When I first learned how to fish, I did so with the help of my family or friends. At the time, I thought I was learning everything I would ever need to know. Later in life, when I moved to a shore community, I made a serious discovery. I didn’t have a clue! Not really. If that old axiom of “20 percent of the fisherman catch 80 percent of the fish” holds true, I was certainly on the bad side of the formula. It took some serious mentoring by a group that I like to refer to as “Bay Rats” to get me on the right track. But getting them to show me the proper way to fish was the easy part. Winning acceptance and to get them to even acknowledge your existence is a whole different story. In order to gain entrance to this club, you first have to prove that you are not just fishing but that you have a passion for the sport.
Bay Rats are easy to spot. Just look for the meanest, toughest guy on the dock, beach or bridge and you have probably made your initial sighting. But do not let that rough exterior fool you. If you can somehow penetrate that sun-dried exterior, most have a heart of gold. And a wealth of angling knowledge that would take decades of reading, watching and participating to acquire on your own! Don’t bother to ask them for advice; chances are the only response you will get is a grunt or a sideways look. But if you do manage to get inside their guard, it will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your angling career.
My first couple of years on the sand, I caught my fair share of fish. Looking back now, I have come to believe that most were more luck than skill. I had also fed my fair share of gulls (a tip for you novices, always keep your bait covered while you are in the surf) and donated several hundred dollars of lures to King Neptune for his collection. I clearly remember the first striper I landed from the beach. Alone at sun rise, I hooked into what I thought at the time to be a world record lunker. I fought that fish for no less than a full forty-five minutes only to land a respectable, but by no means giant, striped bass. Who knew snagging their tail only increased the fight! I decided then and there to swallow my pride and seek professional help if I was to continue my quest to land big fish.
Bay Rats are easy to spot. I had seen them on the beach, even fished in close proximity to them. Talking to them was a completely different issue. After all, I was usually busy dragging down a half ton of gear to the beach while they usually walked on with nothing more than rod and plug bag. While I was usually ten feet into the surf, up to my hips in water, they stood just out of the draw, leisurely casting from the dry sand. And as they were usually busy actually fishing, I spent a good deal of my time untangling the mass of equipment after each and every cast.
Maybe it was pity or perhaps I had the look of a deer in the headlights, but finally one day one of them stopped to chat with me. Bill Wolfe, a retired island fire chief and electrician, took pity on me and started a conversation. I like to think that he recognized some glimmer of hope in my technique and wanted to help refine it. Looking back, the fact that I fished with my Chesapeake Bay retriever at my side probably played a major role in getting attention from this beach royalty. Chessie’s are the canine equivalent of a bay rat. Rough and mean on the outside, but if you can get past it, the smartest, most loyal water dog you will ever be around. And a true Bay rat understands that and gives the owner of a Chesapeake a little bit of credibility. But only a little! Make one mistake, show even the least bit of fear and you are back on the outside looking in. So do whatever you can to get inside that door because the fishing gold that lies there is worth the effort. I learned more in one season from this sage angler and his friends than in all the seasons combined which I had fished. Think of it as a master’s degree in surf fishing merged with a boot camp for Special Forces. You get to learn but it’s not without a fair dose of pain. The way they did it in the old days. Even if you have the latest and greatest equipment available, these throw backs to the old days gives you some insight as to why the new equipment was developed. And I have landed some of my nicest trophy fish on equipment given to me by one of these beach royalty. Tackle in some cases, that is 50 years old. New is good but not always better.
So what did I learn? Everything and nothing. Does that make sense? Mostly, I learned about how they have fished for every species that roams the local waters over the years. Nothing formal mind you, more of a direction as to what works, in what conditions and how. A starting point. And suddenly it all started to make sense. Imagine using a dictionary (not an on-line but rather a manual) without knowing the spelling of the word you are looking for. You can do it but it’s probably going to take a long time. I discovered little details that made the big picture come into focus. For example, knowing where structure is along the beach is important. It holds the bait fish which the bigger fish target. But often, that structure, like long sunk piers, won’t show up on maps. But those that grew up on the beach can tell you where every nook and cranny exists and the best way to approach them. Or what lure works best in what condition. Little things often make the difference between catching and simply fishing. I never knew that you could catch a 20 pound fish in less than 6 inches of water but if the right bait is running the shallows, the bigger fish are often close behind in hot pursuit. Little things that mean everything. How to scout a beach and recognize the signs that help you catch and the history. History is important. You can look at the water and never know that 60 years ago, there was a pier that jutted out from a particular street, long ago wiped out by a violent nor’easter. But the remnants that remain begat habitat to bait fish which the trophy fish now hunt on a regular basis. Little things.
So if you get the chance, try to get inside the heads of these beach royalties. It not easy but the rewards you will reap will be well worth the effort. And with any luck, someday you will be considered a “Bay Rat”. It’s a title I would be honored to hold.