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NIGHTMARE ON A JETTY

A brush with death provided this surfcaster with a whole new perspective on the dangers of chasing stripers from slime-covered rock piles.
By Steve Bunai
NIGHTMARE ON A JETTY
A brush with death provided this surfcaster with a whole new perspective on the dangers of chasing stripers from slime-covered rock piles.

As I parked my buggy in our secret “parking lot,” I caught a glimpse of the red Cherokee tucked into the northwest corner. No fancy cooler rack, no custom rod racks, just a lone PVC pipe screwed to the front bumper. That was John’s truck and despite all of the big bass to his credit, you'd never know it by looking at his buggy.

As I stepped from my buggy, the roar of the surf coming from beyond the dunes surprised me. With little wind over the course of the week, I reasoned that the southeasterly set was courtesy of a tropical storm far offshore and down the coast. The previous night’s surf had been gentle, making for pleasant conditions as we fished a few of our favorite groins on this late October night in 1987. The first two drew blanks but the third was the charm. In between taking turns dropping a couple of big fish, we landed some beefed up schoolies. These days they're generally referred to as keepers. It used to be we just called them “10 to 12-pound fish” or “fat schoolies.” Occasionally, they served as dinner. While trudging our way back up the beach and lamenting the loss of two good fish, little was said about the next night’s plans. I knew he'd be there and he knew I'd be there, but I planned on throwing him a curveball and beating him to the spot for a change.

It wasn’t meant to be. I placed my hand on the hood of his jeep and it was cold to the touch. No telling how many fish he'd already nailed. I hurried to suit up, reaching past the two wetsuits hung neatly in the back of the pick up, then pushing aside the splash pants and deck boots, and instead choosing the Red Ball Waders to keep me warm and dry. Nothing could beat waders for comfort and versatility, I thought. Sure the splash pants would be safer should I fall in, and wearing them had been standard issue among most jetty jockeys but they were fast becoming out of style on the beach and these days were only worn by fish cleaners and cod fishermen. Besides, through countless tides of rock hopping I'd developed a confidence that I could plug this jetty for a couple hours without making any mistakes.

With each westbound step I took, I told myself safety was my main priority and not to allow the excitement of feeding bass cloud my thinking. Five minutes from the jetty, a light appeared slowly working its way from the middle of the rocks toward the beach. If John was dragging a fish towards shore, I knew it had to be a good one. Reaching my destination, John had already released that one and reported setting free two more in the low thirties.

Through countless tides of rock hopping I'd developed a confidence that I could plug this jetty for a couple hours without making any mistakes.

As I approached the jetty, John offered "Steve, it's rough out there - be careful!" I took a quick note of the sets of 4-foot waves pounding the jetty and waited for my chance. It was a two-part journey to reach the tip, which was the most productive part of this rock pile. The first 60 or so feet was high and dry and was easily negotiated before coming upon a 20-foot-wide breach. It was mostly underwater, save a scattering of large rocks which were used to access the tip. A new pair of creepers provided the necessary traction to hop safely across the wet boulders, bringing me to the breach. It was all that separated me from a school of 30-pound bass that had shown a penchant for smashing 7-inch Bombers. A quick glance at the rollers, a deep breath, then I hopped onto the first rock, then the second. One more and I’ll be in the relative safety of the tip. While gathering my wits and sizing up the third and final rock of the breach, my concentration was broken by a loud roar, building in volume and coming my way. Looking up, I saw a set of 4-foot waves bearing down on me. I braced myself for the inevitable as I was about to catch the full impact and the only thing keeping me from being blown into the Atlantic was my ability to stay on this small, slick triangular shaped rock!

Amidst an explosion of white water, the first wave hit, leaving me wobbly and still on the rock, but not allowing me to regain my balance before the second wave hit. This one knocked me off of my perch, leaving me waist high in bubbly soup, a rod’s length away from the jetty. The strategically located sandbar would be my salvation, or so I thought. Clinging to the seaweed-covered boulder and struggling to lift myself to safety, I heard that now all too familiar roar as an eye-high set of rollers rumbled down the side of the jetty. Tightening my grip on the slippery rock, I braced myself as the wall of white water hit and swept me away from the groin, leaving me disoriented and struggling to rid my lungs of cold, salty brine. As my senses crept back, I realized my situation had taken a serious turn for the worst. I tried to remain calm while being kept afloat by the air trapped in my waders as I attempted to dog-paddle back to the jetty, but I was getting tossed farther away by the incoming waves. Feeling like a bobber at the mercy of the incoming rollers and the backwash pulling me out, I realized the waders were hindering my ability to swim. I quickly unlatched the nylon dive belt, and as the cold seawater rushed in replacing the warmth built up by this exercise in desperation, I let out a gasp of air that was met by a torrent of seawater rushing down my throat!


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