The stages of surf fishing explained.
Serious surf fishermen go through stages during their fishing life, but we all begin somewhere, and our starting point depends upon how the angler approaches the sport. For example, some anglers fish often and others from time to time. Some fish only with friends, while a few only want to fish alone. Some shun the idea of a club while others are drawn to them. Once in a club, some surf rats embrace competition while others never do, some are only interested in one species; usually striped bass, and some only want to catch trophy-size fish.
All of these choices are valid and part of the surf fishing scene, but how does an angler go about making such choices, and then how does one evolve within the choice? I think we could discuss and debate these choices and their evolutionary phases from dawn to dusk; and indeed, I’ve been part of many such discussions over the decades, but one area that no one seems to want to examine is the difference between a pure surf fisherman and a trophy hunter. Somehow, many surf anglers assume that one automatically goes with the other, but the truth is that sometimes the two go together and sometimes they don’t.
Much of this article is based upon my own experiences. That is, discussions, articles, books, contest participation, and my own evolution through a series of stages. Thus, what I’ve written is only my opinion. Although I began surf fishing with my dad at five years old at Jones Beach, I didn’t have much time to fish during my years at school. In fact, I spent almost 30 years going to school. Both the institutions I attended and the courses I took were difficult, as science courses should be. I concentrated on my education, and put surf fishing on a back burner. Eventually, I’d earned a terminal degree and there would be no more school for me. At this point, I began to think about long neglected activities and life goals—especially surf fishing.
What Comes After Dormant?
Surf fishing lay dormant within me for decades, but the spark was strong. So, after the scholastic hiatus, I decided to join a surf fishing club because I knew that fishing with more experienced and skilled people was a great way to catch up. After looking into a variety of clubs, I joined The High Hill Striper Club and inserted myself into a new phase. Although I had to “pay my dues” before becoming a bona fide participant, soon I had the privilege of fishing with some super surf anglers like Bob Krauss, Willy Young, Fred Schwab, and Bob Rance. I also enjoyed swapping stories and listening to impromptu “how-to” sessions with people like Jack Frech, Don Musso, and other well-known anglers, as I evolved through phase one.
What would stage two be like? To be clear, I made no deliberate phase choices along the way. Like most of us in our lives, things just happened to me, and when they did, I had a choice: participate or not. Since throughout most of my life I said yes to opportunities when they came along, I said yes to the opportunity to compete.
Indeed, competition is phase two in a surf club; although most clubs don’t require it for membership. For those of you who are unfamiliar with surf fishing competition, members of clubs are able to compete among themselves within a club, and clubs may choose to join the New York Surf Fishing Contest and compete with other clubs. The NYSFC is a prestigious contest that has been running since 1980, and locally replaced the defunct coast-wide Schaefer Brewing Company Contest. Most surf clubs embraced the new contest and were eager to participate in the NYSFC since intense sportsmen are typically competitive, and there exists a group desire to match “our guys against your guys.”
It’s all quite human and natural, but some anglers shy away from it. Since I’ve always been competitive, and was a member of a very good surf fishing club, I naturally wanted to make a contribution to my club’s ability to win the contest. Competition in surf fishing centers around catching qualifying big fish (of a minimum weight) for entry into the NYSFC on behalf of a club. Furthermore, each club is only allowed to enter ten fish per species (bass, blues, weakfish) per month, so if a fish is to count in the NYSFC, it has to be bigger than most of the other qualifying fish caught by fellow club members in that month. That’s how I was slowly lured into phase three and became a trophy hunter, in spite of the fact that I’ve always loved the surf and catching fish, period! All species and all sizes.
For several decades I fished with a small group of friends that worked together in the effort to catch only big fish of the three species. And it was great! I loved the comradery of the group, the team work, the discipline needed to achieve success, and of course, catching trophy fish. I loved being part of a small team within a larger one. In those years, High Hill did very well in the NYSFC, and it was usually our little group that made significant contributions to the cause. That’s a great feeling! I should note that The High Hill Striper Club continues to be one of the most competitive clubs in the contest, and won the overall competition in 2021.
Anyway, that’s how I became a trophy hunter. Certainly, I was still a surf angler, but in my big fish decades the sport of surf fishing was secondary to the catch. I thought only about how I could catch more big fish. Many years have passed and, although I still compete within my current club, The Traditional Surfcasters, I’m too old to compete seriously, and I’ve gradually moved to a new stage; phase four. It’s a hybrid of just fishing, mentoring newcomers, and a desire to catch big fish. As a result, I catch my share of big fish every year, but I don’t take the risks or make great sacrifices in search of big fish. I like to think I’ve re-evolved as my advanced years have broadened me. Today, I think mostly about the sport and the joys of standing in the surf with hopes of fooling a fish—any fish. But how did I make this last transition?
The Cycle Of Phases
The 1990s were the greatest years of surf fishing I’ve ever known. Striped bass recovered big-time from a precipitous decline in the 1980s, there were enough weakfish around to target, and big bluefish were very abundant. However, in 1998 I began to question who I had become as a trophy hunting surf angler. Was my intense passion solely about competition, and had the joy of fishing ebbed away from my core? The scientist in me naturally tested this, so I resigned from competition in High Hill. The guys weren’t happy about my decision, and I took some heat, but I had to have an answer: competition, fishing, or both!
I didn’t enter fish again until 2002 when seven of us from High Hill formed The Traditional Surfcasters, and by then I had my answer. Even without competition, the lust for surf fishing remained. My adrenalin flowed each time I hooked a fish, I still went fishing in the rain and wind, I planned every trip meticulously, my stomach still turned over as I drove past a great looking spot, etc. Happily, I concluded that the most important thing to me about fishing wasn’t competition, rather the joy of anticipating the catch and the fun of being immersed in Nature while catching fish. I had cycled back to the beginning when all I cared about was the sport and catching fish.
Process Over Results
I think when I was a trophy hunter, I focused on results to the exclusion of the joys of the sport. I was typically so focused on catching big fish that I sometimes didn’t realize what was happening around me, and that can be dangerous. So, in my dazed state, I let an 11-foot stingray get behind me without noticing. Had it spooked and took off quickly it could have knocked me down into the strong inlet currents and I’d been swept away. Or the time a boat almost ran me over, or the shark that was measuring me for dinner. Perhaps it was these experiences that was part of what caused me to begin re-evaluating my surf fishing philosophy in 1998.
Therefore, in the period 1998-2002 I started to reconnect to the others aspects of surf fishing, and how much they meant to me. Suddenly I once again heard the sound of crashing waves, the cries of seagulls, and the whine of the wind over my line—all these and more melding into a symphony for my ears. I simply cannot understand people with ear buds listening to music while fishing, when there’s natural music all around them. Not to mention that it’s dangerous when you can’t hear what’s coming.
Now, I see the incredible colors of twilight again, including tangerine skies at dusk and gold-gilded gray clouds at dawn, as Nature creates paintings more beautiful than any painter can. Have you ever noticed how sand grains sparkle in so many ways, or the ballet of vast flocks of birds following fish on the horizon? All of this reminded me that I once thought of my surf spots as cathedrals where I could think more clearly than any other place. In Nature’s cathedrals I sometimes offer a prayer of thanks to be so lucky to be passionate about this incredible sport. Happily, I’m once again immersed in surf fishing, and although I love boat fishing too, there’s something about that surf that beckons me home.
As I contemplate my journey through many years of surf fishing and categorize the phases I’ve moved through, I realize that many aspects of my adult life have been framed by them. Some people resist change; I guess we all do, but perhaps we can change more easily than we think, although doing so will we require we be open to it, and willing to seize opportunities when they come along. When I joined High Hill, I had no idea where that simple act would lead, and indeed it has been the vehicle for my progress through many phases of surf fishing; all of which have been great fun. So, I offer this advice. When an opportunity comes along, push your concerns aside and say yes, because opportunities usually bring with them great adventures.