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Big Fish

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Posted by on August 9, 2011

I began exploring the sport of sight-fishing for striped bass circa 1990, when that species staged its miraculous return. The early going was tough, but exhilarating – imagine deciphering their flats behavior and effective fishing techniques when we had nothing to go on, other than what had been written about bonefish and permit. We (me and a few others) were working from the proverbial “blank piece of paper”. Was this easy? No. But that early exploration was extremely stimulating  despite the challenges. Was it rewarding? Absolutely! That experience, those 10 years of my angling life, and the adrenaline rush that accompanies discovery was addictive and it’s shaped my approach to fly fishing. Looking back I realize some early findings were gifts, like rough gems with unclear importance when sifted from the earth their value is timeless.

A big challenge was deciphering striper flats themselves. Did these fish prefer unique habitats, did specific prey attract them to the shallows, was it prey concentration, did tides affect all this, seasons, human activity, were the same fish repeat visitors, what about water temperature, water levels??? The questions were endless. I spent countless hours walking, wading, digging, and then scratching deeper on every imaginable type of shoreline. For every answer I zeroed in on there were two new questions. And I loved that! So how did I get answers? Time on the water.

Ocean shorelines are one of several unique habitats where you’ll visually find stripers and are able to pursue them with sight-fishing tactics. It’s highly technical sight-casting and perhaps the most challenging fly fishing there is. Beaches needed to be explored, so barefoot and equipped with polarized glasses, some 10-pound tippet, a few experimental flies, a camera and an eight-weight rod, off I went . . .

Some beaches are “domestic”, with overt human presence and much too much activity. Others are desolate and wild – there are no homes, no hotdog stands, no lifeguards, and very few people – they are raw. Here you’ll find deer tracks on the hard-packed tide line, driftwood, logs and other natural debris, abundant bird life and a great deal of peace. They’re my kind of beach.

On the first Saturday after Labor Day in 1993, after a week of calm, stable weather and fabulously clear overnight skies, I hit a previously unexplored hard-to-get-to beach to see what it had to offer. With a sunny, high pressure forecast, I planned to be on that beach early to take advantage of great visability and extremely calm surf and spend the day as it was a very long stretch of barren sand. I started at 7AM – just late enough to make out fish that might be roaming close to the edge.

Despite my enthusiasm, the first mile was disappointingly uneventful – no birds, little evidence of striper prey, and not a fish in sight. If that wasn’t enough, the water gradually turned from martini-clear to vegetable soup, making spotting increasingly difficult and complicating technical fly presentation should opportunity prevail. But I was there to explore – maybe this beach was inert and I was wasting time. I had drilled more than a few “dry wells” in this endeavor. So I continued. Perhaps when the tide swung some fish would move in, I thought. The water was peak-high with an instantaneous 12-inch drop into the water from dry sand. Tiny waves barely lapped the water’s edge with long periods of silence in a tranquilizing cadence. It was one of those mornings you could smell the water. Either way – fish or no fish – this was heaven, and I was giving it at least another mile.

Barefoot wading became increasingly treacherous amongst weeds and impressive driftwood, including a small tree and a log or railroad tie that had made their way ashore.  Tough conditions for the next 200 feet forced me out of the water and onto the sand to continue. The water looked clear for a solid stretch after that. From my elevated vantage I was able to scan long-range, well beyond the immediate shoreline mess and finally I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be two big fish – waist-deep about 75 yards down the beach; I hustled to get past the debris and get closer.

At three strides from the railroad tie, jutting seaward at a slight leftward angle, mere inches from the water’s edge, my legs stopped – slowly – imperceptibly slowly – the timber was moving. I stared in stunned disbelief as it silently eased off at a glacial pace.

 ‘Bass?’ flickered through my mind. We know such fish exist, but still they are mythical. How many people ever really see one – live? Inside Captain Don’s Bait & Tackle (the late Don Cameron’s colorful shop in Charlestown, Rhode Island), mounted overhead in immediate view as you entered was a 92-pounder that turned up off the Outer Banks in a winter net. I blurted “Holy shit!” the first time I saw it, and thought that every time I went in. Big stripers grip you somehow.

‘Brown shark – must be’, I murmured.

Why didn’t I cast? I was way under-gunned with a mere eight-weight, but that’s not the reason – I was awe-stricken. You have to experience such an event to understand. It rattles you. Why didn’t she register as “fish” sooner? Well, if I looked out my back window and saw a 25-pound chipmunk on the lawn, I wouldn’t sense that it was real either, a Disney stuffed animal left behind by a child, perhaps, but it wouldn’t strike me as real. And a fish that big, laid-up, with its tail nearly touching dry sand . . . ? That was impossible to digest. For a month afterward I recalled my first glimpse of the fish at least once a day while staring down at two pieces of masking tape I had placed five feet apart on the floor tiles at work. I told you, they’ll grip you.

When the fish was about 100 feet off the sand she turned right and proceeded parallel to the beach in chest-deep water. It was at that moment I knew what I was witnessing. No shark – it was a striped bass – five feet long and 18 inches deep. A conservative 75 pounds, probably more. For non-anglers, this probably all seems impossible to understand. Only fishermen can appreciate the surrealism of such an event. I was fortunate to observe the fish for 45 minutes before the next surprise unfolded, which caused her to mysteriously vanish, just as quietly as she had appeared.

It’s hard to describe the feeling when such a magnificent fish evaporates from your life, when you still haven’t digested that it swam into it in the first place. I was reeling from the experience when a tennis court-sized school of anchovies that had escaped my notice moved in tight to my right.

Suddenly, the anchovies were ravaged. A hundred 10- to 30-pound stripers arrived from nowhere and thrashed them till they were all but gone. And then they, too, vanished. I managed a few fish in the hour-long blitz and when it was over I realized that despite running up and down the beach in chaotic pursuit of the action, I oddly wound up at the exact spot where I encountered the big fish earlier – a lone four-foot scotch pine on the dune marked it for me. I sat in the sand, lit a cigarette and marveled at this day in disbelief.

About 45 minutes after the blitz subsided she returned . . . from the same direction she disappeared when she left hours before. All by herself, she hovered back and forth very deep and very slowly as she scoured the bottom. Just as carefully and deliberately as everything else she did, that fish worked an area 100 yards long where the blitz had taken place. Why was she where she was earlier, precisely in position for that event, I wondered? But she wanted nothing to do with feeding with youngsters. That was obvious. This fascinated me! Was it coincidence or did this fish know what was happening? She maintained a consistent 30- to 40-yard breadth from shore and fed for 40 minutes before vanishing for good, in the same direction she had come and gone before. I never took my eyes off her.

So what are big fish all about? How do they behave? What are their preferences? Well, this experience and others have taught me a little bit about them . . .

 

  • Big fish are old, but not bold fish. They didn’t grow large by accident. Their unique nature and everyday behavior, carried out their entire lives, enable them to survive a long time and become “big fish”. They’re genetically programmed to survive in a pure Darwinian sense. I often encounter small or medium fish that are just plain tough to catch – they’re wary, stealthy and careful. I always think to myself, ‘This guy’s going to be big’. Like people, not all of us are genetically capable of professional golf or hitting major league pitching . . . no matter how much we want to or how hard we try, most of us simply never will. If you measure an individual fish’s success by its age and ultimate size, relatively few succeed in growing large. I believe they are predisposed to becoming old, and big.

 

  • They’re slow and tentative beings. Big fish do everything slowly. They never seem harried or rushed; they swim, feed, take bait, lures or flies – and even spook – at a tempered pace. When you encounter them while sight-fishing, they may seem tranquilized, or in a catatonic trance. And they can be miserably difficult. These traits don’t suddenly surface when fish become old, even some small ones display them. But as they age these traits become increasingly pronounced. These big fish breed more prolifically which sustains the species’ wild survival “program”.

 

  • They’re careful; not smart in the cognitive sense, but they are inherently very cautious creatures. Perhaps they do “learn”, but I suspect that big fish are fundamentally more aware of their environment and highly suspicious of anything out of the expected ordinary – noises, movements, shadows, flashes – any environmental stimulus they do not expect to see, hear, smell or feel.

 

  • Big fish tend to feed alone or with others of their ilk. They avoid mixing with aggressive, less careful fish. In fact, smaller fish seem to genuinely annoy them, which is likely why the big boys are usually below, behind or arrive on the scene later than smaller fish. And they’re often active at “off times” when we’re not accustomed to stripers feeding. This adds immensely to their unpredictability.

 

  • They spend a lot of time deep. It’s generally safer near the bottom than near the surface, and the temperature fluctuates through a narrower daily band there, creating a more stable environment.

 

  • I believe big fish become more opportunistic and less selective in their feeding as they age. Large fish seem not to wear themselves with pickiness, they’ll consume what’s readily available and they can be piggish. If you’ve ever visited Robbie’s Marina in Lower Matecumbe, Florida and fed the harbor tarpon you know what I’m talking about. Big stripers are easily trained to become harbor slobs in that fashion, too (Robbie’s is a great experience!)

 

  • Really big fish – the 60- and 70-pounders – surface periodically when striper stocks are down every 15 – 20 years, or so when they become “exposed” to capture. They reveal themselves when throngs of younger, more aggressive fish simply aren’t there to shield them from fishermen. Though still quite small, they compose a greater percentage of the population during these periods. Really big fish are always out there, they’re just unavailable, hidden from human harvest, most of the time.

 

  • Big fish tend to eat “big” – they prefer large prey where a single capture yields a lot of sustenance. They’ll eat small prey, too, but they won’t work for it – it must be brought to them by the tide or otherwise involve no chase or pursuit. But big stuff is what they like – full-size bunker, lobsters, mackerel, squid, etc.

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