Category Archives: surf fishing

If You Build It…

Fillet
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.”

249672_10100122227052856_2624335_n
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.

Keeper
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.

 

 

 

Gyotaku: A Fascinating Angler’s Art Form

gyotakubft
A painted gyotaku impression of a bluefin tuna.

I’ve been fortunate to help out local Salem artist and angler Joe Higgins in his North Shore shop, Tomo’s Tackle this past year, and every time I’m in the shop, I can’t help but think: More people need to know about this beautiful artwork.

Higgins practices an ancient Japanese art form known as gyotaku, where he takes a recently caught fish, places a special type of ink on it, and creates an impression on rice paper. On many, he paints in detail to finish the impression and make it as lifelike as possible.

I don’t speak Japanese, but research suggests that the word ‘gyotaku’ translates literally to something like ‘Fish Reclamation.’ Records show that this art form dates at least back to the 7th century and is probably much older than that.

Before anglers had cameras to capture and share the story of a catch, they had to be slightly more creative. By placing ink on the fish and carefully pressing paper over it, they were able to create a lasting impression to remember their catch after it had been sold or eaten.

Higgins has given this ancient art a new life, and he creates and sells “fish prints” out of Tomo’s Tackle in Salem. His prints are on display and sold in various places throughout Massachusetts, and you can find more information about seeing and perhaps purchasing some prints near you on his site. 

The stunning and memorable thing about a gyotaku print is how it almost brings the fish back to life in front of your eyes. With each carefully added detail, Higgins creates an image that is in many ways is more beautiful, alive and unique than a picture of the same fish might be.

Higgins has printed everything from squid to swordfish, and he’s seemingly up for any challenge. I’ve seen prints of false albacore, flounder and even a few redfish come through the shop, and each is fascinating in its own right.

It’s a constant reminder that as fishermen, we’re exposed to more beauty than most, and we shouldn’t take any of it for granted.

Patience, Faith and Tradition

fire-island-surfI got back this weekend from fishing the surf on Fire Island with former college roommate and longtime friend Curt Dircks. There were fish, but that, in my mind, wasn’t the important part.

Every year we make it a point, no matter what we are doing in our lives, to take a weekend and hit the surf on Fire Island, a small barrier island south of Bayshore, New York.

The tradition started at Syracuse University where we were undergraduate students from 2004-2008. It doesn’t take long, in any setting, for two fishermen to start talking about the sport and it didn’t take us long, after being placed in the same residence hall, to start planning a trip.

On that first fateful trip in 2005, we caught two fish, drifting eels, that weighed more than 15 pounds each. That’s all it takes. A tradition was born.

We’d make the annual pilgrimage each fall for those four years. After graduation, life took us in different directions. I’d wind up first in New York City, interning with Field & Stream, then at On The Water Magazine, as a copy editor, then I’d fish the country from the back of a Jeep for Outdoor Life before landing an online gig creating fishing content for a website. Curt would work in New York City, then go on to continue studying in San Diego before moving back to the East Coast where he’s currently the Director of Admissions at the College of Mount St. Vincent.

Suffice it to say, many things have changed, but the tradition has stayed the same. Like any anglers will, we discussed the weather, the presence of bait, local reports and trip timing as October approached.

Driving through New York City, after visiting my grandmother in Upstate New York for her birthday (today, actually), I ran into more city traffic than I’d anticipated, and nearly missed the 4:30 p.m. ferry I’d promised to catch. I grabbed my gear and ran through the parking lot as the boat was readying to leave Bayshore, N.Y.

But, by a matter of minutes, I made the boat. We fished until sundown Friday night and were in the surf before sunrise the next morning.

The allure of the surf is magical. Sealed from head to toe with a dry top and waders, you can almost completely immerse yourself in the waves crashing on the sand. You can scan the beach in both directions searching for feeding birds, signs of bait, or fish pushing baitfish up onto the beach.

The casting, moving and searching becomes rhythmic, and everything else in your mind fades into the background. There’s just the rod in your hand, connected to a bucktail that you’re working through ocean, hoping to imitate a wounded baitfish.

Waves pound the beach as the sun pulls itself higher into the sky, and you’re completely and wholly immersed in the beauty of it. The clouds shift and change shape and color, birds fly low over the waves and the wind moves the sand over the beach.

Between tides we’d discuss the plight of the Red Sox, women, rehash old college stories, and talk about… of course… fish.

On Saturday night, after catching a few smaller fish in the surf earlier in the day, the sun was sinking into the ocean. I promised myself that I’d keep casting until last light. I’d been working the beach for hours, and had caught and released a few smaller stripers between 20 and 25 inches.

Right at last light, in that magical moment of twilight, the bucktail I was retrieving stopped cold about 30 yards from the beach and started going the other way. As the rod bent and I stepped back out of the surf, I could only think: “This is perfect.”

The fish turned out to be an eleven-pound striped bass, measuring 33 inches. I’m all for catch-and-release, but some fish, in keeping with tradition, are meant for the grill.

We filleted the fish on the back deck as the autumn chill started to sink in. I had to run my hands beneath warm water for a few minutes to get them to the point where they’d properly operate a fillet knife.

Watching playoff baseball with freshly grilled striped bass, I couldn’t help thinking: It’s not the fish that keeps us in love with the sport, however much fun they might be to hook, land, fillet and eat…

It’s everything that leads up to that moment. Christmas Eve is always more exciting than Christmas Day itself, and until that first fish is on the beach, we are all, in some sense, our inner kid staring at wrapped presents… staring at waves crashing on the beach…

Dreaming of the incredible possibility.

 

The Fall Run: Let October Begin

Surf Fishing
Taking a wave in the Long Island surf.

As we wind down the last days of September, you’ll hear and read a lot about the beauty of fall in New England, and it’s all true. The changing leaves paint a stunning landscape, albeit for a short period of time, from Maine to Rhode Island.

There are those few nights in October, those sit-by-the-fire-in-a-sweatshirt nights, where the stars seem so bright that it’s as if there’s a blanket of darkness covering another one of infinite light, and the blanket is full of tiny holes.

But coastal anglers have a bit of a different relationship with October: They see it as the month when the fall run of striped bass shifts into full gear.

Don’t get me wrong, there’ll be fish starting to move in late September, especially up in Maine, and there’ll still be migratory fish headed south in November, but for all intents and purposes… October’s THE month.

Northeast anglers will debate whether the fall run has diminished in recent decades, and there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that it’s not what it used to be. Many will tell you that the months of May and June provide better fishing these days, and that’s likely the case.

But in the fall, and in October especially: There’s an urgency that’s not there in the spring. There’s the “Let’s do this while we still can” sentiment that’s driven home every morning with the dropping temperatures.

Every breath of crisp, tingling autumn air that you inhale reminds you that the days are winding down.

In May and June, you might walk to the water with a kind of carefree optimism about the season ahead.

But in October, you’re just grateful to be out there, seeing the sun pull itself from the ocean one more time, launching one more bucktail into the surf. Like most of the important and beautiful parts of life, it’s perfectly bittersweet.

And if you’re a fisherman haven’t read On The Run, by David DiBenedetto, trust me when I tell you that he articulates the beauty of the fall run better than I ever might, and buy the book.

The Amazing Eight, Take II

brookehidell
Brooke Hidell, on Sebago Lake in Maine.

Alright, I undertook the ambitious attempt last week of naming the eight (okay, nine) best anglers I’ve had the pleasure of fishing with. As soon as I started the list, I knew immediately that it’d require a sequel. There are far too many amazing anglers who have helped me along this journey to name them, or rank them, in a single blog. The following anglers deserve every bit as much credit for being incredible fishermen and great human beings.

Brooke Hidell, Maine: I had the pleasure of fishing with Hidell in 2010 on Maine’s Sebago Lake system, and it was not only a great time, but it was a fantastic learning experience. Hidell fishes in a number of ways, but one of the more interesting ones is trolling flies around the perimeter of Sebago Lake. Now you’re saying: “Trolling flies? What?” But that’s not a typo. Hidell has mastered an art of dragging flies at just the right depth, depending on the season, to target the landlocked Atlantic salmon and lake trout that populate those bodies of water. It’s truly a unique experience because unlike traditional trolling, where you’re fighting the fish on a stout rod, wrenching it up from the depths of the lake, with Hidell’s system the fight is every bit as much fun as if you’d hooked the fish on the fly.

Gary “The Toad” Stevens: I first met Gary when Field & Stream sent me, as an intern, out to Montauk to cover the Fall Surf Classic. Stevens is without a doubt, a hilarious character. The nickname “The Toad,” I believe, came from stunts in his younger days when he used to attempt to jump over an entire car in one bound. It’s that kind of crazy courage that makes him great in the surf. He seemingly has no fear and will chase stripers in any conditions and at all hours of the night. He’s definitely one of the characters that gives Montauk it’s unique and wonderful charm, and fishing with him is an unforgettable experience.

Rom Whitaker, OBX: Whitaker and his son fish one of the most abundant offshore grounds off any coast, the Outer Banks off North Carolina. Whittaker was a master at devising and setting a trolling spread to target the yellowfin tuna and mahi that we were going after in 2010. Finding and catching offshore species like yellowfin can be a difficult task, requiring a tremendous understanding of the climate, the ecosystem, and how even a few degrees in water temperature can make a world of difference in finding fish. If you need proof that Whitaker has it down to a science, click here.

Clay Cunningham, Georgia: Cunningham targets striped bass on Georgia’s Lake Lanier, one of the best striper lakes in the South. Cunningham is a master at finding the exact depth that the freshwater stripers will be holding at, and targeting them with a specific approach dependent upon the season. One of the coolest parts about fishing with Cunningham was seeing these fish actually “blitz,” almost like saltwater stripers, forcing bait into shallow areas and going to town. And if website-name creativity counted for bonus points, this guy would get it with catchingnotfishing.com.

Mickey Delamar, Texas: The first thing Mickey would say if I told him I was including him on this list, is that he doesn’t belong. He was one of the kindest, most humble people I met on my journey across the country. One look at the wall inside his house, however, would prove him wrong. He’s got a trophy wall of largemouth bass mounts, the largest of which, the last time I checked, was 11 pounds. He lives near Texas’s bass-famous Lake Fork, and is hands down one of the best anglers on it.

Kevin Shaw, Texas: Shaw is another Texan, but he’s a master of the saltier side of the state. Shaw targets redfish off the Texas coast and he’s one of the best I’ve ever met. It takes a certain amount of toughness to take to the water either as a guide or in a competitive arena. Sure, you get those bluebird days where the weather’s perfect, but more often than not, something goes wrong. When I fished with Shaw in 2010, it rained. And let me tell you, rain is like everything else in Texas: Bigger. I mean… it poured. But we stayed out on the water, waited through the storm, and kept chasing redfish.

Gregg Arnold, Louisiana: Nope, that’s not a typo, Arnold spells his name with two ‘g’s. Arnold is an absolute master of one of the most famous redfish areas in the world: New Orleans. Arnold is known throughout the state as one of the best redfish guides, and with good reason. When we fished in 2010, he met me first for breakfast. I was a little taken aback at the relaxed start to the day, but when I got in the boat, he started tearing to the nearest flat so fast that I tipped over and nearly flew over the side. Suffice it to say that Arnold might seem laid back and relaxed, but he takes targeting giant redfish very seriously, and he’s great at it.

Jimmy Fee, Cape Cod: Jimmy Fee is by far one of the best surfcasters I have ever met. I’ll share one anecdote, and that should be sufficient evidence to back up the claim. Fee timed the dropping tide on a saltwater pond in Cape Cod one evening, and thought that bigger bass would be pushing bait back near the shore. We crept up near an empty area by a saltwater pond without another fisherman in sight, and we each caught and released bass in the 20-pound range in a matter of hours. That type of understanding of the species and the fishery is what sets him apart from so many other anglers in and around the Cape Cod area, all chasing the striped bass that have made the place famous.

The 22-pound striped bass that I caught that night is one of my favorite fish of all time.

 

 

 

Best of All He Loved the Fall

Hemingway's Grave.
Blood from scraped knuckles digging up Hemingway’s grave in Idaho in 2010.

In today’s world, we’re inundated with the emotions, and everyday thoughts, of almost everyone in our “social network,” which is becoming a term that’s less and less clearly defined.

As August fades into September, we’re bound to see those people who are mourning summer’s end. Kids will shuffle back to the bus stops, the sunsets will come a little earlier every day.

One of my favorite passages that I’ve ever read came from a eulogy that Ernest Hemingway gave for a friend, Gene Van Guilder. Everything that Hemingway has ever said or written has been analyzed to death, and this one is no exception. Some scholars speculate that the words that he spoke were ones that he intended as much for himself as he did the late Van Guilder. Hemingway was only 40 at the time he delivered the eulogy. He still had a Nobel and Pulitzer-Prize winning novel to write (The Old Man and the Sea). He still had a plane crash to survive in 1954, a crash that some have speculated caused him a pain that made writing (the one constant throughout his life) more difficult to do than it was ordinarily for him.

He still had marlin to chase in the Gulf Stream, lions to hunt in Africa and characters and places to immortalize with words.

But there is an underlying sense both of hope and enormous, perhaps even insurmountable, struggle in almost everything Hemingway has written. The one defines, and necessitates, the other.

What made him, in my opinion, such an important, memorable and significant writer in American history was his ability to have a feeling for what defined masculinity, strength and courage, all without losing his sensitivity to the simple, yet beautiful parts of life that hide in the details.

I don’t know that there’s a passage of his that combines those two elements better than his words for Van Guilder did, and as we head down the home stretch of summer, I thought I’d share them with those of you who haven’t already found them yourselves:

“Best of all he loved the fall… The fall with the tawny and grey, leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams, and above the hills the high blue windless skies. He loved to shoot, and he loved to ride and he loved to fish.”

Top Five Fish Moments… Ever

249672_10100122227052856_2624335_nAny day you get to spend on the water, especially with family or friends, deserves to be among some of your best when all is said and done. But for most of us, a few stand out above the rest, these are mine, and here’s why.

The Summer Before the Real World Started: It was my last summer of college at Syracuse University. I’d worked all year completing a triple-major while covering Syracuse sports for a website and working as a manager at the Fund for Syracuse. After that it’d be down to New York City for an internship with Field & Stream, up to On The Water to copy edit, a trip for Outdoor Life that entailed sleeping in a Jeep and fishing 36 of the lower 48, and a year-plus of full-time content creation for a site called GoFISHn. On the final day of that vacation I did what I’d done for most every day prior, when the weather allowed: I waded the Brewster flats. The day prior a car door had severed the 7’6″ G. Loomis rod I’d typically used to fish the flats, so I was toting a 6’6″ freshwater spinning rod. I couldn’t sit out the last day. Casting a pink Slug-Go over a 20-foot-deep channel almost a mile off the  beach, I hooked and landed a 17-pound striped bass on 14-pound-test braided line. The way in which everything came together perfectly made for a moment that I’ll never forget.

Bluefish Blitz: I’ve written about how fortunate I’ve been to fish with long-time friend and former college roommate Curt Dircks on Fire Island almost every Spring and Fall. But in 2011, we stumbled into a dawn bluefish blitz the likes of which I haven’t seen since. Blues to 13 pounds were crushing anything that hit the water. Seeing my then-girlfriend land her biggest bluefish from the surf was a moment I’ll never forget. We couldn’t bring a plug back to the sand without a giant bluefish attached, and the blitz lasted for almost an hour. We released most of them, kept a few for the grill, and felt like we were on cloud 9 for the rest of the day.

40 Pounds of Striped Bass: Fishing with F&S Fishing Editor Joe Cermele in 2011, live-lining bunker, we hooked and landed a striped bass that weighed all of 40 pounds. It was a slow day with a heavy fog on the water until that fish started peeling line, but the minute it did, everything changed. Just this past year I finally had a replica of the fish made, which I can’t wait to hang in my tiny apartment.

Passing the Torch: On those same Brewster flats, I saw my younger cousin, Dylan Wheelock, catch his first striper when he was barely 13. We’d both grown up in Upstate New York, a landlocked place that makes saltwater seem all the more magical. Dylan and his mom were sharing a summer vacation with our family on Cape Cod, and he got the hang of striper fishing right away, despite being barely older than I was when I started wading the flats. Catching a fish in a perfect situation is the second-best thing you can hope for when you hit the water. Seeing a friend or family member discover the magic of a place or a species is the first.

Largemouth Magic: On weekend evenings after he’d get home from the office, my father and I would head to the golf course when I was in high school. The course had a pond that, thanks to a fellow fisherman who was a member, was stocked with largemouth bass for a few years. My Dad would play the 13th hole, a short Par 3 over the water, on repeat to work on his short game while I cast Jitterbugs, Texas-rigged soft plastics and stickbaits into the adjacent pond. The hole and the pond were just far enough apart where he might not hear me hollering with delight, so it took some convincing, one night, when fading summer light forced us back into the car, to get him to believe that I’d caught and released more than 40 fish… but he finally did.

I’ll always remember that car ride home. It was perfect.