Misadventures in Surfcasting – Aubrey Theall

My previous article was a two part piece that was geared toward the surfcaster that wants to get started in plug fishing.  I hope it will be of use to folks that are looking to start slinging lures in the suds but feel its necessary to do a follow up piece lest someone come under the incorrect impression that I am some kind of sharpie.  The knowledge I shared in that article was partly shared with me by better fishermen (either things they shared willingly or stuff I picked up by watching them fish) and partly figured out by trial and error out on my own, with an emphasis on the error.

Misadventures in Surfcasting - Aubrey Theall with catch

When I first got started out in surfcasting I was a bait fisherman.  That was fun and I still remember the first fish I caught.  Believe it or not it was the first time I ever went fishing from shore, many years back.  The folks at Surfland out on Plum Island, MA were kind enough to sell me a couple of pre-tied rigs, weights and a bag of fresh clams and pointed me in the direction of the mouth of the Merrimack River which they said was a good spot to fish on the ebbing tide (and it is, generally).

After an interminable walk over soft sand with a ton of gear in tow like a beach chair, a 5 gallon pail, a cooler of cold beers and more, I hung a clam on a circle hook that appeared impossibly large coming from a freshwater fishing background and promptly cast it right over the line of a guy about 50 yards to my left.  Fortunately the fellow took pity on me and after untangling my line he politely encouraged me to instead try casting generally at the water in front of me.  The next cast flung the clam out 100 yards or more but unfortunately my rig made it about 30.  The third cast and second clam met the same embarassing fate.  My fourth effort was significantly improved and got out there in one piece, after maybe a beer and a half I had a screaming Baitrunner drag and a bouncing rod tip.  I proceeded to set the hook hard enough to “cross the fish’s eyes” when setting a hook as I’d read somewhere previously, not knowing that the fish had already hooked itself on the circle hook by the time I had gotten the rod out of the sand spike.  That poor fish did get half of the bargain anyway, he definately got his eyes crossed.  I managed to land and release a nice healthy school striper and felt pretty good about myself despite feeding the remainder of my clams to a legion of hungry skates over the duration of the rest of my six pack.

Eventually I decided to move on to plug fishing, or at least to significantly incorporate plug fishing into my bag of tricks.  And I failed.  And failed.  And failed some more.  My first attempts at plug fishing were also out at Plum Island, where I spend about 2/3rds of a fishing season’s weekends making the 45 minute drive from my home in the pre-dawn darkness to walk the beaches with a rod in hand and plug bag over my shoulder, exercising my casting arm and depriving myself of sleep.  I caught exactly one sand eel, impaled on the 5/0 siwash hook of a tin.  That was my total haul for about the first 5 months of plug fishing.

sand eel, impaled on the 5/0 siwash hook of a tin

Not a very robust return given the significant time investment that I had made.  Still my efforts were not totally without dividends.  I witnessed a succession of beautiful sunrises, I got to know a few of the regular fishermen and people at the tackle shops and I started to learn about what does and doesn’t (initially doesn’t) work when surfcasting and where to better direct my efforts.

sunrise Plum Island, MA shore

Some mornings I would arrive at Plum Island to find the shore quiet, joined only by a couple of disinterested birds and an equally disinterested fisherman or two.  Other mornings I’d arrive and find the bait guys (the bait guys usually seem to outnumber the plug guys by a wide margin at Plum Island, particularly around the river) raking fish onto the beach and would be frustrated, sometimes frustrated enough to walk back out and buy some bait of my own just to get a tug on my line.  Still other mornings I’d arrive to find mayhem in the surf zone, with stripers and bluefish surging into the wash to devour small bait fish that would beach themselves as an alternative to falling victim to their predators.  Interestingly on these more active days the bait guys often didn’t seem to do well either.  Despite having the fish so close at times that I could literally have touched one with the tip of my surf rod, I couldn’t catch one on a plug.  I became very discouraged.  That led me to adopt something of a Cold War approach, figuring that if I had a really nice rod and reel and a bag full of expensive plugs that I’d be able to defeat the fish with the power of my superior economy.

It seemed that I was trying everything, but really I was mostly just trying the wrong thing.  In those anxious moments with the fish breaking at my feet I was actually trying many of the wrong things in rapid succession.  When I did by chance stumble on the right plug I only made a  few casts before moving on again.  I don’t care how good of a fisherman you are but if you just pull up to a random piece of shoreline on any old tide and start tossing various lures in whatever weather happens to occur that day you aren’t going to catch anything other than by blind luck.  Looking back, though, this was exactly my strategy.  Its little wonder it took a while to start catching fish!

I had read many articles and books and had seen on the online surfcasting message boards how people lusted after the beautifully crafted wooden plugs that are produced up and down the striper coast.  I eventually assembled a bag full of magnificently constructed metal lip swimmers, big wooden spook lures and pencil poppers that danced alluringly.  I learned more or less the right way to retrieve each of them.  While these all are very productive lures and I do really appreciate and enjoy a handmade plug, the fact is that a thirty dollar plug is no more likely to beach a fish than rubber swim shad that cost a dollar and a half or a seven dollar metal lure on the average.  Not to say each doesn’t have its own place where it is the right choice, in fact that’s my point.  But throw the wrong plug in the wrong situation and no matter how good the plug is or how active the fish are they will ignore it (well most of the time anyway, there are occasionally the all too rare and happy days when the fish will literally hit anything thrown in the water that moves).

This started to crystallize for me one morning as I was reeling a $30 Beachmaster Danny plug (which is now my favorite Danny plug, by the way) over the heads of blitzing bass while another guy a few yards down the beach was catching them on a little shiny metal lure.  I can’t remember the brand now but it was a long, thin metal lure, a sand eel imitator and the fish demonstrated their approval by attacking it recklessly.  The fellow wasn’t volunteering any secrets but I was learning a lesson (beyond specifically what lure he was using) without realizing it.  The fish kept blitzing in this spot because it was loaded with sand eels.  Those big wood plugs i was throwing because I had seen pictures of them hanging from the mouths of big stripers on the internet weren’t anything like what was bringing the fish into the surf zone.  With the fish keyed in on one kind of bait I needed to do a better job of imitating it.  When I did eventually learn to try and imitate the sand eels that they were locked in on (and it wasn’t the next time, I don’t catch on that quickly) then I finally started catching fish!  And later, when larger baits like herring visited the surf zone, I learned that the Danny plug catches fish too!

Experience will teach you when and where to use each plug, how to develop a plan tailored to a time and place and to stick with it.  Now I’ve caught fish on the first cast a number of times but many more times I’ve worked a spot for half a tide with the same plug before the fish arrived (or started feeding, perhaps they were there all along).  Switching plugs every third cast or giving up on a good spot 5 minutes into the tide are bad traits for a surf fisherman but it took a long time for me to begin to understand that.  All too often I’m still about to give up on a spot when I’m jolted awake by a strike, I am very much a work in progress in the patience department.

sand eel lure and striper

One more bad idea that I believed in earlier in my plugging career is that by both bait fishing and plug fishing simultaneously I was doubling my chances of catching a fish.  In reality you are probably halving the chance that you’d catch a fish were you using only one rod.  What broke me of this habit was having a rod sitting in a spike get pulled into the water while fishing one night in New Hampshire.  I got the rod and reel back but it was filled with sand and needed to be sent in for service while I caught no fish on either rod (as was customary).  That night does, however, live in infamy as the night my younger brother caught a large codfish while surfcasting.  Unfortunately we were fishing over near where the charter deep sea boats dock and that codfish was a rack- a head, a tail and a skeleton.  Not only did he catch it, he lip hooked it and only God knows how!  The little crabs wound up being the only ones that enjoyed that particular catch.

What the more experienced fishermen kept telling me was to put my time in, which is not what I wanted to hear at the time.  Looking back, though, they were right.  I’m a reasonably young and somewhat technologically savvy fellow and I figured that the old salt with the crusty Penn 706 and the old yellow Lamiglas fiberglass rod was a dinosaur that I could figure out how to defeat with modern technology in short order.  After a long while I learned this was false and I also learned that its better to keep an eye on these gents as they are either intentionally or unintentionally a fountain of information.  The important fact is that the most important thing you can have in your surfcasting arsenal, something far more important than any rod, reel or plug that you can buy, is experience.  The only way to get experience is to get out there and earn it with your line in the water, to get sand where it shouldn’t be, to drink some seawater or get it down your waders and if you’re me probably a hook in your finger or your surf top as well.  Surfcasting is hard!  The failure rate is high (well for me anyway) and the challenge makes success that much more sweet.

Stick with it, put in your time, think of every trip as an investment that will pay off later (it will), and enjoy fishing in the surf.  Its a lifelong learning exercise and one of the rare sports that the young and old can enjoy equally.  Looking back on the season that is just now ending I’ve learned a lot of new things and I’m eager (way too eager, actually, I mentioned that I struggle with patience at times) to continue the learning process in the years to come.

aubrey theall fisherman holding large fish

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