Tag 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 Last Summer Night

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The Sun sets on summer on Jekyll Island, Georgia.

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” ~ John Steinbeck

There are any number of opinions on summer’s end, it’s transition into fall, and in New England we have more than most. Some relish the cooler temperatures, changing leaves and sweatshirt weather. Others can’t help but mourn summer’s passing.

I’ll tell you that as a fisherman I look forward to the fall, the migration of striped bass that it brings, and the promise of bluefish and stripers pushing bait right onto the beach.

But it’s certainly not the case that I’m “sick of summer.” Summer to me is trips to the Adirondack Mountains where my aunt has had a camp for decades, open windows and nights spent on my parents’ back deck, taking the top off the Jeep and watching fireworks with family.

I think looking forward to the fall has more to do with a mindset, an idea, or an ideology: Change is a positive thing.

I think life has a way of sorting people into two camps: Those who embrace change, and those who fear it. There are things that some of us, some of my friends and family, have experienced that have given them every right and reason to fear change and to fear the unknown. Life can be a terribly unfair process.

Change in of its very nature is uncertain, and uncertainty can be terrifying. Whatever our current circumstance, our location or our position… even if it’s not ideal, it’s at least familiar. And with familiarity comes comfort.

And you’ll hear these reasons, and I’ll not discount them, but for me it’s not “changing leaves,” “pumpkins,” or cooler temperatures that make me look forward to, embrace the beginning of a new season.

I’m hoping that I’ll run into a blitz of bluefish that I’ll be rehashing with friends for decades. I’m hoping the Red Sox will make an improbable run to the World Series and I’ll share that moment with all of the Boston fans cheering along, and friends and family too.

But I’m looking forward to the fall because the summer has passed, because I lived it and loved it and it was amazing, but now it’s over.

I’m looking forward to the fall, yes because striped bass and bluefish will be running, campfires will be a little more comforting, the scenery throughout New England and New York will, for however short a time, be stunning…

But mostly I’m looking forward to the fall because it’s in the future, and the future always holds the promise of being the most rewarding and fulfilling period of your existence. And although that optimism requires faith, or some of it at least, which means investing yourself emotionally in in something uncertain… I still believe that the investment is worth it.

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.

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.

Travel: The Heart of our Love for The Sport

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These images capture the country as best I could, from the Outer Banks to the Keys to Montana.

There’s no right answer to the question: “What is the essential, defining element that makes us love outdoor sports like hunting and fishing more than any other single factor?”

But I just returned from an annual trip I take with a friend and former college roommate to Fire Island, N.Y., where we’ve been fishing the surf since meeting as freshman in college at Syracuse University. Curt Dircks and his family own a small cabin on the island and we’ve had some spectacular years chasing striped bass and bluefish there over the past decade. The island, where most residents and visitors take a ferry from Long Island and commute either by walking or bicycle, is a unique and beautiful one. The whitetail deer, which walk over the ice in the winter to reach the island, alone make it a unique environment.

Prior to that trip I got to spend a weekend at a camp my aunt and uncle, Tom and Bridget Roberts, have had in their family for as long as I’ve been alive... and much longer before that. The cabin-style camp is in Old Forge, N.Y., near the base of the Adirondack National Park.

It’s a common occurrence to see black bears roaming within a stone’s throw from the cabin, and a trip without a deer sighting is almost unheard of. The cabin itself is mostly unadorned, basic and beautiful in a rustic way. On the front porch you can see the Adirondack’s Fulton Lake Chain spread out before you and behind the cabin there’s an enormous stone fire-pit that I can remember sitting at almost every summer for as long as I’ve been alive.

These beautiful places I’ve been blessed to see and revisit have convinced me that, more than any other single factor, travel and exploration are the basic elements of our love for the outdoors.

A fishing rod seemingly has a fairly simple purpose, but in reality it’s something we get to point at the next place we’d like to visit, see, explore, or return to. It’s a means, an excuse and a justification for exploring as many of the truly unique, breathtaking and memorable parts of this country and this earth as we might, given only one lifetime.

Had I not picked up a fishing rod, and in many respects held onto it, early on in my life, I might very well have still sought out these places, these experiences and the incredible wildlife that calls each home.

But I don’t know that I would have, and I’m certainly grateful every day that I did.

Why Fishing Makes us Better Human Beings

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The Brewster Flats on Cape Cod at low tide.

When my cousin, Everett Lockwood and I, were in high school, we were lucky to spend a few weeks on Cape Cod every summer, and of course our foremost priority was chasing fish. Since we lacked a boat, we eventually discovered the Brewster Flats, which offer a rare and unique opportunity for anglers to wade out almost a mile during low tide and fish a deep drop-off where a channel cuts about 17 feet deep through two sandbars and flows out to deeper water. Baitfish leaving with the dropping tide push through this channel and set up a virtual buffet line for waiting striped bass, bluefish and flounder.

If we stayed on the Cape for three weeks, we’d fish those flats 20 times if weather allowed. We lived for it. I learned a great many things from that experience as an angler and a young man, about safety, respecting the resource (we got good enough to catch keepers, and then smart enough to release them) and appreciating the little things in life, like the incredible ecosystem we got to witness on the walks out and back.

If I had to tell you how many striped bass, bluefish or flounder we caught in the ten years we spent wading the flats, I couldn’t even wager a guess, but one I do remember.

I’m from a large Irish Catholic family, and have more than a dozen cousins. A few would drop in for a week or a weekend during the summers and fish the flats with us, but I remember Dylan Wheelock’s first flats striper specifically.

Dylan is almost ten years my junior, which would have made him 12 or 13 the first time he waded the flats with us. As luck would have it, he caught a striped bass. It wasn’t big enough to keep, even had we wanted to, but I can still picture him, a young guy who, like me, had grown up mostly landlocked in Upstate New York, a mile from dry land, holding up a striped bass.

I was over at his mother’s house this winter and saw that she still had that picture hanging up in their house. It’s not a great photo, photo-wise: He’s off in the distance and the fish is barely discernible as a striper. It was probably taken with a disposable camera that we somehow kept dry.

But there’s a 13-year-old kid from Upstate New York holding a striped bass on the Brewster Flats, grinning ear to ear. I remember that fish, because it meant more to me to share that experience than it ever did to keep it all to myself. What, in this world, is worth anything if experienced or enjoyed alone?

That fish, a decade ago now, was probably the first wave of realization coming over me that there was something even more gratifying in this sport than anything we might attain from it of our own accord, alone: Sharing it with others.

Since then I’ve been blessed to have caught more fish than I ever dreamt I might in my entire life at that age, but I find increasingly that it’s the ones I see others catch that are meaning more and more.