Surf: First Things First - The Fisherman

Surf: First Things First

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Topwaters are a lot of fun, but they might not be the best way to score that first fish of the season.

Lure choice can dictate when you catch your first striped bass of the season.

I have a friend who takes great pride in (and goes to great lengths to be) the first person to catch a striped bass from local water. He starts fishing at least a week before he really feels like there’s any chance to catch one and he diligently fishes every day until he gets one. Seeing his car parked at his favorite spot has become a rite of spring over the 22 years that I have known him, and if my math is right, he will turn 79 this year.

So when the calendar page flips to April I begin taking periodic drives to see if he is there. And when I see his little Saturn parked in the lot, a car he loves for its resistance to saltwater corrosion, I know that spring is – officially – here to stay.

One year I went down and fished next to him before he had caught a fish and started casting. After the usual ‘how was your winter’ small talk, I asked him if he had caught a fish yet. “Not yet,” he replied, “but I’ve had a few swirls today, so I know they’re here!” He added cheerfully. The one thing I haven’t revealed is that Don really only uses poppers. This guy lives for topwater explosions and he really is the most effective fisherman I have ever seen with a Super Strike Popper.

The mention of swirls got my interest piqued and for the next hour we both fished various topwater plugs and, as he promised, we did see a few uncommitted swirls showing up behind our plugs. I stepped back to change lures, this time I tied on a Zoom Fluke threaded onto a light jighead. As soon as he saw that thing dangling from my rod, he chimed in, “There’s a nasty rocky ledge out there, you’ll probably hang up right away.”

He was right, there is an oyster bed out there and it’s as sticky as they get, but I was willing to take the risk given, that a Zoom Fluke and small jighead cost maybe $1.50. Right away my friend became antsy as my diminutive soft plastic swam through the current. Jigging the bait softly I tried to feel for the slightest touches on the bottom so I could sweep it up and away from the snaggy shells. Cast after cast, I avoided the ledge but had no hookups. And my friend relaxed, just a little.

On my next cast, I allowed the lure to sink into the danger zone, hoping that a fish might take the bait before it contacted the ledge that marked the edge of the channel. Looking past the tops of the trees across the river, I tried to picture the bait and how it was swimming, I also tried to – psychically – guess the location of the ledge and pull it up and over. I hung the hook on the ledge and lost the lure. I heard Don breathe in to say something, but I shot a look over and he kept quiet… a silently satisfied “I told you, so.”

Undeterred, I tied another one on and fired it back out there, allowed it to sink back into the danger zone and replayed the same game, hoping to time it just right. After five or six casts, I started to feel like I had it mapped out. I’m a big fan of counting things down and I was giving the bait and 8-count and then a 10-count and then a 12—casting further uptide with each increase.

Finally, on one of my first 12-count casts, the jig swam along and felt the telltale thud of a striper sucking the bait in. I lifted the rod and life surged up the line, bucking the tip of my 8-foot schoolie rod. I landed the 20-inch striper and tried not to make too much of a big deal out of catching the first fish of the year. But I did turn to him and say, “That’s the first one of the year, right?”

He nodded slowly and quietly uttered, “I’d rather catch ‘em on top.”

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