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Gut check

December 4, 2011

photo by Tony Stetzko

Life takes guts. When things are running smoothly we’re busy all day, but when something goes wonky, it’s all we can do to keep heads above water. Things were wonky all summer. My number one farmhand and partner, surf-fishing legend Tony Stetzko, broke his left wrist in May, just as the striper fishing was starting to turn on. It might have been a more entertaining story if a giant striper tried to pull his hand off, but he wiped out while playing mini-basketball with his toddler on our slick deck.

I found him sitting outside, holding his wrist to a frozen bag of peas. I’m not sure if his clear face was a sign of stoicism or shock, but when I saw the arm I felt my stomach flip. “I think I broke it,” he said. “That’s the wrong shape,” I replied. Several hours, x-rays, a large needle and a “Chinese finger trap” later, he was home sporting a solid cast from his knuckles to halfway up his humerus. This was no laughing matter; he was sentenced to at least eight weeks off from fishing and the likelihood of a lifetime of arthritis. I, in turn, inherited all the farm and household chores, the heavy lifting, and cutting and splitting six cords of wood for our winter’s heat. You can bet I got out of that last one. The pace and weight of all the other stuff took a quick 10-pounds off me, replaced with more muscles and cheerfulness. Tony spent the summer testing his limits and feeling the pain.

Tony’s hospital x-rays revealed a number of healed fractures previously unknown to him – a testament to his toughness and a reminder that when he casually suggests he might have broken something he probably has. This is particularly useful information for me, given that I am raising a little one with a similar disposition. They are also hard to keep still. After a few painful weeks, Tony was either markedly improved or just used to the pain, and he began fishing, selecting a seven-foot St. Croix that he could cast with one hand. He reeled by cranking the rod instead of the handle. “So, what’s going to happen when you hook a really big fish?” I inquired when I found out what he was doing. “I’ll keep the drag tight and walk back up the beach and pull it in,” he said. Tony knows how to work a fish in with the surf, and it was a good plan for landing bass in a pinch. He wasn’t able to fish as often or as aggressively as he usually does, but his usual is out-of-the-box intense. He fished a lot by normal standards and hooked plenty of beautiful stripers. The jury’s still out on the impact of this plan on his cranking arm.

Fishing for striped bass in the surf requires a degree of intestinal fortitude. The action close to shore is often best at night, so while most folks are settling into bed, we are pulling on waders, airing-down tires and setting off for long stretches of uninhabited beach. This kind of angling is usually solitary. We rely on knowledge of the shoreline and tides, the smell of bait, the feel of the lure in the current as it navigates the contours of underwater structure, and a healthy amount of gut-feeling. Fishing back in the estuaries and creeks provides the rain-like sound of fleeing bait fish and the great splashes and intermittent sucking sounds of feeding bass, as well as pot-holes filled with thigh-deep mud and steep drop-offs into silent water.

On the ocean shore, bars appear at low-water that afford the angler a chance to venture out to cast into deeper pockets and bowls, but darkness and a single-minded obsession with hits and follows allows the tide to sneak behind and around the surf-caster, bringing swift currents and making retreat to high-ground treacherous.  Coyotes, foxes, deer and even humans come by, but when you’re out a ways on a moonless night the only calling card you’re left is footprints in the sand where there weren’t any before.

A most unwelcome visitor is a heavy fog that obliterates all sense of direction and distance. Even the most practiced surf-fishermen can find themselves second-guessing the route to the buggy or the way off the beach. In deep fog you can follow the shoreline, the surf reminding you of which way is wet, and walk right past your ride. Ten feet feels like fifty, even as a couple hundred feels like ten. Once in your vehicle you have to keep the dunes, or the poles, to your right or left depending on which way you came in and hope you don’t go over a cliff into the surf.

For every mildly gut-wrenching moment, there are handfuls of peaceful, starry, solitary nights when I feel as though I am standing in the footsteps of thousands of years of Cape Cod anglers. Bridging the gap between a solid footing on ancestral fishing spots and the undulating mystery of the sea is a subtle matter of feel. The more tuned in you are, the better the fishing gets.

As we rest our rods and heal whatever’s broken for another season of striper fishing, I thought you might enjoy a little gallery of guts. We take a very small percentage of stripers landed for food – the rest are quickly released to go and get bigger. Those taken are swiftly dispatched by priest (the whacker used to deliver a blow to the head that relieves the fish from gasping for water and suffocating on the beach. A baseball bat will suffice. Learn to use it.) Once home I put the fish on ice overnight and fillet it the next day. I always check the guts, and I can’t imagine not slicing open the stomach to get an inside look at what the fish was feeding on. Postmortem analysis tends to shed light on why the fish hit the dropper instead of the plug or why it wanted the Mambo minnow or the Stetzko needlefish. At the same time, it is important to remember that fish will hit something totally different from what they are dialed in to. A nice big, black eel swimming through a silvery sand-eel bait ball might be just what the menu was lacking for a big savvy bass. With that in mind, a gut check is not to be missed. We’ve found sand dollars, rocks, whole mackerel, crabs, piles of fresh sand eels, and sometimes absolutely nothing. Here are a few photos of this past season’s guts.

crabs, softshell at this point; this fish hit a green medium Stetzko Mr. Wiggly

some blueback herring; this fish hit a chartreuse Clouser minnow dropper

quite digested tinker mackerel; this fish hit an olive Mambo minnow plug

big meal of small sand eels; caught on a white Lefty's Deceiver dropper

sand eels, silversides, and one small needlefish; this fish was caught on a black and purple Bomber

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