A fly-weight rod and some heavyweight fish

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As I brace my knees against the transom and adjust the “drop” between my rod tip and the little whip eel, I scrutinize the plot of water where it appears that a body of substantial bass or gorilla-sized blues has been erupting in the dim 3 a.m. calm.

The author has landed some impressive fish with his prized 7-foot St. Croix Ben Doerr Surf System rod.

Experience has taught me that it’s worth taking a quick pause to observe the fish, to look for a pattern in the surface activity and compose oneself before dropping the first cast into the thick of it.

I feel the thin cork-taped foregrip on my trusty 7-foot stick and quickly recheck the drag — dog it down slightly to get a bit more authority on the hook set that seems a foregone conclusion. A boil the size of a kiddie pool and then a powerful tail slap blow up in the subtle, boulder-strewn cove.

I laugh out loud as I start to run through a mental highlight reel of the many times between, say, ages 6 and 18 that I got myself into hot water throwing things. I remember drilling a cop car with a snowball; watching, half exhilarated and half nauseous, as my water balloon sailed into the passenger window of a passing truck; hitting a beautiful Down East boat on its mooring in Jamestown, Rhode Island, the sickening crack of a skipping stone connecting with fiberglass and gelcoat; and the Queen Mother of them all: winging a lemon off the roof of Finn’s Restaurant in the general direction of the boarding line that snaked around the parking lot to the Block Island ferry office.

Now, as I sling the tiny bass eel toward the wash, it occurs to me that here, at age 28 or so, it’s about to happen again. The bait, perfect casting weight for my lightweight stick, lands with a delicate “plip” in the center of the dissipating boil, maybe 10 feet outside the shoreline stones — the center of my intended target. The hair on the back of my neck bristles as I engage the bail and begin my first slow crank. As I try to visualize my bait’s track through the shallows, the little snake panics, swimming for its life and nearly taking drag. The hit a split-second later is jarring, like a thunderclap, and as I lean back on the fish, she erupts across the still surface in a shower of whitewater, then torpedoes toward deeper water. It sounds as if a professional wrestler is trying to put a sleeper hold on an enraged crocodile, and I accept the very real possibility that this is not going to end well.

For almost five minutes, my rod bends from tip to real seat, and I marvel at just how much pressure I’m able to put on the stocky fish with such lightweight gear. It’s not the first time I’ve felt this — I’ve whipped scores of fish way above the rod’s weight class — but my hands are trembling by the time I guide the fish toward my outstretched fingers, clamp my right thumb and forefinger onto her fleshy lower jaw and slip her over the transom into the cockpit. I estimate her at north of 25 but not quite 30 pounds, the largest bass — then or since — that I’ve manhandled with my trusty 7-foot St. Croix Surf System stick. I’m certain that I would have landed larger stripers on it, except that I use conventional gear almost exclusively when I’m drift-fishing in places where I typically encounter heavier specimens.

I bought my first version of the rod around my freshman year of high school, when almost all of the fishing I did was from shore — and at a point when most of the rods I’d been using were bigger and clunkier 8- to 11-footers. It wasn’t long before the slim 7 had taken over as my primary outfit. For one thing, although it was shorter than the others in my surf arsenal, I quickly discovered that my more compact one-piecer gave me much better control over lures I was retrieving with no big loss in my casting reach.

The fact that the St. Croix weighed next to nothing and fit my grip perfectly made it feel like a natural extension of my arm, improving my casting accuracy dramatically. That, incidentally, is a real issue for many novice anglers: learning to cast accurately, to get the right action out of lures all the way to one’s feet (where many fish will strike), to properly set a hook or to control a fish during a fight. It’s so much easier to develop these basic skills when you feel you’re in control of the rod and reel, rather than at its mercy (as I used to feel working small swimming plugs with a 10-foot clunker).

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By the time I started working on deck in the mid-1990s, I’d gotten quite good with the rod. Suddenly, though, most of the fishing I was doing was drift-fishing by boat, and the conventional gear on which I’d cut my casting teeth took center stage once again. I did plenty of surf fishing then, too, but it would be a few years before I took a job with The Fisherman magazine and started casting by boat with any regularity.

Over the last 10-plus years, I have used my St. Croix to target almost every species, from fluke and black sea bass to false albacore, mahi-mahi, even football bluefin tuna. Having used this stick for 20 years, give or take — I’m only on my second rod, but I’ve blown up maybe a dozen reels — I have pushed it to its absolute limits and now have an intimate and fairly exact understanding (by feel) of how much power I can get out of the setup. I’ve learned, among other things, that a rod’s stated pound-test ratings are, at best, loose guidelines. With each passing year, rod-building materials deliver exponentially more power at a fraction of the size and weight.

And contrary to the marketing that suggests we all need 25 highly specialized, purpose-built rod/reel setups, the truth is that in the equations of fish-fighting power, familiarity with one’s gear will increase dramatically the amount of hurt that gear will put on fish. Over many seasons, the little St. Croix — a virtual antique by present-day standards — has been my proverbial knife of choice in hundreds of piscatorial battles, and I’m continuously surprised by how often, fighting way above its weight class, the little stick and I prevail.

After years of railing against the sins of too-light tackle in catch-and-release trophy hunting, I’ve begun to realize that, relatively speaking, almost all of the gear I use these days is “light” tackle. The problem — not a new one, exactly — isn’t the gear but the folks wielding it. Accordingly, one sure-fire way to improve as an angler will be choosing a rod or two that fit you nicely, using them constantly and making it a point to push them well past what you think they can handle. Over a season or two, you’ll be surprised by how much power they — and you — can deliver.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

October 2014 issue