Volume 14, Issue 37 ~ September 14 - September 20, 2006

The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle

Man Against Fish

Who’s playing who here?

The minute the striper ate the fly, I knew it was a great fish. There was no mistaking the strike and the force of movement afterward. It was definitely big, and all muscle.

At first light on this calm September morning, the fish had hit halfway through a long retrieve. As I had stripped in the fly line working the streamer, I fed the loose line to the deck for the next cast. Now, suddenly hooked up to a powerful fish, I began checking my gear and clearing my fly line. But something was not right. I glanced down with horror.

Earlier I had noticed some twist accumulating in my loose line as I was casting, but I had ignored it. Now that twist had created a tangled cascade that sprawled in front of my feet.

Fish Fight

Meanwhile the fish was about 40 feet off and calmly swimming parallel to the boat. In the few long minutes after the initial hook-up, I don’t think it had yet realized it was in any danger.

The line vibrated with the pressure of the water as the fish moved. Even without the spur of panic, this striper displayed power. I guessed it over 25 pounds, maybe more. I had already released a few fish during the last hour in the five- to seven-pound range, and this baby made them all seem like minnows.

I kept enough pressure with the rod to lightly restrain the fish and ensure it couldn’t get any slack. But, I hoped, not enough to alarm it while I coped with the line. The striper hesitated, puzzled, shaking its head and attempting to relieve itself of the nagging pull.

I needed the fish to move slowly away from the skiff so I had time to clear the tangles and get him on the reel. Then I would cinch him up and start the real fight. But the fish did the unthinkable: It started toward the boat.

I frantically stripped in more fly line to maintain pressure. The unruly pile at my feet grew worse and my anxiety level shot up. Things were going to hell fast. The fish was no more than a dozen feet away as it finally crossed behind the skiff, oblivious to me and apparently not nearly as concerned as I.

Now it occurred to me that I might not even have a good hook set. I was using a particularly large fly with a substantial hook. Big hooks require a lot of force to set the barb, especially with a long, slender fly rod. The fish itself had supplied most of the violence of the initial strike. I had not hammered the hook home as I should have.

That reflection was the kiss of death. As though the fish had been monitoring my thoughts, I could feel him buck up and twist, turning back to face me and shaking his head violently. I was at the worst possible angle, in front and nearly over the top of him, when I should have been low and off to the side — and much farther away. I was helpless.

Disaster: I felt the hook pull free; then the line went slack. My heart sank. I actually screamed in frustration as the fish boiled the water in another turn and moved swiftly off. I was furious. How could things have gone so wrong, and why just now with a great striped bass like this? It was the best fish I had hooked on a fly the whole year.

Curiously, a vague idea skirted the edge of my consciousness … that the creature had realized his mistake and known what was going on. He then calmly stood off, tied me up with his closing movement and spit the hook. But only after giving me a few good minutes of a really bad time. That was not a rational thought.

Fish don’t think. They don’t plan a strategy, they don’t engage in a contest with a fisherman. Do they? This was no more than a snowballing series of unfortunate coincidences that resulted in my losing a big fish. But at that moment I wasn’t so sure. I felt like I had been pretty soundly handled. In fact, I felt like I had been played.

Fish Are Biting

The shallow-water fishing continues to get better with loose schools of actively feeding rock and bluefish chasing bait in the tributaries, especially early and late. In the main stem, smaller fish with bigger ones below are breaking on schooled baitfish over the channels and some of the flats. The Bay Bridge is holding fish, and the Eastern Bay is hot as well. Spot are beginning to leave, but the perch are getting bigger. Spanish macs are sticking around, some in the mid 20 inches. Crabs are fat and plentiful. Big migratory stripers are starting to show up from the ocean. Get on ’em while you can.

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