Half Rod, Will Travel
The International Fly Tying Symposium and its attendant days of fishing are over. There will be a separate posting on the Symposium. This is a story about the fishing. Variations of this story will appear in the forthcoming books, Long Flies, Designing Flies, and Stillwaters.
The International Fly Tying Symposium was celebrating its 20th anniversary. Held yearly in Somerset, NJ, the symposium draws tyers from across the world. It’s a true celebration of not only tying, but friendships as well. Theo Bakelaar, from Holland, introduced bead heads to the world at the first Symposium, and we became good friends from that time forward. Now, at last, we were going to have the opportunity to fish together.
Chuck Furimsky, founder and ongoing father of the Symposium, had been after me from the start to spend a few days around the event fishing for stripers and blues off the shore of southern New Jersey. It was something that I had long wanted to do, but my university responsibilities and speaking events seemed to always get in the way. Not this time. I arrived two days early and stayed an extra day to plumb the ocean depths with Theo and our mutual friend, Harry Schoel–a Dutchman living in Belgium—and with Chuck and his son, Ben. And plumb we did.
The seas were mildly rough the first day, and the fish stayed deep. Ben and I, and Theo and Harry fished together, while Chuck fished with another friend. We used type V sinking lines, pitching them as far as we dared in the wind, and then stripping off the rest and dumping it overboard in order to sink the flies the necessary 25 to 35 feet to the fish’s level. Then it was strip, strip, strip—fast and a bit erratic. We found blues first, and soon I was tossing a 6 to 7-inch long sand eel imitation that Ben so generously supplied. The takes were very positive and heavy. We hit the fish hard with a scissors strike, often several times. They were deep, and the line had a great deal of resistance against all that water; a weak strike would have meant a lost fish. Theo’s 13-lb blue was the top fish the first day, but I was plenty happy with the ones I caught. They can certainly pull string.
The second day, it was just Ben and I, and we found the fish in mid-morning. It was a big school of blues with a few stripers circling about. Again they were deep and eating sand eels. This day they were also extremely cooperative. We were fishing a hump in the bottom that rose from 60 feet of water to 25-30 feet, and nearly every drift we doubled. Then it was ten minutes of hard pulling, often to regain 50 yards or more of backing that the feisty blues tore off the reel before we could get them under control. We both took many fish in the 8-11 pound class, and I found one cooperative 12-pound striper that fleshed out the mix.
On the Monday after the Symposium, all five of us fished together again. The seas were rougher than earlier, and we bobbed about in the 4 to 6 foot swells, chucking line and stripping a variety of flies. Harry was soon into something big that kept him at bay for over 15 minutes. When we finally say it, we all cheered; it was a striper that weighed in at 24 pounds. That only intensified our casting and stripping. Theo was casting several variations of his eel skin designs—flies with a question mark tail cut from cured fresh-water eel skin. The action of the fly was too much for the fish to resist, and he was soon into a 20-pound striper, followed by a couple of 16-pounders. In the meantime, Chuck was catching spiny dogsharks one after another, while Ben and I had to work hard for a couple of blues. The blues were big—10 to 13 pounds—so we weren’t in the least disappointed.
Then it happened. Theo leaned back hard on his rod, It flexed deeply at the strike, and then popped apart in the middle, the top two segments sliding down the line and into the briny deep. The rod hadn’t broken, but still there was the peril of loosing the top half of his rod if the fish broke off.
The first words came clear in the wind and tossing spray, “Do you have wire on?” If it was a big blue, and Theo wasn’t equipped with a wire tippet, he’d lose the fish and the top half of the rod for sure. “Yup, you betcha,” came Theo’s enthusiastic reply. So we all settled in for the half-rod fight. The fish ripped line off the reel without seeming recourse, finally settling down for a more determined fight. “I’ll bet it’s a big dogfish,” someone yelled. “Nah, it’s a big ray or other “alien” that Theo always seems to catch,” yelled another. But the look of determination on Theo’s face said that he didn’t care, he just wanted the other half of his rod back. Minutes passed before the fly line could be seen, and minutes more before we had a good look at the creature from the deep. It was a big striper, and it ripped off again, as if the gaze of human eyes put fire in its belly. Several minutes more passed, and Theo got the fish close enough that Harry could grab the rod tip and stick it back onto the naked butt section. The fight started again, and it was still more minutes before we boated the 16-pound slab of white-hot muscle. A magnificent fish to be sure, but the great sigh that came from Theo’s throat was one of relief in having a whole rod again at his disposal.