like I did on this past trip to Fire Island, maybe you’ll snag and land a skate.

But no matter what happens after that first cast — it’s what precedes it that is absolutely magical. For a frozen moment in time, you’re on the edge of absolutely anything. And if you love catching striped bass and bluefish, you’re on the edge of, perhaps, one of the best days of your life.

Fishing Friendships: A Line Never Broken

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Curt Dircks and I intercepted a bluefish blitz off Fire Island in 2012.

I was talking with an old friend, a former college roommate from Syracuse University, and we were setting up our annual striper fishing trip for the spring. Every year, since 2004 when we met and later became friends and then roommates, we’ve made an annual spring and/or fall pilgrimage to Fire Island, a barrier Island south of Long Island where his family has a small cabin.

As we tentatively penciled in this year’s Spring trip, I got to thinking about the strength of friendships built on or around the water.

When you’re a teenager, or in your early 20s, you make more friends than you might for the rest of your life combined. Whether it’s all the new people you meet as an undergraduate, high school friends you stay in touch with, or those first people that help you on your career path… it’s a time when you meet people you’ll remember forever.

I was lucky to be born into a large Irish Catholic family, and my cousins back in Upstate New York are some of my oldest fishing friends. Joe Critelli, two years my junior, dutifully helped me load our Pond Prowler into my first used Dodge pickup to explore ponds all over Upstate New York. Everett Lockwood, only a month younger than me, would spend summers on Cape Cod with me tracking striped bass and bluefish when the tide was right and using that same Pond Prowler on as many Cape ponds as we could. Joe’s younger brother, Chris, three years younger than I, got the road-trip gene and has traveled via motorhome throughout much of the lower 48, but I was able to catch up with him on the first Catch a Cure, and we’re never too far apart to remember some hilarious anecdote that usually involved teenaged stupidity or overconfidence.

Our lives diverged on different paths (congratulations again to Everett Lockwood, now a husband), but we’re never too far apart or too busy to share a fishing picture, a story, or a memory. There’s an almost endless number of stories that could finish the ones that start: “How bout that time we…”

I even found a fisherman at Emerson. Classmate James Spica was kind enough to invite me down to South Carolina and hook me up with a guide that put me on my largest redfish of all-time.

But as we penciled in this year’s striper trip, I couldn’t help but think of how powerful fishing is in keeping friends together through anything that life throws at them. It’s been eight years since I graduated from Syracuse University, and I’ve worked in New York City as an intern for Field & Stream, at On The Water as an editor, traveled the country blogging for Outdoor Life, worked from Florida as a full-time content creator for a website, traveled the coast fighting melanoma for both Game & Fish and B.A.S.S.  and now I’m back in the Northeast, in Boston, finishing my Master’s Degree at Emerson. Curt has lived in New Jersey, New York City and even San Diego.

And we might not be in touch on a daily basis, sometimes we won’t see one another for months or even a year… but when the spring rolls around, we set up the annual trip. Making plans this year I was reminded of how profoundly important fishing is in our lives, and for so many reasons.