And he said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Teaching an Old Salty Dog New Tricks....

Through the almost quarter century that we have been enjoying our Boys' Weekend in November, it has evolved as our experience has grown, and as the migrating fish patterns have changed.  Our initial quarry when we began "B.W" was the large, "chopper" bluefish.  A fish that can weigh 20 pounds, that can be in schools that are literally miles long, and that, when they "blitz" a beach feeding on smaller fish, their prey would rather beach themselves and take their chances breathing air, than face the onslaught of the sharp teeth that line a large blue's mouth.

Through the years the large schools of blues seemed to diminish, and in its place, schools of striped bass began to hit the beaches.  Our fishing tactics changed to accommodate the lack of blues, and we started targeting stripers -- which in my opinion are a far better tasting fish, anyway.

While bluefish like the open ocean and hunting in packs like wolves, who force their prey into shallower water where they can't escape, stripers prefer moving water.  They like choppy, dirty mixed up water where prey may be tossed about in the waves and injured; and they like moving currents, where they can hide behind structure and ambush passing baitfish that are moving with the waterflow.  And while they may be caught during the day, they feed even more at night.

Fifteen years ago, while we still fished the beaches during the day, we switched our gameplan at night, and started fishing the catwalk of the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet at night.  We learned very quickly that bridge fishing is a very different animal than surf fishing.  Instead of a 10 or 12 foot surf rod, a shorter stout rod is needed.  And you also need a large hoop net to lower when you've caught a fish.  And you need a large waterproof light to lower and attract the baitfish which will attract the large rockfish.  And you need a source of power for that light.  Most people would wheel out a portable generator and extension cord.  We realized a car battery worked just as well, and it had no fumes or unbearable engine noise.  Of course, we still had to hear everyone else's generators and smell their fumes -- in addition to all the passing traffic, but at least we were more environmentally friendly.  It was such a pain in the tail to haul everything from our truck down a quarter mile of catwalk to find a spot to fish, that we wanted to keep our stuff to a minimum.  Oh yeah, and it was COLD at night, too.  And it could be downright unforgiving if it was windy, too.  A concrete bridge with metal catwalk late at night toward the end of November is not a warm and inviting place.  Still, we went, and we fished.

Well, this year was our smallest contingent of boys ever.  It was just three of us.  Mike, me and our friend Lee.  Lee, a dear friend out of Richmond, is a country boy stuck in a preppy financial advisor's body.  He was raised in Colonial Heights south of Richmond, and while he would go fishing or hunting with his father or brother, he always looked better in a starched shirt and tie.  His hair never moved and was always perfect.  He never got hat head.  And I swear, even his chest waders were dry cleaned and pressed.  Unfortunately since our move to Suffolk, I don't keep in touch with him as much anymore, but he has always been a good friend.  And he taught me a very important lesson that weekend....

It's funny how hindsight provides you with perspective, but by that year Mike and I had been going fishing down to the OBX for about 10 years.  We figured we had learned a lot through the previous decade, and maybe even more than those around us.  For example, stripers in the inlet love to eat eels.  Live ones.  And Mike and I had already learned that when you are trying to hook a live eel onto your line, we don't have to act like little girls and scream and squeal at each other.  We had already done that.  No, live eels do NOT have sharp teeth with which they try and bite you with.  And NO, their bite is not poisonous.  And NO, they don't shriek, like on "The Princess Bride"  (one of Lee's favorite movies... Shoot, one of mine too.  Who am I kidding.)  But YES, eels are extremely slimy, and they are a real mess to try and deal with -- unless you drop them in the sand first.  Then they are easy to grip and hook.  We knew all that, already....  And more.

After all, it was Mike who came up with the idea to use a car battery instead of hauling the generator back and forth like every other redneck, moron bridge fisherman.  And it was I who had perfected the hanging beer huggy.  A can koozy with an athletic shoe string attached, so you can hang your drink around your neck, handsfree, while you are fishing.  And this was Lee's first year with us.  What could he know?! 

After it got good and dark, we hauled our stuff out to the catwalk and found a gap where we could fit and not bother any other cold, redneck, nocturnal, stupid, smelly fishermen.  We pulled out our waterproof lantern, attached it to the battery and hung it over the railing lowering it down to the water.  It lit up the flowing inlet beautifully.  We leaned our large hoop net against the back fencing separating us from the Mack trucks zooming by behind us at 60 mph, and we were almost ready.  Our bait was either fresh caught finger mullet (a small baitfish found in these waters), or 1 ounce jigheads with large hooks to which we attach large soft plastic tails to lower and jig up and down around the perimeter of the light cast by the lantern.

Now it was just a matter of waiting for the fish.  Eventually it was late enough that traffic behind us was minimal.  The night was quiet and thankfully windless, so the cold was bearable.  the moon was high and close to full, and the outgoing tide was moving strongly.  Then we heard it.  "Slap".  Then we heard another slap.  And another.  The large rockfish were moving in, and were smacking the surface of the water.  To hear the haunting echo of slapping fins across the water in the quiet of the moonlit night is a memory that is still vivid to me.  I had never experienced that, and it just filled us with excitement and anticipation.  Finally we saw it... a large dark green shadow was just at the perimeter of the circle of light our lantern shone on the inlet.  Then another was visible.  We readied our baits, and that's when Lee spoke up.

"Hey guys, my dad gave me a bunch of freshwater shad he caught up in the lake that he fishes for big blue catfish."  I froze them, and I brought some with me in my cooler."  Mike and I looked at each other, and it was everything we could do not to laugh out loud in his face.  We smiled and said no thanks.  We've got our routine down.  We knew what the stripers liked.  And it certainly couldn't be a freshwater fish that they had never seen before... that was frozen, no less!  I lowered my jig and started jigging, while Mike lowered a dead, but still fresh finger mullet.  And we waited.

Meanwhile Lee took out his plastic bag of frozen freshwater shad, and put one on a hook, and lowered it with ours.  Mike and I shared another knowing glance at Lee's expense.  "Poor Lee.  He just doesn't know any better....   Oh well....  He'll learn soon enough."

A rod bowed, and a fish was hooked.  It wasn't Mike.  It wasn't me.  It was Lee, and he was fighting a horse!  He played it beautifully, letting it run, then bringing it back, not letting it go anywhere it may try and break the line.  Eventually it tired, and we lowered the net.  Lee led the large rock into the hoop, and we raised it up.  Lee had a beautiful rockfish pushing 20 pounds -- caught on a frozen freshwater shad.

We put the fish in a cooler, and Lee put another frozen shad on his hook and lowered it.  Before long, BAM, he had another hookup.  Another good fight.  Another good fish.  We lowered the net, and Lee had limited out on striper.  He was done for the night, and he sat back and cracked open a cold beverage.  Meanwhile, Mike and I were still at the railing, waiting for our first hit.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  I took off my jig, and grabbed one of those stupid, no-way-in-the-world-should-this-work frozen freshwater shad, and put it on a hook and lowered it into the water.  BAM, a rockfish took it, and a few minutes later I also had dinner.  Mike tried one at that point, but stripers are funny.  They come, they eat, and then dinnertime is over just that quickly, and they don't hit anymore.  The bite for the night was over, and we went home.  Since Mike didn't have a fish (ha ha), he took a picture of Lee and me.  Yeah, Lee's were bigger, but at least we had learned an important lesson. 
Lee with his 2 unfinicky, large rockfish, an me with some humble pie... or was it crow?

First, apparently when hungry, stripers don't really discriminate against fish they have never seen before.  Even if they are frozen solid.  Second, never be so stubborn, or think you know so much, that you miss out on an opportunity to learn something -- and catch some fish.

And the reality is this.  How many soft plastic baits really resemble any foods that gamefish eat?  How many baitfish are really chartreuse in color?  None?  Exactly.  Yet a fluorescent yellow grub tail is one of the most productive of colors.  What is a "spinnerbait" really supposed to resemble, anyway?  Yet it works quite well for bass.  So, I guess I was a little late in coming to the "Don't-Be-Afraid-To-Try-Anything" Party.  I was stuck in the "I-Think-I-Know-It-All" slow lane.  But eventually I got there.  I just had to get out of that lane, and realize I still had plenty to learn.  Fast forward 15 years, and I am still learning..., and I still remember.

Yesterday I went kayak fishing with Mike, and another friend Jerry, who is still a "newbie" to kayak fishing.  We never use live bait when we kayak fish on the river, never; but Jerry wanted to get out there early, and throw his cast net for some live minnows.  He caught about 100 shad in one cast.  So we put them in a large minnow bucket, and we used live shad as bait.  It was a slow day, and we didn't catch the first fish with any of those shad.  When we got off the water, we still had plenty of shad left.  But you know what?

They're in the freezer now in little plastic bags.... Waiting for striper season.  And Boys' Weekend is less than two months away....

Until next time,

Fish on!

Dan

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