By Dave Anderson
Let me start by saying that there is absolutely no way I can cover this subject in one post, I’m going to have to break this down into several parts—I could see it going as many as 10 individual parts, but we’ll see. Just to stay on trend with what we’ve been discussing recently, I am going to focus on deep presentations with plugs.
When I look at the blackfish footage in last week’s video I always come away with the same pointed thoughts in my mind; I see how tight they are to the bottom and how subtle their movements are (unless they’re moving frantically). I feel it’s important to stress the point that blackfish are only one of these ‘bottom species’ that double as reliable baitfish, and pretty much all of them stay tight to the bottom and tight to structure: scup, fluke, sea bass, choggies, kingfish, pollock—and I forgot to mention lobsters in my last post. Lobsters conjure—at least for me—images of the rich surfcasters of the 1800’s tossing lobster tails into the Cuttyhunk suds. And I have found numerous lobsters in the guts of the bass I have kept over the years. These crustaceans are active at night and absolutely are a favorite target of big striped bass.
Ok, hopefully I’ve made this infinitely clear: a deep presentation is a natural presentation in the boulder-strewn stretches of the Northeast coast that most of us fish. So that’s the first point: get comfortable with fishing deep. One of the best sentences I’ve ever read about fishing deep was written by my friend and elite surfcaster John Hanecak, it’s simple but so true: “You can’t be afraid to lose plugs, if you’re afraid you’re going to lose it, then you’re not going to fish it where you’re most likely to catch a big bass.” That’s paraphrased, but the point should be well taken. Which brings me to another quote from a YouTube video posted by swimbait pro Mike Gilbert, you think losing your $50 to $75 metal lip hurts, these guys are fishing baits that cost as much as $500! Mike takes a very pragmatic approach to it, he says, “Consider it gone. Once you cast it out there, you have to think of it as if you’ve already lost that bait.” Plugs are tools, and by the nature of what we do, they must be considered disposable. This is why I have backups of everything I like and why I build many multiples of the plugs I make for my personal stash. When they inevitably leave me, I have another to take its place.
So how do you know when you’re fishing deep enough? When you start banging into the bottom and hanging up periodically, you’re there. I currently only use metal lips and needles when I’m trying to dredge the bottom. And I am fully aware of the fact that there other ways to get this done, but shads, leadheads and bucktails don’t fit into the way I do it. I like to play on the buoyancy of the plug to keep my presentation natural.
Referring again to the underwater footage, notice how fluid their motions are and how often they really aren’t moving much at all. I can’t do that with a bucktail, I don’t doubt that someone out there can, but I can’t. I can do that with metal lip, especially one that’s weighted enough to slow its rise during a pause. I can also do this with a heavy needlefish, particularly those that are made to sink level. A properly made level-sink needle will not rapidly ascend through the water column like a conventionally made (tail-weighted) needle. It’s the riding angle of the plug that dictates it’s track, if the needle rides head above the tail, it will climb, if it stays level it will remain—more or less—at the depth you sink it to (until the line angle steepens to the point that it has to ride toward the surface).
Presenting these plugs is all about getting them to depth and then maintaining that depth while feeling your way through the retrieve. I’ll begin with the metal lip. Let’s assume that we’re fishing in 10 feet of water with a good sweep running from left to right. I’m going to cast out to about my 10 o’clock and put four or five hard cranks on the reel to get the plug down fast. Now I have a tight zone in which I can work the plug properly before the sweep begins to affect the action of the plug and its ability to stay deep—let’s say that’s from about the 10:30 position to the 1:30 position. When I have the plug down, I focus on a steady, subtle rhythm, I don’t want the plug to swim hard or to wobble out of control. Everything I do is dictated by what I feel and what I’m feeling is directly linked to the how the current is affecting the plug. My reactions are all made to maintain that slow, thumping rhythm. But with some mental footage of bottom species swimming in my head, I will also allow the current to move the plug while I stop cranking and lower the tip to cease the wobble and swing a stationary target through the tide. If I’m doing it right, I will bump bottom here and there and that’s another time when I’ll pause the plug, allowing it to swing and float over the obstacle before resuming the retrieve. To me, this method closely resembles what I see in those videos. Am I overthinking this? I really don’t know. But it helps me stay alert and confident, so regardless of its necessity underwater, it has a positive effect on me and therefore it has a positive effect on my fishing.
With the needle the basics are very much the same, except I often find that I have to make a few ‘test casts’ to find the perfect cast placement so that I can get it down in time to fish in that slice of bottom where the current works in our favor. A perfect cast would have the needle hitting the bottom at about the 11 o’clock position. Once again, the retrieve is completely based on feel and I make several casts every night where something seems to go wrong, the plug never gets all the way down or—for some reason—swings harder and I never really connect. But, on that same plane, when it does work properly the feeling is 100% different. I can feel the weight of the plug and how the current is playing off of it. I keep my rod tip high and when I feel like I’ve lifted it too far from the bottom, I drop the tip sharply, allowing a loop of slack in the line which the weight of the needle quickly takes up, sinking it back down a few feet. Here again, the goal is to tick bottom once in a while, keeping the plug in the lower 2- to 3-feet of the water column, swinging right through the strike zone. The hits are THUNDEROUS using either method.
All of this working with and working off of the current and all this talk about feel and reacting to how the plug is reacting to the current are why I made that video about “The Water Environment”. These places of increased water movement and abundance of life are the places where your presentation matters the most and the harder you work to complete your picture of what makes these spots so special, the better you’ll be at finding fish and presenting a plug to them. All of this stuff is important, you can’t fly the plane if you don’t know how to take off and land.
This series is about trying to catch a 50-pounder, but it’s all pertinent information that’s relevant to catching quality stripers from the surf. Understanding the relationship between a reliable source of food, water movement and how that water movement changes your presentation will take you a long way if you take the time to learn this and implement it in your own fishing.
I originally wanted to make this into a video, but the more I talked to the camera, the more I realized there was potential for a much more in depth video that would require a lot more 'in the field' footage, look for that sometime over the summer.
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
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 Dave Anderson
Here's the first video installment of my "Pursuing 50" blog marathon. And the inspiration for this video came from an article written by legendary surfcaster Tim Coleman more than 10 years ago. These days everyone wants to get the next big secret and too many don't want to be bothered with the details, the minutia... if you want to be successful as a big fish hunter, no matter what the species, the details should be where you live--100% of your time.
It was late-May, 2011 and I was fishing in the now defunct Red Top Striper Derby. It was after midnight on a Friday and my fishing partner and I had the whole place to ourselves. We split up for a while and when I came back to find my fishing partner, Dave Daluz, he informed that he was into fish pretty good on my needlefish, the Flat-Glide. I took the rock closest to him and we began hammering in fish into the upper-20s. Then the batteries in my light died and I didn't have a second light or any way to get more batteries. What could I do? I had to keep fishing without a light.
After about five fish, I ran my fingers down my leader and felt considerable damage to the lower 10 inches of the leader. Without a light, tying on a new leader would be pretty tough, I thought, so I clipped off the damaged portion of the leader and re-tied the snap, blind. I changed plugs and went to a Glidebait I was prototyping at the time, and on my first cast I felt a titanic hit--the kind of hit where you can tell the fish has completely inhaled the plug, I knew the fish was big.
She headed off into the tide and a short battle ensued... we were still in the 'give' phase of 'give and take' and the line went limp. I reeled up and felt my biggest fear--a pigtail--at the end of my line. My knot had failed me when it counted most. I'll never know how big that fish was, but I will ALWAYS know that I controlled my own destiny in that moment and I failed to pay attention to the details. Check out the above video to start getting yourself into the big fish mindset now, before the big ones show up.
By Dave Anderson
In its own way, this project is a dangerous one. It’s dangerous because I have made this sound like it’s a goal—but it’s not. This undertaking is a 50-50 split—it’s half for your entertainment and half to get my ass in gear. The project is about the pursuit and not about the result. I chose to make it about breaking 50 because that’s a romantic number in striper fishing. I have caught one 50, but I’ve never caught a 49—it’s kind of funny that if I do that in 2019, I’ll add a notch to my belt and some will still perceive this project as a failure.
My strengths as a fisherman are in my understanding of the water and how fish use the water to their advantage. I also—seem to—have a good grasp on how and what the larger specimens of the bass species hunt and how they gauge danger and risk and reward. I am not the best big fish surfcaster on the planet—I am far from that. But I am one of those people that understands that success does not come at random. I fully accept that my best seasons were a direct result of the same things that caused my worst ones—my willingness to work for success.
Many of you know that I am a relatively new dad, and my fishing has changed because of this. This is not an excuse and it’s certainly not a dig at the family life. It’s a shift in priority, it’s one that I have a happily and willingly accepted. I have been lucky enough to be able to stay home and raise my daughter from birth until now—she is a reflection of me… well, a reflection of me that loves doing cartwheels, and wearing pink and performing impromptu ballets. I wouldn’t dream of trading that for anything on this Earth. These last five years have made me accountable, she has relied on me to be present, to be man enough to step above my fishing priorities and to focus on her and on being awake and patient and willing to teach her and care for her—not cranky and half asleep because I stayed out all night long five out of seven again.
But I feel that it’s time for me to refocus myself as a surfcaster. Don’t get me wrong, I have fished a lot in these last five years, but I have spent many of those nights just trying to catch a few fish and have fun. Who can blame me for that? After all, fun is the basis for why we all do this. And I have gone through stretches where I knew the chances were higher than normal for a big fish and I (and/or my fishing partner) have taken some nice fish during those periods. But the relentless pursuit of a big fish is just different. It’s still fun, but the game feels more intense, the stakes seem higher even though the prize is the same: personal satisfaction. I wanted to take on this challenge to reawaken that fire inside myself. To focus on hunting big fish and big fish only again. It’s one of those funny things, it’s an instinctual thing for me, but I have often ignored my instinct in favor of enjoying some fun fishing. This year I plan to do a lot less of that.
These ‘in pursuit’ blog entries are probably going to be pretty heady. So much of how I conduct myself as an angler comes as a result of intense thought. Some might be surprised to learn that I don’t use a fishing log. I used to be embarrassed to admit that, but now with 20 years of surf fishing behind me, I have come to realize that not relying on notes has forced me to become instinctual. It has taught me how to cross-reference location—looking at a place I’ve never been and building a profile of it based on past experiences in places like it. These experiences LIVE in my head and have to be fresh for reference at a moment’s notice, if they were tucked away in a book from 12 years ago, I don’t believe they would do me much good. For better or for worse, everything I do is based on feel and I have honed my ability to make decisions using this ‘sense of feel’ through all of these 20 years of surf fishing and the decade of freshwater fishing that preceded it. Looking back, I wish I had logged it all, there would be a written account of more than half my life there, but I might have become a different type of angler because of it. I feel good about where my instincts have taken me so far, in a way, this will be kind of like logging... maybe I’ll like it.
I’ll say it again, don’t let that number—50—cloud your vision. I honestly don’t care if I hit it or not. I’m looking at this as an opportunity to document my thought processes. Fifty is just a number and the value of a significant catch cannot be measured in pounds. Each big fish is equally significant, personal bests are just a footnote. In fact, when I talk about my PB, I always shy away from the weight, calling it ‘my big fish’ instead. Because she came along as a result of working hard to find big fish—if she was 49 or 59, everything else I did would have been the same. Do you get where I’m coming from here?
I am excited to take this on and I am excited to share what I believe is the best path to lead me to that big fish. The biggest challenge in this whole thing will be writing the blog. It’s going to require a lot more focus than just staying in the big fish mindset. I won’t be giving any locations away—but I will be talking a lot about why I’m picking the types of spots that I am as the season progresses. And I’ll be going into great detail about presentation and mindset and the turmoil that comes from gritting one’s teeth and focusing on one thing for eight months. Someone asked me the other day, “What if you catch a 50-pounder before the end of May, what will you do then?”
“I guess I’ll start looking for a 51.”