My fishing memory is punctuated by a few landmark moments, with all other trips, preparations and the accompanying research lined up in between. These keystones have served as pivot points, as markers to capitalize the endeavors and then move on. Catching my first trout on a dry fly defined the culmination of significant effort. But the fish was not the reward as much as the work required to get there. Failure and struggle preceded learning, refinement and finally, a fish. In my mind’s eye, I can see that trout dangling at the end of a fishing line and a Royal Wulff. But in my heart, I can feel the collection of all the experiences it took to get there.
It’s the journey, not the destination. We hear this all the time, and we understand the concept to be true, but we’re consumed by the experience, obsessed with the fish, and it’s easy to lose the big picture. All anglers want to return to the water. We wish to fish, but we’re land based, office based and family based. Our chance to make the next cast is often distant enough to be frustrating, so we fill in the time with more planning and dreaming of what may come.
I fish often enough that I could easily slip into satisfaction and disinterest if I didn’t keep the game fresh. “How do you go out there and do the same thing every day?” That’s a frequent question from non-anglers or hobbyists who wet a line once in a while. But my fishing is never the same. It’s a daily adjustment to my approach on waters and tactics that I’m familiar with, accompanied by a never ending curiosity about that which I know little.
READ: Troutbitten | Perspective, from the Salt to the Limestone
READ: Troutbitten | A Fish Out of Freshwater
READ: Troutbitten | Surf and Salt — LBI 2019
READ: Troutbitten | Lessons From the Salt — Strike Zone, Sensitivity and Persistence
As I’ve mentioned recently, my latest curiosity is the pursuit of striped bass in the salt. And because the nearest salt is five hours away, I’ve done far more planning than doing. For six years, I’ve cast into the surf on family vacations, becoming more curious and more drawn into the possibilities with each shift at dawn and dusk. Over the years, fooling fluke with bucktails has become my preparation — good practice for the inevitable return to meet the fall run of stripers on the east coast. Because my time is painfully limited, I’ve kept my approach simple, restricting myself to just two options: bucktails, and jerk -shad soft plastics on a ball jig. This self-imposed limitation has taken stubborn discipline. But if I allowed myself to open to an entire world of plugs and lures, I would spend more money, learn less about the important things and be more frustrated.
Yes, I do this on a spinning rod. And while I’m sure I’ll cast a fly in the salt one day, the areas I’m drawn to most come with rough waves and frequent winds that make presenting a fly an unwelcome challenge, especially in these early stages.
I love the beaches. I don’t want a boat. I’m a surfcaster.
That’s the first time I’ve written that. It’s the first time I’ve really felt it. Because last week gave me one of those keystone moments where I finally went from pursuing something to doing it.
I returned alone to my favorite beach, an undeveloped island section where a fisherman can truly be alone. And for two days, I fished — endlessly walking and wading through sea foam. High winds that preceded the coming hurricane stirred the ocean into a monster that I’d never before seen. I fought it for half the trip, fishing through tides and into the darkness while I managed a few fluke. The waves grew with the wind. I thought of quitting early. I argued with myself that I should be satisfied with all that I’d learned. Instead, I decided to explore the bayside of the island, and that was a good decision.
So, for the latter half of my second day, I waded waist deep in the bay. Wind pushed violently still, but I turned my back and leaned into it. The choppy surface ran south, and I eventually realized that the water below was moving north toward the inlet, miles away. Casting south, then, and retrieving with the current, kept my bucktail clean and the presentation doable, with a low rod angle and a little extra weight.
I sat on the bayside lip sometime in the early evening and took stock of the situation. This was easily the heaviest wind I’d ever experienced with a fishing rod in hand. And I was more lost in the newness and mystery of things than I’d been for years. I loved every second of it. This was the feeling I’d come for. This is was what I was chasing.
I caught a couple fluke and bluefish, and I had just enough action to keep me hopeful. The first striper was a surprise. However small, it was my first, and it added another memory. I explored a few sections through the evening and then drove south to one more spot that looked promising on the map.
With the wind ripping along the coastline, I found a small cove, bordered by thick trees. At high tide, I could wade knee deep a few feet offshore until the sand slid into an unseen abyss. A pair of egrets swam nearby, against the northern rocks. And across the bay, the sun neared the horizon as I stepped in. I swear the wind bowed gracefully for a moment, as I lined up my first cast. A small fluke agreed. And as I released it, I thought this was a nice ending to my trip. I knew I would fish until dark and then drive the long miles home, and I felt satisfied with the effort, pleased to have followed through.
Then, two casts later, I hooked a striper.
It’s all so new. That’s what I remember. What fish was this? A big fluke? An unwanted stingray? I saw it splash on the surface, but against the blackwater of sun and choppy waves, the shape was too unfamiliar to make out. A heavy surge against my rod emphasized the size as something a trout fisherman simply isn’t ready for. I’d swapped out to my lighter rod when I moved bayside, and the weight against that graphite — combined with the peeling drag from my reel — was simply unexpected. I recovered and regained ground on the fish. And when it was twenty feet away, I pulled it to the surface enough to see the tail and a dorsal fin. Striper!
Twenty-six inches and a little over seven pounds. That means nothing to the veterans of this game — just a larger schoolie in the back bay. But for me, it’s another keystone in my fishing life. That striper will drive me for a long time. It will give me confidence that I’m on the right path. It will inspire miles of travel, days of thought and months of planning.
Fishing captivates us because it provides two of the three things we need to be happy — something to work on and something to look forward to. What’s the third key to happiness? Someone to love. And for the angler, we’d be wise to find someone who loves us back, enough to care about and listen to our fishing stories.
I’m thankful for all of this.
Fish hard, friends.
** NOTE ** If you are an east coast surfcaster, please get in touch. The salt is a mystery to me, and I’ll take all the guidance I can get.
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Enjoy the day.
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