Bunker mentality

Weirdly, not catching fish doesn’t necessarily make for bad fishing. I’ve been on lots of fishing trips where no fish were landed, yet a good time was had by all. A sunny day, congenial company, and the idea that you’re not home cleaning the bathroom or raking the leaves can make for a fine outing, with or without fish.

Yesterday we caught nothing, but it was a sunny day. The company – my husband – was certainly congenial. But not being home cleaning or raking was inadequate compensation for the particular way in which we caught nothing.

We started with high hopes, because two guys were catching bluefish right off the dock at Prince Cove, where we put the boat in. We thought about staying right there, but we decided to head out to Cotuit instead.

There were two reasons for this. First, we hoped to get bigger fish. Second, the kind of fishing going on in Prince Cove is not my favorite kind.

The bluefish were in the cove because they followed the schools of bunker. Bunker, which Cape Codders call pogies but are technically menhaden, are small, filter-feeding fish that move in massive schools up and down the Atlantic coast. They have the bad luck to be at the bottom of the food chain, and schools of bunker often have schools of predator fish underneath.

When the bunker come into Prince Cove, you can look into the water and see masses of them swim by. Periodically, they surface en masse, and it’s a good bet that a hungry bluefish pushed them up out of the water.

To catch a bluefish, you liveline a bunker. But first, you have to catch a bunker.

Bunker eat phytoplankton and zooplankton, neither of which can be put on a hook and dangled in the water. If you try and use a regular net, the fish just scatter. You can use a cast net, but if you don’t have one (we don’t), you catch them by using a treble hook with a weight and casting it over the school. Then you yank it, hard, through the fish. If you do it right, you snag a fish with the hook. It’s pretty barbaric.

The barbarism continues as you take the bunker off that hook, put it on another hook, and cast it out to lure a bluefish. I was happier thinking we could go out to Cotuit and use good old-fashioned metal lures.

Unfortunately, when we got out to Nantucket Sound, there were no fish in evidence. The water was quite choppy, and we trolled our favorite sandbank for a while, to no avail. It was windy enough that the idea of fishing inshore appealed, and we headed back into the bay.

We tried a couple of spots on the way in, but it wasn’t long before we were back where we started, in Prince Cove. We were encouraged when we got there because Bob was there.

If you follow our fishing adventures, you know Bob. He’s been fishing these waters for decades, with a will, and has the expertise to show for it. Much of what we’ve learned about catching fish, we’ve learned from him.

Bob has a little Carolina Skiff, and he was tied up to one of the moorings in the Cove. As we watched, he reeled in a schoolie striper. We tied up a couple moorings away from him and rigged the snagging hooks.

We could see the bunker swimming around the boat, and we watched bunches of them surface all around the cove as the fish underneath snacked.

We each cast a weighted treble hook over the bunker and reeled in, giving hard yanks.


We tried again.

It was a physics-defying failure. The fish were so dense in the water, they seemed impossible to miss. Yet we missed them, over and over.

Meanwhile, Bob snagged a bunker on every cast.

We were twenty yards away. We were casting into the same school of fish. We were using the same equipment. Yet he was catching fish and we were catching none.

I watched how he was doing it, and tried to do it exactly the same way. Cast. Wait a beat for the hook to sink. Tighten the line. Yank. Tighten again. Yank again.

Result: Bob, fish. Tamar, no fish.

I was ready to ask him for a cigarette, because smoking seemed to be the only thing he was doing that I wasn’t.

Kevin, meanwhile, was doing a little better. He did snag a couple of bunker, and we did manage to do a little actual fishing. The result was that the bluefish, which were small, bit pieces off the back of the bunker. Each time we reeled them in, they were smaller.

We kept trying. Hell, just look, Bob’s catching fish with dead bunker!

We caught no fish.

I have caught no fish often enough that I can generally do it with good grace. This time, though, I’m sorry to have to report that I was graceless and surly.  &*#^$& FISH.  &*#^$& BOAT.  &*#^$& BOB.

There’s a special kind of frustration that comes from trying to do something physical, something that looks simple, and failing. It’s how golf clubs end up in trees. Luckily, it’s a fleeting frustration. As soon as you stop trying, it goes away.

So, today, I’m ready to try again. I have this idea that snappers, the little bluefish terrorizing the bunker in Prince Cove, could be pickled like herring, and I want to try it. Instead of snagging bunker, I’m going to try a Sabiki rig, the multi-hooked contraption we use to catch mackerel.

Bob said it worked for him every time.

5 people are having a conversation about “Bunker mentality

  1. Had to laugh, sorry….not. I love to fish; WHEN I am catching. HATE it when not. Then I would just as soon sit back with a book while others catch (or not) Having spent more than 20 years of my life boning trout in a processing plant, I love fish; especially when it is presented to me already caught and cleaned. I just take the bones out. The ones I go home with are ready to cook just the way we like them. 🙂 Sadly am retired from the fish business and the last serious fishing trip cost me a broken wrist and an uninsured $20,000 hospital bill! (Do you ship fresh?) LOL

  2. Perhaps, on this day, a day you think was just one day, not unlike the rest, you were “fishers of men.” Fishing for a history made of flesh and blood, caught in the tangled communion of lines with only their Destination in common.

  3. On days like that I become pseudo-spiritual and wonder if there’s a chi or an energy that I’m not giving off, or that the animals/fish are picking up on some bad vibe. All other times in life I’m a dyed in the wool pragmatist. Just sometimes, I wonder if these animals – I mean £%&@+ animals – can sense something I can’t. .

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