When casting plugs into the kitchens of giant stripers we usually only get one chance to fool them.
He smiled and nodded his head. Was that the “go ahead signal?” He nodded again but I couldn’t pull the trigger. I never edexpected him to offer me the first cast. That was not the way it worked, but there he was changing the rules.
“Go ahead, cast,” he urged. I bent over to check the snap on my plug, then began to pull up the straps on my hippers. He smiled. “We’ve only got two hours.” my casting partner laughed, “the rod is in your hands, now snap that plug out there so we can catch a few fish before it gets too dark!”
I’d like to report that I made that cast and caught a striper but as I recall all too vividly, the bail on my Mitchell reel snapped shut causing my plug to sail off into the abyss. Del raised his hands over his head in mocked disbelief, smiled and tossed me the identical twin to the homemade mahogany plug I had just liberated. He finally made the first cast and hooked a schoolie a few pops later.
I don’t remember how many fish we caught but everything over 16 inches was a keeper and the bloodied rope my mentor kept in his knapsack was heavy with the fish he dragged over the railroad tracks. There was a foul-smelling canvas in the trunk of his Plymouth, which covered a rusty Coleman cooler filled with ice that would cool our catch until he marketed it before work the following morning.
Walking down to a beach and launching casts requires a great deal of luck along with the acquired skills of a seasoned surfcaster. You can’t catch ‘em if they’re not there. The night of my permission to make the first cast was a combination of luck and experience. That was not a random location, it was prime habitat because it was situated on a rocky shoreline where a natural freshwater seep ran down the hill and was piped under the railroad tracks; it had previously eroded in heavy rains, and crumbled onto the rocky beach. I have always looked for and had much more success at locations wherever a seep, freshet or stream emptied into saltwater.
Apprehension & Opportunity
I’ve taken numerous first casts since that evening over 60 years ago, enough so that the apprehensions should have faded from my memory, yet every first cast presents a unique and promising opportunity. We never make those critical first casts just anywhere; we only work into productive habitat and always expected a response to our investigations of those choice striper ambushes. I can recall un-racking my rod and hefting my plug bag over my shoulder while my two companions made a mad dash toward the surf, to make the first cast. I can’t recall many, if any occasions when my much more deliberate approach cost me a fish.
The best fishing was seldom at the last stop at the parking lot, which was usually occupied by groups of surfcasters, so I walked a few hundred yards down that, ankle spraining, cobble beach to the only submerged boulder within casting distance and usually had that area all to myself. My friends were so anxious to splash a plug they didn’t even consider location. Back then I was using a slick Penn Squidder that my friend Russ had “tuned” up and lubricated with a special military grease. Loaded with Ashaway’s finest Dacron line I could reach out another 15-yards which occasionally was the difference between aggravating my rotator cuff and hooking a fish.
After years of studying a 12-mile stretch of striper habitat from a rocky perch I began working these productive waters from my first little bass boat. I had watched and learned from high-line fishermen who had no idea anyone was watching them, cast into select boulder fields and battle hefty stripers. I was always careful to approach choice locations quietly and cautiously place my first cast behind their lie. If I missed and dropped a plug on their heads, I knew they were spooked so I moved along to the next section of prime habitat, waiting for the previous area to settle down. Those early experiences along my bass routes had motivated me to adopt certain criteria for the few men I permitted to share my deck.
Prior to entering a prime location with an angler I’d never fished with, despite their assertions of being an accurate casters I would take them to a preliminary spot and give them a target to put their lure into. Depending on how accurate they were, determined whether they would be granted the first cast or stand by and watch me put a surface swimmer just over or alongside what I knew to be a striper’s kitchen. I’ve watched some men who could put a plug in a bucket at 35 yards and a few others who couldn’t hit a breakwater if they were standing right in front of it.
More than a few of those accurate casters were overwhelmed with a bad case of BASS FEVER when the boil of a striper appeared behind their lure. Eyes bugged out, hands sweated and stopped reeling, while a few others yanked and skidded the plug away so fast a bluefish couldn’t keep up. The urge to do something, not necessarily the most advantageous moves, cost them a fish. One close friend could put a plug exactly where I indicated but when a fish appeared behind his lure, the pressure occasionally became too much for him and he came unglued. If the fish struck we were in business but if it followed, boiled, or slapped in an unconvinced manner he would panic and yank the plug away. He could not help himself. I began to place him in the starboard aft quarter where he could turn sideways from his lure until a fish muckeled onto it. We began to refer to those specimens as suicidal stripers.
When It Counts
There is a great deal of satisfaction as well as pride in watching someone who had the process down pat. Nick became a striper addict as a kid and went on to become a very successful charter skipper. He not only survived, he prospered and in the lean times he and his family never missed a meal of healthy marine protein. I was well aware of his lineage but his first cast that early August morning years ago sealed the deal. I idled up to a roiling ledge and suggested he toss his Danny-style swimmer over and to the right of the backwash while I held the boat in place. He stepped forward, poised, and leaning into the casting basket, launched the first cast of the day into one of my most productive pre-dawn bass haunts. It’s a shallow wash, usually barren after the first hour after sunrise but it has been deadly pre-dawn and after dusk. The plug hit and was moving seductively in one easy motion. The wooden imposter had just cleared the milky wash when a manhole cover sized boil emerged behind it. Nick twitched and coaxed the plug, gave it a slide and a bit of a chug. The cow ate it.
Charlie had made that same approach with me hundreds of times so you might assume he was prepared and comfortable, he was anything but. He was overcome with nervous excitement. He knew the first cast was his as I made my stealth approach toward a group of boulders we called the Two for Five. A name he assigned a place where five fish hooked seldom resulted in two fish on the deck. He squirmed, shuffled his feet on the non-skid surface and, nervously rubbed the cork butt in his left hand before turning to me for the signal to launch.
After 60 years of casting into gnarly habitat he was aware that dropping a plug on an old dame’s head would send her bolting out of her hide and remain suspect or entirely uneasy for the rest of that morning. I make my approach as quietly as possible, no noises, shadows or talking. We usually only get one opportunity at these great fish which by – their advanced age – have seen it all, so I prefer to get by and beyond their cover and wriggle the plug on either side of their hides. Think of this for a moment: if you were hiding in an ambush location and something exploded atop your head, wouldn’t you bail out of that place in a heartbeat?
Charlie Cinto was a man who had bested a 73-pound bass under challenging and treacherous conditions. Despite the fact that he had caught many trophy stripers on his own, before adding the numerous 40- and two 50-pound plus bass he caught with me, he was always cautious and extremely accurate in placing his casts, because he never took our routine for granted. I am the first to admit that I am not a patient individual yet when it comes to planning how to outwit stripers I shift into the opposite mode. Although a T-Top would be comfortable and allow me to store additional electronics and gear, I choose not to have one. When stalking in the stripers’ hazardous environment I never leave the helm. I cannot afford to lose touch with the wheel and throttle, so I make my casts from the narrow space between the console and my rocket launcher. I can cast to either side but prefer, depending on conditions, to cast from the starboard side with the wheel turned hard to port. Under those controls, as soon as I hook a heavy fish, I can engage the throttle and be heading out to deeper water in seconds. You never want to be caught abeam of a sea when working in these gnarly areas.
Over the course of the last few years the editor of this edition, and his friend Dave have missed connections with me to fish the place that God created for stripers. Both are striper aficionados and proficient casters that I want to introduce to these environments and record the event. Perhaps this summer might be the time. Standing by!