There’s fishing, and then there’s catching

I’ve discovered the secret to fishing.

I now know the key to maximizing your chances of finding and catching a fish. And not just any fish – the right fish. The one that’ll make a great photo, and then be dinner for several meals. I’ve discovered the Holy Grail of fishing.

It’s Bob.

Those of you who follow this space may have noticed a pattern. When I write about catching fish, Bob often features in the story. When I write about not catching fish, there’s seldom a mention of Bob. It is emphatically not a coincidence.

There’s been great fishing all week on the north side, in Barnstable Harbor and the channel that leads out to Cape Cod Bay. It is a very specific kind of fishing, and it only happens in the spring, when the mackerel are running.

First, you go out a mile or two into the bay and get yourself some mackerel. You do this with a jig, a string of little hooks with flies on them that mimics a group of the tiny fish that mackerel eat. Once you snag yourself a couple dozen mackerel, you put them in a live well, and go back to the mouth of the harbor. You put one of the mackerel on a hook, toss it out there, and let it swim with the tide. The stripers – the big ones, the ones that can swallow a foot-long bait fish whole – find the mackerel irresistible, and if the time and tide are right, you’ll get hit in the first few minutes.

That’s what everyone says.

On Friday, we went out with our friend Dave to check our first five lobster pots, which Kevin and Dave had put out earlier in the week, and to drop the second five. Our plan was to do the pots, go back home to close up the poultry and grab something to eat, and then to go try for stripers on the south side.

When we pulled into the dock, though, we ran into Bob, who was going out fishing with somebody else. He told us, in a nice way, that we were nuts to do anything but go jig for mackerel and then liveline for stripers. When Kevin told him he’d left the mackerel jig in the other cooler, and we didn’t have one on the boat, Bob just dug into his Bottomless Tackle Box and came up with one for us to borrow. (He actually came up with two, one of which I managed to lose before we even got out to the mackerel. Don’t ask.)

We motored back out, with Bob and his friend right behind us. We went to where our lobster pots were, because we’d seen lots of fish on the fish finder. Bob was a little west of us. We dropped the mackerel rig in, and started jigging. Despite the fact that we were, apparently, surrounded by fish, we got nary a nibble.

Kevin figured we were doing something wrong. “What’s Bob doing?” he asked Dave, as he continued to jig.

Dave picked up the binoculars and peered over at the other boat, maybe a quarter-mile away. “He’s drinking a beer,” Dave said.

Kevin rolled his eyes. When a beer drinker spends as much time on boats as Bob does, there’s bound to be beer/boat overlap. “But what else is he doing?”

“He’s smoking a cigarette.”

Great. “But how’s he jigging?”

Dave reported that Bob seemed to be doing exactly what we were doing, letting the jig sink and then pulling it up through the water over and over again. The only difference was that Bob was getting mackerel and we weren’t.

In our defense, I will point out that we had time constraints, and if we stayed out jigging for mackerel too long, we wouldn’t have a chance at the stripers. Of course, if we didn’t stay out jigging for mackerel, we still wouldn’t have a chance at the stripers, because when they’re eating mackerel you can only catch them with mackerel.

What’s Bob doing?

We went home empty-handed. Bob, we found out later, went home with his limit of striped bass.

But a little thing like limiting out on striped bass doesn’t stop Bob from going out the next day, and the next day he went out with us.

Saturday was a good fishing day. It was relatively warm, and the wind was calm. And it was a weekend, so the parking lot at the ramp was fuller than we’d seen it since last summer. There was a line of people putting boats in, so we had to wait a while, but we were still a couple of hours ahead of the end of the ebb, when the stripers start feeding aggressively. Plenty of time for mackerel.

We rigged an aerator in the cooler and set out to the mackerel grounds. We had plenty of company; there were probably eight or ten boats right around the big can that marks the start of the channel into the harbor.

Bob told us what we ought to be looking for on the fish finder – a big blob of bait, probably nearer the bottom than the top. When we found an area that looked promising, we dropped the jigs in. “Let it go all the way to the bottom, and then reel it part way up,” Bob said.

We jigged. We jigged and jigged and jigged, and we didn’t get any fish.

“They’re either here or they’re not.” Bob shrugged. And kept jigging.

And then we got one, and we were off to the races. At first, it was one here, one there, and then we hit some big schools of them. All three of us would get hit at once, and we’d bring up multiples on each jig. I got four fish on one cast.

We figured that two dozen fish would be more than enough, so when we had at least that many we headed back toward the mouth of the harbor to see if we couldn’t get us a striper.

We had brought pretty much all the fishing tackle we had, but we didn’t have hooks that were big enough to go through a mackerel’s jaw and still have enough exposed to hook a striped bass that eats the mackerel. Luckily, Bob’s Bottomless Tackle Box had a goodly supply.

Bob took a look at my rod, and asked if I’d mind if he changed my leader. Would I mind? Yeah, right.

I had about two feet of monofilament as a leader (which you attach to your fishing line in the hopes that fish won’t notice that there is a string attached to the bait it’s about to take). Bob replaced my monofilament with a fluorocarbon leader from the Bottomless Tackle Box.

Fluorocarbon line looks a lot like monofilament line to a human – they’re both transparent. To a fish, though, there is apparently a difference. Fluorocarbon is supposed to be invisible under water, and lots of fishermen swear by it. It’s expensive, and I’m guessing there wouldn’t be much of a market for it if it didn’t work.

After Bob switched out my leader, he showed me how to hook a mackerel so lots of hook would still be showing, and the mackerel would be firmly tethered. We all three of us hooked on a fish, and in we went.

Our first hit didn’t come immediately, but I don’t think we waited more than about fifteen minutes. Of course, it was Bob’s. I saw him go on the alert, and then I heard the buzz of the drag as he set the hook. He started reeling in his fish – it looked like it was giving him a decent fight – and then all of a sudden the line went slack. He lost it.

Now, if Bob loses a fish, it is safe to conclude that it was inevitable that the fish would be lost. And that set the tone. All three of us would hook fish, and lose them in the first minute or two.

“I’ve never lost so many fish in my life,” Bob said, and that made me feel a lot better about losing mine.

Losing a fish is a crushing disappointment. You feel the hit, and your adrenaline starts to flow. You set the hook, and you know there’s a fish on the other end of your line. And then, all of sudden, there isn’t. After the third or fourth fish, I was stomping the deck in frustration.

But, just around dusk, things started to change. Bob hooked a fish, and it stayed hooked. He fought it for several minutes (which is an eternity when you’re reeling in a fish), and then brought it on board. It was thirty inches, easily a keeper.

We went back to the spot he’d hooked it, and started drifting with the increasingly rapid outgoing tide. By this time, most of our mackerel were dead or dying (they don’t flourish in an aerated cooler), but it didn’t seem to matter. The moving water gave them motion, and Bob got another fish. This time, 36 inches. At least 15 pounds. A big fish.

Back again, and I finally got a hit with staying power. A fish took my mackerel, and seemed to decide to swim to Portugal. It kept going and going, but I had learned my lesson about trying to reel in when the fish was taking line, and I just let it go.

When I had the chance, I pulled it in, and tried to take as much line back up as I could. Kevin maneuvered the boat to go toward the fish, and I made a little more headway. But every time I thought I was getting it close, it would zoom out again.

Finally, I brought it up close to the boat, and we saw it flash. It was a big fish. A nice fish. Almost certainly a keeper.

I think it took me ten minutes to land that fish, but land it I did. Kevin and Bob both helped talk me through it. My fish was a twin to Bob’s, 36 inches. Fifteen pounds. Almost eight pounds of prime striped bass filet.

The only problem with the trip was that Kevin didn’t get a fish. It may have been the monofilament leader, or it may just have been the luck of the draw, but we’ll be going out to buy a spool of fluorocarbon line in case it’s the former.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Kevin is very, very good at catching fish. He grew up on Long Island, and water is in his blood. He’s taught me about equipment, and fish, and bait, and we’ve spent many hours fishing together.

But all fishing is local, and there’s no substitute for knowing this water, and these fish. Bob’s been fishing here all his life, and that’s the only way to know where the mackerel congregate, or which channel marker the bass swim by.

So it’s lucky for you that Bob isn’t the only secret to fishing, because he’s too busy fishing with us to go fishing with you. But somebody local, somebody who loves to fish, somebody who wants you to fish, too, that’s the secret to fishing.

Thanks, Bob.

14 people are having a conversation about “There’s fishing, and then there’s catching

  1. *sigh*….maybe someday I’ll get to wade into a creek and doing some fishing. someday. Here on the Willamette, the river is currently full of boats with three or four guys apiece fishing for salmon that have come up the river to spawn. Even in the worst of weather these guys are out in it.

    Some day, I want to be one of them.

  2. Hello Tamar, I just found your blog via Jill Melton’s blog. I so enjoyed reading your current and earlier blogs. I am the food and prop stylist for Relish Magazine and have often styled recipes from you for the magazine. It is finally great to put a face to the name.
    Whenever you get time please check out my blog:
    I look forward to keeping up with you via your blog. Thanks. Teresa

  3. brother marty says:

    well hell thats why they call it fishin and not catchin thank God you guys werent usin bunker fer bait.I remember one wet spring outing here on long island (fishin)and not ketchen with my buddy ol walter Schmitke and all we had to show was a a bucket of tinker Mackerel we had jiged up that day but all was not lost two cans of sour kraut two jumbo onions two cans of sliced potatoes a large lazanya tray layer the mackerel felets cover with tin foil put on the grill and you got to eat the bait like I said thank God we didnt use bunker ha ha ps oh yeagh I forgot to mention this was back in the day also on the menue was a bottle of yukon jack and at least a case of budwiser

  4. Paula, I think fishing would suit you. See if, among your acquaintance, there is a fisherman. Cozy up. Borrow gear. Go.

    Teresa — So you’re the one who makes my recipes look good! Nice to meet you, and thanks for the kind words.

    Marty — Funny you should mention that. Kevin and I were talking about going out and getting enough mackerel so we could fish for stripers *and* bring some home. I want to try pickling it, and we can definitely use it for lobster bait. And I gotta believe that sourkraut, onions, and potatoes go awfully good with mackerel.

    I always appreciate your fishing stories, seeing as you come closer than anyone I know to thinking like a fish. Keep ’em coming.

      • I’ve been arguing with folks up here about eating mackerel… pickled or smoked. The people I fish with accuse me of eating bait.
        Congrats on your striper luck! Going after them next weekend, and I’m hoping to do as well as you.

  5. Awesome picture! And what a great story. Reminds me of a fishing story too.

    Once when I was a kid I was out with my parents and some friends. Several other friends were nearby on boats as well. Nothing was hitting. Finally, someone on our boat caught one. We re-hooked on another line and reeled it in again. After about six times doing this with the same fish everyone in the area was practically anchored on top of us so we moved. Same story. Fished all afternoon with that one poor lil fishie. When we got back to camp our friends came over to start filleting and congratulate us on our fine day. The look on their faces was priceless!

    Oh yeah, and beer was involved.

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