Nights on the old Ponquogue
Copyright ? 2004
The long line of light across the western horizon was slowly fading into darkness as the first of the nighttime Striped Bass Hunters was showing up. This was a Friday night in the Hamptons. If you want a spot at the end of the old Ponquogue Bridge, you need to get here early and place your rod at the preferred spots on the northwest corner. It?s a week before Labor Day and there were still a number of summer folk around who come here just to drop a line in the water with a piece of clam or squid on the hook and hope for the best.
To be able to take a fluke or a cocktail blue back to the summer rental house they share with the other civilians would be a good conversation piece. For them, it?s something to do until the nightclubs open up. After all, that?s where the real action is, not to mention the real cocktails.
The veteran ?chunkers? and ?casters? are here when the incoming tide begins a good hour or so after dark in order to catch the arrival of the lowly shad. It is these poor shad that we offer up as a sacrifice to the Almighty Bass who patrol these waters after dark. An experienced chunker, otherwise known as a bait fisherman, will bring his shad stick ready to go with a mackerel rig and two ounces of lead already loaded. He knows the problems he can face trying to load his shad weapon in the dark, especially with four hooks dangling all over the place. The other item in his arsenal is also ready to go with the big hook on a long tether and five or six ounces of lead to hold it on the bottom in the fast moving current. This is the heavy artillery he use?s on the striped enemy he knows will be lurking in ambush near the shadow line east of the new concrete bridge built to replace the old wood bridge we fish from.
If you happen to be one of those we affectionately call ?casters,? you simply arrive with your one piece of lightweight equipment set up with an ?assassin? soft plastic bass round in place. These are the snipers of our force who roam the perimeter of the old bridge with well placed shots at the underwater striped foe. The long trek up from the vehicle assembly area teaches us to carry only the minimum gear needed for the mission. Add to that, hopefully, another 20 or 30 pounds of quarry on the way back and it becomes a bit of a haul, especially for us older vets. However, the added weight back somehow isn?t as noticeable as it would be on the way up.
Chunkers form a line along the downstream perimeter rail and watch and listen for the telltale signs of an incoming strike. His ear is tuned to the singing of his lightly set drag as the fish mouths the chunk of shad and carries it a few yards until he can inspect it for dorsal fin alignment before he swallows it. A chunker may be softly talking to his companion hunter but rarely looks him in the eye because his eye is always trained on his black and almost invisible rod tip. At any moment, usually, when not expected, he hears the startling sound of a drag taking off, being followed by a sharp downward bend of a rod tip. He needs to use both senses of sound and sight to be successful. This is the most critical moment, a hook set attempt too soon and he pulls it away from the bass. Too late and the Striper will feel growing resistance from the line as he swallows the chunk and then just spit it out. In the heat of the moment, too soon or too late can be very confused and usually luck will decide the outcome of the battle. One can eliminate some of the luck element with knowledge but luck is always a part of the hunt. One also has to make sure he doesn?t grab someone else?s rod and lose the fish, which can be embarrassing. Fishing is the great equalizer. Young or old, rich or poor or how you look makes no difference. What really counts in fishing is being there on the front lines.
On this particular night I fished with Steve, a knowledgeable and talented caster who drives an hour and a half from Queens to the old Ponquogue a few times a week. Also present was Baha, a fellow regular who is of the chunker persuasion. Steve was helping me to learn how to bounce the rubbery lure along the bottom as the swift current carried it towards the main channel under the new bridge. Striped Bass will stalk the bottom looking for left over pieces drifting down from the bluefish above that are chopping up the shad. As all fishermen and fish know, different locations require different techniques. It?s a touchy feely art, putting the lure in what you hope is the right place at the right time and avoiding the many snags of the old wood bridge structure laying on the bottom. While casting, I also had a chunker rod set out close by in the downstream. Baha, with his rather large12 foot surf rod was not too far from where my chunker line was set. Baja catches more fish than most in spite of his odd gear and methods. Knowing the idiosyncrasies of Baha?s chunk casting techniques; I was keeping one eye on my other rod tip for strikes and one eye on where Baha?s line might end up. He occasionally manages to cast over any line within 50 feet of where he is without even trying; at least I hope he isn?t. In any case, one needs to keep an eye out for where his chunk lands. (Is ?lands? proper when something hits water?) I knew that the bottom bouncing lure that I was throwing was getting close to the channel guide wood structure jutting out from the new bridge. This is where bass hang out in ambush for their prey and is also where you need to start reeling in or bye bye rig.
As I started my lure retrieval I hooked into a fish and at that exact moment Baha also hooked one on his chunk. As I worked to get my fish past the channel guide, I noticed my other rod screaming and bending. This is something all two rodders fear, yet at the same time, wish for. Two rods working and both hit at the same time. What do you do? Which one do you choose? How do you know which one has the bigger fish? The rod stuck in the wire of the fencing surrounding the railing was going crazy, telling me a big fish was on. The fish on the rod in my hands was also an admirable foe and I had to get him past the channel guide into clear water. As luck would have it, Steve had just got his lure back in so he kindly dropped his rod and took over my fish as I ran to grab for my wildly gyrating chunker rod. This may sound like a simple maneuver but try stepping around tackle boxes, six packs, seaweed and the slippery pieces of shad. This can be a little tricky when done in total darkness, while at the same time, other fishermen without a fish on, are telling you what to do. Why is it that even experienced fishermen get advice on how to catch a fish, while catching a fish, from those who can?t catch a fish?
In this scenario it is because everybody wants you to catch that fish. If fishing is a type of competition, then it?s the only one I know of where all the other competitors wish you well. You have to work it back down a few hundred feet of bridge to the rocks and bring it back up for everybody to see. It also reinforces the hopes of other fish being around. After hooking your fish and tiring him out at the channel end of the bridge, the test is to get the fish past the gauntlet of lines set out in your fish?s path to the rocks. The bigger he is, the more he can go where he wants, and the odds of getting past the mine field of lines in your way are reduced. (You could call it a line field) In any case, hit a line and you can lose the fish.
A lot of line had stripped out as I got to my chunker rod and I knew that the fish on the other end was driving downstream to the other side of the new bridge within easy reach of wrapping around the bridge pilings. It knows this will cut the dreaded line between him and freedom. I started to haul in this fish as Steve was helpfully bringing in the other one. I was feeling pretty confident when I noticed that Baha?s rod tip was bending towards where Steve and I were working. Oh no! Please don?t let it happen. It did. Baha?s line was crossed over ours and here we go. Three fish on three lines and no idea whose was where. How could it not happen? It was obvious that the three fish had exchanged words with each other in some sort of fish sonar language and had executed the classic ?massive tangle maneuver? fish design as a defensive tactic. It worked. In the dark you cannot see the direction your line is going. The rod tips pulling direction is like the compass needle is to a pilot. Reading your own fishes direction is one thing but reading two other rods at the same time just isn?t doable. The impossible task of untangling three lines of Power pro and monofilament while struggling with the pull of determined fighters in the dark became apparent. We knew we were hopelessly outgunned and decided discretion the better part of valor. We cut the lines and retreated to fight another day or more accurately, another night. Besides, should we continue as we were doing, the shouting at each other over who was at fault for the snafu would only escalate.
We like to think that we are smarter than the fish who know how to divide and conquer by making us feel we were the cause. In reality we know that it is the fish that causes the dreaded tangles. We also know that the camaraderie of fellow hunters is more important than the capture of fish.
If there was any fault amongst us it was mine. I admit to being greedy by having two lines in the water at the same time. So as not to make my fishing life complicated in an already complicated world, I now live my fishing life one line at a time.