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Striped Bass: The Prince of Unpredictables

Consider the Facts

Striped bass fishing is probably the toughest, most muscle-busting game ever camouflaged by the word sport. You will walk miles and cast for hours, clamber over perilous, barnacle-encrusted rocks.  You will fish night and day, from the beaches, from rock-scrabbled riverbanks and jetties, from the pitching, slippery decks of small boats.  You will seek, always and forever, for a thing called blitz–which is often as elusive as pirate’s gold at the foot of a rainbow.

Moreover, you will find this that this sport becomes an obsession.  By comparison, fluke and flounder hunters are well-mannered Saturday afternoon enthusiasts.  Tuna fishermen go out with the dawn and return at sunset. Even those wild-eyed characters who worship at the shrine of the bluefish manage to see their wives and children on occasion. Not so the salty basser.

striped bass fishing

The largest lineside ever caught on rod and line weighed 81.88 pounds.  Bass of 125 have been reported in commercial nets — netted in 1896. Yet, every striped bass fisherman in this weary world knows that some time, at some magic hour in dawn or day or deep night, he will personally hang a fish to make those great ones of the past blush with shame.  For the enthusiast, no striped monster is too ridiculous for belief, no angling triumph beyond possibility.

To pinpoint reasons for the tremendous appeal of striped bass angling is nearly impossible.  There are other fish that grow bigger, fight harder and are more difficult to catch, yet the striper has a human following that cannot be equalled.  No single species has changed the habits of the coastal angler more than this rugged, fascinating, unpredictable prima donna of the sea.

Men of absolute integrity in other matters have been know to cheat and lie when taxed with questions concerning their striper fishing.  There is one case on modern record of an angler going insane as a result of a bassing expedition. To be sure, striped bass has achieved and maintained a legendary status for generations.

Perhaps the characteristics of a the bass itself are a major factor in its popularity.  Since colonial times, the striper’s appearance, fighting qualities and tastiness upon the table have been sources of admiration.

Striped Bass in History — Striper Clubs of the 19th Century

The importance of the striped bass in colonial times continued in the history of the country as long as the fishery was productive.  To connect railroad mergers, textile mills and million-dollar combines with bass may seem peculiar, yet this great ocean sport fish played an important role in clinching some of the largest business deals in the United States.

Shortly after the Civil War had run its bloody course, bass clubs, organized by some of the most prominent industrialists, statesmen and businessmen of the day, came into being–and members settled the affairs of the growing country after the day’s catch had been weighed and a cheering glass poured.

Although most of these tycoons had their main offices in New York City, their fishing grounds for the most part were in the vicinity of the Elizabeth Island chain off the coast of Massachusetts.  With the exception of the Providence Club, which was composed of the Rhode Islanders, few New England names can be found on the old membership lists of such organizations as the Cuttyhunk Club, Squibnocket Club, Pasque Island, West Island and Cohasset Narrows clubs.  Evidently, for summer residents, Cape Cod and the offshore islands provided all the striper fishing they needed.

Pigeons, pigeon feed and pigeon care were charged against the club as a whole rather than against the account of an individual.  These birds were not to provide gunning for the members with a pigeon shoot–a favorite sport of the time: they were for communications.  Since a catboat, sailed from the mainland, supplied the only regular contact with the outside world, carrier pigeons were a necessity for men of affairs who had dealings in the distant city of New York.  The members of these Striper Clubs would have been as helpless without his winged messengers as a modern statesman would be without a cellphone.

Only a handful of clubs were equipped with modern communications.  One of the first Morse telegraph offices ran a branch line to the West Island Club near Fairhaven, CT, and according to the records, the volume of traffic sent by club members amazed the local operator.

striped bass

Communications were not limited to affairs of business and state, however.  These men liked bass fishing and they did their best to keep in touch with their quarry Bait therefore loomed large on the budget.  A single lobster-tail on an angler’s hook cost little, but the hundreds of pounds of ground menhaden, crab, lobster and eels used as chum totaled high. Fish caught and not used by the members were sold in the market and the money received from such sale was applied against the bait bill. Rarely did this account get in the black.

Once the clubhouses had been built, upkeep was not high.  These comfortable “camps” were the centers for social–and business–activities.  The clubhouses, however, were not the important structures as far as the fishermen were concerned. Bass stands were.

Bass Stands and Old School Tactics

Stands for the most part were made by driving steel rods into the rocks to support narrow wooden walkways.  At the end of each walkway was a small platform from which the angler cast. Waves often broke over these platforms to the discomfort of the fisherman and his gaffer.  During the winter months, when storms lashed the islands, it was customary to take up the structural planks and store them until the start of the next season.

striped bass

The chummer, who was an important assistant to the angler, might double in brass as a gaffer also.  Usually, however, chum was distributed from a small boat to toll the fish to the stand. The slick might be increased by an additional chummer on the rocks below the stand or by ground fish tossed from the platform itself.

Although most of the old stand supports have rusted away, the angling antiquary can find their location easily enough by spotting the drilled rocks at low tide.  These locations are still good striper areas even though much of the shore line has been changed by constant erosion.

Most famous of these old bassing clubs were those built at Cuttyhunk and Pasque Islands, on Squibnocket Point at the southeast tip of Martha’s Vineyard (where both the Squibnocket and Providence clubs were located) on West Island and at Cohasset Narrows.  At the turn of the century, Nature stepped in to hasten abandonment of these angling organizations. Striped bass all but vanished from the New England coast during the early 1900’s and the gatherings of wealthy, talented, rugged anglers, who fished with knuckle-buster reels as a the waves broke over their heads, vanished with them.

The old clubhouses still stand on Cuttyhunk and Pasque, but the method of fishing from stands has been revived only at Squibnocket.  Here are new organization has been formed, several stands have been built and a new generation is enjoying fishing second to none. Chumming as not reached the fine art which is was during the 1890’s, but it too may be revived before many years go by.

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