Return to the beach; and bring some bunker.
The day was June 11. I had been bass fishing for over a month now and had entered myself in the infamous Simply Bassin’ tournament on my stomping grounds on Long Beach Island (LBI). I had not fished much this late into the year, and quite frankly saw no point since it was a rather balmy day, and sunny.
There were literally no bass guys on the sands at this point of the low tide, and I had little thought that any good fish were still around. I was standing on a finger jetty looking south to a huge rip between myself and the next finger. I saw a guy walk up to the rip and toss a plug in. It turned out to be a friend and fellow fisherman, Ted Kamish. I waited for Ted to finish his toss session until he finally came up the beach.
“Teddy that rip looks insane,” I said, as he proceeded to tell me that he fished it (which of course I already knew because I was watching). As Ted headed up the beach with his plug stick, I decided to go get a bite to eat. Later, sitting in that local pizzeria, the rip stayed on my mind. I had already taken my waders off, but I wasn’t satisfied just leaving that rip with nobody fishing it. So I left the pizza shop, went back, and donning my waders and a couple bunker heads, I began my walk.
Heading up over the sands, I noticed that the tide was ultra-low now. It was 80 degrees, and sunbathers and swimmers were out in force. I scrambled down to the rip and what a rip it was; it was spitting out water like a 40-year-old washing machine. I hooked a head and tossed it directly into the turbulent tide. As I turned to gather my things and set up for a sit, the drag had begun spinning within seconds. I set up and immediately knew I had a good fish on. I thought of everything but a bass; perhaps a ray, a shark, or maybe something else. As I got control and the fish came shallow, I noticed its fin. It was a huge bass.
The tide was so low that the fish got hung up on the sand in between me and a large trough. I panicked. The fish was literally sideways now and flipped his tail up out of the water. I just tightened up and backed up the beach, pulling with all my might. The bass righted itself and swam right into the trough in front of me. I was elated as I got the bruiser bass up, the tourists now gathered all around me. I ran off the beach and up to the tackle shop where the big girl weighed in at 42 pounds on the nose, putting me into position to win the spring bonanza.
The Voices of Reason
Different times now; the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately cancelled Simply Bassin’ this season. And of course the new striper limits in 2020 mean those 40-plus-pound fish don’t meet the tackle shop scales any longer. But it’s not going to stop the hardcore casters from gunning for a catch and release trophy, and June is prime time to do so!
Striped bass fishing, for most guys, is an addictive ritual which began in their youth. Dedication and time in the water is obviously the intent in order to up your game on big fish. Chunking with bunker has been a staple of LBI surfcasters – as well as those in other shore towns – for years. It’s nearly turned into an art form for the wet-suit clad anglers who swim out onto the outer sandbars to toss a bloody chunk into waters that hold giant bass. I had fished the inlets, the bay and the beach front with bunker, and the bait soaker gang became known as the “bucket brigade.”
I fished amongst many old timers who would tell me, “You need to fish in June, the time when you get a run of bigger cows.” I once thought this was absurd; who fishes for bass during fluke season? As time went on, I gave June chunking a chance. I noticed first that there were literally no anglers on the beach other than those who had a lifetime of dedication fishing for bass. These were the guys weighing in big fish in the month of June. A good many of these sharpies used bunker heads, as bluefish and other small fish present in 70-degree water wouldn’t clean your hook of bait. As I began to pay attention, I noticed that the bigger fish were in fact coming in to be weighed in June, long after “the run” had gone through already.
However, catching big bass in June would prove to be a bit of a challenge for other reasons.
As the bite in May comes to a head and the usual run of solid bass begins to slow, so does some of the bait availability. Some shops will freeze up their bunker for the crabbing season and others doing their best to keep someone going out front and bringing bunker in. A lot of guys just freeze up some heads and use them when ready, but for me it’s fresh or none. Pristine bunker is a must when chunking, as old fish basically begins an oil breakdown, causing bunker to soften and lose its “bass appeal.”
A red bunker is a sign of age, and often way too soft to keep on a hook when smaller fish are present. Even though heads are a big bass favorite, a fresh head will undoubtedly out fish a frozen one all day long. So, finding fresh bunker or even going out and catching some of your own is going to give you the edge, no doubt about it.
As I got a bit older, I learned a few tricks for fishing in June. The beaches in June are alive with sun worshippers, swimmers and surfers, and finding a quiet spot to wrangle a big summer cow is a chore in itself. I would wait for a low tide and don some Korkers and access the finger jetties, both separating me from the summer crowd as well as giving me much better casting distance. I was laughed at one occasion as I walked down the beach with Korkers over my shoulder, but those laughs ceased quickly when guys figured it out. And when I was actually fishing the sands during high tides, I would never hug a finger jetty, even though the bass are there corralling bait.
I remember one day when a couple guys were fishing on the beach beside me, and these guys lost three big bass in a row as they thrashed up onto the fingers. I would find a nice hole or rip, but in between the finger jetties, giving me some time to tire the fish before he sought refuge on the merciless rocks. I also brought along two rods, setting one up with chunks, but always having a head out there as an offering. I also made sure that my braided line was not stretched and old, having been damaged and nicked from the prior bluefish run. I also used a good stout rod and fresh leaders, never taking any chances on losing a fish to lazy gear handling.
Additionally, I always use a fish-finder rig for chunking big bass. And I never deviate from using a leader that’s 18 inches long, no longer no shorter. After years of tossing chunks, I find that this is the perfect length to get a solid cast without it spinning or pulling the leader away from the weight. An 8/0 or 9/0 circle hook should finish off the rig moving forward; new laws to protect bigger fish from mortality and pending circle hook regulations coming in 2021 pretty much set that thought in stone.
The Moon in June
On a couple of occasions in the month of June, I fished under cover of darkness and this made things much easier. No sun bathers, no surfers. I remember one particular evening when I brought my son along on a night trip as he wanted to battle a big bass. We headed up and over to a popular spot on the north end, Coast Avenue, which had been the site of many, many big bass beachings. I stayed with my strategy of setting up in between two jetties, and told Jr. that I was going to go walk a finger, and he nodded.
As I got close, I saw another old friend Kevin. He said that he had lost a good fish by not waiting for the bass to get the head down. Setting up on a big June cow with a bunker head takes a bit of patience; I would never set up until the bass stopped, choked the head down, and made a second run. I knew about this the hard way, losing a few before I got it right. As I was talking with Kevin, I could hear a faint scream coming from my boy’s direction. I ran down there, and he had a gorgeous fish already up on the sands. It weighed an ounce or two under 40 pounds. As we got the fish and the gear and walked up the beach, I could make out Kevin, carrying a huge fish as well. We got there and Kevin said, “I waited this time!” His bass was a shade over 40 pounds.
Fishing for large cow bass in the month of June has become somewhat of a ritual for me, especially in recent years when bass fishing has changed so much. I still get out there on some balmy June days or nights and say to myself, “Nobody’s here, it’s hot, and why am I here?” And then I pull out that glistening blue bunker, hook it up, toss it into a good hole, and I remember why. I am there because it’s going to be my best shot at beaching the cow of a lifetime.
After all these years, I think back to those times walking off the beach alone, nobody ever even getting an eyeful of that cow. All that would remain is a drag, a big drag from the tail of that fish being toted off the sands. In 2020 of course, that big June cow has to be returned to the sea unharmed. My patience may very well reach new levels these days. I will no longer trip over my feet getting to that rod when it gets bumped; let the rod stake do its thing with the circle hook on a pickup. Of course, those finger jetties, they’re mostly gone now.
But I will still be there in June, when the big girls go through, and I will relish the new norm and do my part in letting those big bass swim for another day.