CAL­CU­LUS OF FLUKE

THE CIRCUITOUS ROUTE FROM HOOK-AND-LINE MER­CE­NARY TO MEN­TOR

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - BY ZACH HAR­VEY

A hook-and-line mer­ce­nary comes full cir­cle in his on­go­ing quest to land door­mat fluke. By ZACH HAR­VEY

For three weeks, I’ve taken a run­ning in­ven­tory of my fluke-fish­ing ex­pe­ri­ences to lay out a ra­tio­nal case for my ob­ses­sive 20-year cam­paign to put a cut­ting point on my door­mat-catch­ing skills. For most of my rod-and-reel­ing ca­reer, I’ve been forced to de­fend the honor of my tar­get species of choice. Fluke fish­ing is bot­tom fish­ing, and bot­tom fish­ing, ac­cord­ing to so many striper spe­cial­ists and blue­wa­ter blowhards, is brain-dead sim­ple: If you locked a chim­panzee in a broom closet with a cou­ple of rods and a tackle box, he’d emerge a week later as an ac­com­plished sinker-bouncer.

Yeah? If I locked a chim­panzee in a closet with a half-dozen 50-wides and some spreader bars, he’d come out still a chim­panzee. And 90 per­cent of your Mensa-grade tuna would still never have seen a hook. And fish­ing, re­gard­less of the species you pre­fer, would still be what you make of it.

I’ll ad­mit that my own fish­ing in­ter­ests have been heav­ily in­flu­enced by the circuitous route I fol­lowed into the fish­ery. Be­cause there were no boats in my fam­ily of ori­gin, my only way out of the in­let was in oil­skins. Fish­ing was a pro­fes­sional un­der­tak­ing with fi­nan­cial con­se­quences right from the start­ing gun.

My learn­ing curve was steep, the only sav­ing grace be­ing that I had some fish­cut­ting ex­pe­ri­ence from a Block Is­land fish mar­ket. The truth of work­ing a deck — it took me al­most three sea­sons to fully un­der­stand this — is that, to be worth a damn as a mate, you need to un­der­stand not only how the fish you’re tar­get­ing op­er­ates, but also the way your pay­ing an­glers think. Fluk­ing was our high-sum­mer bread and but­ter, and it was the first fish­ery I set out to master be­cause I knew that as I got a bet­ter han­dle on putting fish in the boat, I would see a di­rect and fairly im­me­di­ate re­turn in my tips.

Over sea­sons, largely as a mat­ter of pro­fes­sional com­pe­tence, I took a big­ger in­ter­est in my own fluke catch rate. As I took my pre­cious time be­hind the reel more se­ri­ously (read: as I started to pay at­ten­tion) I sought out more tech­ni­cally in­volved rig­ging meth­ods, and I picked up bet­ter gear specif­i­cally with fluke in mind. I took ad­van­tage of my ac­cess to the cap­tain, whose fluk­ing ex­per­tise ri­valed that of 95 per­cent of other skip­pers I know. I also put out feel­ers to friends on other boats — not just party and char­ter boats, but also the fish-trap boats, day­boat drag­gers and gill­net­ters, as well as pin­hook­ers (the rod-and-reel com­mer­cials). I com­pared notes with le­git­i­mate fluke ex­perts from other ports. And I be­gan to un­der­stand that some of the most valu­able in­tel comes from fish­eries other than fluke, and from gear types other than the rod and reel. Know­ing the tim­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion of bait

runs (squid, but­ter­fish, her­ring, mack­erel) can pro­vide in­valu­able clues about likely con­cen­tra­tions of big fluke. Like­wise, de­vel­op­ments in other fish­eries, es­pe­cially early and late in a sea­son, fre­quently co­in­cide with changes in fluke pat­terns.

The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of plug­ging into such a pipe­line was a much more ro­bust sense of the bot­tom within our range and the ways ti­dal in­flu­ences or sea con­di­tions af­fected the grounds we fished. More im­por­tant, pay­ing closer at­ten­tion to de­vel­op­ments in com­mer­cial fluke fish­ing (or fluke by­catch in other di­rected fish­eries) opened the flues in my imag­i­na­tion and filled the long gaps in a highly sea­sonal in­ter­est in fluke bi­ol­ogy. In time, I picked up win­ter work on com­mer­cial ves­sels, first gill­net­ting monk­fish along the 30-fathom curve and, later, day­boat drag­ging all over Rhode Is­land Sound and Block Is­land Sound.

With the shift to com­mer­cial meth­ods, I got a han­dle on the lay of grounds be­yond the high spots and the hard bot­tom where most rod-and-reel­ing hap­pens. I be­gan to un­der­stand fluke move­ments, both mi­gra­tory and ti­dal. Where my on­go­ing door­mat hunt was con­cerned, I got reg­u­lar chances to han­dle Juras­sic-sized slabs that we hauled from lit­tle stretches of bot­tom I would never have as­so­ci­ated with fluke. In par­tic­u­lar, large-mesh gill­net pro­vided reg­u­lar glimpses of spec­i­mens from 12 pounds to the high teens and, dur­ing one trip early in my com­mer­cial ini­ti­a­tion, the largest sum­mer floun­der I’ve ever seen. That fish, which over­shot the length and width of a reg­u­la­tion fish tote with inches to spare on all sides, must have taped 4 inches thick at the cen­ter bone and scaled well north of an un­speak­ably huge 20 pounds. Still, wher­ever my life on the pro­fes­sional deck car­ried me, I was al­ways glad when I found May on the cal­en­dar and knew I’d soon get back where I be­longed: be­hind a reel.

Dur­ing the first decade or so that I fished, I gained a solid, holis­tic un­der­stand­ing of the fluke that fil­ter into my area in April and May and re­cede off­shore, bound for win­ter grounds out­side 40 fath­oms, in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber. More to the point, I cul­ti­vated a year-round un­der­stand­ing of a fish most recre­ational an­glers ex­pe­ri­ence on a fleet­ing four-months-a-year ba­sis. It’s a hell of a lot eas­ier to learn the nu­ances of big-slab be­hav­ior when you spend seven days a week drift­ing around their grounds and col­lect­ing $20 for ev­ery new rev­e­la­tion. On the other hand, the longer you fish, the greater the dan­ger that

the fev­er­ish ado­les­cent en­ergy that car­ried you up the steep­est leg of your learn­ing curve will dis­in­te­grate un­der the strain of mort­gage pay­ments, sea­sonal burnout or the in­creas­ingly grim over/un­der for fish­ing fu­tures. The day it be­comes a purely mon­e­tary un­der­tak­ing is the day you’ve de­stroyed a ma­jor life­long in­ter­est.

Dur­ing my near month-long med­i­ta­tion on sum­mer floun­der, I’ve stock­piled enough rhetor­i­cal ammo to mow down an en­tire pla­toon of elit­ist striper­men. I also un­earthed one not al­to­gether re­as­sur­ing truth: I’m a fair hand with a rod and reel, good with a knife or a land­ing net, and can speak or write fairly ar­tic­u­lately when the sub­ject of fluke man­age­ment comes up, but on bal­ance, I’m no­body’s an­gler, and there was noth­ing recre­ational about the course I steered to get where I’ve wound up, as a recre­ational fish­er­man who finds more po­ten­tial re­lax­ation at gun­point in a hostage sit­u­a­tion than in sit­ting idle in a fish­ing boat. I’m a hook-and-line mer­ce­nary who looks shifty in peace­time.

Awhile back, a friend who spent the win­ter drag­ging brought me a half-dozen fluke that in­cluded one push­ing 10 pounds — all last­tow stuff, well-iced and in top shape, from a quick day trip out­side to 40 fath­oms (24 hours dock to dock). He hov­ered while I fil­leted them care­fully on a fish tote in my drive­way. I pep­pered him with ques­tions.

There had been squid ev­ery­where (on the drag bot­tom), he said, from 40 fath­oms out to the edge — enough meat in some ar­eas that they’d been tow­ing day and night, chip­ping away at rea­son­ably clean squid.

Im­me­di­ately I started think­ing about out­side spots, a cou­ple of pieces in deep wa­ter that must get a few big fish be­fore it warms up right out front and ev­ery­thing pa­rades north up onto the beach.

When my friend left, I pulled out two pa­per charts. Two hours later, my wife and daugh­ter re­trieved the neatly trimmed quar­ters of a 4-pounder I’d rinsed and wrapped in a pa­per towel to dry. Kaya, who was 6 at the time, wanted to add some pul­ver­ized nuts to the bread crumbs. “I’ll do it,” she told Mom.

The fish, pre­pared by Kaya, fried by Mom, was, in a word, in­cred­i­ble. “Next time,” I told the lit­tle one, “you’re go­ing to catch the fish … and fil­let them and prep the fil­lets and then fry them.”

I’ll teach you, I added, un­der my breath, feel­ing bet­ter with some real fish in my belly and a new mis­sion tak­ing shape.

There is an art and a science to un­der­stand­ing the habits of Juras­sic-size sum­mer floun­der.

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