McReynolds' Monopoly Striper

by Louis Bignami

Al McReynolds wasn't happy, but kept casting. He and his partner, Pat Erdman of Ventor, had spent much of the night dodging big waves on the Vermont Ave. jetty off Atlantic City. Days of Northeaster storming had churned up a huge surf. Howling 25-knot winds knocked the tops off 8 to 10 foot surf which crashed and boiled around the jetty. Mullet driven inshore by surging waves smashed into the rocks. Stunned, they would flutter down to the bottom or flip across the surface. This dead and dying bait attracted big stripers, and the slicker-clad surf and jetty fishermen who stalk these fish from the shore. It was nearly 10 o'clock on a night better suited to Poe than piscatorial pursuits, but McReynolds kept casting on a "dark and stormy night" fit only for a Snoopy novel.

As McReynolds remembered it, "Some of the swells were so big they broke over the jetty up to our knees, but conditions were just right. We knew there were bass there. We had to stay."

His buddy Pat Erdman had already landed four stripers that, when later weighed, ran up to 26 pounds. This was in addition to a weakfish that nearly went to ten pounds. Erdman wasn't bashful about slipping McReynolds a needle or three about "pilgrims" and such. Erdman's comments became more caustic after each fish he landed.

Erdman and McReynolds had cast their lures and hopes into Atlantic waters for years and they took turns with gibes and quips to pass the slow time between hits. This night Erdman had it all his way, but McReynolds kept casting. He took what little comfort he could in the knowledge that things could be worse. At least the wind that whipped around his ears was from his back. That beat rain and wave spume in the face, the usual pattern along the Atlantic coast in September.

McReynolds, an employee of the Beach Patrol, and, like Erdman, a member of the West Ghost Striper and Brigantine Sportsmen's Club, really knew it wasn't his day when Erdman hooked another fish. McReynolds had spent years on and around the beach and more nights than he could remember casting off Atlantic City jetties at the end of streets with names familiar to Monopoly players. McReynolds seemed to face a night of "Go directly to Jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200."

But McReynolds kept casting as he alternately watched Erdman play his fish and the sequence of waves, so he would neither cross Erdman's line nor cast into broken water. A few tails, some swirls and, every now and then, a striper silver in the lights, punctuated the storm surge around the slick black rocks. Then, just visible in the side of a wave barely illuminated by the faint light of the city, Erdman saw a tail, a large tail, a very large tail indeed. "Al, it's a big tail. It's a big fish." Erdman was right!

McReynolds turned, braced himself, reared back and swung his Shimano 10-foot long surf fish. The rod snapped forward. His 5 1/2-inch long Rebel Black-back silver minnow plug sailed out on pink Ande 20-pound test propelled by the wind at his back. McReynolds tapped the spool of his Penn 710 spinning reel with his forefinger to control slack blown off in an arc by the driving wind that flattened the wave tops. The plug splashed into the water and, as McReynolds tried to bring the line tight, disappeared.

McReynolds had made his last cast for the night. It took him one hour and 40 minutes to get his plug back. One hour and 40 minutes is a long time when it's measured out in surging runs in a strong storm surf, and in careful sidesteps on a slippery, storm battered jetty aimed at summer flounder fishermen. Most of all, it's a long time to strain back, arms, hands and wrists against an unseen fish that grew larger in McReynolds' imagination with every minute, every long run and every vibration of the taut line that sang in the wind. Such imagined fish usually shrink at the net or gaff. McReynolds' did not. Erdman had no more jokes, just encouraging words and the offer of help.

Then, as the spent striper turned on its side and came closer, still closer, McReynolds slipped. The striper surged. At the last minute he almost lost the huge fish on the storm wet jetty rocks. It lacked just 20 minutes to midnight.

McReynolds had fished for stripers for twenty-five years. He had even won a major Atlantic City fishing contest. But his biggest fish so far had scaled "only" 39 pounds. McReynolds had his fish of a lifetime, but three generations of surf casters had contributed their efforts. For surf casting didn't really start until after WW II back in the Calcutta or Burma cane pole days when Cuttyhunk linen line either burned your thumb or gave you a shower every time you cast. Back then poles broke often enough so fishermen carried spares. Back then lines had to be rinsed and dried after every trip. Back then, as is still true today, some of the best striped bass fishermen in the world fished the New England Coast. Experts like Arnold Laine, who caught stripers by the ton with a rod and reel commercially. Or the Woolner brothers -- Frank was editor for Saltwater Sportsman.

However, none of these fishermen caught the "Big 'Un" that always lurked behind storm-built shore break. So their names fade. McReynolds' was to suddenly shine. The big fish in hand, McReynolds and Erdman scrambled back in over jetty rocks, stuffed the massive striper in the car and headed for Campbell's Marine and Tackle on the Margate Bridge Causeway. The store was dark, empty. No other shops were open. So they settled down to wait.

At 7 a.m., an employee arrived to open the store and woke Erdman and McReynolds. They hauled the huge fish in and laid it on the certified scale. Suddenly, phones rang at the local paper. Corky Campbell, who owned the shop and was both a member of the International Game Fish Association and its area record representative, rushed down to check the fish and scramble for his IGFA Record Book. It showed the all-tackle record for striped bass as Robert A. Rocchetta's 76-pound linseeds caught off Montauk, Long Island on July 17, 1981 that today stands as the 50-pound line class record. A check of line test records showed the 20-pound class record at 73 pounds, a monster striper caught by Anton Stetzko on Nauset Beach, Massachusetts back on November 3, 1981. These 1981 and 1982 stripers were the remnants of early larger populations. A flush of bigger fish is always the signal that the fishery is in a decline when coupled with the absence of juveniles.

Campbell carefully rechecked the scale. Its pointer stood at the 78-pound 8-ounce mark. Experts later agreed that if the fish could have been weighed immediately, it would have run to 82 or 83 pounds. Even with the morning's shrinkage, it was clearly the world all-tackle record. Campbell measured the fish. It stretched to 53 inches and its girth was 34 1/2 inches. Campbell explained to onlookers that he couldn't determine the fish's sex although it was almost certainly a female -- because any cut or tampering would disqualify the catch under strict IGFA rules. 

Doug Long, a New Jersey State Fisheries Biologist, arrived. He estimated that the huge fish, it was later determined to be indeed a female, was between 30 and 40 years old. The fish, carefully iced by Campbell, was sent to Florida for mounting. It's nice to know that a striper born perhaps during WW II could evade a generation of fishermen, miles of nets, and the huge volume of pollution that so heavily impacted the East Coast during this period.

McReynolds had caught a unique fish, one that later, after a certain amount of confusion and conflict, earned him $100,000 from Garcia for breaking the world record. He had, moreover, caught it on 20-pound test line. This didn't set particularly well with some of the surf fraternity, and there were considerable rumors about the fish and where and how it was caught. This didn't seem to sit particularly well with McReynolds who took his winnings and went to Hawaii where he has apparently dropped out of sight.

IGFA investigated the catch carefully; so did others. Nobody could prove the rumored problems with the catch, although some tried. McReynolds' record stood up.

Striper Perspectives

While McReynolds' striper record seems certain to be broken in salt water and likely to be threatened in fresh, it's unlikely that he will lose his 20-pound line test record. There just are not that many huge stripers. Regulations have restricted commercial fishing in many areas of the prime striper country between Cape Hatteras and Cape Cod.

This, plus the rise in saltwater licenses and, at least in part, some restrictions on sport fishing take with slot and other limits should improve the fishery. However, it seems clear that the entire Eastern Seaboard needs a set of uniform provisions to better harvest the migratory populations of this splendid fish.

Author's note: Lou Bignami grew up catching striped bass in San Francisco Bay and was the West Coast Editor for Striper Magazine for many years.