Strictly Stipers: Inevitable Comparisons

by Frank Daignault

Sooner or later all of us will endure the agony of standing in a red hot tiderip where everybody else is catching a lot of fish and we can’t buy a take. It is an ordeal that probably has driven many otherwise good fishers back to the golf course. True, early in the experience we tend to blame the situation on luck but that fades quickly when the person beside you is sliding his tenth up and all you’ve had is the suspicion of a rub. By then it is abundantly apparent that those who are catching are doing something which those who are not catching are not doing. Among the list of explanations being played out in your mind are speed of retrieve, color, action, casting distance, and maybe lure choice to name only some. The only thing you feel safe about is tide, because you are all fishing with the same one. That old what-the heck-are-my-doing feeling soon flushes over you like a low grade fever.

Catch differences are a common experience in angling and they inevitably inspire comparisons. It causes you to wonder what you are doing wrong. The person with all the fish has a yellow plug; it’s color. His friend, also with a ton of fish, is using a white jig; it is not color, it is depth. The guy fighting a fish on the right has been casting down the beach; they are in close. This second phase of the experience—which is equally frustrating—is the one scientists learn early in their careers: isolating the variables. We know that there are differences between what they and we are doing, but which ones are the ones that make a difference? We can’t always get off the hook by slowing our retrieve.

Once the comparisons start, it is important to keep your head. (Down the line you can always say that you weren’t there that night.) I’m convinced that many of our better surfcasters carry an ongoing catalogue of things that work along with an equally important list of things to avoid. That’s one reason why it is obligatory upon the student angler to try to come out of these distasteful experiences with something that can be used some other time. Experience is one difference between a seasoned angler and wannabe.

Some people are too hard on themselves by imposing unfair comparisons. Certainly, when sharing a tiderip with 50 other fishers, there are going to be people doing better than you. What is it they say about there always a tougher kid on the block. The numbers have to be examined in a realistic way: If ten stripers are beached by 10 different surfcasters, the difference in performance is trivial—inside the limits of chance. But if all fish are taken by one person, there is something right about the way he/she is fishing. There is even some comfort in knowing that you are not the only one getting skunked.

I used to fish with a guy on a popular jetty who always caught more Moby stripers than any of us. What he used to do was go through the rotation of anglers in order like everybody else, matching the others drift for drift. In between, during that time when the rest of us were waiting for our turn, he would jig the current in our foreground, the part no one was fishing. He wasn’t more successful because he was jigging, or more successful because he spent half the night in fresh territory. Rather, his catch increased because he was in the water more, not waiting half the night for his turn in the formalized part of the hot spot. Yet, over and over, we would hear how well he did "drifting plugs from the jetty". Only half his catch was taken that way. But we use this example to illustrate how important it is to accurately observe why someone does as well as they do. One must know which things are worthy of imitation. Otherwise, we might start believing that a southern accent catches more bass.

All those years when we had so many bluefish around caused striper fishing to be done badly because of wire leaders. We knew wire was needed to protect lures and baits from bluefish teeth, but it still took us a while to learn that striper contacts went down dramatically when using wire. Fishing live eels we used to fume over having an eel cut both because we had lost a bait and failed to take the fish. Then, when bluefishing was first getting started, it was a real treat to catch an exotic like a blue. As a result we went to reeling with wire leaders and even started catching a few blues. The exception, the one guy in the gang who was too lazy to crimp wire to a hook and, ahem, fish right, continued catching stripers. Dah. I wonder how much longer it would have taken us as serious stripermen to learn the price the wire was exacting from our true species of choice.

Because of simple comparisons, it plays out this way: People with excessive junk in front of a plug—particularly if the water is firing—catch way less than those who tie direct. Those who catch are fishing one way; those who don’t are doing it another. Stripers are not rocket science, but they can get technical. If 40 years of linesides has taught me anything, it has taught me the artistry of comparison. Sometimes people know what they are doing right but won’t tell. Once our kids start catching more than their wise old father, I either successfully imitate their methods or put them to bed. Years ago, while taking off a decent fish for our daughter, Sandra, for the fifth time, I could hear her scratching in the sand for bait. What she was doing was draping sand-eels from the hooks of her Rebel while 200 years of experience flanking her went dry. All knew enough to use floater Rebels like hers, but this little sweetie pie never told anyone what was hanging from them. When you see people walking on the side of the highway, they probably failed to share their methods with a companion who happened to be the driver. That’s another thing about imitation: one does not always know what the variable is. And sometimes the variable is unknown, even to the person lucky enough to have it.

The last time I retched in the dunes was in Maine at the mouth of the Spurwink. Laying a beautiful #10 flyline and fully expecting to beach five for each of those taken by a person there, there was both a sharp difference in methods and results. Only this time he was catching five to my one, maybe even more. It was the first time that I had ever seen spinning trash fly fishing. Expecting him to be secretive, I tried to get as close as I could to see what he was doing while pretending not to be able to see at night. Because of my lifetime of Cape fishing, it never occurred to me to ask. Anyway, the fellow showed me his lure, a rubber thing that doesn’t imitate anything that lives in salt water. It was tied direct and fished slowly. He did a lot of things right, but lure choice surely was the ticket that time because the next time I went there I fished his way and did a lot better.

I’m first to admit that experience teaches us to avoid crowds. Still, the bad things about fishing alone are that you can never be certain whether a) no stripers are there. b) they are not hitting. Most important, c) you are fishing wrong. It takes much longer to learn what works when you don’t have the inevitable comparisons.

B. When one of the gang is doing better, is that person lucky or are they using a secret weapon.