Fishing—surf fishing in particular—comes with a long list of inherent dangers. Pitting man against nature and the elements, there are bound to be times when even the most cautious among us gets in over his or her head.
Block Island’s North Point, in my opinion, is the most dangerous fishing spot on the Striper Coast. Currents collide on a finger of sand that dips into a dark and deep sand bar with green water on both sides. Water flies through there and water on both sides of the sand finger is fast and deep. It’s worse if there is a sea running. The waves clap right where the finger of sand forms. I have been there and seen it in the daytime. In spite of the good fishing that commonly occurs there, you would have to think carefully about going there at night. In 1980 Block Island regular, Ben Lubell, was pulled in by the North Point’s dangerous tide rip while fishing there with friends who found his body a few days later. They were powerless to do anything to help Ben, as the current was just too strong. That rip at Sandy Point is no place for beginners.
Around that same year while fishing with my wife at Chatham Inlet on Cape Cod, I drove into eleven feet of water at high tide in a vicious current that carried our beach buggy into deeper water. Driving with my headlights out so as not to scare the stripers that were passing the inlet, the sand and sea were at the same level making it difficult to discern their separation. No matter how well you can swim, if your vehicle doors are welded shut by the water pressure you are not going to get out. There is something degrading about hurrying out the window of your buggy.
One more example so that you are sure to get my point.
Thirty years ago, while steelhead fishing in Pulaski, New York in February, I was fighting a decent steelie that was taking line from my reel like the Boston girls had the tow rope. Really into it, I was concentrating on the fish and how poorly I was doing in the fighting. I had no idea that they were releasing water upstream in Altmar which is a routine event during periods when the reservoir is full. The river got deeper and the current got stronger and I was getting nowhere. Still, at the time I did not know that was happening; it took the realization that I was at the top of my waders to drop a clue that the Salmon River was rising, causing me to lose my footing. Then one of the regulars there, who could see that I was in trouble, splashed out and grabbed me pulling me to shore. He saved my life.
With three of the above examples, I want you to get the idea that it was current that did or almost killed us. There are other things that make fishing risky.
Part of the problem is that fishing commonly distracts us from the very things we should fear. Ben Lubell at North Point and Mister Smarty, me, were overly involved in the fishing. Good fishing, and especially good fishing, takes one’s mind off what should be protective fears. Blitz fishing, or even its promise, has a way of dulling our common sense. It’s not the boring ho-hum nights in the striper surf that will take you down; it’s the good fishing that robs you of attention. We’ve all been there.
Fishing in darkness is no help and putting a light on the striper surf will have the rest of the gang getting in line for a chance to punch you in the nose. That’s one reason why I drove into Chatham Inlet that time I just mentioned. Teaching by example that night is how I drove into the water.
Intimacy with tidal movements is necessary for those who want to live until daybreak. It’s not enough to know chart high or low tide; one has to know local tide issues. For instance, you could be fishing on a bar near an outflow and see water falling from an estuary causing you to believe the tide is dropping when in fact water in the front is rising from the sea tide. Then that crossing which challenged the top of your waders is now six inches over your shoulders. (Hope you brought your rubber duck.)
Big water from an offshore storm pushing white foamers, the good vibrations that the Beach Boys used to sing about, can push you in then grab you while you’re trying to regain your balance when that monster wave is taking you out to sea. (There is a listing of funeral homes in our index for those surfmen.) You have to be thinking about what might happen all the time. Worse, you have to overcome the excitement that has you there in the first place. Good fishing, good conditions, intimacy with a spot born out of too many years, too much confidence, too many fish caught too many times. It’s the experts with all that experience that get killed; the Lubells, or the Daignaults who know a spot like the back of their hand who make all the mistakes.
Another surf hot spot that has claimed a few stripermen over the years is Narragansett, Rhode Island. Big water washing over those rocks, particularly during a southeast wind, sends walls of white boomers that will knock you flat. That is the easy part. It’s the slide back down the rocks that takes you out which none of us ever plans. Now you are out there and wave after wave is smashing you against the rocks. Then your best chance is to swim out. Then what? Ditto regarding Beavertail Point, some parts of Newport and countless other rocky stretches of the Striper Coast. The three big breachways of Rhode Island—Weekapaug, Quonnie and Charlestown—provide enough current to be dangerous. Charlestown has killed the most shore anglers because it leads in strong currents and big water. Makes you shudder.
Wetsuits and PFDs help in some of these situations; pity that more of us don’t wear them. There is nothing worse than an unplanned dunking. My first one was when I was seven years old having a tree limb crack while retrieving a devil spoon and drop in a pond; another time, when I was 12, I ripped the canvas bottom out of a kayak flooding it in seconds. The water was cold and I lost a nice fishing outfit; fishing can be risky.