Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Monsters of the Sound

A life and death struggle takes place 40 feet below the water’s surface. Fourteen ounces of lead weight keeps my bait, a foot and a half long Menhaden, or bunker, in the middle of a large school of striped bass.

Time is running out for the bait, and the poor fish knows it. Swimming for its life, it darts and dashes about to avoid being eaten. Every frantic movement is telegraphed through the 50 pound test monofilament line and the tip of the six and a half foot boat rod.

“Nervous bait is a good sign.” says Captain Keith Salisbury.

The tide has just started to move again, and the captain has positioned his boat, the 28-foot center console Lori Marie, atop a sandy hump rising from the 60-foot depths just off the Clinton shore. Moving water gets fish excited and forces them to react to bait more quickly. Salisbury glances at his Raymarine C120 multifunction navigation, fishfinder, and GPS unit. The large 12-inch color screen looks like a video game console drawing pictures of our bait and some large fish lurking near the bottom. This high-tech piece of equipment is an essential tool for finding structure and fish, but it still can’t make them bite.

A hard thump at the end of the line disrupts the rhythmic beat of the swimming bait. The music must have stopped, because suddenly its dance is over. The line goes slack and the rod tip relaxes, a sign that a striper has stunned the bait with a tail-slap before circling back to engulf its meal. The captain instructs me to reel in some line and to get ready. Stripers have no teeth and must swallow their prey whole. They engulf their food head first and then swim towards the surface to force the fish down their throat.

When I catch up with the fish, and it finally feels the resistance of the line, it is about 30 feet off the port side of the boat, a fishing dream machine powered by twin 200-HP engines

Instinctively, the fish turns, flashing its broad black-striped side, and then plunges to the depths. Hooked bass make a charge for obstructions like rocks, barnacle encrusted pilings, or lobster pots, in an effort to free themselves by severing the line.

As the large fish dives, the drag on the Penn GT330 baitcasting reel automatically releases line so that the pressure does not snap the “mono.” With each surge, the fish gets closer to the bottom, and closer to its freedom. The stout custom made boat rod is bent so severely that its tip is in the water and it bangs repeatedly against the side of the boat, as if sending out Morse code. The experienced charter boat captain jokes “He’s not giving you a fight, is he?”

Slowly but steadily, I began to winch the monster from the depths. Using a pumping motion, I pull back on the rod, lifting the fish upwards about three feet, and then quickly reel in line as I lower the rod. The sudden bursts of flight from the fish have become less frequent, and I can tell it’s beginning to tire, as am I. We get our first good look at the fish when it is still 6 or 8 feet down. Wow!

The fish turns away from the boat, shaking its head, in a final attempt to throw the hook. Unsuccessful, the fish rolls onto its back exposing its white belly.

Hoisted into the boat, the 40-pound striper is an inch shy of 4 feet. “Great job!” Salisbury says, offering his hand. It feels good but accolades should also go to the captain whose expertise and patience made the outing a success.

Salisbury runs his charter fishing business out of Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook and specializes in live baitfishing for trophy striped bass. When I boarded his boat at 6:00 a.m., he asked me “Have you fished for stripers before and what is your largest fish?” After hearing my response that I had been out once and caught a thirty-four inch fish, he confidently replied “Oh, we’ll beat that today.” It turns out his predication became reality.

“I grew up with a rod in my hand.” says Salisbury who started running charters just over four years ago. He is quick to mention “The time you spend fishing is not subtracted from your life – its free time.” With 40 charter trips a year, several tournaments, and time spent on the water filming TV shows for ESPN and FSN networks, Salisbury is destined to live a very long life.

The captain limits his charters to a maximum of four people, to ensure there is plenty of room to move around the boat, and so that he can give each customer personalized attention. Clients come from as far as Michigan and Canada, but most are from New England.

Salisbury likes to see women and children on his boat, and has tackle specifically designed for smaller anglers. He notes that “90% of the time, the kids and the women catch the biggest fish.” primarily because they are patient and don’t pull the bait out of the fish’s mouth. “I get a lot of people who have fished before, but have not fished this way.” he says.

Word of mouth is Salisbury’s best advertising, and he gets lots of repeat business, especially after putting his customers onto schools of monster bass. He recalls one client last season that booked five trips, with each trip yielding successively bigger fish, until finally he was catching 40-pound giants on repeated drifts.

“Everybody is after the big ones. What’s great about fishing is that you never know what you’re going to catch. Maybe the next drift will be a world record.” says Salisbury.

Striper season gets into full bloom around mid-June, with a second flurry of activity in July. The catch continues right through December, but Salisbury typically transitions to blackfish around Thanksgiving. Anglers can only keep two fish per day and they must measure at least 28 inches.

The pressure of having to put clients onto fish consistently builds a strong bond amongst charter captains. On this outing, Captain Chris Leighton, who operates High Sea Charters out of Clinton, was kind enough to share his unused bunker before heading back to the dock (www.highseascharters.com). Fresh bunker is a valuable commodity on the water, especially when the bluefish are in thick, like they are now. The blues school just above the stripers, which prefer to lie close to the bottom. Before a bunker can get eaten by a bass, it must pass through a layer of swarming sharp-toothed hyenas without getting bit in half.

Clients aboard the Lori Marie can choose from 4.5 or 6.5 hour trips and all bait, tackle, and drinks are provided. Fish kept for dinner are filleted and bagged upon returning to the dock. To contact Capt. Salisbury and arrange a charter trip to catch trophy striped bass and have the time of your life, visit: www.lorimariecharters.com or call: 203-687-1528.

Striper Facts

The world record striped bass was caught in Atlantic City, NJ by Al McReynolds in 1982. It weighed 78 pounds, 8 ounces and measured 53 inches long. Biologists determined the fish was born in 1946.

Menhaden, a.k.a. bunker, are filter feeding fish that strain plankton and algae from the water as they swim with their mouths open. They are caught using gill nets, and are a principal food source for striped bass and bluefish.

Bluefish are voracious feeders that swim in large schools. It can be difficult to get your bait down to bottom feeding fish, like striped bass, before it gets shredded by these toothy predators.