By Dave Anderson
It was cold last night. And two days of easterlies dropped the water temps too. A hard west made casting a breeze from the east-facing rock, but also made me thankful for the neoprene jacket I’d pulled over my wetsuit as a last minute decision. Stepping into the cool ocean water was not the comfort that it often is after an extended hike in late-July, it was more like a firewalk or succumbing to peer pressure—something you make yourself do despite not really wanting to, something you do so you won’t have to endure hours of self-flagellation later. I waded deeper until my feet could no longer reach bottom and began the 70-yard swim to a large offshore boulder.
Midnight had already passed when my feet found the submerged reef, I rested there in the water, catching my breath, the ocean was cold, but I knew the hard wind and 48 degree air temps would be worse. I stood and turned my back to the wind, as a gallon of sea water drained from my plug bag. I had tied an eel leader on before leaving the house and so the plugs would have to wait. I swung the eel bag around and pulled a 15-incher from the writhing pile of shiny black, hooked it and hastily lobbed it into the water, in an effort to keep it from balling up in my leader.
I made three casts, reeling slowly, methodically pausing every few cranks, allowing the eel to settle deeper. About halfway through my fourth cast, I felt like something wasn’t right with my connection to the eel, maybe it was weeded up, maybe I had allowed too much of a belly in the line. Whatever it was, I burned the eel in to investigate and as the bait approached the wash of waves in front of me, I felt a deep thump and slow pressure peeling away, pulling the rod down. I struck back with a deep thump of my own, driving the hook home and sending what felt like a solid striper on a hard run seaward. A few minutes later I slid a fish in the low 20s onto the rock beside me.
After a few more casts a very similar thing happened; the eel entered the wash, hung up and when I shook it free, boom, a fish crushed it, found the hook and then came unbuttoned. Looking back this morning, I feel like I want to dope-slap myself for not recognizing the very obvious pattern here. I stuck with the eels for another hour, fishing them the same old way with very little action before my mind wandered enough to put it together. And it’s not like last night was the first time I’ve come to this realization, there are times when the fish are keyed in on a reactionary bite and playing the cat-and-mouse game is often the key.
The water in this spot is quite deep for a surf spot, so I tied on a deep-running metal lip and fished it in a vigorous stop and go fashion. I hooked up right away to a fish that looked to be a touch under 20 pounds. All of a sudden I was getting a hit or a hookup every second or third cast, but sadly, the tide window was closing. Soon the modest rip would dissipate and, history had proved that, the bite would go with it. A few more teen fish took the swimmer before I hooked one with some shoulders. The fish held its ground, never ran, she just held deep and kept shaking her head and banging the rocks. I leaned on the fish and lifted her off the bottom. She turned to make a move and straightened the forward treble on the swimmer. That would be my last hit of the night.
I have always been a big believer in matching the attitude of the fish. This is why a Magic Swimmer reeled at light speed can be so effective in a blitz, it’s playing into the jacked-up nature of a pack of competitive fish. The same could be said for dead-sticking a dead eel on a bright moon night. The bass are often very cautious under the moon, especially with calm seas. It’s these times when the fish give us all the clues and we still fail to connect the dots that serve the dual purpose of mind-numbing frustration and experience gained, a hard lesson learned—not soon to be forgotten.
All that, and I still had to swim back.