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

Sunday, November 14, 2010

To Earn Your "Stripe(r)s", You Learn Timing is Everything....

I've had a pretty good run of luck lately, with fishing ... especially stripers.  I'd actually like to think it comes from years of skill and accumulated knowledge.  But I'll take it either way. I've caught some nice fish, and some of them are either in the freezer, or to quote Austin Power's "Fat Bastard", they are "in my belly!"

Assuming it is based on some skill and years of experience, I guess I can write this post.  If it's all luck, then you can stop reading and go back to whatever you were doing.  I'm choosing to make the bold statement, that it's based on skill, talent, wisdom, experience -- aah, who am I kidding.  But I'm going to write this, anyway....

When you know the waters you fish often, you learn when it is and when it is not necessarily effective to be on them fishing.  Truth of the matter is, sometimes I know the fishing isn't supposed to be any good, but I've got some time to kill, so I'm going to go anyway -- and I'll see if maybe I'll be surprised.  As I've said, I don't always fish to catch fish.  There are so many other reasons to enjoy being on the water; but having said that, catching fish is fun.  And stripers are without question, one of my favorite fish to catch and to eat.

Striped bass are versatile.  You can catch them in a variety of ways and methods; and you can cook them in a variety of ways and methods -- if you cook them at all.  (I happen to love rockfish sushi, or prepared "ceviche"-style, just in lime juice.  But I think pan-fried, pecan-encrusted, with a light Ritz cracker coating is my hands-down favorite.)  They range in size from "frying pan" size, 18"-ers, to monsters that can be over 60 pounds.  I've never caught any over 20 pounds or so -- and those were from the beach or a boat, but catching "schoolies" (the smaller ones up to about 25") inshore in rivers from a kayak is pretty hard to beat.  There's just something about that initial hit, the tug, and the excitement of the Nantucket Sleigh Ride that follows, while you wait for the fish to tire....

Virginia's Autumn Striped Bass Season runs from early October through the end of the year, and it is unquestionably one of my favorite times of year.  From years of experience, I've learned that while you can catch them on an incoming tide, it seems they prefer to eat during an outgoing tide.  Regardless, one thing is certain.  The water must be moving!  And the more it's moving, the better the feeding....

Years ago, when we sent our kids to Norfolk Christian School, my son played basketball.  Than meant he would miss the bus home, and I had to go pick him up after school at about 6:00 or so, after practice.  Meanwhile, my daughter was ready to go do something around 4.

I remember one afternoon, I picked her up from school (my office was in Norfolk at the time, so it was easy) and we went to dinner at a local family-style restaurant, while we waited for Parke to finish practice.  After dinner we still had an hour or so, so I suggested we try fishing.  "What?", she said.  "Where?"

"How about the Lafayette River, right near here."  We were literally only a couple blocks away.

There is a little known fishing pier under one of the bridges, and I happened to know that the tide was outgoing.  I parked the car, got out two fishing poles that just happened to still be in my car, and we walked up the bridge.  When we descended the stairwell to the concrete pier beneath the bridge, she was surprised to know it existed.  Nobody else was there.  We cast our jigs outward, allowing them to drift towards us with the current.  I know she must have thought I was crazy.  Fishing in the middle of Downtown Norfolk.  In the dark under the lights.  Alone.  There weren't actually fish in these waters, were there?  (Actually, the Lafayette River is surprising healthy and clean.)

Soon, Sheldon hung up on something.  Or so I thought, at first.  Next thing I know, she's fighting a nice, healthy little striper.  She brought it up and over the railing, and she began smiling proudly.  Fortunately for me, a few minutes later I hooked into one, and so it was a good evening.  She outfishes me enough, anyway, I couldn't let he get away with outfishing me on a spontaneous adventure, too....  (Of course, she was quick to point out that hers was bigger.)  I looked at my watch.  It was time to go get her brother.  Time spent fishing -- 30 minutes.  But it was the right 30 minutes.
A spontaneous Daddy-Daughter dinner date, while waiting for Parke to finish basketball practice, also produced these two rockfish in Norfolk.  It's all about knowing the tides, and where the fish are.
Another time, a year or so later, I was in the same situation.  Sheldon was already home, so it was just me looking to kill an hour between work and picking up Parke.  I had checked the tides earlier in the morning, and seen that it would be outgoing that evening, so I had my rod in my car.  I parked near the bridge, walked down to the pier, and within a half hour, had caught my limit.  I went and picked up Parke, and amazed his friends with the still-flopping fish I had thrown in a plastic bag.
Still dressed in work attire, it doesn't mean you can't take a moment between work and picking up your son from school, and catch some dinner, in this case, a couple of fat schoolie rockfish -- if the timing is right....
All of this "timing" makes sense when it comes to surf fishing, too.  When we have Boys' Weekend, we fish all day.  But it's only during a brief period when the fish may actually be biting.  Still we keep our lines in the water, in case there's the fish or two that didn't get the memo about when the other fish are eating....  Hope springs eternal for that random "rogue" fish....

And I've written about the Outer Banks' local fishermen, the "professionals", we call them, because they come -- they catch fish -- and they leave.  They must have tide charts etched on their brains, because when we are down at the Point in Buxton and they show up, the rest of us get excited, knowing that the fishing is about to pick up.  They don't bother to come out to the Point unless their "sixth sense" tells them there's a reason.  Southwest winds....  The tide....  The water temperature and clarity....  Then they will catch in one hour, more fish than we'll catch all day.  And when they leave, the rest of us may as well leave, too.  The fish bite is over.

Well lately, my "spider sense" has been tingling when it comes to knowing when to get out there in a kayak for some stripers.  Last Monday, knowing an outgoing tide was occurring by the time I got off work I called Mike and said let's hit the water for an hour or so before dinner.  It was an evening where he outfished me, but I caught the first striper, at least.  Three stripers and a flounder later, we got off the water and went home.  The biggest striper that day was Mike's 22"er.  But I would get revenge....
An hour or so after work allowed Mike and me to catch 3 rockfish and a flounder.  His eyes are "glowing" with joy, as you can see.  (Or he's possessed ... by kayakfishing fever!  For which there is no cure.)  This is the big one of the night... a nice, fat 22"er that fought well for Mike and his son (who was doubled up with him on his large kayak) towing them around the channel.
The rest of the week and weekend came and went uneventfully.  A huge weather system to our north pushed lots of water into the Chesapeake Bay, causing tides around the region to be excessively higher than normal.  Commitments, chores and children didn't allow for time to hit the water, and that was fine.  It was way too windy, anyway.  But by Thursday, even though the system was still to the north and causing higher tides, I was ready to get out there again.

My friend Dennis (a reformed, former boater I converted to kayaks more than a year ago) called and said he and his wife were hitting the water in their kayaks by 2 p.m. that day.  Did I want to join them, as he would be happy to get my kayak and take it up to the launch.  High tide was after 1:30, and the soonest I could get there after work, was maybe after 4:00 or so.  I had Continuing Education classes that day, and was tied up with them.  They are NOT my favorite days at work.

When my C. E. was over for the day (I hate the end of the year when we have to catch up on all these classes), I hit the road, ready for a break. I drove up to the launch, changed my clothes, got my kayak out of the back of Dennis' truck, and hit the water.  The water was still very high, even though it was now several hours after the tide change.  But the water was moving well.  It looked promising....

I paddled to where I could see Dennis and his wife fishing.  "Any luck?" I asked.

"Not the first bite!", Dennis responded, on behalf of both of them, not even turning his head to acknowledge me, as he focused on his line in the river.  I looked at the moving water, and was surprised by that response.  It looked good.  Real good.  I cast once.  Reeled in.  Nothing.

I cast again... felt a tug, and watched my line get taut.  "FISH ON!", I said to Dennis.

"What?", said his wife, who was up the stream a bit further, shivering for having been out in the cold for so long.  My comment had awoken her from a half-asleep trance, I think..  And I could tell I didn't make friends with that simple two-word statement.  I fought the fish, and a few minutes later I had a nice 24" striper on my stringer.  I paddled over to Dennis, to see what he had been using.  "The same thing I was using the last two days, when I lost a couple of fish," he said.  "Lost a couple of fish?  I never lose fish," I said jokingly, sure that I had just jinxed myself.

"You come out here, after we've been here for 3 hours, freezing, without the first bite, and on your second cast, you catch one?  That's not fair," his wife said, having drifted closer to us, now.  "And it's Dennis' birthday, even!"

As if that should make me feel bad for catching a fish.  Well, it worked.  I paddled back to Dennis, took my stringer off my kayak, and gave Dennis the fish.

"Happy Birthday, brother," I said, giving him the fish.  He happily, graciously accepted it.  I had done my good deed for the day.  I gave his wife one of the jigs I had used to catch the striper, and told her where to try and start casting.  Meanwhile I went to where she had been, and cast a different jig.  "Fish on," I said to her after my second cast with this different colored jig.

"What?  You've got another one?", she replied.

"Yup", I said, as I fought a fish running madly to the safety of the docks across the way.  It was as if he knew my line would break, if he got there and wrapped around a piling.  I wasn't about to let him.  I couldn't have Dennis laugh at me after I had just made that statement about not losing fish.  I turned him down the river, and let him tire out.  When he was done, I brought another nice rockfish to my kayak.  I netted him, put him on my stringer, and was pleased.  This one was a fat 23"er.  I would be eating rockfish, after all.
A nice photo of my 2nd striper in an hour.  The photo was taken by Dennis, whose wife admitted he is a better photographer than he is a fisherman....   Zing.  "Ouch!  That stings...."  He still had a very nice birthday dinner, though.  You're welcome.
The sun had gone down, it was starting to get dark so we all got off the water.  But once again, I caught two healthy fish in under an hour -- when the tide was moving out, and I mean moving!  Why Dennis and Jenny had no luck, I can't say.  My speculation is this:  Having been out there way too early, when the current wasn't moving and the fish weren't biting, their fishing (how they worked their jigs) had gotten lazy, and they weren't working their jigs properly.  That, and they kept using jig colors that weren't working.  My advice is always to try a color for 10 or 20 casts, and if you don't get any strikes, try another color.  Stripers can be finicky.  What worked one day may not work the next.  Be quick to change and try different colors.  Even if you've already caught one on a color, don't hesitate to change if the bites stop coming.*

*By example, Mike told me of his recent trout-catching adventure.  (Speckled trout and Striped bass share some similar stalking/feeding habits.)  He was out on the pier by our launch one warm, early October afternoon, and cast a line out into the outgoing tide.  Over the next hour and a half, he caught 14 speckled trout -- nine of which were keeper-sized.  But he noticed while he would catch a fish or two with one color, after a while the strikes stopped.  He would switch to another color, and then catch a few more.  By the time he was ready to go, he had exhausted his colors, and the fish.  And I guess, he too was exhausted -- in a happy way.

By the way, coincidentally, Dennis and Jenny were out kayak fishing for several hours a mile away up the river, while Mike was having his trout "field day" from the pier.  Between the two of them, they caught just one, small, non-keeper trout.  And Jenny caught that.  When I found that out, I laughed.  How ironic.  We've all been there at some point. Sometimes it's your day, and sometimes it just isn't your day....

So Friday I was on my way home from work when I got a call from Mike.  He was out in his kayak, and just wanted to let me know that he had just landed a nice, really fat striper -- the biggest one he had ever caught on the river!  It was a new record for our kayak fishing on that stretch of the river.

"Bastard!", I said into my cell phone.  "I'm coming up there!"  There would be a short detour on my way home....

He laughed.  I told him I was going to steal his other kayak and would be there in 30 minutes.  Even if I didn't have all my gear still in my truck from Thursday's venture, I had enough....  I had my rod.  I had the jigs.  I could make it happen.  When I got his text picture a moment later, it confirmed my decision....
It's hard to go straight home when you get a text picture from your friend, and this is the "lapdance" he's bragging about....  (By the way, this is the only lapdance sanctioned by a wife.  And it's by a STRIPER, not a STRIPPER.  That 2nd "P" will get you in trouble every time....)    I headed to the river, instead, and  boy, was I glad I did....
This striped bass was the biggest striper we've caught in this section of the Nansemond.  It was a fish worthy of praise and bragging.  It would also feed several people.  I couldn't let Mike be out there all by himself, with nobody to share his experience.  That wouldn't be very friendly of me.  The only thing better than catching a nice big fish, is catching a nice big fish with a friend or loved one watching nearby.  (And I wanted Mike to be there for me.  Ha ha.)

I got to Mike's house, took off my suit pants, put on my rainpants (that I still had in my car from Thursday), took off my sport coat and put on my fleece jacket, took off my dress shoes, put on Mike's "Crocs" that were in his garage, put his other kayak in my truck and hit the launch.  He was in the river, drifting with the outgoing tide towards me, as I paddled towards him.

"Any more luck?" I yelled.  He turned, laughing when he saw that I was, indeed, out there now.  "No."  He turned and cast again. The water around me was clear, high, and moving.  It looked perfect.  There was just enough wind to keep the waves moving, but there were no whitecaps.

I put on my jig and cast toward the shoreline, letting the jig slowly sink to the bottom.  As I started to reel, the line grew tight.  "Crap", I thought.  I had caught the snag I knew existed at that shoreline.  But then... the line moved towards the middle of the river.  I set the hook.  "Fish on!", I yelled to Mike.  "Really?"  He said, and chuckled.  I must have plunked the fish on the head, I figured.

The fish started moving out, pulling me towards the middle, towards Mike, and I got excited.  The way the line was starting to peel from my reel, in addition to the speed my kayak was now attaining while getting towed, made me realize I had a bigger fish than I had been used to catching lately.  My rod was bent 90 degrees as the still, unseen beast continued its run.  I hoped both the line and the rod would hold up.

"Michael," I tried to say calmly, as I'm feeling the adrenaline starting to build in my body, "this is a nice fish.  I mean this is a real nice fish!"  The fish then, as if on cue, came up to the surface, and splashed its monster tail between Mike and me, then swirled the water before turning directions and heading farther out into the river, with me being towed behind it.  He swam under the kayak, screaming line I had just reeled in, and bolted for the deeper part of the open river.  I tried to maintain my composure and stay calm.  But this was no ordinary fish, I realized.  I had the striped bass equivalent of "buck fever", and just didn't want to blow it, now.

I hadn't adjusted my drag on my rod lately, and I could only hope it was still set at a level that this fish wouldn't break.  There was no doubt it was a new personal best striper for me here, and it was absolutely testing the limits of my light gear.  Because I wasn't in my kayak, I didn't have my net.  I only had a small trout net.  I looked at it; it might hold his head....  The fish continued to lead me out into the river, past several docks and into the larger waves, but was finally tiring.  I was able to turn his head towards me, and reel in some line.

The fish was at the surface, and I could see my jig in the corner of its large mouth.  This fish could swallow a grapefruit whole, I thought, admiring its massive head and mouth.  It did not look like it was still well hooked, however, as I could see the barb of my jig with just a small strip of skin around it.  And the jig was now bent severely to one side.  The striper then shook his head vigorously out of the water, back and forth, splashing me from my head down to my sleeves and onto my lap.  Droplets now covered my sunglasses' lenses.  I laughed, with both joy and nervous apprehension.  I didn't want to lose this fish.  Not yet.   Not now.  I tried to net him, but there was no way he was getting in any part of my small, pathetic net.  And I didn't want him to shake too much again anymore, resisting me.  I held the line tight and high, trying to keep his head above water, not allowing him to run again; but I was also careful to make sure enough of the fish was still under water so that the precariously attached jig wouldn't have to support too much of the fish's weight.

My net was a joke, I realized, so I resolved to grab him in the mouth, and flip him onto my lap.  Two problems, though.  His mouth was clamped shut; and the jig was on the side of his mouth I was trying to grab.  One more good head shake, and he might escape, while the hook would tear into my hand.   And that would suck -- to put it mildly.  Twice!  He was still thrashing and shaking his head, and I was praying he wouldn't get off -- not now, not after all this.  I lowered my hand to his mouth and tried to open it, to slide my hand in and grab his fat lips, but he wasn't willing to open it up at all.  What was I going to do?  (This is at least an option to do with striped bass, as opposed to bluefish -- or sharks....)

Just then, however, Mike came up behind me, and deftly scooped the fish in his net, handing me the net with half a fish sticking out of it.  I plopped the leviathan on my lap and we stared at it in awe.  It was huge.  We both started laughing at the circumstances -- two beautiful fish caught in a very short time (outgoing tide, still very high, but the water was moving quickly).  And I caught this monster on my first cast.  My first cast!

I put him on my stringer, putting three clasps through his mouth (I wasn't going to lose this fish because of it bending or breaking a clasp, while resisting and twisting -- something that has happened in the past), and could hardly wait to get back to the shore where I could measure and weigh him.  But as I cast a few more times, I found myself just staring at this beautiful fish swimming next to me the whole time.  It was something to see.  He continued to thrash and pull me around -- just now, he was attached to my stringer.  I picked him up on two occasions, and noticed he had unhooked at least one of the clasps in his mouth, by his constant twisting and running.  I was thankful I had the foresight to clasp him numerous times.  He would only get away if he broke the clasp holding the stringer to the kayak -- which is always an outside possibility....
A happy way to commute home on a Friday....  With the biggest striper we've caught in these waters....  Sorry, Mike.  Now I have both the largest drum and the largest striper we've caught here.  Thanks for the phone call.

We fished a few more minutes, but realized we had caught lightning in a bottle.  It was time to go home.  When we got to the shore, we measured and weighed the two beasts.  Mike's was 26 inches, 6 lbs. 9 oz.  That is one hefty! fish.  It had a heck of a gut on it, and would make a fine meal.  Mine measured 30 inches, 8 lbs., 1 oz.  A beautiful fish, indeed!  We were both thrilled.
Mike holding the reason I went up to join him for 30 minutes -- a nice, fat 26", 6lb. 9oz striped bass -- which, for the moment, until he called me, was the record for our stretch of the river that we fish....
Holding my 30", 8 lb. 1oz. striper for a photo, right after coming back to shore.  Notice the dress shirt under my jacket.   (At least I left my tie and loafers in the car.)  Caught on my first cast, I'm not sure I'll forget about this guy anytime soon....
I went back to Mike's, got cleaned up, got the fish smell off my hands, so I could dress and dress up again, thanked him for calling me, and I went home.  But before I left, we both laughed again at our good fortune.  I think I was smiling all the way home.  What a way to spend 30 minutes on my commute!  I brought home no fish, but I had a heck of a memory and some photos.  Timing is everything, I thought, timing is everything.

The next day, I wanted to get out there again, to see if good things can, indeed, happen in threes.  High tide was at about 3:00, so there was no point in really trying to fish until around 4.  The weather system had finally pulled away out to sea and to the north, so the tide was still slightly higher, but there wasn't much wind.  And the current just wasn't moving the way it had been the previous two days.  But it was a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon, so why not give it a shot.  We got out there, but the fish were just not around that day.  The sun set at 5:00, and I thought the fishing would pick up around then.  In fact, I thought it would be ideal.  Two hours after high tide, and sunset?  I couldn't have asked for better conditions -- at least on paper.  But what you think should happen, and what actually does happen in the real world can be very different.   And the current just never got moving very strongly that evening.

So Saturday wasn't a day that fits my thesis.  I still believe it to be true, however.  It's just not fool proof.  And I'm sometimes still the fool.

Because just in case I was getting a little too much "hubris" from all my success lately, Dennis and Jenny also went out fishing Saturday.  They hit the Lafayette River in Norfolk.  They proudly let me know they caught a mess of puppy drum, including  four keepers.  And a speckled trout.  I, on the other hand, got skunked.  But I did watch a beautiful sunset on the water, as the sky turned orange, pink, and lavender; and the sun set the water on fire until it disappeared behind the trees and beyond the horizon.
So I don't catch fish every time I go.  But when this is the scenery I'm viewing, do you really think I care too much?

Then, when it was dark, I admired the crescent moon directly overhead, and the various planets and constellations appearing all around me -- on a clear, crisp, cool November evening.  I startled a blue heron, as I was drifting along near the grasses on the far riverbank, and heard him squawk irritably and fly away, his massive wings rustling in the dark night air.  Meanwhile various other waterfowl called to each other, settling in again for the night.  All was then quiet and peaceful.  And I took another moment to admire my surroundings.

I looked on shore, to one of the large homes on the river, and saw a huge widescreen television on, facing a picture window towards the river.  A figure passed in front of the t.v. and sat down to watch it.  I smiled to myself.  They didn't know what they were missing.  I'll take getting skunked on the river, on a beautiful evening like this, anytime over what ever's on television.  Then I paddled back up the channel, cast again, and allowed the current to carry me back to the mouth one more time.  Because it can always be that next cast when you say,

"Fish on,"


EPILOGUE:  Of course, the day after I posted this, Mike went out kayaking, just when the tide was starting to get "right", and on his first cast, in the flats near where I caught my monster, Mike hooked into a monster of his own....  He sent me this picture as proof.  So he now claims the record for our section of the river.  He measured the fish when he hit the shore, and claims it was 31 inches.  I'll have to take his word for it.  Fishermen don't lie... do they?  Congratulations, Mike.  For now....  But I'll be back -- when the tide and time are right, again.
I do have to admit, this fish appears bigger than the last "lapdancer" he sent me.  Dagnabbit!  I gotta get back out there and catch a bigger one, now.  That's a challenge I'll happily accept.  Good job, Mike.

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