Volume 14, Issue 19 ~ May 11 - May 17, 2006

The Sporting Life

by Dennis Doyle

Big Fish, Light Tackle

The tug is a drug

Catching a large striped bass on light tackle is an irresistible challenge and an intense experience. It’s a catch that an angler remembers clearly, and forever. Long after, it provides the glow that warms us while casting on shivering spring mornings when normal mortals are asleep. It can keep us on the water deep into the dark of a fall evening when saner folk are inside, sitting by a fire or enjoying a late dinner. It allows normally balanced people to fish through shoulder cramps, elbow pain and acute physical discomfort in order to experience more of the same. The tug is a drug.

The take of a big rock is often more tentative than that of lesser fish, but at the hook set there is a distinctly solid resistance. I’m apt to think I’ve fouled the bottom at first, even when fishing a surface lure. What follows though, is bedlam, as the fish departs urgently as a locomotive that’s behind schedule.

Fly fishermen will suddenly find they’re standing on part of the loose line that is hissing up off the deck and disappearing through their guides. A second disaster may occur when the loose fly line gathers into an immense snarl and tries to fit itself through the first guide. The breaking sound is your heart.

Spin and plug casters discover whether their line is sound and the drag properly adjusted. A worn line or too tight a drag, and you will hear the twang of despair: snapping monofilament. Too loose and it’s either a tangled mess or the sizzle of vast quantities feeding out into the deep. Calamity looms.

Hooking up with a large fish requires large doses of perseverance and luck. Landing one requires luck, optimism and preparation. Using light tackle complicates the equation exponentially. This is equipment that is barely up to the task. The largest stripers are usually caught in the Bay on heavy-action boats or with trolling rods with 30-pound test line, 50- to 80-pound test leaders, large hooks and heavy-duty components. There is a reason for this. They are a mighty fish.

The striped bass is not a speedster nor given to extended runs. Try to stop a big one, though, and it will smash your tackle, even the heavy stuff. This fish’s strength is honed in the Atlantic’s pounding surfs and vicious rips. It’s wildness is nothing less than nature demands for survival. An angler must respect this or expect defeat.

Line failure at a knot is the most common cause of large fish achieving victory. So there are a few tips that a light tackle fisherman is wise to heed at the beginning of every outing: Cut off the first 10 feet of spin or casting line and retie the lure with a fresh knot; replace all used fly leader tippets; use saliva to lubricate your knots as you draw them tight — and always be sure to draw them tight. If a new knot does not look perfect, cut it off and tie it again.

While actively fishing any kind of light tackle, cut off and retie your lure after you‘ve landed several fish. Their rough mouths will fray and weaken the light line and wear the knots. If you are fly casting, a wind knot in the fly leader, or tippet, will reduce its breaking strength by 50 percent. Remove the knot or replace the section immediately. Always assume the next fish will be the big one.

If you’ve been lucky and have hooked a good striper, cleared the line, got the fish on the reel nicely, the drag humming and the line streaming out away from any danger, you have only to face one more obstacle, your inner terror. I do not have answers to the questions that can run through your head: Is the fish solidly hooked; should you play it softly; should you apply more pressure; is there enough drag; where did you put the net?

But in answer to your ultimate query, yes, prayers seem to help. At least they do for me — though sometimes the answer is not this time.

Fish Are Biting

The mid-Bay rockfish bite has fallen off, steeply. Only a few scattered fish have been taken lately from Love Point on down to Breezy Point. The May worm hatch is quite possibly the culprit, with fish keying on these small worms swarming over large areas of the Bay bottom. Croaker and perch, not yet plentiful in the first place, have gotten scarcer to anglers as well. Until the hatch is over, patience, persistence and lower expectations may be required.

A Recent Fishing Account: Two anglers trolling near the Bay Bridge on May 7 hooked up on a good fish. It hit an umbrella rig late in the afternoon and made a number of fast and sustained runs. The anglers took turns fighting the fish for two and a half hours but could not get it near the boat. With the light failing, they kept increasing pressure on the fish with 30-pound test line — until it finally broke off. They never saw what it was.

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