Targeting the monster stripers

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Local angler offers tips on the techniques he’s perfected over 30-plus years of fishing

Each section of the Northeast coastline has its local pros — people who have landed some celebrated fish over the years and are known around the coffee and tackle shops. In eastern Connecticut, one of those folks is Sherwood Lincoln of East Lyme, now retired with his wife in a beautiful home in the woods after a career of chasing large striped bass.

Most of us prize the biggest bass of our lifetime. Lucky or skillful anglers might get a bass topping 50 pounds, the magic mark of achievement. Most of us will be lucky to get one or two that size in a lifetime of trying.

Lincoln, in 32 years of striper chasing, has landed somewhere between 58 and 62 giant stripers weighing more than 50 pounds, and one over 60 — a record equaled by few others. This is a short version of his story.

Prior to the early 1970s Lincoln spent most of his time casting lures and live eels for smaller striped bass into shallow water along the rocky shorelines of eastern Long Island Sound. At one point in his travels he saw or heard about people in the same area catching lots of bass over 30 pounds — for a living. These people were good enough to make an income from the water catching and selling their fish. Lincoln decided to follow suit and went into business for himself.

To target stripers over 30 pounds means channeling all of one’s energy into catching bigger fish and nothing else. Instead of a popper or small bucktail, Lincoln concentrated on using large, live bait — the prime way to fool old wary fish. In the beginning he used live mackerel, plentiful at times around the entrance to the eastern Sound. In one world-beater of a morning, he landed five bass over 50 pounds and a 63-pounder on the mackerel, live lining them on the south side of Fishers Island. That day alone will be a hard one to top. He caught more trophy fish in six hours than most people will get in a lifetime.

Over the years he’s seen the bait supply change drastically. Due to poor fishery management, mackerel are no longer available to the small boater/citizen/voter in the Northeast. In time, Lincoln turned to live herring in the spring followed by live bunker or eels in the summer. He would fish those along shorelines or drop them down on deep reefs with the aid of a three-way rig.

The rig gets its name from a three-way swivel used to tie the rig. You tie the line from your rod to one eye; on the other eye you tie an 18-inch piece of heavy mono with loop in the end for sinker. And, on the third eye, a 4- to 6-foot piece of heavy mono with large single or treble hook for the large bait.

The standard method of fishing the deep rig is to run up tide from the underwater hill that forms a reef. Once up tide, you drop the rig to the bottom then drift back up the hill and over. After clearing the backside of the hill, you start the engine and drift again. Keep in mind these are reefs down as deep as 80 or more feet, home to large bass. For every one big striper that was caught in 5 feet of water, dozens more are caught out in 50 feet.

I’ve watched Lincoln many times over the years and have come to the conclusion that he can catch large bass at will most days or nights. The method is that productive and his knowledge of the bottom terrain and his quarry that extensive. He can do this right through the bright sunny days of the summer, when most others are fluke fishing or chasing blues, or in the dead of night some cold, fall evening with full-moon tides coursing through the confines of the Sound.

In time, though, both the bunker and herring populations decreased from causes that are debated on all fronts. This caused another switch in bait: to live porgies. These silvery pan fish abound on our reefs in the summer and fall, not unnoticed by hungry bass. It wasn’t long before the bait well in his boat was filled with scup, as some call porgy, instead of the years-long standard of live bunkers landed in the pre-dawn hours with a length of gill net set in a coastal river.

(As a side note to the story and management issues, adult bunkers are once again returning to the waters of Long Island Sound after an absence of many years. It’s hoped management measures will bring the mackerel back but that issue remains very much in doubt given the politics involved.)

Lincoln set out on his quest with a single-mindedness. He told me over coffee one day that his season ran from mid-May through November, fishing mostly seven days per week, sometimes 14 hours at a clip. The average day was six fish and the average size for the first 10 years in the business was 36 pounds. Like I said, large live bait attracts large bass.

For 16 years he fished out of one boat, a 20-foot Sea Craft and caught a lion’s share of the trophies on just two rods. Since the 20-footer, he’s owned four other boats including his present, a Hydra-Sports center console.

Lincoln’s score of fish doesn’t include large bass caught in his boat by others. He doesn’t know how many other 50s (fisherman slang for a 50-pounder) were landed along with another 60-pounder. All the catching was done in a rough box starting off Old Saybrook, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, to Outer Bartletts Reef to Race Rock to the North Rip at Block Island to Montauk Point to Plum Gut and back to Old Saybrook.

The theme never changed over all the years: stick with large bait, either day or night, and concentrate only on the big fish; don’t get sidelined by smaller quarry. How often have we heard that general theme applied to business success?

In time, Lincoln quit the fishing business to co-operate a fishing tackle store. He eventually sold out to his partner and retired with his wife to the seclusion of the woods of eastern Connecticut, watching deer in his backyard from his kitchen window.

Today Lincoln still goes striper fishing, though he enjoys teaching others more than catching one himself. He has had to slow down some after a successful fight with lung cancer. To date he is cancer-free two years after going under the knife.

His present love is catching jumbo fluke in the same waters of the Sound where he caught so many large stripers. On a recent photo shoot with him, we landed eight fluke between 4 and 9 pounds in just under two hours on an ebb tide that let us tend bottom in 100 to 130 feet of water — far deeper than most people would fish for fluke, but the results were obvious. His biggest to date in the deep water is close to 13 and he is gunning for one over 15. My bet is that he will attain that goal.

Lincoln isn’t done yet. Though slowing, his love of boats, the water and fishing will carry him on through lots of fair tides, good winds and more trophy fish.

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for more than 30 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.