Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Of Access and Eels

The Connecticut coast isn’t known for its public access. Much of Long Island Sound’s shoreline is privately owned and challenging to access legally. There are several city and state-owned beaches and parks, but they’re dwarfed by the amount of private beach associations, mansions, and manicured lawns. While the public trust states that Connecticut’s shore belongs to the people, you still have to get to the water without trespassing (or without getting caught). So when an opportunity presented itself to fish a private stretch of striper heaven with landowner permission, I jumped at the chance.

This past weekend I finally linked up with a family friend after a year or so of talking about fishing together. Probably like most reading this, Rob is crazy about fishing. He’s caught trout on the Provo, smallies on the upper Housy and schoolies on the lower Connecticut, but he had never attempted full-on surfcasting at night for that next size class of stripers. Rob was determined to change that and recently scored permission through a childhood friend to access a rocky shoreline that screams big bass. He texted me some possible dates and we hatched a plan.

What a sight we must have been fully decked out in surfcasting gear strolling across a great lawn at sunset getting showered by sprinklers. And how refreshing it was to be able to fish a spot like this without having to sneak in after midnight and constantly look over a shoulder. Once on the water, we maneuvered a maze of bowling ball-sized rocks until we found boulders to perch on and tossed top water lures to kill time before dark settled in. When we could no longer see our plugs, I gave Rob a brief tutorial on how to handle, hook and fish live eels. He had never used this prime striper bait before; in fact, he told me the only nightmare he could remember having as a kid involved spearing huge eels. Nothing like a baptism by fire.

Wading up to our waists, we began working the water in front of us that had a left to right swing forming with the incoming tide. It was a gorgeous summer night with a light breeze. The last quarter of the strawberry moon hadn’t risen yet and the dark sky aided us in seeing a few shooting stars. Even better was that there was no one else around. Only one boat passed our field of view the entire time and there wasn’t another surfcaster for miles. On the flip side, the fish didn't seem to be around first. After about 90 minutes without a touch, we took a short breather on shore and re-hooked our now dead eels.

Sometimes a quick break can make all the difference, or at least renew confidence, because within moments of resuming I saw Rob’s rod double over. It was difficult for me to tell what exactly Rob was dealing with because he didn’t make a sound and the fish didn’t take a yard of drag for the first half of the fight. But that soon changed as the bass came in close and bugged out in the shallows. His locked-down drag started paying out line and the fish moved a good deal of water around. When I finally clicked on my headlamp, there was a thick, healthy bass a rod's length away. It was easily twice the size of his best striper to that point.

Rob’s reaction to the catch ranks up there to some of the better I have ever witnessed. I don’t remember seeing an angler so genuinely happy in that moment. His smile said it all. Rob knew this was special; that you don’t just waltz into a spot like that, fish at night with eels for the first time and catch a 30-pound striped bass. It took me many a night of trial and error to eventually stumble upon a striper in that class. But I was ecstatic for the guy. We could have went home with a skunking and Rob would have been more than fine with it, and I could tell he soaked in the info I shared like a sponge.

That bass bought us another solid hour of fishing. Both of us, now brimming with confidence, fished hard for one more fish, a smallish striper in comparison but a decent catch from shore most summer nights. With the hour getting late and a wedding the following day hanging over me, I had to call it quits. Back at his family’s cottage, we rehashed the tide over a cold beer. As a sign of appreciation, Rob presented me with a bottle of Irish whiskey he had been aging for some time. He texted me not long after I left saying that he was going back out solo that very night, and since then he’s contacted me again about gaining more access along Connecticut’s striper coast. I have seen his condition before in me and my close friends; it appears to be early onset of diehard surfcasting syndrome. If not controlled, it can ruin relationships, careers, and leave you broke and sleep deprived. To all of you like Rob out there, be forewarned. 

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