The bass pictured above, the one Captain Bill is struggling to hold up? Yeah, we probably shouldn’t have caught it. Maybe once or twice a season, you get a shot at a fish like this. And if you’re lucky, everything goes right and you land it.
When you do get the shot, you better not screw it up. You better make it count. Because if this big bass had finished sawing off the 50 pound fluoro with her 60 grit sandpaper mouth, or if we hadn’t been able to maneuver the boat out into the channel dodging lobster boats and cans in the 6 knot current and blinding fog, or if Captain Bill had tightened the drag four clicks instead of three, this blog would be singing a much different tune.
If we lost it, we’d be left wondering just how big she actually was, telling the story into the dead of winters to come, her approximate poundage gradually increasing with each tale told, with only the slightest hint of feigned anguish.
We’d talk about how smart that big girl was to wrap us around the “3” can, or how terrifying it was to drive straight into the Canal to chase after her with barely a view of the bow. It would haunt us; become the subject of countless jabs and stories at all manners of get-togethers. So it’s a tremendous relief that we got the shot and made it happen.
And, of course, that we didn’t screw it up.
The bass are stacked up at a socked-in East End. The fog is so thick you feel like you can climb up into it and take a nap. The powerplant appears and disappears completely as the banks roll through.
But the fish are here. Every drift along the East running tide shows schools of bass hanging near the bottom. In the first three drifts we pick up three consecutive bass on live mackerel–respectable 32″ specimen that kick away without a boat-side revive.
On the fourth drift, one of the rods kick slightly in the way it normally does when a mackerel starts to get a little nervous. It gets picked up and the liveliner gives line in a slow, steady whine. Captain Bill disengages the baitrunner and the fish pulls some drag.
Only it wasn’t.
In an instant, this fish just disappears off into the impenetrable fog, taking 200 yards of 40 pound PowerPro with it. It pulls drag as if there were no drag at all, reel screaming, bucking the rod with violent headshakes. The knot separating main braid from mono backing clinks through the guides and disappears into the water.
I start the boat and gun her into gear as Jon the Mack moves the other rods off the gunnels and Captain Bill tightens the drag exactly three clicks to try to slow the fish. This whole time, I’m silently praying there are no nicks in the leader or clumsily tied knots tightened at 3:30am in the pitch black, blinking through a lingering hangover and sleep deprived eyes. I look at the reel and see the bare spool through the mono.
The fish moves off the channel and Dad stops the fish and fights back line, standing on the bow, the fish at our 12. Just then, a big center console appears right off the bow out of the whiteout, motoring straight for the line. We wave him off and yell and beep the horn but he just looks at us and maintains course. Dad puts the nails to the fish and the rod bends forever in a parabola toward the water.
He works the fish away from the prop of the boat and they pass us. We yell some choice words for the crew of the boat and they hurl them right back. Another boat is off our stern doubled up, and we both maneuver in a tight circle, only a few feet of water separating us, keeping the fish away from each other and narrowly avoiding a collision with a rapidly approaching green can.
A fight with a really big bass is a completely different fight than that of a smaller one. They’re smart and brutally stubborn. They’ll get down current of you and hold position. With lighter gear, they can sometimes feel impossible to budge, like you’re hung up on some old submerged dock piling. They go on searing runs you’d never thought possible for a big lazy striped bass. You think you’re gaining line but look down and still see a half-empty spool.
After ten minutes of a brutal tug of war, giving and losing line, we get the fish boat-side. It looks huge in the water, massive gaping mouth, flaring gills, seven lateral stripes. Dad lifts it up, shaking, and it takes him three attempts to lift it high enough to get a picture.
“That’s the biggest bass I’ve ever seen,” my Dad says. “Unbelievable.”
It’s the biggest fish we’ve caught on the boat–later we’ll weigh it at a hair under 40 pounds and 45 inches. We decide to keep the fish. After that long fight, the odds of it swimming away healthy are not great.
It’s tough not to feel remorse for taking its life. The fish is old and beautiful and just so absurdly strong. The will to live is powerful. But you have to rationalize the situation and just appreciate the fish and the experience it gave you, and will give you in the future.
As the fog burns off, the bite dies, and the sea lays down to a silver mirror. Adrenaline still high, we cruise along the coast back to Plymouth Bay, and I can’t stop thinking about how happy I was that we didn’t screw it up.