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Forty years of big fish and salty tales

Among a lifetime’s worth of trophies are a 551-pound dusky shark, 54-pound bass and many great sunsets

Among a lifetime’s worth of trophies are a 551-pound dusky shark, 54-pound bass and many great sunsets

Put a school of fishermen and fisherwomen in a room, lubricate sparingly with a cold brew or a cocktail, and I’ll bet you’ll soon hear stories galore about big fish. Nothing loosens tongues or turns heads quicker than talk about the better days of one’s angling avocation. This writer is no exception.

Thanks to knowing lots of good anglers the last 40-plus years, and hitching rides on their rigs to write stories, I’ve been able to experience some of what our oceans have to offer.

Some 35 years back, Capt. Dick Chatowksy, Sr., took me out of Snug Harbor, R.I., for a taste at big game angling. After stopping for live mackerel around Block Island, we continued southeast out beyond my normal range, there to drop the mackerel in 30 fathoms, soon to have something about the size of my truck pulling back — or so it seemed at the time. Tethered to an 80-pound class rod with 12/0 Penn reel, mono heavy enough to pull a car out of a snow bank, strapped into a fighting chair, Dick coached me through a 551-pound dusky shark. This creature, to my inexperienced eyes, looked like several oil drums lashed together, teeth on one end, tail on the other. At first glance at boat side the shark was just shy of “5,000 pounds” as far as I was concerned.

A change in latitude

As time went on, following the well-worn road south of thousands of snowbirds, my friends and I ended up at Key West in the Florida Keys, enjoying 70 degrees in January and trying to figure out how to fool the finny critters there.

Back in 1990 three of us trailered a 20-foot Sea Craft to the SouthernmostCity, trying for tarpon late one afternoon off TankIsland before it was developed into Sunset Key.

Just prior to supper, something grabbed my 1-ounce pink jig at the start of the outgoing tide, pulled us off anchor, down the ship channel, pulling very hard against 15-pound line and light conventional rod. The tarpon was in control as we followed it past the Navy piers, an oncoming Navy ship veering out of the way lest we loose our quarry. To make a two-hour battle short, my friend Sherwood Lincoln put a lip gaff in the 141-pounder after dark about two miles from where we first hooked it.

Another friend, Capt. Pete Fisher, and his son, Eric, showed me how to rig a butterfish for tuna off Montauk at the time when stand-up rods were first making their trek to the East Coast after many years of success on the long-range San Diego fleet. Skeptics abounded in the Northeast at the sight of such small rods besting big tuna, but in time they were won over, including me with a 369-pound bluefin that trip. Subsequently, others upped that mark until today people are catching 1,000-pound fish standing up, not seated in a fighting chair.

Once the cold weather settled over the boatyards in the Northeast, it was time to head south again, trying for wahoo — something we’d only seen in pictures and on TV. Thanks to the late Capt. Wally Albrecht, we found a 66-pounder off the Western Dry Rocks at Key West; it was eating a blue runner live bait just at the transom.

Wally had the outboard started when the ’hoo took off on a blazing run against the 20-pound spin rod. The first rush was so fast the spool on the spinner was revolving but not seated on the drag washer. Luckily the fish stopped a bit, the spool cooled, reseated on the washer and we had drag again on the second, shorter run. Wally stuck a gaff in it; the fish destined for a prize in the South Florida MET tournament and today stands guard just inside the front door on my humble trailer.

Chasing stripers

No talk about big fish for Northeast anglers is complete without a paragraph or two on striped bass. This writer fished hard for 19 seasons, never going beyond the 47-pound mark despite some trips back in the late 1970s with live bunker that saw a load of bass in the back of some boats. Finally, the fish gods smiled on me and in two successive casts early in the morning of Nov. 18, 1984, got bass of 50-1/2 and 54 pounds on a 7-inch black needlefish plug on the west side of Block Island. The next year, almost to the date, my luck held after a long run through building seas along the island’s east side for a 67-pounder. Thanks for those should go to Steve Smith, an island native who took me under his wing to show me some of the tricks of the trade.

Pictures of the Key West catches always seemed to draw company — like the winter Capt. Bobby Wallace and myself were out off Sand Key lighthouse trolling very large live ballyhoo. Two sailfish came up at the same time, Bobby’s came off, mine stayed put, a 70-pounder on 12-pound spin that for years was up on the wall in the front offices of my last employer, The New England Fisherman magazine in Mystic, Conn.

Some of the encounters both south and north did not end happily, sometimes losing large mutton snapper to sharks prowling under the 25-foot Whitewater of Capt. Bill Oliver or separating us from a jumbo black grouper as we struggled mightily to clear it from a deep water wreck. The bait dropped down just prior netted a 37-pound black, that fish puny contrasted against how hard the lost one pulled.

After many disappointments with big groupers, the fish gods once again gave us a break. We landed a grouper that weighed 53 pounds gutted along with eight mutton snapper that averaged 16 pounds off Maryland Shoal during a postcard-like March evening. The only traffic on the water aside from my 23-foot Hydra-Sports was an ocean tug, a crewman waving as we pulled anchor to head home before dark after perhaps the best 2-1/2 hours of bottom fishing ever on our southern trips.

Big fish sometimes show up when you don’t expect them, like the 176-pound blue shark that grabbed a cod being reeled up from a wreck south of Martha’s Vineyard on a trip with longtime friend Captain Frankie Blount. Luckily we had a crew satisfied with lots of fish the day prior so they kindly consented to pull their lines up to let me walk around the 60-footer time and again until mate Teddy Tunes pulled the fish aboard, good enough on 15-pound line for inclusion into the 10 to 1 Club off the International Game Fish Association headquartered in Dania, Fla. The certificate for the fish is still up on my wall in my condo in Rhode Island though my days of pulling on sharks with light rods are probably over thanks to tendonitis in the left arm.

There is no doubt in my mind, people seek boats to garner life’s experiences, out for a great sunset, far offshore or just a short, right hand jog from the marina’s outside markers, all hopefully hooked up with the biggest flounder or tuna of one’s life. If not today, tomorrow or next week but it usually happens off and on during the time we’re allotted on this earth. Enjoy the water and may the Good Lord or the Force be you when the line comes tight.

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for more than 40 years. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.