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Strange Allure of Surf Fishing

Strange Allure of Surf Fishing
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From Yankee Magazine October 2003

No place on earth has better surf fishing than Martha’s Vineyard. From May through November, surf casters flog these 125 miles of shoreline and catch stripers of 50 pounds and more.

To the uninitiated, surf fishing looks like a terribly inefficient way to catch fish. It is. You can spend an entire night and get only one strike, or none. Some surf casters fish a lifetime and don’t catch a striped bass.

Surf fishing here started centuries ago when the Wampanoags speared the abundant sturgeon and striped bass. The fishermen would lie naked in the damp sands at night, and wake to the sounds of leaping baitfish.

The sturgeon is long gone. But the striper is a living sign that man can stop before it’s too late. A total fishing moratorium in 1984 saved Morone saxatilis, then at dangerously low levels, from extinction. Now strict size and limit numbers exist. Locals practice zero tolerance. Offenders may be turned in, or they may find their tires mysteriously flat, or both. The people of this island have a deep love for this fish.

I would be going out with local guides, learning the local hot spots, what tides to fish, what lures to use, and how to fish with eels. I’d reached surf-fishing nirvana.

My guide, Bob Fischer, is a soft-spoken man who’s pursued the striped bass for close to 30 years. We head for Squibnocket, the extreme southwest curve of the island that juts out into the Atlantic and diverts fish traffic toward shore. We roll over a crest of a dirt road, and before us sits the giant basin of Squibnocket beneath a clear, moonless sky.

“Squibnocket is one big bowl,” Bob tells me, “made by a series of smaller bowls. Big fish like to corner small fish in the bowls.”

“How big?” I ask.

He grins, measuring his words. “That’s hard to say. I let the biggest ones go. The zebras are the biggest breeders. We need them. I only keep fish over 20 pounds and under 50 … but I’ve caught much bigger in here.”

We see people using live eels, with green phosphorescent glowsticks tied to the end of their rods. From the comfort of their tents, they’ll watch for the glowsticks to rumba in the night sky. A hundred yards offshore, fishermen in Zodiacs prowl the water, scanning the sea with flashlights, stalking their prey like commandos on a mission.

After a long trek on deep, slanted gravel, we wade into a tide pool. Bob sets me up with a dark-green lure: “Dark night, dark lure; bright night, bright lure.”

Bob casts effortlessly, with an efficient whip of the wrist. Within 10 minutes he hooks a nice adolescent striper, around 26 inches. (The average 8-year-old striper is about 32 inches.) “They’re out there,” he says, unhooking the fish and watching it swim away in a highly piqued froth. “Your turn.”

My exuberant cast goes 10 feet. The lure snaps off and sails at least 100 feet. In the excitement of Bob’s catch, I’ve twisted my line at the rod tip. Bob stoically takes my line and ties on another leader and lure. We fish for an hour with no mishaps and no talking. Just the gently breaking waves, the clopping of rocks in the receding wash, and occasional distant geese. A mist rolls in.

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