Size Matters: A Keeper Slot Fish in the Surf

I was certain I was battling my best fish of the season. The fear at this point was this fish might be too big. 

For a large fish, it took my lure very softly. I was casting to an outgoing tide on a Napeague beach west of Montauk on a pleasant late November afternoon. I reeled ever so slowly. When my lure drifted through the trough where the waves rise before they curl and crash down on the inner sandbar, I felt the telltale chatter on my rod tip.  It was the slightest quivering vibration. I stopped cranking my line. It went taut. But there was barely any pull.  I flicked the rod tip up and got a serious response. I’m into a respectable schoolie, I thought. But that idea instantly evaporated the moment I saw it break water.

The tail of this fish came up and out of the white foam where a wave broke seconds earlier and slapped down with a showy splash.  This was no schoolie bass.  This fish had the makings of a keeper striped bass, which for me would prove a rarity this fall. Hurling towards the endgame of a surfcasting season dominated by fish mostly too small to take home for dinner, I was hankering for what my friend LeeBob’s son–Broadway Baby Ryder— calls ”an eater.” This, I was starting to think, could be one.

I leaned back in earnest, pitting my rod against a fish that was hell bent to escape. The single hook of my lure had penetrated the translucent mouth flesh behind the fish’s lower lip. Shaking its head wildly, the fish did all in its power to spit the hook.  Any bit of slack in my line would give this fish a chance to swim free. The tidal current swept left to right in the shallow water on the sandbar. This hard running fish used its milieu to every advantage. It was desperate.  But I was hungry.

It was also smart. The age difference between a 24-inch schoolie and a 30-inch keeper is only about two years. But in that short time span, stripers seem to get more more clever and wily.  My fish was going to use all its weight and power to try and avoid my table.  

When the fish peeled line from my reel despite my efforts to keep it coming shoreward, I was certain I was battling my best fish of the season. The fear at this point was this fish might be too big.  Keepers used to mean a minimum length.  Way back in the dark days of striped bass decline, a 36-inch fish was the minimum take home size.  I remember catching one 33-inch fish after another on an October afternoon in the Montauk surf, each one released back to the sea.  I ate chicken that night. A few years later, when the rules were relaxed to a 33-inch minimum, I had a September evening with successive catches of 30-inch fish before finally getting one over the limit.

For the last few years, we’ve only been concerned about keepers being 28 inches. And, as nature would have it, we’ve had weeks and months of catching mostly 26- and 27-inch LeeBobs. As this season has worn on and the fish have gotten smaller—juvies, dinks, and micros from 12- to 20-inches—hope was diminishing for a late season keeper. I had only two this year, so the prospect of a quality fish was drool worthy. But for 2020 there was also a new wrinkle: a top limit to the keeper size: 35 inches. As the fish I was battling peeled line from my reel despite my efforts to keep it coming shoreward, I began to fear it could exceed the slot limit. And as much as I would have appreciated a trophy fish, I was not looking forward to another chicken dinner.

SLOT FISH: A genuine eater.

When I finally dragged it up on the beach, with a last flap of its broad and magnificent tail, I saw the fish had a head equal to that of a small dog. It was a wide and fat fish. I lifted it for a photo, put a tape measure to it, and dropped it in my cooler. 32.5 inches. A keeper right in the sweet spot of the slot. An eater for sure. 

Surprisingly, the fish autopsy revealed a fish equally hungry as me.  Instead of a belly stuffed with a whole bunker bait fish–or two or three–as its generous girth suggested, this fish’s stomach contained a single six-inch long sand eel, nearly pristine and undigested. Clearly it was inhaled intact just before the fish fell for my lure. I discarded the sand eel, trimmed up two sizable filets, and put the chicken dinner on hold for another day.

NOVEMBER SURF: LeeBob, Verizon Charlie and Billy Black keeping it honest in the whitewater.
A GOOD MORNING: And a better afternoon.

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