Perhaps no better opportunity exists in New Jersey to introduce kids to big, beautiful gamefish than the spring and fall surf runs. Matt and I hooked for five years, his mother still joins us every Father's day. By then plenty of fluke should be in the surf too. Small bucktails or plastics work. But I love to feed them live-lined killies weighted with medium split shots using light tackle. We've caught dozens of stripers, plenty of blues as large as 8 1/2 pounds, and the crowning moments came in 2008 when hordes of 20 to 50-pound bass ran bunker against our favorite jetty at Long Branch. Right then I got taught the lesson: have rods rigged with snag hooks tied and ready. I managed to snag a bunker on a pencil popper, toss it up on the beach, and keep casting fruitlessly. With the bass suddenly gone, Matt groaned, reeled in his bottle popper, and kept smiling at what he had seen. I tied on a 7/0 steel hook, put it behind the flopping bunker's dorsal fin, walked to the end of the jetty, and lobbed the 16-inch fish out with my 11-foot surf rod. I knew a few bass possibly remained out of sight. The bunker lazily swam down under the clarity level. A few moments later I felt certain by how the line moved firmly that a bass had taken it. I tightened enough to feel if in fact it was a bass on--yes!
Since this would be my first big bass, I resolved I would take this one home, although my sentiments lie with the movement for catch and release. I let it take a long time--16-inch bunker. Used to live-lining extra large shiners at the most. Finally, I tightened up, and lay the hook into the fish with all I had. I couldn't budge this fish! Then it slowly began to take line off drag, continuing to gain momentum. Felt like a freight train.
The real surfsters I admire may smile at all this, but Matt and I never became seasoned in the surf anyhow. We live way out here in Bedminster. For me, having this striper on made all my personal pursuit something never to forget: a striper over 30 pounds. From the moment it took the live bunker from me, we bonded, and I didn't want that line to break! I reached to loosen the drag, but even as I was about to touch the dial, it was too late.
Since that incident, I have always paid attention to drag setting by having manually tested my reels and rods with scales, my son pulling and so on. For someone who has fished since he was eight, I played it too loose with technicalities, such as drag, but minding practical details because you really care about results is not a burden. It vitalizes you rather than wears you out, so long as you always think about what you're doing so you can minimize effort for maximum efficiency and results.
I was obsessed about that lost striper on occasion for years--you can see I still am.
One of the things I want to do someday is become a better surf angler. But if you have a son or daughter, kids, don't hesitate to just bait with fresh clams and use a fish finder rig to have fun! Just don't let children cast a surf rod with heavy weights--it's possible to get hit in the back of the head by ounces of lead magnified by momentum. We enjoyed surf fishing so much that sometimes in the fall we arrived before any light touched sky but a crescent of blue at the horizon, as we set up quickly with flashlights (I night surf fish in the fall now with a headlamp), cold as 28 degrees. It was magical being there for an early rising tide.
That shot Matt took of me happened on the real first day of our striper fishing in May 2005 at Long Branch, New Jersey, President's Park. We did go in October the previous fall at Sandy Hook and caught skates and dogfish--I learned about peanut bunker and bluefish. Afterwards we ate lunch at a restaurant in Atlantic Highlands. But if you fish, you know a tentative outing from one that grabs hold of you as you head out and never lets you down all day. The experience you undergo has significance that lasts the rest of your life and you can have hundreds, thousands of days like this.