Fishing Instinctively by Captain Bruce Peters
I found the spot almost accidentally. I was returning to Chatham Light from a morning fishing the rips east of Monomoy Point, and was following along the beach just outside the breakers. Usually, I would run a straight course from the rips to the buoy off the Chatham entrance, but today I had chosen to take a more exploratory path home. Just north of the inlet in between the two Monomoy Islands, I started noticing the bait. I could see vast schools of sand eels dimpling the surface as my skiff skimmed along. A flock of cormorants were working offshore of me, with a scattering of gulls overhead of them. On the beach, just above the wrack line, hundreds of gulls were standing there, as if they were waiting for something. I suspected that I was a witness to either the end or the beginning of something big. Being slack water, I knew that if there were fish under all this bait they would show better when the tide started running. An occasional bass could be seen in the breakers, so I spent most of that afternoon poking around the sandbars and the beach. As the tide dropped, two or three channels became exposed where I could go in between the bars to a calmer, deeper lagoon on the shore side of the bar, and I marked them with my loran. Beaching the boat, I grabbed my rod and a couple live eels and started walking the edge of the bar. I saw many small pods of keeper bass that day in the surf line and I caught a couple of fish, but I remember seeing many, many more than I caught. In leaving that day, I knew something was wrong, but wasn’t sure what it was. It was if the fish too, were waiting for something more. Rowing out to my skiff this morning, I pondered what had been a long week of waiting for the right conditions I suspected should be for those fish to bite. I believed the fish I found that day, would bite with the ideal combination of low light and a moving tide. Suspecting the brightness of the day I had observed had put the fish in a finicky mood, and some connection between those gulls on the beach and the sand eel concentrations, my intuition told me to go explore it. I had been there through the dropping tide in the afternoon that day with less than ideal results, so I wanted to try the rising tide in the morning. I needed the combination of the rising tide to coincide with the coming of dawn, giving me just enough daylight to see the breakers, yet not too much light to put the fish off. I hoped the big schools of sand eels would still be there. Last night’s low tide was at 2:27 am on the Chatham bar. Give or take a quarter hour, maximum flood would be at around 5:15 am. Planning to be there early, I was leaving my mooring in Pleasant Bay with plenty of time to spare to pick my way through the channels in the dropping tide. I left the running lights off to retain my night vision. Comforted by the solitude, and the tranquility of the calm night waters, yet exited about the prospects of having this beach to myself with a bucket of fresh eels, I headed down the bay and towards the cut. Once past the narrows, I opened her up towards the bluff of the golf course and Dogfish Bar. Turning the corner towards Strong Island, I could see fairly well now that I was away from the lights of the houses. The current was ebbing pretty strong, allowing me to pick my way along the center of the channel by watching the direction of the tide on the lobster buoys. Once abreast of the Chatham fish pier though, I slowed my homemade flat-bottomed skiff down. The year before, I had run aground at high speed on this bar with a dropping tide. That was a lesson I’d rather not repeat. I had to unload all my fishing gear, fuel, fish box, and battery out of the boat, take the outboard off and hump the boat back to the water, now 40 yards further away and then load all the stuff back into the boat again. Abreast of the south edge of Nauset Beach, I turned west towards the rock revetments and the channel there, and took my time to get my bearings. The current was rushing through the narrowed waterway, looking really fishy. I noticed a brief flash of light over against the rock wall, a popular fishing spot. The skiff that was fishing there also had his running lights off, and upon hearing my engine, was flashing at me to warn me of his presence. I slowed to an idle and looked it over, thinking it looked pretty good. It even smelled fishy. There are times when I get a sense or a hunch about a spot or a place, some call it “reading the water” others even try to teach this skill, but mostly its the subconscious remembrances of fishing spots we’ve visited before. An important thing I’ve learned is not to discount these hunches or premonitions as they are your natural fishing instincts telling you what to do. I now noticed another boat there and with me that would have been three, so I decided to keep going. I suspected that there were fish there though, and it is always hard to leave fish to find fish, but this morning I was acting on a bigger instinct that there was something waiting for me more distant. Idling slowly till I was well out of their drift, I throttled up and headed out into the cut. Now, I was more than halfway out, past the lighthouse, I could hear the surf on the bar. Cutting my engine, I listened carefully for the size and location of the breakers as I drifted out the channel. I could hear the water rushing against something getting louder and louder as the boat drifted closer to it. The blackish green can buoy at the end of the beach spit on the Chatham side materialized out of the gloom. I dug the spotlight out from under the seat and plugged it into the socket. It would be needed to find the radar reflectors marking the channel around the bars and to see the breakers. The swell seemed to be a foot, with an occasional two footer, small enough to cross but big enough to not risk taking your eyes off of. The “C” Buoy’s periodic moaning, together with the fact I could not see the interval of the blinking light, told me there was fog just outside the breakers. This is normal for the Chatham and Monomoy area in early August and I was glad to know it was there, as it kept many fishermen home and provided some cover for me. If the fish were at the spot, I didn’t want any company. The fog also reduced the amount of light hitting the water and hopefully keeping the fish biting longer. Carefully, I threaded my way in between the bars and the breakers as I made my way out, and once past the last radar reflector, headed south and again was following the beach down towards my new-found spot in between the beach and the bar. With excited anticipation, I hoped they would be there again! I motored on in the increasing grayness of the approaching dawn, paralleling the beach. On occasion, I would shine the spotlight onto the beach, looking for the telltale gulls that I hoped would be waiting there. I was beginning to have my doubts when I saw the first group. Then there were more! As I went further along, I was increasingly encouraged by the numbers of gulls I saw on the beach. You see, I had figured out that as the tide dropped on these bars the night before, the sand eels dug themselves into the exposed sand to wait for the next rising tide. As the gulls walked the bars feeding on the occasionally exposed sand eels, the bass were also waiting for the water to again rise over the exposed sand eel laden flats. I did not know for sure what the connection was, only that I suspected it had to do with the low light. I could now make out the darker shadows of the waves as they spent themselves against the shoreline. I could see where they formed, but did not break on the deeper channel in between the bars. Checking the loran, I saw that I was on the numbers and turning shore ward, I passed through the opening into the lagoon. As I beached my skiff against the sandbar in that gray August dawn, I had no idea it would be anything like it was. I could see stripers boiling on both sides of the boat as I crossed over the bar. They were here all right, hundreds of them, no thousands, and I had it all to myself! Hurriedly I anchored the boat behind the bar, and grabbed my scrub pad and my eel container and put a half dozen into it. I’ll pass his tip on to all - I use a 3M scrub pad, (the green ones) to grab the eels. After you try it, you won’t use a cotton rag again ! My rod, a custom 9 foot slow action baitcaster, and Garcia 6500 C3 was rigged with 15 lb monofilament, a black ball bearing swivel, 30” of 40 lb leader and a 4/0 black octopus hook snelled to the leader. Gathering up my stuff I pushed he boat off the bar into the lagoon, kicked the anchor deeper into the and started running for the surf. There were stripers everywhere I could see fins sticking up here and tails out of the water there. They weren’t exited or boiling or even moving fast, it was as if they were just rolling in the shallows. I fumbled for an eel and dropped it into the sand twice in my excitement and haste. Finally, I got it on the hook, a nice lively one and lobbed it out. I didn't even have to get my feet wet as these fish were in less than 18 inches of water. I had a pickup right away and set the hook. This fish sat there for a second, as if not believing he was hooked, and then sped off through the ranks of his buddies, scattering them with his efforts. With my light outfit it was touch and go for awhile with me giving, and then him giving until I finally led him ashore in the shallows. As I fought the fish, I noticed just how many stripers were there. It was unbelievable! In 25 years of fishing, both commercially and recreationally, on two coasts, I had never seen this many large fish in one location! Some of the bass were in the 10 to 13 pound range, most were 13 to 18 pounders, and some like the one laying at my feet, were 22 or 24 pounds. I released that one, and probably 15 more that morning, eventually taking one home for the barbeque. As the morning progressed, the behavior of the fish changed as the amount of light increased. When I first arrived, the stripers were just rolling along with their backs out of the water. Then it seemed that they were mostly in a head down position, with their tails out of the water as the feeding activity increased. On every cast I would have an immediate pickup, as if the fish were waiting for the bait. That lasted till about 8:00 am that morning. (Other days I have seen them shut off from feeding at 7:00.) From that period on the fish became more and more selective, turning away from the bait after inspecting it. I could clearly see the fish turn, look and then reject my offerings. I tried small rubber sand eel imitations as well as the live eels and it didn’t seem to matter, the bite was over. I feel that there are several reasons for the change. The natural bait disperses from the flats as the light increases, the fish can inspect the live eel better with the increased light, and realize that it is not a sand eel, and the shallowness of the water with the increased light of the day makes the gamefish shy. If there is a point to this story other than to share with you this experience, it is to affirm you to have enough confidence in your intuition to go with your instincts. On the day I found this spot, if I had kept to the original course from the rips, I would have never learned what I did about that spot. Or if I had stopped at the rock wall on the way out of Pleasant Bay that morning, I might never have experienced seeing all those stripers standing on their heads slurping sand eels off a deserted bar on a foggy Chatham morning. I have learned to take a differing way home sometimes, keep my senses open for what I may learn every day and to go with my instincts. Observations noted during the time you are on the water, are stored in the memory, guiding you to do what you feel is “the” thing to do at that time. If you can trust those recollections or hunches to guide you, then you will truly be “reading the water.”
ps: North Monomoy is no longer an island , having closed up at the beach under Chatham Light, allowing adventuresome beach fishers to now walk to this spot.
Captain Bruce Peters - www.sportfishingcapecod.com - 508 255-0911