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     Ernie lifted the 15-cent draft, tossed down the last slug wiping the foam from his mustache and the grin off his face. The Pilgrim had just faded through the swinging doors, but his comments hung in the air like a noxious odor. Our full-time fisherman and part-time philosopher said to the gathering of veteran fishermen celebrating our outstanding catch "all too soon, the students become the teachers." That axiom was as accurate 40 years ago as it is today. The pretender who was showed the door before he'd been tossed had been bragging about his prowess at fishing live eels, claiming a 30-pound striper to his credit--a mystery fish that no angler or bait shop could confirm. The reality was that the man who showed that rookie how to fish live eels was a student of mine who'd pleaded with me to show him how to hook and cast a live eel just two years prior. Now he was giving lessons. Not a man in our group boasted about the haul of stripers, including three over 50-pounds that were packed on ice just one door away, because such a brag would cost us dearly in hard-won privacy. Ernie was emphasizing a point he'd made many times over the past two decades: time and again, wannabes with no experience or talent bought a charter trip, caught a few fish and assumed this entitled them to bragging rights.

     Russ and I came up the hard way without books, videos or mentors to show us the ropes. Our education was straight trial-and-error over a considerable span of years and looking back over those past 40 years I wouldn't have it any other way. When we caught our first striper and found a whole eel in its gullet, it started us wondering about the possibilities. If these teen-sized bass ate our homebrewed wooden plugs, what size bass might we tempt with some big live eels? We bought our first live eels from a commercial potter in Westport who released all the prime bass eels because they were not large enough for the fish markets. At that point, there was no market for them. This left us the smaller of the meat eels which were too large to cast and so strong they took two men to hook. But oh how they caught fish. After we'd gone through a bushel of rags and old towels, we settled on a bucket of sand and burlap bags to grasp and hold those slippery giants. It was not uncommon to have a two-pound eel take several wraps around our forearms and exert enough pressure to cause us to release the head and try again--hence the second man who held the tail, while the other inserted the hook, usually with great difficulty. After weeks of wrestling with our baits and losing eels the size and thickness that could wrap around boulders and cause hooks to tear out, it all came together on a night in mid August, five days before the full moon.

     We were working a spike that came up from 28 to 19-feet, and drifting our eels on heavy conventional rods with Penn Squidders spooled with nine thread linen line. The eels were impaled on 9/0 gold offset Eagle Claw hooks. With just the right combination of breeze and current, we were moving along with reels in free spool when Russ jumped up and began thumbing the spool to prevent an over-run. This size eel could provide ample thrills on their own, digging for bottom with powerful thrusts. But once we learned how to tame them, we were able to keep them off the bottom and up in the strike zone. The fish that had picked up Russ's eel did so without a bump or a strike. To crush and inhale a bait of those proportions, this bass would have to be a heavyweight. At my urging, he finally set the hook--again and again. His soft rod bent from tip to reel seat and the power of that striper's tail turned my skiff 180-degrees toward the direction of that fish's run. We both knew if that striper made it to the ledge, it would rub and shred that line like so much soft yarn. Russ clamped down on the sides of the spool and managed to stop the runaway linesider. We never shut our engines down when fishing this close to the rockpiles so I slipped the lever into reverse and we were able to back the fish out of harm's way. After two more strong runs, the fish was sulking just off the bow. I reached under her and sent the gaff home. It wasn't a record-breaker--in fact, we'd each taken larger fish with Reverse Atoms and P-40's--but this was our first bass on an eel and the inauguration of what was to be a long and memorable run of fooling trophy bass with live eels.

     Russ had four 50-pounders to his credit at that point, while I was stuck on 40. From that time forward, he went on to capture 19 more stripers over 50-pounds during the glory days of the 1960's while I finally broke into the 50-pound column twice in one week in July of 64 with a 58 and a 54-pounder, both on drifted live eels. Since that time I've been blessed with seven more 50s, five of which were caught on what some sharpies refer to as slippery bass candy. Although we racked up some good scores, nothing compares to the catch on one summer night on the south side of Nashawena Island in a spot we called the Big Bend. Most of our trips to this bass Mecca were made out of Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island after a long day of work. We ate supper on the road and left Sakonnet Marina, making the 13 mile crossing in what were usually snotty late afternoon conditions before the sun went down and the stiff sou'westerlies fell off with the evening cool-down. On this particular night, we arrived at the A-Rock at Southwest Bluff on Cuttyhunk just before sunset--a time my partner had dubbed the "Witching Hour" because of the great success we'd experienced during that period from sunset into complete darkness. We scratched a few bass in our travels from the bluff westward to the Cuttyhunk Clubhouse corner, but it was a slow pick. We decided to head to Robinsons to fish the corner of Pasque where there was always a good bite, though the fish caught there, on average, were usually smaller that those landed up-island. With less than two dozen of our dwindling supply of eels left we were chased from this spot by a combination of attack schoolies and voracious bluefish. At this stage of the tide, there was usually one prime location, especially productive under these conditions, but I hadn't fished the Bend for weeks because of the outstanding bite at most of the westward locations. Now, for the record, there are numerous schools of thought on luck. Some believe there are three kinds of luck; good, bad and none while I believe that luck comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors--including dumb. On this night, I was playing a hunch-maybe more of a last-resort. We'd steamed all the way down Nashawena without making a single cast because there were a few boats anchored up chunking near a couple of our favorite spots and we weren't about to stop and lead them to prime locations. Now, in full darkness, most of the daylight fishermen had run for the safety of the harbor, so I decided the Bend was worth a shot.

     The Bend, or Big Bend as Russ had named it, is a cove with a stretch of gravel beach about a half-mile due east of Canapitset Channel It's tucked in between a very rocky shoreline that bends into a cove along a slough on the bluff where the deer and sheep would come down to lick salt. East of the beach, the boulders crop up again forming a rocky shoreline all the way to Gifford Rock and into Quicks Hole. On the bottom of a west tide we'd anchor up in the gravel just shy of the dark bottom on the Cuttyhunk side of the cove, where the bass would hold behind the rocks waiting for bait to be swept along by the tide. Because the water was shallow, extreme caution was necessary when anchoring up and moving about the boat. On this night, I was up in the bow when the anchor came tight. I was taking a few turns around the bit when the third hand on deck, Andy, called out "fish on." I grinned, but never turned around--this was the type of horseplay that went on with a group of friends who'd been fishing together for decades. However, when I turned around, my friend was tucked up in the port corner with his rod bent in a semi-circle. Even with the clicker disabled, I could hear the spool on Andy's big Luxor turning as the fish tore off line. Russ was waiting with the gaff, when I told him to cast and forget about gaffing a fish that was a long way from ready. He slung his dead eel out over the dark bottom, and before he could lift the line onto the manual bail, a fish had his eel and was running. After several runs, Andy's fish came alongside and I stuck it. As I hauled back to lift her in the boat, I called for a second hand. At the sight of that big bass heaving on the deck, I reached out and shook my friend's hand, congratulating him on what was easily a trophy in the mid 50-pound class. While he was unhooking his fish and slicing the tail fin to mark his prize, I slipped the live eels over the side and instructed him to re-hook and cast the dead eel back into the boulders.

     Russ' fish was almost alongside when Andy called out that he was on again. This was a hell of a predicament because here I was, about to gaff the second fish on this drop, with a third fish on, and I had yet to make a cast. I can't remember just when I made my first cast, but as my dead stiff eel finally hit the water, I allowed it to sink before I began my retrieve. That snake wasn't in the water 15 seconds before a bass grabbed it and headed off towards Gay Head. Before the fifth fish was in the boat, I informed my mates that it was every man for himself: gaff your own unless it's over fifty. I'll admit we did assist in gaffing a few 40's but that was only because we were jacked up and all of these fish had wide shoulders and broom-sized tails. It went on like this for almost three hours without another boat in sight the only witness was the dull glow of the Gay Head Light off to the southwest. Call it greed, bloodlust or a combination of the two, but whenever I've been into lock-and-load fishing, it's been my undoing. Even after the bite is over and the fish have moved on, or we've run out of bait, I'm always aware that I could have landed much bigger fish had I only fished as carefully as I did on those nights when the striper at the end of my line represented the only strike of the day. Its been my great fortune to have experienced a few other trips similar to the one described, when there was non-stop action and if you lost a fish or it spit out the eel, all you had to do was to wait a few seconds and another fish would pick the snake up and run with it. I have no doubt that when fish are hitting at such a frantic pace competition for bait has a great deal to do with the ferocity of the strikes. I've had four bass following an eel in the broad daylight until I began to speed up the retrieve, causing one to make a dash for it. As soon as that fish showed interest, the other three gave chase and tried to remove the eel from its maw. During the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, there were huge schools of big fish moving up along the Newport-to-Westport shoreline, and all along both shores of Vineyard Sound. I was fortunate to have been there at that time and place and to have experienced what was nothing less than world-class fishing.

     Unlike those fishermen that once caught and sold stripers and have since converted because they consider themselves repentant sinners, I have no such recriminations. I was a poor, working-class young man who lived for his family and fishing, and the only way I could afford to fish was through the sale of my catches. We obeyed the laws, never wasted a single fish of any species, and believed what the biologists and marine scientists reported to us about the health of our beloved striped bass fishery. Unlike a reformed alcoholic or smoker who now considers it fashionable to denounce prior practices, I don't preach, point or ask forgiveness for my actions because, back then, blue-collar pin-hooking for fish was not only commonplace--it was considered an honorable profession. During a fishing career that spans five decades, you might think those catches from what many consider the "Golden Age" of striper fishing would be my fondest memories. But you'd be wrong: The chilly fall afternoon when I hooked up with the striper of a lifetime that won that battle and left me with a broken rod stands high above all the rest. I believe there is an 80-pound fish out there and perhaps some day, I'll hook up again and the outcome might be different. Perspectives change over time, and the youthful desire for quantity has been replaced by the matured quest for quality. Do you think it will be some form of luck or will it be time and experience that will be the deciding factor in that encounter? The answer to that question is what causes otherwise sane men to engage in the addictive pursuit of the striperman's Holy Grail.


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