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The One I’d Been Waiting For

Every rockfish is good; now and again, one is extraordinary

When I planted the skiff’s Power Pole anchor on the remains of an old submerged jetty wall that snaked well over a hundred yards out from the shoreline, my face was numb from the chilled air and the fast run. My electronic finder said the water was four feet deep under the keel. But just off the rocks, it would read closer to seven. Not too much farther away, the bottom fell to 20 feet.
    The light was failing and the sky overcast with a half moon scheduled to rise in about two hours. Air temp was about 50 degrees and falling, but the water was still in the 60s. An ebb tide had been running for well over an hour, plenty of time for stripers to gather to dine on the baitfish tumbled over the jetty by the strong current.
    I grabbed my casting rod and tied on a gold Red Eye Shad with a black back. Casting it out a bit up-current and parallel to the jetty, I started a slow, irregular retrieve, trying to bring the lure just over the top of the jetty rocks. As it was swept across, I paused, allowing it to drop on the other side.
    The Red Eye Shad is a lipless crankbait designed to wiggle head-first as it sinks. It is deadly when fished in sweeps and pauses. Working the lure at various distances along the submerged structure, I searched for stripers. But I was having little success.
    Then, just as night fell, I got a hookup. The fish was strong and took quite a bit of persuasion to bring to hand. With the fat 23-inch striper nestled in my ice chest, I was relieved to be free of a skunk. I tossed out another cast.
    Calling the drop a little too close, I hung up on the rocks. Breaking the lure off rather than disturbing the water, I tied on another of the same color. Three casts later, I had a second strike but missed the fish. Casting back to the same place, however, resulted in an instant hookup.
    This fish was a twin of the first. Releasing it, I decided to hold off on finishing out my limit. I figured there had to be a bigger fish out there.
    Two dozen casts and a half-dozen fish later, I started to doubt that strategy. The fish were strong and eager but all similarly sized.
    After losing my last two gold shad plugs to the rocks, I switched to an all-white pattern. On the first cast, something ate that plug as soon as it touched the water. This one was definitely the big guy.
    Line poured off my reel as the striper made for the depths of the channel. I let it run, even lightening the drag to be certain that the breaking point of my knots would not be tested too closely.
    The powerful fish made some determined efforts, taking long runs, then tearing up the water’s surface somewhere out in the dark. I fought it gradually nearer. This one was going to finish out my limit. I was cold and tired, and the big one was what I had been waiting for.
    Shining a light next to the skiff to be sure of netting it correctly, I was startled at the first glimpse of the fish. Despite the outsized and determined battle, it was the same size as its brethren. This rockfish had been punching above its weight.
    After boating the fish I had a dilemma. Should I ice a fish that had demonstrated such incredible spirit? Or let it go to spread its genes into future generations? It probably ­wouldn’t take much more time to finish out my limit, I thought. But the night chill was seeping into my body and my fingers were already trembling.
    Working the hooks out of the corner of its jaw, I knelt and slipped the battler back over the side. As it entered the water, it rewarded me with a sweep of its tail that sent a deluge of ice-cold spray up into my face.
    Laughing, I wiped myself dry, racked my rod, pulled the anchor pole and headed home.