This lively narrative describes the author's dedication to the preservation of the striped bass as well as his effort to expose the chicanery of politicians who fought to defeat management bills designs to save the fish.
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The Turn of the Tide
By Robert J. Rance
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Robert J. Rance
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMy Addiction
It was Tuesday evening and my office clock showed 5:30. I snatched up my briefcase and headed for Penn Station to board the 5:59 train for Long Island. It would take me to my home and family in Massapequa Park, an incorporated village on the south shore about 40 miles out of New York City. Leaving the office this late would ensure me a seat for the long ride. My commute usually took an hour and a half door to door.
Eileen, my wife of twenty years, greeted me with a kiss. She informed me that she had already fed our four starving kids and my dinner was waiting. I pulled off my tie and sat down to a fast meal.
Glancing anxiously at my watch, I calculated that I had just 25 minutes to hit the road in my beach buggy. I gulped down the rest of my meal and quickly pulled on my fishing clothes. If all went well, I should be arriving at the inlet beach in time to catch the turn of the tide.
My fishing buddies and others would already be on the small outer bar from which their hooks could reach predator fish feeding in the deeper fast-running current. If I arrived too late, there might be no room for me on the narrow sand spit. As I crossed the waist-deep slough in the dark, I could just make out the human forms already gathered on the bar. I quickly found a casting spot in the middle of the line of anglers, noting that two rods were already bent with fish on.
Snapping a blue and white darter to my line, I held my cast until no one else was casting, then fired my two-ounce lure up-current at about a 45-degree angle. I reeled in the slack line as the fast current carried my lure past me. Then, as my line tightened, the plug began to throb enticingly. I reeled more slowly and got a good strike. I tried to set the hook but missed. Then another strike followed, and another. Before the action died, I had taken two bluefish and released a feisty, undersized striped bass that was hardly longer than my lure. Another angler not far from me landed a twelve-pound striper, while others loaded up with bluefish.
The slough that I had crossed earlier was now reduced to a mere trickle. With rod on my shoulder and fish on a stringer, I trudged my way up the dune to my beach buggy. I removed my headlamp, waist belt, plug bag, and waders. Several swallows of the still-hot coffee from my Thermos quickly revived me. It was now past one in the morning. By the time I got home, gutted and iced down my fish, it would be three o'clock before I could join my tolerant spouse in a warm, comfortable bed.
I set the alarm for 7:15 a.m. and rolled into bed, planning to catch the 8:12 into the city. When the fish were present in the surf, this would be my routine two or three times a week. It was an addiction that would rule my life for years. Catching the turn of the tide became my master.
Chapter TwoGood Friends and Cold Nights
Early on in my fishing days I met Frank Keating, a former police reporter turned fishing columnist. Frank suggested that I would benefit from membership in the High Hill Stripers, a surf fishing club with about 30 members. They held monthly meetings and competitions and knew the ins and outs of catching the big ones. Little did I know that his suggestion would have a tremendous impact on the next fifteen or so years of my life.
Some of the members spent weekends at Montauk State Park, the striped bass capital of the East Coast. Keating described these fishermen as both knowledgeable and competitive; in his words, they were true sportsmen. Taking his advice, I became a member and began spending weekends and vacation days with them.
Montauk's growing popularity with anglers was due to the size and abundance of the catches from these waters. The Point jutted out into Block Island Sound and the game fish had to pass its shores as they migrated south from Cape Cod, New England, and Long Island Sound to warmer waters. They also were in hot pursuit of the south-moving forage fish such as herring, anchovy, sand eels, mullet, and squid.
To make my frequent trips to the Point, I purchased a Volkswagen camper and equipped it with oversized tires, which I deflated to increase traction on the sandy beaches. It wasn't much to look at, but it was comfortable and dependable. Most important, it provided protection and warmth from harsh winds when the weather was foul.
It was on just such a blustery night that I headed out to Montauk Point to join my fellow surf rats at the North Bar, a usually productive game fish location. My considerate wife stopped me as I was leaving and handed me a bottle of Southern Comfort.
"Here," she said. "This is to ward off any chills."
Normally the drive took about two and a half hours, but on this night I was anxious to get there and catch the outgoing tide. I passed the paved parking lot and glanced up at the old brick lighthouse, now painted red and white. The structure had been commissioned by President George Washington in 1792. It had stood, since its completion in 1796, as a beacon to warn ships of the treacherous rocky shoals that surrounded it. The Montauk lighthouse was New York's first, and was a popular destination for history buffs.
I continued down the deeply rutted track to the North Bar where I hoped some of my buddies were also crazy enough to show up on such a night. I angled the VW up close to three other buggies parked there and hastily suited up. I donned heavy waist-high waders, a foul-weather jacket, an old army belt from which hung a hand gaff, fish chain, and a sheathed knife. My headlamp dangled from my neck as I picked up my surf rod and started walking. We had discovered that if we placed our headlamps on our heads, other fishermen could spot any possible action. Some even sat in their buggies watching through binoculars to see who might be having luck; but, with the lamps hung around our necks, any light beams were hidden by our bodies from the shore.
As I waded carefully into the windblown surf, I struggled to keep my balance on the slippery boulders with the butt end of my surf rod. I could see that those already out there were being buffeted by the pounding waves. After less than a half hour of this punishment, all of us were soaked and frozen. We headed back to our vehicles.
My buggy was in a position that offered the most protection from the stinging northwest wind and we gathered on its lee side. Remembering the bottle of Southern Comfort that Eileen had handed me when I left home, I suggested we get in the buggy.
"I've got something that will warm us up a bit," I said. "Let's get in out of the cold."
The five of us squeezed into the camper and I produced the bottle. We passed it around, each of us taking a good, healthy swallow. The smooth liquid both warmed us and improved our mood. We began swapping fish stories and experiences. As the bottle made the second round our tongues became looser and the stories better. We were passing the bottle for the third time when someone suggested we get back to the water.
We gathered our gear and, in the best of moods, hastened a bit unsteadily toward the bar. But now the small slippery boulders, that had been submerged in hip-deep water, were completely exposed. We had missed the outgoing tide and any fish that had been present!
Chapter ThreeThe Big One
The year was 1964 and I had been with the High Hill Striper Club for about a dozen years. The members were diverse in many ways except one, and that was their collective enthusiasm for, and dedication to, the sport of surf fishing. This was the club's last contest of the year.
I awoke in the bone-chilling cold. It was mid-November and although I was fully dressed, right down to two pairs of heavy socks, the thin blankets I had brought provided little protection against the low 40-degree temperature. Now partly awake, I saw by the light of my flashlight that it was only two o'clock in the morning.
My three fishing buddies and I planned to awaken about 3:30 a.m. to catch the turn of the tide under the lighthouse. Late straggling striped bass in the fall migration were our goal. Pulling myself into a ball to preserve my body heat, I soon drifted back to sleep, only to be awakened by Fred banging on the window of my VW.
"It's three-thirty. Get up," Fred Schwab yelled, as he hurried across the parking lot.
Muttering under my breath and feeling insane for pursuing a sport that makes such harsh demands on one's body, I struggled out of the back of the buggy and pulled on my waders, my jacket, my army belt with all of its paraphernalia; hung my headlamp around my neck, grabbed my surf rod from the roof rack, locked the buggy, and hurried to catch up with my companions.
Fred and Al Rees had already exited the parking lot and were crossing the highway to a footpath that wound through thickets down to the rocks below the lighthouse. As I reached the edge of the bluff, the eerie sweeping beam from the lighthouse revealed a number of anglers already occupying the choice rocks far out in the surf. From there they could cast into the incoming current. Just before I started my descent to the shore below, I hastily reached for my plug bag to select a lure.
"My bag! Where is it?" I shouted to myself. I ran my hands around my waist again but it wasn't there. "You idiot," I said, retracing my steps up to the parking lot. There, next to the buggy, was the bag of lures. I snatched it up and some fifteen minutes later was down at the shore. I waded out and began to search for a perch from which to fish. The best rocks were taken so I had to settle for one small, flat rock that sloped slightly backward. Adjacent to it I found a small rounded boulder for my left foot. Together they would require some delicate balancing, particularly whenever an incoming wave broke around my legs.
Waiting, I watched as Al cast up-current, reeled in the slack in his line and settled to a slow retrieve. This allowed his plug to do its job of enticing a strike from any nearby stripers. Meanwhile, an angler on my left cranked his plug halfway in. I took this opportunity to haul back on my eleven-and-a-half-foot fiberglass rod and fired my yellow darter plug up-current as all of the anglers on the point were doing. If this procedure were not followed by all of us, a terrible tangle of crossed lines could result. Still another threat existed in the waters below, should a fisherman allow his lure to settle to the bottom. The entire area was strewn with glacial boulders, large and small, to which were attached long, inches-wide strands of leathery, tough, brown seaweed. Hooking into these could cause still more tangled lines and the possible loss of a lure. I felt somewhat protected against this latter danger because of the brand new 20-pound test monofilament line I had spooled on my surf reel just for this trip.
Al called over, "Any strikes?"
I responded with a "No, not yet. You?"
"No," he shot back.
Just as the lighthouse beam passed overhead, I thought I saw an angler far out on a large rock land and release a small striper. Some fifteen minutes elapsed and by this time the incoming current was ripping past the Point. It was then that I spotted a good bend in Al's rod. He skillfully fought a good-sized striper past the boulders, dismounted from his rock, and beached his catch on the dry, rocky shore behind us.
I followed and we pulled out a scale to weigh his trophy. It read 26 pounds. I slapped Al on the back.
"You have this contest all sewed up," I assured him. While envious, I was nevertheless happy for his catch. This was our last opportunity to win something in the club's final competition of the year.
I waited for several large waves to break and wash in before wading back out to my rocks. The wind out of the north began to pick up. My wet hands were freezing, making it difficult to keep a firm grip on my rod and reel. Some relief was provided, however, by the occasional wave that splashed the warmer-than-air water over my hands.
Perhaps some ten or fifteen minutes had passed when my pulsing lure somewhere out in the dark came to a stop. My line tightened. I immediately pulled back on my rod several times to set the lure's treble hooks. In response, an unstoppable force began to peel yards of monofilament off my reel. Al saw the struggle and yelled encouragement. The increasing wind whipped around the Point, making my taut line sing like an out-of-tune harp string.
What I assumed to be a large striped bass ran an estimated 60 to 70 yards before slowing, at which point I began to alternately pump and reel to turn it in my direction. Reluctantly it began to give ground and started to follow my lead. About two-thirds of the way in, the striper must have brushed against a boulder or some seaweed and realized that it was in shallow water. This threat energized the creature and it took off on another run for deeper water.
I was awed by the strength of this cow bass. I knew it was a cow because most stripers weighing more than fifteen pounds are females; the males of the species seldom exceed that weight. I turned her on the second run and carefully worked her in between the rocks in front of me. In the dark she had veered to my right and had broken the surface with a loud slap of her broad tail, almost scaring an angler off his perch.
"What the f- was that?" he yelled.
Al shouted back, "Bob has a big fish on."
He hurried to shore to leave his rod, then came back out to help gaff my fish. I led the tired female to him. Just as he swung the gaff hook, a breaking wave crested with the fish on top of it. Al's gaff bounced harmlessly off the striper's scale-armored back. Startled, she again charged toward deeper water, this time for a much shorter distance. Al yelled out to me, "Bob, it looks like a 40-pounder. Be careful."
If this were true, it would be my biggest striper ever. Now, thoroughly whipped, the big cow easily let me place her in front of Al and his gaff. But again, a large wave crested just as Al took deadly aim. The wave completely engulfed both Al and the fish. Only his hand, gripping the gaff, which was this time hooked firmly in the striper's back, was visible.
For a moment I feared for my friend's safety. Then Al shot up, sputtering, the water streaking off his eyeglasses which miraculously he had not lost. Grinning triumphantly, he dragged my prize out of the wash onto the shore. I was in close pursuit. Together we pulled the cow into the shelter of a small cranny in the rocky bluff to get a better look at her. When I saw the actual length and girth of my catch, I was overwhelmed. At first the experience of this big catch was exhilarating. Then the enormity of the thing sank in and I was in a state of shock. My prize still had the yellow darter crosswise in her mouth, much like a dog with a large bone. I bent over to try to work the hooks free and the lure simply fell out. Just how lucky can a fisherman get!
Other anglers who had witnessed the fight gathered around for a look. After a number of estimates as to her weight, someone pulled out a Chatillon scale, the surf angler's old standby. With the help of several friends, we lifted the fish high enough for the large hook to hold it. The scale bottomed out at its 50-pound limit, which meant that we would need a bigger scale. Several club members recommended that we try to get the fish weighed at Kronuck's tackle store, a favorite hangout for Montauk's visiting surf fishermen. I draped the heavy fish over my left shoulder and started up the path to the parking lot, but could only make it a few feet. Ritchie Huebner saw my struggle and kindly offered to go up to the lot and bring down his army Jeep to carry the fish to the top. We propped its heavy body over the right front fender. I climbed in and held the fish through its gill plate while Ritchie drove up the bluff to the parking lot.
As we passed Artie Glass's beach buggy, Fred rapped on his windows and shouted out to him, "Look at Bob's 50-plus-pound fish!"
Artie, only half awake, muttered, "Oh yeah?" and resumed his nap.
It would be a number of hours before Johnny Kronuch could be rousted out of bed. Since it was still dark, we decided to drive down to North Bar, where another group of our club members had been fishing the outgoing tide. We were eager to show off the fish, but word had already reached them about my lucky catch. Al Kaich happened to have a color-film camera with him and asked me to pose for some shots.
Three hours later, as the sun was rising, Fred, Al, and I drove into Montauk and banged on the door of the tackle shop. We knew Johnny Kronuch was closing for the winter season and would be heading for Florida this very day.
Finally, a light came on in the back room and a figure came stumbling to the front. Without opening the door, Johnny yelled, "What do you want? I'm closed."
"We want to weigh a fish," we shouted in unison as Al held up his 26 pounder for Johnny to see through the window.
"That little rat! You woke me up to weigh that little rat?" Then, with some colorful language, he told us to get lost.
With that, I dragged my trophy into view. The door unlocked quickly and Johnny shouted, "Now that's a fish!"
Kronuch took his official balance scale down from the rafters where he had stored it for the winter and hung it up from a large eye bolt that was screwed into a ceiling beam. We lifted the big bass onto the hook under the scale. Johnny slid the balance weight to a point that was level. My fish weighed 58 pounds and 13 ounces. The grizzled surf fishing veteran pronounced my catch the largest striped bass ever landed and weighed on the East End of Long Island. Montauk was, and still is, considered the striped bass capital of the northeast. He recommended that I have it mounted and gave me the name and address of a top taxidermist in Florida.
Excerpted from The Turn of the Tide by Robert J. Rance Copyright © 2011 by Robert J. Rance. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 My Addiction....................1
Chapter 2 Good Friends and Cold Nights....................3
Chapter 3 The Big One....................7
Chapter 4 Fish and Fame Almost Lost....................17
Chapter 5 The Arrival....................21
Chapter 6 Problems for the Stripers....................25
Chapter 7 Invitation to a Lawsuit....................29
Chapter 8 Dirty Deals....................33
Chapter 9 "One Man Against the Survival of a Species"....................37
Chapter 10 On Camera with Connie Chung....................41
Chapter 11 The Big Debate....................43