To me, in the world of fishing there is nothing more satisfying that to hook a large striped bass in the surf, bring it to hand, and then release it.
My typical Saturday begins between 3:30 and 4:00 am with a 70-mile drive to the New Jersey coastline to fish in the surf as the first hint of daylight peeks over the horizon. I usually spend a good portion of the morning perched on a 6 foot high wall of boulders, casting to a particularly fishy piece of submerged structure that often holds life when other places don’t. While it’s a great place to hook into a striped bass, it’s pretty much the worst place to land one, especially a big one. Often, large waves crash violently into the wall preventing me from getting anywhere near the water. A fish has to be lifted up by the line or rod onto the rocks (I don’t use a gaff).
For me, a few fish in the suds, even small ones, makes for a successful outing. And while my spring was pretty slow for bass, I’ve been having some success in the summer surf with smaller stripers.
When I arrived at my “spot” on Sunday, July 21st, the conditions looked promising. Northeast winds around 15, rainy, with some good, clean, outgoing tide. Waves were smashing into the boulders creating the frothy whitewater bass love to feed in. My first thought: I’m going to hook a fish today. Within a couple of casts, I had a hit from a small fish close to the rocks on a Sluggo. Someone was home. Hoping to gain some distance and cover more water I clipped on a pencil popper and made a long cast.
Pop. Pop. Pop. Smash.
A nice sized bass had just inhaled my Tsunami Popper. My first thought: How am I going to land this fish?
My drag began to sing as the fish took a long run. I eventually turned the fish and began to work it in. I got a good look at it as it swam horizontally in a cresting wave—not a cow but certainly a beautiful summertime bass around 32-33”. After a spirited fight, I coerced the fish to the base of the rocks. Too big to lift with my rod. I made that mistake before with a much smaller fish turning my 8 1/2 foot surf rod to a 7 footer. I climbed down as close as I dared to the edge of the surf and got a wrap of my 30 lb leader and began to lift. It broke.
I could only watch as the fish, popper attached, fell back into the churning surf. In my book, if I don’t get to hold it, it’s not a caught fish.
I quickly tied on a new leader and cast again. Nothing. One more cast. Smash. A similar sized fish on a yellow Smack-It. I scurried to my right, hoping to land the fish in calmer waters. The fish came unhooked.
Over the next half hour the same scenario continued to unfold, with me hooking and losing two more fish on a red over yellow Gibbs Pencil. I had another fish halfheartedly hit a wooden swimming plug and a small fish that somersaulted over a small Smack-It but never made contact. That was my morning—for some pretty depressing—for me, pretty amazing.
It may sound weird but the memories of an outing that seem to take the strongest hold in my brain are those of fish, especially big fish, that I’ve lost. Sure, memorable catches create lasting impressions, but it’s the one that got away that keeps me coming back next Saturday.