Having successfully chased marauding pods of ravenous bass till sunset the day before, it made total sense for us to begin our hunt for dawn action in the same general vicinity. On board was Auggie from Philadelphia. Auggie is a nationally renowned mens softball pitcher, and has to truly plan his weekends in order to feed his fishing and softball lust. His spunky wife Danielle, who usually adds to the fishing festivities with her animated analysis of each hook set, was sitting this trip out due to a head cold. As we broke Barnegat Inlet and hung a sweeping left, we were met with light northwesterlies and a 2-foot sea. Checking the sounder time to time as we worked our way up to Island Beach, I noted the large masses of yellow and red blotches passing below us. For striper fishermen, these obvious schools of baitfish are worthy of pausing to fish because they often contain hungry bass within them. It was a difficult decision, but I wanted to get further north where I had left a great session the evening before. And with no discernible change in the weather pattern, the decision was made to continue north.
With the sun now touching the horizon and soaring gannets in full seek and destroy mode, we could see dolphins and whales in every direction. Giant masses of menhaden consumed the depthfinder as we snagged and sent our first frightened bunkers into the lion’s den about half a mile off the beach on weighted trebles. It was time to watch and wait. Sure enough, when the sun completely elevated itself above the earth’s contour, bunker began to shower and bass began to boil. Next to us, inshore of us, behind us, stripers chased bait into the air, creating a harmonious noise that is both exciting and rhythmic in nature. It’s a sight and sound that simply never gets old. Waiting, waiting, waiting, and then the liveliner function on Auggie’s Penn reel began to slowly, then more rapidly, click away as mono departed the reel. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi – boom! Firm hook set, standard drag engaged, game on! The 25-pound class bass led Auggie around the boat before being gently netted. And so it began, we spent the next 45 minutes taking turns or doubling down on striped bass up to 30 pounds within sight of Seaside Pier.
As we maneuvered within the fields of menhaden, it became evident that our hungry mammalian friends were thrilled to join the buffet. The whales that were once off in the distance were closing in and were often 30 to 50 yards from the boat. Four or five of the large mammals were working close by as they lurched, rolled, slammed their tails and blew fine, misty vapors out their blowholes as they gulped their forage. At times they moved in closer and disturbed our blitz fishing, and just when they seemed to be swimming up or down the beach they would literally double back in our direction. The action was still red hot when, out of nowhere, a hungry whale lurched and planted its head on the bow of our boat, pushing the boat backwards in the water! I hollered something inaudible and Auggie looked up from unhooking his latest striper. He could literally reach out and touch the barnacle-strewn head that resembled more a sea monster than a majestic ocean creature. It gurgled and exhaled a small helping of bunker and quietly rested its gnarly head on the bow. And curiously, it didn’t seem to be in any rush to remove itself from our vessel. Then, just as sudden as its arrival, the whale slipped back into the blue leaving us a little bit shaken and very, very fortunate. The whale didn’t press downward with its weight. Instead it pushed the boat backwards on the surface. Had it landed amidships, we’d have been thrown in the water, or the vessel would have capsized entirely.
The bass bite remained ravenous most of that day and the whales fed nearby just as readily. It is clear the presence of humpback whales on the striped bass grounds has increased in recent years, so captains and the 30- to 50-ton mammals will have to coexist. But encounters such as ours are bound to happen, since it is we who are the visitors in their watery world.
Oh, and the bunker the whale spewed into our boat? Being anglers we added all but one of them to the livewell. That one we let go. We figured if he could survive being inhaled by a humpback whale and thrown onto a fisherman’s boat, it had earned its freedom.