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Stripers on the Edge of Insanity
October 3, 2008
The famous lighthouse at Montauk Point stands tall over hundreds of anglers braving the rocks below in search of striped bass.
Stripers on the Edge of Insanity
by Rick Bach At first glance Montauk, a fishing town on the tip of Long Island in New York, seems like a quaint village ideal for a weekend getaway. There's a plethora of charming restaurants, a handful of motels, and beautiful ocean views. But to anglers, Montauk is a Mecca. So of course, as an intern at Field & Stream, I volunteered to cover the town's annual Surf Classic, a weekend tournament that awards cash and prizes for the largest striped bass and bluefish landed. But visiting Montauk I learned something about surf fishermen that live there and flock to its shores: They're completely insane. This realization hit me like a 50-pound striper slamming a bucktail jig. I remember the exact moment it sank in. Montauk fisherman Gary "The Toad" Stevens had just left Paulie's tackle shop on his way to the beach and I was going to join him to experience surf fishing first hand. He mentioned on his way out the door that where we were going, "we might not come back." A Paulie's regular covered in tattoos and wearing a T-shirt older than me grabbed my sleeve and whispered, "Gary's one of the best fisherman out here...but he's *&@#%^* nuts."
A Montauk fisherman battles a striper and the surf while keeping his balance on his rock.(below) The author's fishing fuel. Fast-forward 27 hours. It's midnight Saturday and I'm standing on Volkswagen-sized boulder 50 feet off the Montauk beach. I'm trying to keep one eye on the knot I'm tying and one on the waves crashing into my rock. The larger ones push me back toward the boulders's edge, the cleats of my Korkers (specially designed traction soles) scratching as I slide. I just lost a bucktail to the rocks and I'm struggling to tie on a lighter one, wondering if my headlamp has a brighter setting. I can feel water squishing in my socks from the spills I took trying to get here and my shins and knees are battered from the rocks I fell on. A groove is worn in my right index finger from casting since 7 a.m. The Red Bull I drank to prepare for this late-night venture is wearing off and the darkness is playing tricks on my mind. The scary part is that I'm not thinking about heading back, I'm squinting to see if there is a rock further out I can reach.
Anglers put campers on their trucks so their beds are never too far from their rods when the blitz erupts on the beach. I know standing on rocks in the dark getting pounded by waves sounds insane, but I can explain. See, stripers feed more actively and closer to the beach at night. And from my rock I'm more capable of reaching them. Maybe I am nuts, but to understand how I went from being a terrified intern following a man who calls himself the Toad to a striper-crazed fanatic living on Red Bulls and sleeping only during less productive tides is to understand Montauk. You see, this is striper-town, USA. Sure, these fishermen eat, sleep, and drink water like the rest of us. But they eat to have energy to striper fish. And they drink to avoid dehydration while striper fishing. And they sleep...well you get the picture.
What started as a trek through crowded Manhattan ended in Paulie's Tackle Shop in Montauk, where pictures of giant stripers line the walls (below). For better or worse I will cast my lot with these striper addicts. I really have no choice. This is insanity, addiction, obsession - whatever you want to call it - and it doesn't take long to set in. To understand this quest we need to venture back to where my journey began, before Paulie's, before the cheap motel room, before the 120-mile drive down the Long Island Expressway after work. Back through the Queens-Midtown tunnel to the concrete and skyscrapers I left behind. I grew up fishing the streams and ponds of central New York and biking the trails of Cape Cod every summer. I wasn't built for the city, so it felt good to leave it behind. So standing in Paulie's, exhausted, staring at the photos of enormous striped bass, I soaked in this obsession like a dry sponge tossed into the Atlantic. It hides in the pictures of local legends, hoisting striped bass the size of third-graders by their gill plates, grinning ear to ear. Any angler with an imagination starts trying to fathom how it must feel running down the beach with a bent rod and the drag singing, and I was no exception.
Gary "The Toad" Stevens (left), who won the 2006 Surf Classic, poses with last year's winner Mike Coppola. Perhaps no one has been more stricken with this striper obsession than the Toad himself. But Gary Stevens isn't looking for a cure. No, the fifty-two year-old landscaper has fully embraced his obsession for the striper surf. And he's proof that to a striper junkie a big fish is just a temporary fix. The Toad has a 55-pound striper to his credit (It's picture hangs on Paulie's wall) and a Surf Classic title under his belt but he hasn't lost a step in his striper pursuit. I quickly fill out a form to enter the tournament and run out to catch the Toad as he shifts his truck into reverse. Time and tide wait for no man, let alone an intern from New York City.
When asked why he sports an owl atop his pickup, the Toad responds: "Because I don't give a hoot." In light of my warning from the tackle shop, I offer to follow the Toad in my truck, thinking I can escape if things get crazy. "Where I'm going, I'm the only one with the keys to get in," he laughs. He's not joking: after bouncing down a dirt trail in the Toad's pickup, adorned with a daffy-duck stuffed animal strapped to the grill and an owl on the roof, we reach a padlocked gate. John Bruno, a young Brooklyn-born striper addict who the Toad has taken on as an apprentice, jumps off the tailgate and unlocks the gate so we can drive through. "You know how I got access to this beach?" the Toad says. "I knocked on the door and politely asked!" Just then, a doe interrupts our conversation, stepping into the path and the Toad jokingly swerves in its direction. "We've got the stream, let's get the field!" he shouts. He leans out the window and yells, "I told you to duck!" to the stuffed Daffy strapped to his grill.
The Toad readies himself for the surf, while Trpoical Storm Kyle churns the water to froth (below). When we arrive at the beach, the Toad puts on his gear as you or I might answer a ringing phone: a product of years of thoughtless repetition. As he pulls his head through the watertight collar I hear his muffled voice through the neoprene: "Every time I pull this baby on a fisherman is born!" With that his head pops through, he grabs his rod and he's off. Tropical storm Kyle is whipping up the surf but the Toad doesn't hesitate to make his way out to a rock about 100 yards offshore. I watch as he braces himself against crashing waves to fire cast after cast. Meanwhile I practice using the Van Staal reel he has lent me (kindly informing me that my reel is useless crap in these conditions) and try to figure out what the epitaph on my tombstone might read. I'd hope it would go something like, "Perished at sea chasing stripers." But I figure it's more likely to read: "Foolishly followed the Toad." A shrill whistle from the Toad interrupts my daydreaming. He is pointing to something in the surf but I can't tell what. At first I think perhaps he is signaling fish but after much gesticulating I figure out what he means. Somewhere in the foaming whitewater he is pointing to a rock he wants me to get on. I take a deep breath and head out.
The surf and the rocks combine to create a perilous place to fish only for the strong-willed striper addict. It isn't the size of the rocks in Montauk, or that they're slippery that makes walking on them so perilous. No, it's the sheer number of them. There's simply no place to put your boot down for balance. Walking along the rocks would be hard enough without waves crashing at your knees every ten seconds, but combine the two and you've got a recipe for disaster. But by some miracle I make it out to the Toad. And sure enough, there's a flatter rock there. I hoist myself up and begin firing my bucktail with the wind. I've made it. I'm fishing from a rock in Montauk with the Toad. As a smile begins to creep across my face, a wave sweeps me off the rock and I taste salt as I take a full dunk.
Mike Coppola holds a 35-pound six-ounce fish that won him an October tournament in 2007. (below) The Plug Mike Coppola says took the 37-pound striper that won him the 2007 surf classic. Now you're probably thinking that the Toad is a unique specimen of the Montauk surf. But the Toad didn't win last year's Surf Classic. There are many other anglers with his passion and skill cruising around the Point. That title belongs to Mike Coppola, a 34-year-old CEO of a Manhattan-based company. Browsing through Paulie's tackle shop in a t-shirt and jeans, Coppola could easily be mistaken for a tourist trying to choose the most colorful plug. But when he talks about stripers, his tone falls to a whisper, as if he's afraid he'll be overheard. He's nothing like the Toad, who greets every person entering Paulie's with a slap on the back, answers the phone when Paulie is busy, and puts more sugar in one cup of coffee than most people use in a week.
(top) Mike Coppola, (bottom) Rick Bach
Mike Coppola has transformed his Hummer into a striper machine. Here, he gets ready to hit the water. But when it comes to striper fishing prowess Coppola can match the Toad pound for pound. When I encounter him later that evening, in his wetsuit driving his black Hummer H3 down the beach, the affable man in the tackle shop has disappeared. He politely stops to chat but he doesn't stay long. His gaze is over my head, scanning the surf for signs of fish. When I leave the beach at 9 p.m., stumbling back to my motel room for a few hours sleep, Coppola is still holding down his rock in the surf where he has landed a half-dozen fish as I sling as many different lures in vain from twenty yards away.
Coppola in front of Paulie's tackle shop with a 38-pound striper he took in 2007. Coppola, originally from Long Island, began surf-fishing seriously at 17 with his grandfather at Jones Beach. In his mid-twenties he got into a wetsuit to be able to reach more fish. "That changed everything," he said. He began concentrating his fishing during nighttime hours. The schoolies that he enjoyed at first weren't big enough any more. "I'd rather fish all night and get one 40-pounder than catch a million small fish," Coppola says. "It"s more like hunting than fishing really - stalking that one big fish."
A line of retired plugs hangs in Paulie's tackle shop. Although Coppola works and lives in New York City, that doesn't stop him from prowling for cows in the Montauk surf on a regular basis. "I'll leave a meeting at 3:30 in the afternoon, get in my truck, and be on the beach by sundown," he says. "And I'll be back with bloodshot eyes going on two hours sleep for a meeting the next morning." Coppola has become so accustomed to fishing at night that he says he feels uncomfortable fishing during the day. I haven't become nearly that comfortable so I leave him on his rock and head to check out Paulie's after ten hours of action.
Steady rains on Friday turn Montauk streets into streams. A nervous silence has settled on Paulie's on Friday night. Fishermen sit on the steps outside and mill through the rod racks inside but the morning's excitement is gone. A 16-pound fish sits atop the leader board. Hardly what these guys would call a cow. Driving rain and big surf have made the fishing difficult. The Toad speculates that winning the tournament in these conditions will have more to do with luck than anything else. "Some guy from Jersey will probably run into a fish accidentally and win the thing," he says.
Paulie Apostolides spools a reel in his tackle shop. Shop owner Paulie Apostolides moves among the fishermen with a tired ease. He is keeping his tackle shop open for the duration of the tournament (noon Friday through noon Sunday) for weigh-ins and it's beginning to show. Still, he greets me with a "what's up brother," as I enter the door and reports that there hasn't been much action since I left that morning.
A Montauk fisherman totes his catch to the parking lot at the lighthouse. Saying that staring at Paulie's pictures of monstrous linesiders turned me into an addict wouldn't be entirely true. The pictures get the wheels turning in your head, but they're just the bait. It's that first fish in the surf that really sets that hook in you, ensuring you'll never break free.
The author taking a break on the tailgate of his truck after a hard day heaving lures in the surf. For me it happened on a dreary Saturday morning on the south side of the Montauk Lighthouse. There I was, mindlessly heaving my shad into the surf, running through story angles in my head and trying to stay awake. Then it happened. Just as I began my retrieve I felt a sharp jolt and I was fighting my first Montauk striper. My dreams of a 40-pounder quickly disappeared when the drag clicked off in five-second intervals rather than a steady buzz. But it didn't matter. Working my way down the beach I was every bit as hooked as the striper. By the time I had released the fish (which couldn't have been longer than 25 inches) my mind was made up. I was going to win the 2008 Montauk Surf Classic, and I had 26 hours to do it.
The Tournament leader board at Paulie's on Saturday: an intimidating sight to the author without a keeper to his name after the first 36 hours of fishing. My walks down the beach got longer and my hours of sleep grew shorter. My trips to Paulie's weren't for tournament updates but for lures I'd seen in the mouths of landed fish. Now only one story angle ran through my mind:
Intern Wins Tournament
. But the hours flew by and the leader board grew more intimidating as I caught only schoolies. By Saturday night a 35.7-pound fish had set the bar for whoever wanted to steal an 11th hour win. The fish would be topped before the tournament ended at noon on Sunday, but not by me.
Tournament winner Greg Flanagan puffs on a victory cigar holding his new Van Staal reel. I thought my resolve would be enough. But the vision of me, holding a cow in front of Paulie's, had blinded me to some obvious truths. Most notably that Montauk is packed to the gills with anglers every bit as obsessed as I'd become, and with decades more experience, like Greg Flanagan. Flanagan is the defending Montauk locals tournament champion. The locals tournament is restricted to Montauk residents and lasts the entire surf season. It is the most coveted trophy in Montauk surf fishing. At about six o'clock Sunday morning Flanagan was tossing a big yellow plug with no action. Then he switched to a bucktail. It paid off, and he landed a 36.78-pound striper with six hours remaining in the tournament. It would hold up and net him the first place prize - $750 and a Van Staal 275 reel. "It feels good," Flanagan said between puffs of a victory cigar.
The Final Standings for the 2008 Surf Classic. After the award ceremony it's close to three o'clock and I should be headed home. The Sunday traffic will be hectic and it's been a long weekend with little rest. But the striper surf is calling and it drowns out my better judgment. Before I know it I'm on my tailgate pulling on my waders. The weather has cleared and it's a beautiful afternoon. When I reach the end of the path I find that a striper blitz has everyone scrambling up the north side of the beach. Rocks that are normally coveted real estate are left barren as anglers rush to the action. I pick out a promising granite perch and climb on.
A view of the Montauk shore from the top of the lighthouse. Firing my trusty Storm Shad from the rock I let the weekend sink in. I didn't win the tournament but I've moved passed that. I'm trying to figure out how I can make it back here. I could befriend a local and crash on his couch. Or I could sleep in my truck. Or maybe...
Fifty feet away a striper nails my lure and bolts. The drag is flowing instead of clicking this time. My mind races with possibilities. Ten minutes later I've brought my fish in. No, it's not 40 pounds, but I'm making progress. As I kneel down to grab the bass I'm washed off my rock. After some stumbling I regain my balance and retrieve the fish. It registers over 14 pounds on my Boga Grip. I hold him up and let out a whoop of soaked excitement as an angler on the beach yells, "you earned that one!"
A 50-pound bass hangs in Paulie's tackle shop. I spend my days now browsing online through surf rods that I can't afford and dreaming up schemes to make it back before the winter sets in. I read surf reports and check the Montauk weather, wondering what the bite will be like. Somewhere lurking behind a rock, off a ledge, or in a rolling wave, is my fifty-pound striper. I can picture a replica mount above my bed in my apartment. I'm saving just enough space.
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