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.