Monday, July 16, 2012

Far and Away

The title of this post reflects my state of mind when I go to Cuttyhunk just as much as it does the location. The 580-acre rock pile sits an hour ferry ride off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and is the spear point of the beautiful Elizabeth Islands. Several famous stops along the Striper Coast have their runs of trophy-class fish, but they also come with baggage like overcrowding, traffic and other BS. Not Cuttyhunk; and certainly not in early June...  

The fishing fleet in New Bedford Harbor
On a hazy Thursday morning, a nearly empty ferry dropped our small Connecticut crew off at the main dock on Cuttyhunk with enough gear to appear that we were staying three months, not three nights. Vehicles are scarce on the Island, save for some golf carts and beat-up pickup trucks, so visitors usually travel one way: on foot. Luckily the locals need us as much as we need them and, for a small fee, someone who looked like a member of Z.Z. Top drove most of our gear a half mile uphill to the house we were renting for the weekend.

CT Surfcasters and ZeeBaaS staff watiting for gear to be unloaded at the ferry dock. 
For most of us, there's only one way to travel on Cuttyhunk.

This was my second go around on Cutty, both times visiting as a representative of my fishing club, the Connecticut Surfcasters Association. The Island has a long history surrounding its own, the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club, which was formed in 1865. It included several powerful members among its ranks, like past U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Grover Cleveland, as well as several business tycoons of their day. The best striper spots around the Island back then were dotted with rickety fishing platforms known as bass stands. Before each of their outings, club members would draw lots to see who fished on which stand, and they all had personal "chummers" that took care of just about everything except reel in the fish, including bait their hooks with fresh lobster. Those days are long gone, yet Cutty's world-class striper fishery remains.

The Cuttyhunk Fishing Club was incorporated in 1865.
This should give you an idea of the caliber of membership in its prime.

Their private liquor lockers still hang on the wall.
Imagine sharing scotch and fish stories with Teddy Roosevelt?

Bass stands dotted Cuttyhunk Island and served as fishing platforms for club members.

Remnants of a reconstructed bass stand below the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club

Gear of members who rented the Club for the weekend.
The history and raw beauty found on Cuttyhunk are more than enough reasons to make the trek, but we were there to do some serious surf fishing as well. Preparations started weeks and months before the trip from triple-checking gear to stocking up on energy drinks and trail mix. When the long weekend finally came, the weather was beautiful and tides were favorable, yet I could have done without the waning full moon.

After settling in the  house, two of our neighbors immediately took off to a cove in snorkeling gear, confident they would find a waterproof camera lost in the surf during a trip three weeks earlier. Honestly, I was surprised when they returned triumphantly two hours later. The camera was shot, already starting to grow barnacles on it, but the real prize, the memory card, was in fine working order. We all got to see the last photograph taken, which captured perfectly the very wave responsible for losing the camera in the first place.

There were also far less exciting things going on during daylight hours, such as catching shuteye, scouting fishing spots, prepping for the nights ahead, and stuffing our faces. The fishing prep included sewing hooks into dead eels and skinning other ones to drape over swimming plugs, essentially creating some of the most lethal weapons of bass destruction on the planet.

The view from our front deck for four days.

So many plugs so little time...

Down-time during the day allowed us to enjoy some sun, rig eels and a few beers.

Rigged eels are a proven way of enticing big striped bass.

As darkness approached that first evening, we didn't believe there was a rush to head out early; after all, we planned on staying out past sunrise anyway. That plan would have changed had we known the slow pick of small stripers we experienced would shut off at midnight when the bright moon rose over the horizon. We went hours without another touch until my buddy Kevin scored a 16-pounder on a loaded Redfin and I soon followed with a smaller fish on a Magdarter. Kevin and I made the long walk back to the house in time to have a beer with the sunrise. After a few-hour cat nap, we compared notes with other surfcasters and came up with a game plan for the next night. There was a more consistent bite on the other side of the Island, not big fish, but more fish, so that's where we decided to start night two.
A long walk down this dirt road will lead you to some of the finest striper water anywhere
The scenery around Cuttyhunk ain't too shabby.

The obligatory Cuttyhunk striped bass weathervane photo.

Taking what we learned from our first night, we made sure to get started a little earlier the second time around. Our crew split up to hit different parts of the Island and planned to rendezvous later depending on what we found. I was with Kevin again and when we arrived to the water's edge, there was enough light to see a pod of baitfish coming right for us. On my first cast, I zig-zagged a spook across the surface and it was attacked by a tiny bass. It was small bait and, as it turned out, small fish chasing them, but the skunk was off early and we moved around the corner to find a stiff cross breeze kicking up. We waded out towards a nice set of rocks off a point and had to swim the last several yards. A handful of surfcasters made far longer swims than that over the weekend, but ultimately the largest bass came to those standing on or close to Terra firma anyway.

The left to right wind wind made it tricky to stay in touch with live eels, but other than that, our rigged eels and heavier plugs presented no issues. However, the wind eventually began mucking up the water and blowing weed into shore, which was increasingly fouling the hooks on our lures. After a couple hours of peppering the area with casts, all we had to show were a few bumps and a small bluefish. What could be happening on the other side of the Island was eating away at us and we eventually headed in to find greener pastures elsewhere.

Unfortunately, after another grueling walk, we found more of the same; small fish that stopped biting as soon as the bright moon rose and dirty water thanks to the now-stiff southwest breeze. We cut our losses before the sun came up and enjoyed a lightning show in the distance from our deck with some scotch whiskey and cold beer.
ZeeBaaS reels ready for battle.

We had the honor of sharing the rocks of Cuttyhunk with legendary surfcaster John Posh.
Here's a look at some of what he was throwing over the weekend.

During our last full day on the Island, we put in a serious shift of scouting the places we'd been fishing under the cover of darkness. Ryan, Mike and I packed light with one rod and lure each, water bottles, and a camera. We would walk until a fishy patch of water caught our eyes, essentially leap-frogging one another while casting along the rocky shoreline. The scouting was extremely valuable to me personally and probably should have been done two days prior. I learned some new rock perches that I would fish during the same tidal stage just 12 hours later. Also, I found it wild how small things looked during daylight that appeared so much bigger or farther away at night!

The daytime fishing was surprisingly good too. The water was gin-clear again and our spooks brought several fish to the surface, including a hefty bluefish for Ryan and a few decent bass that got away. Where I come from it's uncommon to catch fish on plugs from shore in the middle of the day, so it was a pretty cool experience. Mike even stumbled upon a few large menhaden that washed ashore, which was a great sign and would explain the girth on some of the fish he was soon to tangle with.

Typical Cuttyhunk terrain along its south side, a.k.a. striped bass heaven.

A Lordship Lures' spook that has seen a lot of action over the years. It felt right at home on Cutty.

Daytime scouting proves valuable for getting a better look at what rocks you may want to fish from at night.

Ryan with a nice spook-caught bluefish while doing some daytime scouting.
A close-up of the yellow-eyed demon.

Our final night on Cutty started out the best way possible, with a phenomenal feast hosted by our friends from the online fishing community A large group of them were renting the old fishing club and, since I have been posting on their forum for years, it was nice to finally put faces to Internet handles. The big meal consisted of raw oysters, steamed clams, freshly-caught striped bass and tuna, as well as salad, steak and corn on the cob. After pigging out, various crews went their separate ways to suit up and start fishing. Ryan, Mike and I dropped in below the club and worked our way south with the falling tide, retracing our steps from earlier in the day.

Once in the water, it wasn't long before we learned the fishing had improved since the previous two nights. There seemed to be more striped bass in the area and the ones we found were larger in size. Ryan and I swam out to a nice flat rock for two and Mike found another perch to our right. On a variety of offerings, we all connected with fish bigger than we had found thus far in the trip, including a couple over the 20-pound mark, which was enough to keep morale and confidence high. The good thing about a place like Cuttyhunk is that any cast result in that fish of a lifetime we are all after.

Some of the CT Surfcasters crew before hitting Cutty hard one more night.

A couple hours into the outing, we came upon a cove and saw a headlight on the far end. It turned out being one of our snorkeling neighbors that just released a striped bass over 30-pounds; one of the largest he'd ever caught. Ryan and I joined him and were immediately into fish, mostly on eels-skin plugs. Mike, however, couldn't find a rock to his liking and kept going around the corner to the next cove. Rob, Ryan and I were now into a pretty consistent bite of teen-sized to low-20 pound bass and had no real reason to leave, but had we known what Mike stepped in, we would have ran there. 

As we'd later come to find, Mike experienced an unforgettable hour hooking bass after big bass standing on shore not a few hundred yards from us. On consecutive casts, he landed a handful of high 20-pound class fish, then a 36 and finally 38-pounder. Even crazier is what got away; Mike lost two of what he was sure were bigger stripers after lengthy battles. The two plugs that did all the damage for him, a loaded Red Fin and an eel-skin popper, both had mangled hooks by night's end. We also learned the next morning that another club member went large with a 49-inch striped bass using a Slug-Go on the same side of the Island.  

Mike with a self-timed shot of his obese 38-pound striped bass.

Another look at one of Mike's fatties; note the bent front treble hook from the battle.

For our first two nights, the waters around the Island seemed barren with the occasional small fish. Then, like someone flipped a switch, large striped bass were feeding on big baitfish right at our feet. It was a good feeling to end on a high note, having some of the guys finally catch what we came for, but it was sickening to leave just as we thought we were figuring out a pattern. Over the next couple nights, I texted some of the lucky anglers who planned longer stays and the fishing stayed hot. That's part of the magic of a place like Cutthunk; you can really hit it right sometimes.

It's far from just about the fish though. Thankfully I found multiple bass each night there, but even if I got skunked all weekend, it still would have been worth every penny or second I spent. It was a most memorable trip with a solid bunch of anglers. Cuttyhunk is like Disney World to a surf fisherman and I am already planning my next vacation.

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