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September 21, 2007

Striper Lessons

After catching 10,000 striped bass, one angler shares his secrets to success.

At the time it seemed like just another good day of late-fall striped bass action. I jigged and released 15 fish, but it wasn't until a month later, after going through my fishing logs for the year (I've kept records of each day's fishing ever since catching my first salt water fish in 1945) that I realized one of those bass was the 10,000th of my fishing career.

Although I had almost caught a striper from the surf at Jones Beach in Long Island in May 1950, my very first bass was boated on July 1, 1954, off New Rochelle, New York, on Long Island Sound. As my parents enjoyed a picnic with their friends the Vaccaros, I pressed a tender into use, baited a Cape Cod spinner with sandworms and trolled the spillway near the Tommy Manville Estate. The Vaccaro's witty teenage daughter, Brenda, who went on to star in movies and on TV, witnessed that breakthrough but was largely unimpressed by the four 14-inch stripers I caught and released that day.

I have boated many more memorable fish since then, and several came complete with the following object lessons attached -- some of which were learned the hard way.

No. 1: Rub the Right Elbows

DREAM ON: The author took these two stripers on his Mako center console off Cape Cod.

The 1960s were a perfect time to learn striper fishing. A series of stellar year-classes produced an abundance of jumbo fish, and schoolies were easy and entertaining targets from both boat and shore.

After my discharge as a Naval officer in 1962, I had the opportunity to really learn striper fishing as a manufacturer's representative for Garcia fishing tackle. I had developed some small-boat and pier-fishing skills while stationed at the naval base in Trinidad, West Indies, but this was my first chance to learn from Northeast striper pros, and I jumped in with both feet. I would find any excuse to hang out in places such as the Red Top Bait Shop in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, where great lure makers Stan Gibbs and Bob Pond as well as Bunny Di Pietro held court. The sheets were never changed at Joe Prada's motel until you left, but I stayed there because it was where Cape Cod Canal experts talked fishing. At the Goose Hummock Shop in Orleans, Massachusetts, Freddy McFarland introduced me to his outboard mechanic Jimmy Andrews, who specialized in catching big bass on eels at night. Out in Montauk, I stayed at Al & Mary's Motel in order to fish with Captain Al Urban, who worked magic casting Atom swimmers over underwater rocks off the South Shore. From knowing virtually nothing about striped bass, I soon began filling up my logbooks.

No. 2: Learn Every Technique

CLEAR SKIES: This average Monomoy, Massachusetts, striper fell for an umbrella rig.

Catching a bass on a perfectly tuned lure worked just right provides a classic thrill, but stripers are hungry fish, and there are many better ways to fool them. Fishing with herring from the Herring Run on the Cape Cod Canal wasn't as exciting as casting lures, for example, but it sure was productive in the spring. It wasn't until I became obsessed with trying to catch one for the wall -- the 50-pounder that seemed to be the ultimate achievement -- that I realized the value of being open-minded in learning new ideas and techniques for catching fish.

On September 3, 1964, while drifting live mackerel at the east end of the Cape Cod Canal from Gene Terrenzi's tin boat, a 48-pound striper inhaled my bait. Somehow I resisted the temptation to mount what was by far the largest striper I had ever seen and held out for that elusive 50. My dedication was rewarded in midsummer two years later. While casting a live eel from Jimmy Andrews's 16-foot Starcraft, anchored on a bar off Ministers Point in Pleasant Bay, a 61-pound cow engulfed the bait tight to the boat. That bass won the coastal Schaefer Beer Contest for largest striper taken from a boat in 1966 and went right to Cape Cod taxidermist Wally Brown, saving me the expense of having to mount any of the dozen 50s caught since then.

No. 3: Go It Alone

BASSACHUSETTS: Ristori caught this cow off Cape Cod.

After fishing with the pros a few years, the time came to test my skills. I acquired a well-used, 16-foot trailered Starcraft, waited for quiet moments at the nearby Ryder's Cove launch ramp -- my trailering skills left much to be desired -- and was soon catching bass on my own. After becoming director of field testing for Garcia in 1969, I was able to move up to my dream boat, a Mako 19, one of the relatively new breed of fiberglass center consoles to come along. With the "big" center console I even ventured across to Nantucket. At some point during the learning process, you must strike out on your own whether it be to gain knowledge about your home fishing waters or to test a new technique. It all becomes part of the learning curve.

No. 4: Be Innovative

BRACE YOURSELF: The author hoists a pair of Monomoy stripers.

Before september 25, 1969, no one who fished cape Cod Bay had probably ever heard of an umbrella rig. The three-armed creation, crafted by twisting No. 15 wire to form flexible arms, was used with codfish tubes as lures and designed to imitate a school of sand eels. Word of Captain Gus Pitts's creation was spreading around his native Montauk, New York, but no one, including myself, was prepared for what happened that fall morning when I used it on the Cape.

The day before, I had some success trolling the rig, but decided to fish Bearses Shoal next. A double of big blues jumped on before I ever got to the rip, and after that I was constantly into fish. As the tide slacked, I was ready to start back but decided to try a blind troll along the beach, hoping to find one larger bass. While dropping back the rig to feel for bottom, a fish struck. That experience was repeated time and again with fish ranging in size from 17 to 34 pounds.

 

THE BIG 5-0: This Montauk wall-hanger was one of the author's first 50-pounders.

A Rhode Island pro was nearby trolling the Weber Hoochy Troll, a plastic-skirted squid imitation that had been the hot lure, but he'd hardly caught a bass while I was hooking up every pass.

By the time I sweated out the return trip in fog through narrow channels on the back side of Monomoy, I had caught 68 stripers and three blues during a few hours of virtually nonstop action. I made no secret of what I was using, and every machine shop on the Cape must have been buzzing that night. Everyone was trolling a bar rig with cod tubes the next day and many of the anglers, though not able to duplicate my luck from the day before, were successfully catching fish.

No. 5: Don't Get Complacent

PLUGGED: This 50 nailed a trolled Danny plug at night.

The pitts rig continued to produce that fall, as did the stiffer four-armed creations that were popping up on Long Island at the time. Vic Pastors, a fellow Freeport Tuna Club member, brought one to Massachusetts with him and it seemed to produce even better with the extra tube and teaser. Yet when I returned to Monomoy the next fall, my friends told me Pitts rigs were no longer doing the job. Instead, they were using a rig that had, as I remember it, six very short arms protruding from the center trolling weight. Those arms were filled with both hooked tubes and teasers, but the middle tube and a couple on the ends had Cape Cod Spinners ahead of the lure. Furthermore, the rig was trolled very slowly right on bottom. I tried the Pitts umbrella, but after trolling around the other boats and not hooking up, one of my buddies passed over the new rig and I started catching.

That night there was word that a 50-pounder had been caught off Nauset, so the next morning I ran farther east to a new spot with the new rig. It worked despite floating weed in the water that the locals called "mung," and I managed to boat a 56-pounder plus another in the 40s.

Though I later scratched out a few bass experimenting with that short-armed rig at Montauk, it never again proved effective for me as compared to standard umbrellas. Indeed, I've never seen another one and have been searching my basement for years in hopes that it might be buried in old fishing tackle. However, the lesson was learned: Never get complacent.

No. 6: Fish in Any Weather

TROLL THEM UP: This 55-pounder hit an umbrella rig off Nauset, Massachusetts.

The vast majority of my 10,000 stripers, and almost all of the largest ones, were caught from boats. Yet, I have always enjoyed surf fishing for stripers. I was able to find a number of areas from the Jersey Shore up to Salisbury Beach in northern Massachusetts that I could access easily on foot. My persistence paid off on one Halloween night at Charlestown Breachway, Rhode Island.

A wild nor'easter concluded with some morning snow followed by a howling northwest wind. Temperatures were dropping rapidly. There wasn't much in the way of truly protective clothing in those days, so I struggled into layers of everything I had in order to put in an hour or so on the outgoing tide. I'd only been to the Breachway a couple of times, catching just a few schoolies on plugs, but I knew the time to fish was when the current was pouring out. Bass could be expected to line up at the mouth to feed on baitfish going to sea. What I forgot was the fact that water doesn't flow out until about three hours after high tide.

I was wondering why there were so few vehicles in the parking lot when I arrived, and soon after waddling out on the jetty, I realized the current was pouring in, rather than out. If it wasn't for the trouble involved in getting out of all that clothing and having to do it all over again in three hours, I would have gone right back to my motel.

Under a full moon and northwesterly winds at my back, I planned to swim a white Junior Atom out into the current just off the tip of the jetty. I will never forget the sight of the plug being engulfed on the moonlight-streaked surf by a giant bass. Fighting the fish was no problem, but I wasn't prepared to land it in the rocks. Fortunately an angler, hiding from the wind among the lower rocks, gaffed that bass for me, and about a half hour later did the same thing with a second miracle fish. The stripers weighed 32 and 38 pounds -- pretty good for a guy who'd never caught a bass from shore weighing much more than ten pounds.

No. 7: Match the Hatch

DOUBLE DUTY: A pair of 50s trolled up off on Shagwong Reef in Montauk.

Though striped bass will consume an amazing variety of fish and shellfish, the rule that applies on trout streams should be your first concern. If they are feeding on something in particular, try to duplicate or imitate their preferred forage. One morning many years ago off Montauk Point, I watched a young John De Maio (now the venerable captain of the Vivienne at Montauk) catching school stripers near the lighthouse on a small bucktail jig tipped with a porkrind. Duplicating his drift, I was soon enjoying similar results before being shocked by a much larger bass. With light, one-handed spinning gear, it took some time to boat the 32-pounder. The little jig seemed too small to attract a large striper, but it matched the spearing or bay anchovies they were feeding on. Even if there was a live bunker or eel to use, I doubt if it would have been attacked. There's absolutely nothing wrong with experimentation, but observing what bass are feeding on and attempting to duplicate that forage as closely as possible with the real thing or an imitation is always a good bet.

No. 8: Don't Over Think

SUPER SIZED: A 50 fell to the author off of Montauk Point.

Many of us get so obsessed with the difficulties involved in catching striped bass that we imagine they're much warier than they are. Back in the 1960s, I used to accompany Captain Bud Henderson on his end-of-season meat-fishing trips out of Harwichport to Nantucket. He would let me bring along a rod to cast over his handlines, and I often added dozens of bass to his box while throwing plugs or jigs. Those handlines were rigged with heavy mono and run just a few yards astern from snubbers. There was nothing fancy about Henderson's operation as he simply headed into clouds of birds and trolled right through swirling striped bass that ignored the boat to hit a Smilin' Bill bucktail jig tipped with Uncle Josh porkrind -- the only lure Henderson would ever use there. We would often look down to watch stripers chasing individual large herring or squid as the fish peeked up at the boat passing over them.

Similarly, many anglers give stripers too much credit for being able to spot their offerings. I know of no one who catches more large stripers by bunker-chunking Raritan Bay than Tony Arcabascio. He uses fishfinder rigs with ends made from black, nylon-covered wire leader rather than fluorocarbon or monofilament. Because bluefish arrive around the same time as stripers, Arcabascio is able to avoid the bite-offs and nicks in mono leaders that lead to break-offs -- and it doesn't diminish his striper success at all. Of course, what applies to a bait lying on the bottom in waters that are naturally dingy doesn't necessarily carry over to live baits in much clearer waters, but under normal circumstances (and especially when blues are present) heavier leaders will work as well and possibly save that striper of a lifetime.

No. 9: Don't Panic

STILL SWIMMING: This true Jersey giant was quickly released.

As much as we revere the creature, striped bass (like their largemouth counterparts in fresh water) don't rank very high on the roster of great fighting fish. Tuna and jacks would run circles around a striper, and fight at least twice as long. In most cases stripers are hooked in areas where there's plenty of room to fight them. Except in a very strong current when hooked from shore, there's little likelihood of them running off all the line from suitable reels with an appropriate drag. Rocks or kelp bottom might make the fight a bit difficult, but I can't imagine even the largest striper lasting very long if the angler has the confidence to fish a tight drag and doesn't panic.

No. 10: Support Conservation

COW TIME: The author prepares to release another New Jersey striped bass.

Striper fishing was so good in the "old days" that most fishermen figured it would never end. No matter how many bass were boxed in one year, there always seemed to be more the next. There were no limits on how many bass could be netted in the spawning areas or anywhere else (except in Massachusetts where stripers were restricted to hook-and-line fishing), and anglers frequently sold their catches. Even though I knew better, it was tempting to just accept the yearly miracle of ever more stripers.

As part of the problem in the old days, I'm particularly cautious now even though the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Striped Bass Management Plan has revived the fishery. I'm back to catching about as many striped bass as I did decades ago, but I rarely ever keep one. I even encourage my charter customers to retain only what they will really use themselves. Having seen what happened to our most important coastal inshore resource, it seems ridiculous in this era of conservation awareness that the same protection provided to fresh water bass by Congress in the Black Bass Act of another century -- gamefish status -- hasn't been extended to the salt water striped bass. But I'll continue to fight for that status.

The path to 10,000 stripers was a pleasant journey even though, at times, it was frustrating. Many more have been added to the logs since, and I'm looking forward to reaching 20,000 in considerably less time. Most importantly, I hope that fish-crazy kids always have the opportunity to do the same thing.

Regional Editor Captain Al Ristori lives in New Jersey and operates the charter boat Sherri Berri when he's not busy writing for Salt Water Sportsman.