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

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

First Fish of the Year. (I Might as Well Stop Now)

Hey, look.  Finally a fishing post again....  Woohoo!

I had the pleasure of going out on a striped bass fishing charter boat out of Virginia Beach this past Sunday.  A friend called me up last week and asked if I was interested in going.....  Duh.

It wasn't confirmed until Saturday afternoon, because the captain wasn't going to go out with the group unless he was sure he could put us on some fish.  And while it's been an outstanding striper season in the ocean, it is starting to wrap up*.  In fact we were going to be the last striper charter of the season for him before he took his boat back up to the Northern Neck of Virginia, where his family runs a restaurant, and he does bay charters.

*(A number of citations - 40 lbs. and up - have been caught, and two new state records for North Carolina... a 63 pounder caught by a teenager, only to be outdone that same week by a man who caught a 64 pounder.)

Saturday I got a text message from the friend who put the trip together.  We were a go!  The fish were around Cape Henry, he had been told, so we were on.  Cool.  I got my cooler out, planned my clothes, and got excited.  I hadn't been on a charter boat in years.
Near the Cape Henry Lighthouse, where the Atlantic meets the Chesapeake Bay, is where the stripers HAD been the day before we went out....

Now it must be said that one of the reasons I don't go on too many charters, is that when it comes to fishing, I am hopeless left-handed.  Give me a spinning reel, and I can fish (or more specifically, reel) with the best anglers in the world.  Give me a right-handed bait-casting reel (which you reel with your right hand), and I look like a complete moron.  I just can't operate one.  It's why my surf fishing rods have all had spinning reels until just this past year, when my brother gave me a very nice Avet* left-handed bait-caster for an early birthday present, which I have thoroughly enjoyed using.

*(I'm absolutely going to give Avet Reels a free plug here, because there aren't too many manufacturers that make left-handed reels, and Avet does -- and they are made in the good ol' USA.  A great website to purchase them is  I should get sponsored for this blog, though...  Hmmm.)
Direct Link to left-handed Avet reels at

Anyway, the problem with charter boats, is that they cater to the masses.... and the masses of this world are right-handed.  Rarely will a charter even have ONE left-handed reel on its boat.  Trust me, I look every time.  It's like trying to find a left-handed guitar, left-handed golf clubs, left-handed catchers' mitts, and left-handed smoke shifters.  They might as well not exist!  I don't want to hear about racism....  If there is any prejudice in this world, it is against Lefties!  We are the ones who are truly second class citizens!  I could go off on this subject, but I won't.  Back to the story....

I got to bed that night, and set my alarm for 5:10.  I had to be on the dock ready to go before 7:00, and it's about a 45 minute drive to Rudee Inlet, and the Fishing Center there.  Of course, like a kid at Christmas, I was awake at 3:30, ready to go.  I forced myself to stay in bed longer, then showered, had coffee and breakfast, let the coffee work its magic, and was at the dock by 6:30.

The boat was the Anna Lynn, a 38 foot Bay Boat, captained by William "Duby" Lowery.  (A "Bay Boat" is what you would get if a "Dead Rise" and a "Hatteras Sport Fisher" were to mate -- kind of a mixture between the two.)  Anyway, it was plenty big for the eight of us that went.  Duby, his daughter Chloe Lynn (from whom the boat gets its "Lynn", Anna being his other daughter), and first mate, Billy were our crew. 

Here's a plug for them:

It was a beautiful morning!  Especially for the end of February.  We've had weather less predictable than ever (no, I will not say less predictable than a woman!)  One day it's snowing, the next day it's hot and sunny.  The next day it's windy, the next day it's calm.  The next day it's 40 degree rain.  We've had it all.  It's Tidewater.  One friend calls it "menopausal weather".  I like that.  Well, we caught one of the "hot flashes", because Sunday was going to get into the upper 60's.  Still, out on the water, where the water temp is 43, the air is cool, so you've got to dress in layers.  Especially early in the morning.

As we pulled out of the marina, the ocean was calm, but there were some nice swells.  We rode out to Cape Henry, and rode all around, without seeing the first fish "mark" on the radar.  Gannets were flying all around us, not helping one bit, so we went farther out, making sure we stayed within the three-mile limit*.

*(The winter striped bass season doesn't allow you to fish at all beyond three miles from shore.  Why the 3 mile limit exists, I have yet to hear a good reason to justify; but it's the law, so all recreational and commercial fishermen have to obey it.  Meanwhile C-130 airplanes, at $28,000/hour under the guise of "Homeland Security", fly above looking for lawbreakers that they can fine at $200/fish.  Grey Marine Patrol boats also cruise among the charter and private boats, checking for violators, as do "undercover" white boats.  And the Coast Guard protects us, too.  We saw both ships and Coastie choppers flying around us.)

TANGENT ALERT:  Since I sounded like I was venting a little there, I'm going to vent on something that happened not once, but at least twice this season.  And it was all legal!  In North Carolina, commercial fisherman have a limit of 50 fish that they can catch any one day, with their nets.  Now I know there are days when they can't find the fish, and their nets stay empty.  I get that.  I witnessed that around New Year's, when Mike and I went down to the OBX to try and catch a winter striper from shore.  Obviously, we had no luck, or there would have been a post about it.  But it was a beautiful weekend, none-the-less.  

We did, however, watch several commercial fishermen working their nets for several hours -- only to come up empty.  And the owner/captain still had to pay all those that helped him work the nets from shore.  So I get that.  But something happened that made all the regulations seem ridiculous.

Commercial Trawler Dumps 1000's of Dead Striper from its Nets    

This YouTube video (muted) became a media sensation locally and in N.C. when, in order to obey the law, a commercial trawler had to dump all the excess striped bass they caught, when their nets were full.  They kept the biggest 50 fish, and dumped the rest overboard.  Unfortunately, their nets had already killed the fish.  Was it legal?  Yes.  Is it a warped interpretation of a law that needs to be amended, so that this doesn't happen again?  Absolutely!  Because within a couple weeks, it happened again.  And the Marine Regulation Commission is worried about whether or not a recreational fisherman has his two fish per day?  Talk about being a penny wise, and a pound foolish!  That's absurd and obscene!

Thankfully, N.C. lawmakers are already on this, after the public outrage that videos like this caused, and they are looking to correct the law.  Whether commercial limits will be based on poundage, or number of fish for a season, or whatever, the commercial fishermen, the lawyers, and the representatives can all have their input.  All I know, is that if there are wastes like this ever again, there will be an outcry from environmentalists, recreational fishermen, charter boats, and anyone else who hates stupid regulations being taken to an extreme! 

Okay, I'm glad I got that off my chest.  I almost wrote a blog post a month ago, just about that absurdity in the law.  Anyone who knows me, knows I absolutely believe in being a good steward of our natural resources.  I want striped bass to be around not just for my kids, but for their kids, and their kids, and so on....  So now I can move on....  (Breathe, Dan, breathe....)  Meanwhile, back on the AnnaLynn....

As we had pulled out of the inlet, Billy took a deck of playing cards, and put eight of them on the table in the cabin.  Ace would be the first fisherman to grab a rod, 8 would be the last.  I drew the 4.  Now we just had to get on the fish.

Duby saw a group of birds on his radar that were diving.  (How he could tell that, I have no idea, but that's his job.)   We left Cape Henry and went towards the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  When we arrived there, we found gannets flying and swimming, and we were in only about 12 feet of water.  But there were no fish.  We cruised for a while, but never marked the first fish.  If they had been here, they were gone now.  Duby got on his radio, and heard that fish were being caught in the bay.  You can't keep stripers caught in the bay at this time of year, but you can catch and release.  We decided to go there.  Back past Cape Henry, and also past 16 freighters and tankers all lined up and anchored, waiting their time to enter the Chesapeake Bay.

We arrived "within the bay", even if we weren't inside the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, and we weren't alone.  A hundred boats, both private and chartered were zig-zagging their way through the freighters and tankers, looking for fish.  Billy cast several jigs overboard, including a couple of "umbrella rigs" that trolled the farthest out, and we joined the organized chaos.  We watched a couple boats catch a couple stripers, but the "feeding frenzy" that Duby had heard about on the radio was over.

He saw birds working the Eastern Shore again, and off we went -- again.  This time when we arrived, bunker (a.k.a. menhaden) were floating everywhere.  Dead or dying.  The gannets were "tornadoing" around and diving into the water, but they ignored the floaters.  They dove for the live ones....  Seagulls came and cleaned up the floaters.  Unfortunately, however, we realized that the gannets had just attacked this school of bunker all by themselves.  The water was shallow enough that they hadn't needed rockfish below them pushing the baitfish up.  A few miles away, Duby saw the same thing, again.  Birds diving.  Lines up again, and off we went. 

Once again, dead or wounded bunker were floating all around, while gannets and seagulls were swimming, diving and flying above us.  We continued to troll the chartreuse jigs through the baitfish without the first strike.  We were starting to worry about being cursed....
The staple food for much of the Atlantic fishes, and seabirds -- the bunker or menhaden.  There's nothing a big rock likes better than charging through a school of these oily fish.  (They are also commercially fished heavily for their oil.)

Did somebody bring aboard some bananas?  (Always a fishing no-no).  Negative.  Was there a "Jonah" on board bringing us bad luck?  Nobody would admit to it.  So what was the problem?  The clock was ticking....
Never bring bananas on a boat!  You will be cursed, and are guaranteed to NOT catch any fish.  I don't know why; it just is the way it is.

We thought we would be "limited out" and home before noon.  It was now 1:00 and nobody had even caught a buzz yet -- let alone a fish.  Remembering that I often hook a fish just after I crack open a beer, I opened my first can of the day.  Just then, the captain heard that the fish were down near the Carolina border.  It was a long way to go, but according to his buddy down there, THAT'S where the fish were.

A little after 2:00, and a catnap later, we were getting close to where the fish were.  I looked at Duby's radar and saw numerous flocks of birds -- each of them marking schools of striper in deeper water that we couldn't spook as easily as fish in shallow water. 

"This is called 'whack 'em and stack 'em'," Duby said.  "We're going to be trolling right through the school, and as the rods go down, grab them by your number.  Everyone else, stay out of the way."


A tornado of diving gannets was dead ahead.  We dropped the lines in the water, including the umbrella rigs.  As we approached the gannets we could see stripers working the surface, too.  They were everywhere!  Tails were swirling, fins were breaching... I got excited.

Suddenly, BAM!  "FISH ON!"  The Ace went and grabbed the rod.  BAM!  The deuce.  BAM!  The three.  And then BAM!  The umbrella rig rod went down.  I stepped up and grabbed it.

Oh $#%+!, I thought as I grabbed the rod.  The reel was stuck.  The handle wouldn't budge.  Did it need oil?  Was it rusted?  No, of course not.  I just can't do the motion of reeling and fighting with my opposite hands as easily as the way I've done it all my life.  I brought the rod tip up, and started trying to work the reel as I moved the tip down.  The rod just stayed bowed down and I had no success.  Of course, I realized I was a complete moron, anyway, as I didn't have the coordination in my right hand to try and leverage the rod and reel the way I needed to; but I just held on tight.  Maybe the fish would tire.  Maybe he would swim my way.  Heck, maybe he would jump on the boat, too.

Meanwhile the other fish were coming on board.  15 and 20 pounders were being landed around me.

5, 6, 7, and 8 all got hooked up.  The Ace, Deuce and 3 all got seconds, as did the rest of the group.

I kept fighting this &+#@%$ leviathan like an uncoordinated loser, wanting to turn the rod over and fight the fish with my normal grip and stance.  And then a horrible thought occurred to me....

When Parke and I had been in Alaska on our halibut charter, a couple from Pittsburgh were also on the boat.  The man was "Mr. Big Talker" the whole time, talking some serious "smack" as he watched each of us catch halibut 30 and 35 pounds.  (It was one of the few times there weren't just right-handed reels on the boat.)  I then lost one that the captain estimated was probably in the 80 pound range.   A teen-aged brother and sister, who didn't know much about fishing, also caught some fish in the 25 pound range.  Then it was the wife's turn.  She brought in a 25 pounder.

When it was the husband's turn, he fought his fish forever.  When he finally brought it to the surface the mate got his gaffe and looked over at the fish.  It was a flounder.  (Not really, but it was only a 10 pounder.)  He asked the man if this was one of the fish he wanted, because once he gaffed it, that was it.  The man nodded and said he was done.  He couldn't fight it anymore, and didn't want to fight anymore fish.  The mate gaffed it, as Parke and I snickered.  I think Parke ended up catching his second fish for him.

Anyway, the thought occurred to me that I might be this guy.  What if I was fighting this fish all this time, while the others lapped me.  And then when I brought it in, it was only a 10 pounder.  I prayed that wasn't the case.  I realized I was dealing with the rod that had the most line out -- a couple hundred yards.  And it was the goshdarn umbrella rig -- which felt more like a parachute in the water, I thought.  And, of course, the right handed reel.  That was rusted and unable to move.  (Okay, that last part wasn't true.)

One of the guys brought in a real nice fish.  A 29 pounder, off one of the shorter rods near the boat.  Because there were 11 people on the boat, we were entitled to keep 22 fish.  The mate counted the fish on the deck and in the garbage can, and the next shorty that was caught was thrown back to live, grow and fight another day.  There were two of us still fighting fish.  These fish would be 21 and 22 -- assuming mine ever came on board.

The captain put the boat in neutral, and we both finally started making progress.  The other guy brought in a beautiful 30 pounder.  Then I finally saw the flash of the umbrella rig in the water... followed by a large, broad, long brownish body -- its head still shaking side to side.

"Wow!"  One of the guys said.

"That's a citation," said Billy the mate, as the fish got closer.  "I'd bet on it."

He got the net and scooped up the fish.

Both my arms were shot.  My wrists ached.  My back was killing me, and I couldn't close my fingers anymore.  But I was smiling, as he laid the fish on the deck of the boat.  He got his scale and weighed it.

"44 pounds!"  A cheer went up.  It was a citation.  It was the biggest damned fish I've ever caught.

I grabbed a beer, and my fingers could barely open it.  We toasted our success, as the boat turned around and headed back to Rudee Inlet.  We had caught all those fish in 15 minutes.  Unbelievable.

The fish were put in large garbage cans on the deck, and they made the cans look like 5-gallon buckets.
Two large garbage cans full of rockfish, make for happy fishermen....
Then the mate said he would be happy to take our photo before he started cleaning the fish on the way back to the dock.  We all grabbed a fish.  (Of course I grabbed mine.  Dang, it was heavy.  Too heavy to hold while the mate took photos with everybody's camera.  You try smiling while holding a 44 pound fish for a few minutes -- right after you fought the dang thing for 15 minutes.)
See....  A bunch of happy fishermen.  Especially the 3rd guy on the left.
The mate cleaned all the fish but mine.  We needed to weigh it again when we got to shore, to have it certified.  I told him he didn't have to worry about cleaning it after that.  I wanted to take it home and show everybody before I cleaned it.

We made it to Rudee, past some surfers in drysuits enjoying the great swell, and took the fish to the scale.  It had lost two pounds.  (Which is not unusual for a fish this size once it is out of the water.)  It was 42 pounds.  I didn't care.  I was still thrilled.  I had my first citation fish.  My first "paper" fish.

My wrists, arms and back still hurt.  Even after a couple of Advil.  But I'm smiling....
We got the paperwork in order for the citation, (but I won't get the actual plaque for a year!) and I put the fish in my cooler with a bag of ice.  That was a joke!  It's massive tail stuck out of the cooler, by more than a foot.  But I just had to show this fish to a few people before I filleted it.  I took it to my In-laws and showed them.  That's when I measured it.  It was 48 inches long, with a 29 inch girth. That equated to a fish that was about 17 years old, I realized.  It could drive!  Wow. 

A four foot long fish.  Impressive.  Biggest "G--D---" fish we ever saw!", is what they said. 

I then took it over to Randy's and showed him and his family.  "When do we eat it?"  They wondered.  "Tomorrow," I said.  "Pecan-encrusted rockfish for everybody!"

Then, finally, I took it home, where I had one last photo taken before I turned it into lots of delicious fillets.
A tired, but happy smile.  On me, not the fish.  But that mouth could easily swallow our little Yorkshire Terrier.  And I'm not kidding....  Now it's time to cut the rockfish fillets!  YUM
When the butchering was over, I hosed off the blood and nickel-sized scales from my deck and had two massive bags of beautiful, cut fillets.  I put the carcass in my garbage can -- thankful that the garbage came in just 36 hours -- and got a long shower.

I went to bed that night, still feeling the rocking of the boat, and the memory of the day lingering in my thoughts.  It was my first fish of the new year.  How was I ever going to top that one?  Well, I've got almost 10 months to try....

It was a good day.  For once, I slept like a rock....  No pun intended.

Until Next time,
Fish on!

P.S.  As I finish this, I realize my arms and wrists are still "talking to me" from that fish.  I need to go get in shape if I plan on doing this again....