I learned an important lesson this past fall. The fact that I’ve learned this same lesson numerous times over the 20 or so years of my more focused fishing energies in no way diminished the jolt of the realization. My old friend and fellow deckhand Keith Reynolds used to punctuate his “fish school” sermons on the steam from Connecticut’s Thames River out to the grounds in the Race with this line: “If you want to catch a lot of fish, fish a lot.”
That’s not the whole lesson, and the phrase needs some further explanation, but the notion is pretty central to what I figured out in October and November. Like most eureka moments, my latest drew much of its power from a discouraging stretch of fishing limbo that preceded — and on some level underwrote — my subsequent discovery. For almost a month, stunned by how quickly I’d run out of season, I made frantic plans with friends to sandwich fishing trips into the dwindling remainder of the season’s civilized weather. But if you know anything about the impact of Murphy’s Law on firm fishing plans, you can guess how many of the former harebrained schemes reached satisfactory conclusions.
For three weeks or so, as I scrubbed trip after trip and descended into a soul-crushing funk — and wallowed away whole afternoons toggling between NOAA’s marine forecasts and the data buoy observations — I finally managed to shake free a few days before the new moon in October. I turned my back on the docks, dug out my copy of Eldridge and retreated to the mildewed confines of my basement to take stock of my diminished cache of surf-fishing gear.
Although I’m lucky to know some of the Northeast’s foremost surfmen — serious striper guys who do most or all of their impressive catching with two feet planted on substrate — I have never had the nerve to identify myself as a surfcaster, not so much for lack of time shore fishing as for my utter lack of the discipline, patience, work ethic and personal hunger that are common among above-average casters. I’m a boat guy.
But thanks to a mix of guilt over time I’d squandered, a love for winging plugs into the night surf and a conviction that some fishing knowledge holds up no matter where, when or how you practice the craft, I managed to launch myself out of the living room and fire some minimal gear into the car. I followed the pull of a tide to one of a handful of solid spots not far from home that I’ve chosen to learn over the last two decades.
What made this late-night rambling significant was the need to offset all the prime summer fishing I’d blown through laziness, complacency or actual adult responsibilities.
I’m a fish writer, I said expansively as I whooshed past my wife lugging the 40-pound backpack that contains the debris field of my surf gear, then ducked out the front door, muttering something along the lines of I’m not doing this because I want to but because I have to …
If I paused momentarily before I banked left toward the car, I could feel the draft from the force with which Sarah rolled her eyes.
Luckily, the tidal river I hit the first night out held a huge plug of baitfish. It surrendered, over two hours, a handful of fish, including a respectable striper of 32 inches. Heeding my own advice, I called it a short night, left the fish biting and vowed to return the next night.
The following evening I returned and stuck another few bass, and lost a better fish to a pulled hook. Growing frustrated with my cast placement, but determined to slug it out, I dragged myself back to the car and meandered toward home, checking two other spots on the way, neither of which showed much promise. I muttered the old refrain as though speaking the words would etch them into my conscious mind: Don’t leave fish to find fish, Zach.
I fished every night that week, including one wee-hours session with a screeching west wind driving 25-degree air into my very bones. I chipped away at fish every outing, took a good one about every second or third night — all in the one spot — and never saw another soul.
As striped bass stocks constricted during the past five to 10 years, fishermen of all stripes have lamented the downturn — but none more emphatically than surfcasters, who have felt the worst impact on catch rates as forage receded farther offshore, stripers in tow, some have argued, in search of cooler water. Over a decade, the surfcasting ranks have dwindled, setting off a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: Fewer fishermen have caught fewer fish and reported poor odds, discouraging newcomers and keeping attendance to a minimum.
As fishing effort has continued to taper off, reports have followed the pattern. This fall, it was delightful but eerie to find weeks of consistent action without another soul around to witness the developments.
Another trend I’ve observed for years is that the guys catching most of the fish tend to be the guys least concerned with what everyone else is or is not catching. During what grew into several weeks of steady, nightly catching, I felt no need to consult the Internet boards or reach out to my contacts to compare notes. Had I done so, I would have learned that the majority of my friends had been spreading doom and gloom. Knowing what everyone else is doing seldom does good things for your resolve; you’re usually better served to keep your efforts pure by practicing the dying art of silence.
There are two more important concepts tied up in my three-week streak. For one, the two places I worked lie within a 10-minute haul of my driveway. At a time when many seasoned surfmen push to expand their geographic reach to cash in on far-flung “local” runs of bass, logistics are costing them frequency. This ultimately gives them a limited grasp of the overall movements or shifts in feeding behaviors that can only be picked up by hitting that shot of fish every day. A lot can change in one night, especially during autumn migration; if that night’s the one you stayed home, distance might well cost you the next week of feeding fish.
Consider, also, that although you’re learning every time you fish, you’ll learn the most and the fastest when you stay with a given body of fish long enough to pinpoint feeding patterns or small-scale movements within a tide. When you’re casting to fish you know are feeding, you have a prime chance to refine your technical approach, identify lures that cull out the bigger fish and so on.
Somewhere in all of this is a pretty fair snapshot of what separates highliners from the flatliners, though I’m not implying that three weeks of my own results somehow secured me ongoing sharpie status. That said, when you look at the top dogs in any port or along any run of beach and bedrock, it’s easy to make the case that for the 10 percent who catch 90 percent of fish, there’s much less luck, voodoo or innate “fishiness” involved than there is common sense or, better yet, a work ethic that spurs them on every time they see a new opportunity to, as another old salt-of-the-earth line goes, “make hay while the sun shines.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.