Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Into the Surf

The outgoing tide and lack of wind make the ocean appear weak. The surf rolls lazily onto the beach and golden waves ripple across the ocean, reflecting the glow of the setting sun. Before the sky darkens and nighttime descends, Mike Mullen walks into the surf. He is wearing brown neoprene chest waders to keep him warm and dry. The air temperature is mild for an early fall evening, and Mullen wears a tee-shirt, instead of the characteristic waterproof jacket, worn by many surfcasters at this time of year. A large nylon-web belt encircles his waist to support a small tackle pouch and some miscellaneous gear, but more importantly, to limit his waders from flooding should he slip and fall in the water.

Mullen is carrying an eight foot, long-handled spin fishing rod. Attached to the monofilament fishing line is a homemade plug. The pale blue colored lure is designed to mimic a needlefish, and is just over a foot long and very slender. It is jointed in the middle so that it moves with an erratic action when twitched along the water’s surface. A tassel of synthetic white hair hangs from the rear of the plug as an added attractant. Mullen has yet to catch a fish on this particular plug, but tonight he hopes a large striped bass will be fooled by his craftsmanship.

About a dozen other surfcasters, mostly men, but some young adults and women, join Mullen in the water at the town beach in Old Saybrook. These fishermen are members of the Connecticut Surfcasters Association, and this outing was designed to introduce less experienced club members to the sport of surfcasting.

Surfcasting came into vogue as a sport towards the close of the Civil War. In 1864, a group of wealthy socialites from New York and Philadelphia decreed their passion for the sport by forming the Cuttyhunk Island Striped Bass Club on Cuttyhunk Island off Massachusetts. The club’s membership roster included such dignitaries as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, and businessmen such as John Archibold of the Standard Oil fortune.

The Cuttyhunk Island club eventually disbanded in 1921 due to the demands of World War I and a declining population of striped bass throughout New England. Over the past two decades, the striped bass population has been restored, due to conservation efforts focused on the bass’s primary spawning grounds in Chesapeake Bay, MD. A healthy fishery has reignited the passion for surfcasting among coastal fishermen.

In 1993, a group of enthusiastic surfcasters returned from a fishing trip on Cuttyhunk Island. Inspired by the Cuttyhunk Island Striped Bass clubhouse, which is now a Bed and Breakfast, and the old fishing photographs that decorate its walls, they decided to resurrect the club on the Connecticut shore. Adopting many of the rules and by-laws from the Cuttyhunk Club, the Connecticut Surfcasters Association (CSA) was formed. This non-profit organization has grown into a 117 member club that is dedicated to the promotion, protection, and preservation of the surfcasting tradition. The current membership list might not include any Presidents (yet), but its members share the same passion and dedication to the sport as their distinguished brethren.

CSA club president, Bill DeLizio explains that surfcasting is a “primitive” method for catching fish. There are no sophisticated electronics to locate fish or expensive boats that enable fishermen to race across the ocean hopping from one spot to another. Surfcasters stand in the water, outfitted with a single rod and some bait, either live or artificial, and wait for fish to come to them.

Surfcasting demands patience and knowledge. Successful anglers invest time to understand their quarry; learning about its preferred food and the underwater habitat it finds most appealing. Stripers congregate near rocky outcroppings, so fishermen search the shoreline at low tide, hoping to discover an exposed honey hole, which they can fish once the water has returned.

Many fishermen use artificial lures such as minnow shaped plugs and bucktail jigs for striper fishing. A soft-plastic bait, manufactured by Lunker City in Meriden, CT, called the “Slug-Go” is another great bait often carried by surfcasters. There is a certain satisfaction an angler gets when they fool a large bass into smashing an artificial bait, like you momentarily bested “mother nature.” The thrill is even greater if you built that lure yourself, as it will be for Mike Mullen when he hooks up with that inevitable striper. Eels and Menhaden are excellent live bait choices if you want to spare your arms from the several hundred casts that lure fishermen will make throughout an evening.

According to DeLizio, the biggest threat to surfcasting today is a lack of publicly accessible fishing water. “Some good spots only hold two people – that’s all the room there is to fish.” Productive spots are highly coveted, and guarded with secrecy. Striped bass and bluefish populations have sky-rocketed in recent years, and even though fish are available in great numbers along the shoreline, much of the ocean frontage is privately owned, leaving surfcasters with relatively few places to fish.

For those lucky anglers that get to battle with a striper, “It’s like trying to stop a train going by you.” says DeLizio. Once hooked, the striper heads towards the nearest cover, and tries to dislodge the hook by grinding its mouth against rocks or barnacles. This often means doom, as even the toughest lines can be broken. Landing a three feet long, 30 pound fish, is a testament to the skill of any surfcaster. Many fishermen practice catch-and-release to protect the fish population.

Warm summer water temperatures force serious striped bass fishermen to begin fishing long after the sun sets. Often fishing into the early morning hours, surfcasters exploit the fact that stripers roam more freely in the dark. On the darkest nights, such as a new moon, the largest fish leave their haunts, searching for easy meals. Stripers will continue to feed along the shoreline until the water temperature drops into the 50 deg F range, typically in November.

This evening, the surfcasters started fishing earlier than usual, so that experienced anglers could teach new members about the tricks and tactics of successful surfcasting while there was still light. The focus was on education, and not necessarily landing a big striper. The fishermen were optimistic that they might tie into one of the many bluefish that have invaded the shallows up and down the shoreline.

The CSA is comprised of men, women and youths from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. The club holds monthly meetings where members swap fishing stories, and plan club sponsored outings, such as their annual beach clean-ups. Education is an important part of the club, and guest speakers are at most meetings to instruct members about fishing related topics. The club sponsors a yearly signature trip to Cuttyhunk Island to fish the same water its legendary “founders” fished nearly a century and a half ago.

If you have a passion for fishing, and want to share your knowledge with others, the Connecticut Surfcasters Association welcomes new members. Monthly meetings are held at the Madison Surf Club in Madison, CT on the first Wednesday of each month at 7:30 pm. Additional information can be found on the web at: http://www.connecticutsurfcasters.com