Hot August Nights
A true fishing story by Tom Schneider
If you believe popular fish-lore, August is typically thought of as the summer doldrums when it comes to striped bass fishing. It is a time to be with family, take care of projects around home and prepare your gear for the fall run. I am here to tell you that this tale is just not true! I recently had an opportunity to charter Bill Wetzel on one of his August Trophy Trips and I was not disappointed . . . Here is my story:
I had an 11 PM appointment to meet Bill Wetzel in Montauk on Saturday night. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was already 10:30 PM. I still had 25 miles to go, but the local summer traffic was making my progress slower than expected. Bill had called me earlier in the day to change our start time from 8 to 11 based on the conditions he experienced the night before. I arrived only a few minutes late and found Bill patiently waiting.
I greeted Bill and we began to gear up. A short time later, we were in Bill’s buggy on our way to the South side. I was brought to one of many secret locations in Bill’s repertoire. As we began our march to the fishing grounds, I was sworn to secrecy.
Although it was August, a recent cold front had made it feel more like September. The chill in the air gave everything a fishy feeling. Bill had loaded his nylon bag with nearly two dozen eels for our pursuit of the elusive cow. As we walked I let my mind wander and imagined a Large inhaling my unsuspecting eel and running off with it, all while attached to my line. I was brought back to reality as a branch grazed my cheek! I looked skyward and saw the Milky-Way and hundreds of other stars like I hadn’t seen since my days out at sea, but that is another story . . . As we marched the sparks flew from our Korker studs, and the star light was our only guide as the moon was still below the horizon.
Finally, the moment of truth had arrived. The spot Bill had chosen to fish lay before us. The long walk in the cool night air had been invigorating, but now that we had stopped, the sweat began to bead on our foreheads. There was no one else around as we prepared to battle the bass.
Bill immediately hooked me up with a large eel. He asked me if I had fished eels before and I admitted that the last time I slung an eel was from a boat. He readily provided me with the proper way to sling a snake. Bill set himself up with a needlefish plug and the night’s fishing began. A short time later Bill banged a schoolie striper. I began to get excited at the prospect of catching a nice bass.
I was trying to get the right feel for eeling from the beach, but I was encountering some trouble at the end of my retrieve. The weight of the large eel on my line in the dark had tricked me into thinking I had a hit. At one point, I almost put the eel through my forearm trying to set the hook! The entire time I was focusing on feeling a strike and setting the hook. I guess you could say I had a hairline trigger. A few casts later, my “trigger” went off when I felt the unmistakable strike of a bass as it smacked my eel. Instead of waiting for the take, I struck the fish and pulled the eel away! Bill was a few feet away and asked if I had a fish. I told him what happened and that the fish felt small. (This was my only consolation, as I would never know the size of that fish.) My heart was racing after my close encounter with a bass. I had to calm myself and relax before my next cast. The starlit night and occasional shooting star provided the backdrop that I needed to sooth my frayed nerves. I took my next cast and my eel returned safely to my rod tip. Several more casts with the same result. I began to wander if I had missed my one chance to catch an August cow. The unknown answer was killing me! Now that fishing had slowed, Bill and I talked about anything and everything related to fishing. It is one of the things you do while you wait for more fish. My mind began to drift when suddenly I felt the tap of another bass on my eel. This time I was ready! I dropped my tip and waited to feel the stripers weight. When I felt her weight on my line I struck hard. The game was on! My rod took a nice arc as line began to peel from the spool at an ever-increasing rate. I heard Bill yelp, “That is what I’m talking about! Yeeeehah!” This had to be a good fish, my drag was set tight! As the fish slowed her run I began to reel in. Bill reminded me not to horse the fish in. I stopped reeling and let the fish finish her run. As soon as she did I began to pump her back in. Almost immediately after I applied pressure to the fish, she began a second run! I decided to move down the beach and try to regain some line. Luckily, there were only a few rocks in the area. Unfortunately, there was one rock between the fish and myself. I kept my rod tip high in an effort to keep my line out of danger. The fish began to tire, and I took advantage and quickly reeled in the remaining line. She was now in the first wave. As the next wave curled and crashed, the bass must have felt the bottom scrape her belly because she again took another, much shorter run. I quickly regained the line I had lost and got her back in the first wave. This time the wave curled and pushed the fish partway up the beach, partially handicapping her ability to swim. I could feel her struggling when the next wave pushed her high and dry. Bill ran to the scene and lifted the bass under her gill plate and hefted her to safety above the high tide line. I had only caught a glimpse of the fish before Bill had grabbed her. I thought the fish was in the mid twenties. I decided to be conservative and asked Bill if she was in the low twenties. He let out a chuckle. Had I overestimated the fish’s size? I was horrified, but moments later I was beaming. Bill informed me that the fish was well over 30 lbs! The boga grip told the rest of the story as it rang up 38 lbs!
Bill asked if I wanted to keep her. I initially thought yes, as this was my largest bass to date. Then I recalled a recent outing when I had caught a 30 lber and had to drag it back to my car. It was about a 10-minute march and was difficult to carry back. This time I was looking at a 20-minute walk and a heavier fish. I told Bill I wanted to release the fish. Bill asked again and I responded the same. Off Bill trotted to his bag to get the camera. He came back and we took several shots of my trophy fish. I took the honor of carrying the fish back to release her. I expected that she would need some reviving, but as soon as she was fully immersed in the oxygen rich surf, she arched her tail and broke my grip on her lower jaw. The desire to survive was still very strong in this fish as I saw her dorsal disappear into the surf. I was glad of my decision to release her.
I returned to pick up my gear to continue fishing and found Bill’s outstretched arm congratulating me on a finely played fish. I thanked Bill and let him know that this was my largest bass ever! I was ecstatic, but the night was still young and we had lots more fishing to do. After re-rigging my chaffed leader and putting on a fresh snake, Bill decided to join me slinging eels. We stood side by side and threw eels into the MECCA night surf.
The tide had finished so Bill decided it was time to move around a bit to try and locate some more fish. We moved to the next outcropping to our East and fished there for a short while. After receiving no action we moved back to the West. It was now somewhere around 3 AM. At this point we had been at it for nearly four hours and I was beginning to tire.
Our final location was out into the surf on top of the rocks about a hundred feet off shore. Bill found me a good rock and directed me onto it. As I tried several times to get on top of the rock, I really felt my body revolt, letting me know how tired it was. It didn’t matter though, because I was in Montauk in some legendary waters. There was no way I was going to miss a chance at some more bass just because of a little exhaustion! Up I rose onto my rock as I found solid footing. Bill was already perched on his rock and casting twenty feet away. He told me to cast at the boulder to my right. I cast and fumbled with my line for a moment. By the time I took out all the slack I felt the weight of a bass on the end of my line. I set the hook and yelled, “I’m in!” Bill howled as my rod took a bend. A few minutes later I had my fish within my grasp. It had been a while since I released a fish from atop a rock. Bill asked if I needed help, but I told him I wanted to try and do it myself. I swung the fish close to me just as a wave rolled past and pushed it away! I almost lost my balance as I lunged at the bass. After several attempts, I grasped the fish and removed the hook from the roof of the bass’s mouth. Back it went into the surf. My eel was still intact. Legend has it that “used” eels have some sort of magical powers which make it more attractive to other awaiting bass. Bill confirmed this as he said “That eel has FIFTY written all over it!” I was about to find out the truth about this legend. Unfortunately, several casts later my eel fell off and Bill had to give me a “regular” one!
Almost Simultaneously, Bill lost his eel. He switched back to the needle and immediately banged a niiice 18 lber! Bill then called my attention to the east; first light was just beginning to show . . . First light already? Where had the time gone? I glanced at my watch to see it was almost 4 AM. Bill continued to pick away at the fish, landing several “rats”. He asked me if I wanted to switch to a needle, but I passed, especially because I had several other solid bumps, which kept me alert atop my rock.
Soon it became too light and Bill switched us over to, of all things, pencil poppers. Don’t get me wrong, I love catching fish on pencils, but they require a lot of energy to work correctly. Energy was something that, after over five hours straight of slinging large snakes, I had very little of. To make matters worse, the dropping tide had exposed some more rocks further out. Bill insisted that I come out further and continue fishing. I grudgingly removed myself from my current perch. At this point my body protested from being in the same position for over an hour. I ignored my stiff legs and aching lower back as I made my way further out. Luckily, my new rock was a bit more comfortable and flatter than the previous one. I took my first cast with the pencil popper and began my retrieve. The motion of the rod whipping back and forth shook every bone in my body! I decided to conserve energy and alternate my retrieve between a standard and a modified “polaris”. On my first modified retrieve Bill yelled over and asked if I had a fish on. Yikes! I had been caught! I looked over at him as he violently shook his rod tip as he recovered his pencil and I knew that I could not “alternate”. I dug deep into my reserves and pencil popped as hard as I could for the remainder of my time on that rock. This must be what Bill means when he says “Fish Hard!”
Much to our dismay, the fish were uninterested in pencil poppers this morning. Before the sun broke over the horizon, we were marching (or should I say crawling) back towards the buggy. On our way back, Bill explained that this time of year demands that you push yourself. Amen to that! I knew I had pushed myself later that day! I was glad to have endured the long night into pre-dawn, fishing the south side of Montauk. My only question was “When will I be able to do this again?”
As you can see, I left Montauk with every detail of this trip etched into my memory. For those of you who are up to the task, I highly recommend an August Trophy trip, or any other trip for that matter, with Bill Wetzel. Whether you are a “newbie” or a seasoned surf rat, you will “learn the suds” fishing along side him. Who knows, you may walk (or crawl) away from your charter with the fish of a lifetime!!!
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