By Jerry Audet
By Dave Anderson
There are probably 8-million ways to lose a big fish, but nothing hurts more than losing them at endgame. I have one particular painful experience that happened in the Canal about nine or 10 years ago. The tide had just turned east and it was late-May and I was throwing a pink mackerel Guppy pencil popper. The fish hit way out at the end of the cast and I knew, instantly, that it was big. She made two good runs and I was lucky that the tide was slow or else I don’t think I would have had much of a chance of even coming close to landing her. Finally I had her close, and she made a wide circle around my position on the shore. I could feel my heart beginning to race a little as she sounded and laid on her side, to this day I feel confident saying she was at least very close to 50 if not over. She was all of 50 inches and built like Magnus Ver Magnusson, as she glided toward me, I stepped into the water so I wouldn’t have to strain any of my tackle trying to drag her onto the rocks. I could see that the fish was only hooked on one hook point and it wasn’t exactly a rock solid connection, but I didn’t panic. I had her coming in, the line was tight, the plug was visible, she was barely a rod length off the tip and appeared to have given up. Then she rolled over and tried to turn to dive. She disappeared for a minute and then… the pencil, unceremoniously, popped up in the widening rings of her last splash. Gone. I was so crestfallen that I called my fishing partner at 5:45 a.m. when he was away on a family vacation to Florida. Given the fact that he was going to Disney that day, and most certainly would have preferred dental surgery, never mind fishing a hot tide at the Canal, he didn’t provide the type of sympathy I was hoping for.
So much has to go right before you even get the chance to screw up the landing, and because of this, we don’t get enough opportunities to practice landing giants in the surf. This is where so many hearts are broken. And too many of them break as a result of complete panic. I once took my aunt, Betsy, on a fishing trip aboard a friends boat in the Housatonic River. We were catching stripers in December and as the morning turned to afternoon, the bite cooled off. I think Besty kind of tuned out for a bit and was just, kind of, dangling her small soft plastic over the side while daydreaming when her rod went down with authority. This fish put on a real show, ripping drag, staying deep and really putting her to the test. Then the fish surfaced, it was not a striped bass, it was an Atlantic salmon! Betsy totally lost her shit! She actually dropped the rod and practically dove over the side, for a split second, I thought I was going to have to grab her ankles! I insisted that she CALM DOWN, grab the rod and let me land the fish, which, luckily, we were able to do.
So, how do you prepare for this moment? If you haven’t—yet—landed what you consider to be a real giant, (and just to be clear, there is no cut-and-dried definition of ‘giant’ here) then let me just tell you now, it’s not likely to be a ho-hum moment, unless you’re heavily medicated at the time. Big fish, look HUGE when you compare them to the average catches that all surfmen make on a typical night. And if that doesn’t get your heart racing, then… why the hell are you doing this? This factor is only multiplied when the fish is caught in full dark, and only comes into view when it glides into the halo of your light.
This may sound like the musings of a person who has totally lost touch with reality, priority and what really matters, but when the season gets close I use visualization to prepare myself for that first big one of the season. For the sake of the exercise, start by stretching a tape measure out to 50 inches and look at it, I mean really LOOK, now imagine the width and girth and power of a fish that size. Now imagine the mouth of that fish, the eye, the gills and then remember that it will be alive and pissed off when you reach for that jaw to land the fish. This is the moment that so many people botch, because they are not mentally prepared.
I visualize this moment all the time, usually as I’m trying to fall asleep. I concentrate on the size of the fish and the visual impact of seeing that big fish. I also concentrate on diminishing the moment, making it more of a routine, the same routine that I use for every fish. Using these visualizations helps me keep my excitement in check when that moment comes—because it is a really exciting moment, every time. But I have learned through practice and through these brain exercises, not to get excited until I have a firm hold on the fish, because—as that day at the Canal taught me—the battle really isn’t over until you are holding that fish.
By Dave Anderson
For this week's installment of my 'Pursuing 50' series, I'm talking about the concept of chasing the ghost. The ghost is the fish, but not just any fish, it's THE FISH, it's that biggest fish of the year or your lifetime. I have found a lot of valuing in 'dumbing it down' to chasing one singular entity, rather than trying to catch one of the thousands of giant bass in the ocean, I focus on the fact that I'm really only trying to catch one. This has helped me see the difference between the general act of fishing and hunting for a trophy--hunting is selective and it means that I'm able to focus on that one big fish. Making the switch to hunting big fish is largely based in your mindset, I think this concept will help you get there. Hopefully I'm right.
By Jerry Audet
In the next installment of “Casting Cork” I figured I’d give you a little snippet of my thoughts on the hook.
Obviously the hook is important. The most important thing about it is it has to be strong enough for your application. If you’re going to throw a bigger popper, I think you need to consider saltwater grade hooks. However, if you’re making smaller poppers (like size 4 I’ve show here), you can get away with very typical freshwater stuff. In fact, using a slightly smaller hook can help in casting, further decreasing the chance of spinning, which I’ll talk about at length in the next video. I also believe a smaller hook can also help in situations where the fish may be pressured and leery of hitting an fly or artificial. When I first started using these, I lived on a highly pressured body of water, and I found using a size or two smaller hook than “typical” resulted in more strikes. So a thinner wire hook can be an asset, even though I'd rather err on the side of thicker than thinner.
Next, the hook has to be long enough that you can tie feathers (or bucktail) on to the back of the hook before it starts to bend downwards. This allows the feathers/bucktail to stick out straight behind the popper, which allows for better casting and better action (and a more realistic profile).
That's really it! Beyond that, if you’re trying to do this on the cheap like I am, it really comes down to what can you find that is the best deal! You do not need special popper hooks. I like to scour discount and closeout retailers to find hooks that will work. You might be surprised by some of the fish I’ve caught on my poppers, where the hooks cost me less than 10 cents each! In fact, for my small poppers, I like Eagle Claw hooks that cost less than a cent a piece.
Again, these are meant to be cheap and easy to make. It doesn’t have to be complicated. And, as you'll see in the coming months, the fish don't seem to care at all.
Next week look for a new installment of "Fly25" from me.
By Dave Anderson
So what does it take to catch bigger fish with some level of consistency? A word that jumps right out at me is ‘dedication’. But I feel like dedication carries too much of a positive connotation. When you’re dedicated, people look at you give that little fist-pump look that tells you that they respect your devotion to the cause. And people admire you for putting your heart and soul into it. Dedicating oneself to catching a big fish really doesn’t earn that same level of admiration. You’re more likely to get that look of not-totally-sincere sympathy, more like they feel bad for your parents or your wife. I picture mothers whispering to their sons through cupped hands while staring at you with big, worried eyes—the implication being that they are telling them, “don’t end up like him!” I get it. I’ve always said that if I had gotten obsessed with the stock market instead of fishing, I’d be growing a nest egg past $10 million by now. But I chose this instead.
So maybe a better word would be obsession. The basic definition of obsession is having thoughts that continually preoccupy, or intrude upon, a person’s mind. Yes! This sounds about right. If my life can be used as a model, then obsessive is a perfect adjective. My days are filled with vacant stares that foretell constant in-head conversation. I’m always thinking about some plug design or a needlefish modification or how I can better position myself in that rip or where the body of fish I’ve been chasing might show up next. These constant mental contortions—I truly believe—keep me deeper in the game than the average guy. I always have a toe in the water and keeping my mind churning over these things that mean NOTHING to almost anyone else keeps my finger on that pulse all the time. Even when I go through slumps or periods when I can’t fish for some reason, my mind never seems to deviate from these thoughts.
Then there is that dirty word that no one likes to hear in the same sentence as obsessive… compulsive. If you’re compulsive, you have urges. Urges that you can’t help, feelings that spurn you on and—almost—force you to do something. I believe that when the surfcaster is at his best, he is both obsessive and compulsive. I believe these urges are a result of sharper instincts; they are brought on by things that we can’t always put our finger on. Things like the wind, temperature changes, a smell in the air… suddenly there is this burning fire that compromises all other thoughts. And our minds set themselves to figuring out how to get out of the house—as fast as humanly possible. I have learned through experience that these compulsions are almost always valid and you should listen to them whenever they grace your mind with their presence.
The last word is another that you might not want to hear in a sentence with obsessive and compulsive and that word is committed. Obviously, I don’t mean being committed to an institution for your obsessive/compulsive nature. But if you really want to up your big fish game, you have to be committed to actually doing that. Like I said in my last blog post, you can’t do both, you can’t fish for bites and target giants at the same time, they’re two very different choices. So if you really think that you’re cut out for hunting big fish, then you have to ask yourself if you can commit to catching far fewer fish in a season in exchange for a higher CHANCE of catching a big fish, because it’s certainly not guaranteed. As I have progressed through my life as a surfcaster I have found that ‘just catching fish’ does less and less for me, it’s still fun, but it’s just not the same as having to think, and ruminate and TRY. I get the most satisfaction out of targeting big fish—that’s just who I am.
If you think you have it in you, I applaud you. If you don’t, I totally understand. They don’t call it a grind for nothing. The fact is you probably already know the basics of targeting big fish, but 95% of anglers just can’t commit at the required level to implement what they’ve learned. It’s one of those things that you’ll instinctually know it when you’re truly in—if you’re enduring a tough season but still sticking it out for that big fish reward, regardless of whether it comes or not, you’re well on you way. Fishing for big fish is like taking on a second, full-time, job. Are you willing to take that on?
If you are, I’m excited for you and I may owe your spouse an apology.
Tell her I said, “sorry”.
By Jerry Audet
By Dave Anderson
To follow up on Coleman’s Law, the next thing I wanted to talk about is what basically boils down to staying in practice. One of the reasons that I feel like I want to talk about this is that a couple weeks ago I caught myself, not staying in practice. I don’t mean that I wasn’t fishing enough (is there ever enough?) what I really mean is practicing the mindset of targeting big fish exclusively. I’m a big believer in the idea that you can’t do both, you can’t fish for numbers while also targeting a trophy fish; everything about those two practices is completely different. This doesn’t mean you won’t catch a big fish here and there when fishing for bites, you will, but those catches are purely coincidental, a random result of time spent fishing. If your goal is catching bigger fish consistently, then you have to make a change and focus on actually targeting bigger fish.
The other day, I caught myself leaning off the wagon. It’s April now and there’s no chance of catching a big striper in local waters, this is when I shift my focus to the ponds. I do this because bass are bass, the motions and thought processes and the way I’m looking at the shoreline and structure and even how I’m presenting to these things is largely the same. Also, I don’t want to wait and go into the prime of the season feeling rusty. I want to be in the mode. I want to have a good feel for presentation and have my head in the right place as far my expectations go. And this is where I faltered a few weeks back.
I went out with the sole intentions of just catching some fish—sue me, what a terrible idea, right? In truth it’s not such a terrible thing, as long as you don’t do it too much. If you do it too much though you can—unconsciously—ratchet your expectations in the wrong direction. I went out there, threw some jerkbaits, caught a handful of fish, all around the 2-pound mark. It did feel good to bend the rod, but when I was thinking about it later that night—I found myself scheming a way to get back there to catch more fish. I was starting myself off on the wrong foot, I was fishing for bites. Using these methods (jerkbaits, jigs) is a way that I feel I can guarantee some fish, but I’m just hoping that a big fish will show up and take my offering, it’s hoping not targeting. And this ‘hoping’ business undermines the mindset. So the next time I went out I brought only swimbaits, and I’m not talking about Keitechs, I’m talking 2- to 5-ounce baits, 6- and 8-inch Huddlestons, 8-1/2 inch Glidebaits… these are not the biggest baits on the market, I’m not throwing a 13-inch Hinkle Trout, but these baits are big for New England and they are large enough that 90% of the fish they swim past will not attempt to eat them—only the bigger fish will feel that they’re able to take them down. This is targeting bigger fish—these baits mimic alewives and trout and large yellow perch, the stuff that these weighty prespawn females will expend the energy to eat. And I left myself no fallback plan, I couldn’t wimp out and throw a jerkbait because I wasn’t hooking up, I only had big baits in the bag.
Then I proceeded to fish for an hour without a single hit. But there’s an electricity that comes with targeting big fish. It’s a vibration that keeps me alert and focused, I feel excited with every crank of the reel. This is being invested in the method; this is the stuff that I live for. I know that I’m giving up dozens of fish but I feel excitement in my chest, and I know that when that hit comes, it’s going to be a good fish, and if I do it enough, I will connect with a great fish.
Then I came upon an area where there was a change in the shoreline; I had an instinct that a good fish would be there. I know the spot well, it’s deep with a steeper incline than the rest of the shore around it, it’s also a noticeable change in the continuity of the bank—it’s more of a bump-out than a point but it’s different enough to draw predators. I threw that Hudd out there and felt so connected to it because I had been practicing for an hour, observing the bait in the water—seeing its reactions to different movements with the reel and rod. A Huddleston is a lot like a needlefish or a darter in that it doesn’t give much input back, you can’t feel it working, you just have to trust that it is.
So I whipped that Huddleston out there and I let it settle right to the bottom and I starting working it in slow lifts, swimming it five or six feet at a time and letting it settle back down. As the bait neared where I believed the rise to be, I lifted my tip a little and guided the bait up the embankment and—BAM—I hooked up with a decent fish. It wasn’t the biggest fish of my life, it was a 4-pounder—but it was a quality fish and bigger than anything I took on my last trip and it made the whole trip worth it. By the end of the day I had only one other hookup—another solid fish—that came off. But I felt great about the results because I stuck to my plan and the plan worked, I had willingly gone in knowing that I might only get one chance and I caught one solid fish instead of a handful of buck bass.
My whole reasoning for doing this is that I know it will carry over into the surf when it’s time. If I was going for numbers all spring long, my brain would be subconsciously programmed to expect a certain level of action and when you’re programmed to expect something and you don’t achieve it, your concentration suffers, you begin to question your methods, you start to zone out and look for shooting stars… or whatever else you might do to when your focus is compromised. Then you’re no longer fishing, you’re just casting, going through the motions, you’re not ready, you’re not invested, and it’s all because you, unknowingly, taught your brain to expect more action. By staying with the tougher methods that target the bigger fish you have lowered your action threshold and raised your patience level—both really good things if you’re serious about trying to ‘go large’. You’ve given yourself to the method and accepted the fact that your numbers will go down significantly, while also knowing (believing) that the end result will be more big fish and just maybe THE FISH you’ve been hoping for all these years you’ve been fishing the surf. This is the foundation on which the big fish mentality is built and it doesn’t come easy, but it’s totally worth it.
By Jerry Audet
The first of my projects, as previously alluded to in the first post describing “In Pursuit”, is to finally land a 25lb striped bass, from shore, on the fly rod. If you missed that post, you can find it here. For the next couple weeks, I'll be starting each post with this standard statement so those who missed it can catch up. The short-premise of In Pursuit is that it is an honest, informal, journal-like documentation of a season’s worth of chasing specific angling goals from both Dave and Jerry.
I was driving home this weekend after a less than successful night-trip fishing for holdover striped bass (only a couple small fish), half listening to Howard Stern on the radio, and started thinking about this “In Pursuit” series. I was rolling it around in my mind, and started considering why I haven’t already begun fly fishing for stripers in 2019. After all, these fish I’m targeting are likely very catchable on the fly for a few reasons. As I have proclaimed to Dave several times, “this spot would be PERFECT for fly fishing”…as we continued to bang away at it with Redfins.
As I mulled this over, I started to come up with all the reasons why this location in particular fit very well as a “fly fishing spot”. As I built the list in my mind, I had a very simple- but likely critical- thought which popped into my brain.
The theory goes like this:
I have a handle on what big fish want, and have been successful in catching them on plugs. I know I need to fish the moons, tides, and certain (specific) conditions. I know these things. They have become so ingrained in me, they are essentially instinctual. This instinct helps make me a better angler. Dave and I have talked a few times about what makes a great fisherman. One of the things we agree on is that the better the angler, the faster and more effective they are at dissecting and capitalizing on a new spot. While I am not insinuating that I am the best by any means, it has been very satisfying in the past few years to identify new spots on satellite imagery or nautical maps during the winter, show up in person in the spring, and have success (albeit more or less, depending on the season and the spot). It makes me feel like I know something- even if it also feels like the more I learn, the less I (we) actually know.
However, for some reason, I tend to just throw all this knowledge, intuition, and instinct away when I fly fish in the surf.
This is what occurred to me when I was driving home at 1 am on Sunday. It dawned on me that for the last few seasons I have been subconsciously categorizing my spots. I definitely already knew I was a spot “collector”. I like to have all kinds of options with different kinds of terrain and conditions, covering the spectrum of striper habitat. I like this because it gives me options, and allows me to, as John Skinner puts it, “have a play for any condition”. And, I’m always looking for special spots which very few, or no, anglers fish for a whole host of reasons- which could be an entire series of posts in itself.
What I hadn’t realized up to this point, at least overtly, was that I was also building a hierarchy of my spots; spin vs. fly.
That is, I have identified and sorted some of my spots as “fly fishing only” spots. As the name insinuates, they are places I only fish with a fly rod. For the most part they are locations I have deemed 1) to only hold small to moderate sized fish, and 2) places I feel I can cast my offering easily into some kind of deep (relative) or moving water. This means they often are sidled up next to a drop off, or at some kind of outflow, and are sheltered from strong winds.
And this has worked great…for catching numbers of fish. It’s served my purpose so far really well. I have become adept at casting, fighting, and landing fish on the fly rod in these spots; or dealing with a stripping basket when I have to wade up to my belly button; or how to fish moderate current with a sinking line; or how to use a popper in a seam to draw strikes deep into the night. Etcetera. These select spots have lead to hundreds of fish, and some great memories.
What they haven’t led to, and likely never will, is landing a really big fish on a fly.
The key thing that occurred to me while driving: if I didn’t fly fish I likely wouldn’t fish many (or any) of these spots every again. One in particular I am thinking about has yielded exactly 1 39-inches fish (on the spinning rod, 5 years ago), and everything else has been 36-inches or under, with the vast majority under 28-inches. It can be a fun “hit every cast” spot if conditions are right, and it’s one of my oldest spots to boot. So I continue to fish it for nostalgias sake, but only because the fly rod has made it justifiable; that is, it has made it fun. I think, otherwise, it would feel like a waste of time. At the very least, I would fish it a whole lot less.
But therein lies the problem. As I stated in my previous post, fly fishing has always been the second class option to the plug and surf rod. Moving forward with this goal of finally getting a quality fish on the fly rod, I need to find ways to integrate it into what I’m already doing with the surf rod. There can no longer be this huge dichotomy in my “fly fishing spots” and “surf rod spots”. Sure, there are definitely spots at which I will never be able to effectively use a fly rod. One I can think of I’ll never reach the fish, ever. Not even shooting 30 yards of backing. Another, I believe I would struggle to get my line down deep enough from shore; the combination of deep water, good current, and a very consistent swell would make it exceedingly challenging even with very heavy sinking shooting heads.
However, I need to get creative at all my other spots. The challenge is often casting distance, especially with very large flies. The runner up is not getting broken off once I hook a big fish. To combat both of these, I think I will need to really focus on calmer nights as the a) lack of wind will allow me to cast further, and b) the calm surf will allow me to wade/swim out further so I can get around structure that would break me off from casting perches closer to shore. I think this will allow my surf spots to be more accessible to the whippy stick. Further, it will likely even strengthen and support the use of the fly rod, since the calm conditions often call for a more subtle and nuanced approach.
The hard thing will be giving up those prime tides when I “know” I could be landing big fish on the plug, and instead chose the fly. There is certainly some risk there- risk of both smaller fish, and less fish overall. However, when I made the switch to hunting bigger fish on the plug, I had to change my mind set- and at first, it also lead to fewer fish. So why wouldn’t I have to do the same thing as I make the identical transition with the fly rod?
And so, I think my mantra for the up-coming season will be: There are no fly fishing spots; It’s all just surf fishing.