New Grounds: Cracking the Code

By Zach Harvey

The recent uproar over the familiar subject of “spot-burning” has made a disproportional number of seasoned rod-and-reelers awfully jumpy about passing along even what amount to minor (read: “not helpful”) bits of recent fishing intel.

I used to joke that the guys who were most outspoken about the need for absolute secrecy—or who ranted and raved the loudest every time one of my writers or I dared to divulge any quasi-detailed strategic advice about a named fishing spot—came up a little short in the booming authority department.

Arguing with one furious critic who resented several mentions I had made of well-traveled spots around Narragansett, RI, I cited a long-ago spot profile, penned by my friend, the late Tim Coleman, which broke down in fine detail, complete with hand-drawn diagrams laying out the positions of most of the casting perches and prime casting angles, with quite a bit of specific detail about tackle, baits, timing, and the various aspects of timing, the storied striper structure around Point Judith Light. As the debate intensified and the tethers on my temper started to fray, I challenged him: If you didn’t learn Point Judith Light from Coleman, I’m guessing you learned it from another guy who learned it from Coleman 25 years ago.

Granted, I understand that there’s some validity to the secrecy concerns, thanks mainly to our technology—GPS, but more importantly cell phones and social media—which has increased the rate at which sensitive information makes the rounds, as well as the number of unintended recipients with the capability of acting on good intel in close to “real time.”

It’s an unfortunate reality for the fishing community, especially the surfbound contingent, that shoreline access to prime striper ground has never been trickier to arrange, or more precarious, given the undue influence taxpaying land owners have exercised over the public’s legal access to privately-owned coastline. If they can’t use the noise, the garbage, or the traffic at odd hours to convince municipal governments to cut off public access to our historical casting perches, they have learned they can work wonders petitioning town managers to effectively carpet-bomb any all-important parking areas in easy range of prime striper structure with “No Parking” signs. I’ve also heard about a shocking number of 100-year-old rights-of-way (guaranteeing residents foot passage to the water) that have been deliberately obscured with tree plantings, briars, etc. by those who own the adjoining properties.

All this is a long way around to the point that regardless of our feelings about spot-burning or our patience for fishing in crowds, it is every fisherman’s responsibility to respect our precious shoreline, keeping a tight handle on garbage, keeping our own personal contributions to light or noise pollution to an absolute minimum. Often, other anglers’ disregard forces the rest of us to shame them into compliance, lest a tiny minority of fishermen cost us still more once-prime places to stand and cast.

Now that I’ve disclaimered the crap out of all that, I’d like to look at a few more time-tested ways readers hoping to improve their catch rates this season might get more and better information out of cagey sources, or cultivate their own knowledge of what lies beneath the surface in areas new to them.

Recon Rules

One aspect of spot knowledge that gives many fishing neophytes serious problems is the unshakable truth that even the best named fishing spot will produce or not produce fish in direct proportion to their grasp of (1) the exact spatial arrangement of rises, reefs, rockpiles, ledges, weeds, troughs, and bars, and (2) the interplay between the water and the bottom, given tidal timing and various combinations of weather and sea conditions. No matter how insanely good a place called “Beavertail” or “Hatchett’s” is said to be—no matter how many huge bass have reportedly come from them—not every square foot of seabed within earshot of the spot name on a chart is going to hold fish. In an alarming number of situations, only one tiny part of a reef or shoal or dropoff (a boulder, say, the size of a bread truck) will surrender fish; if you don’t know the “spots within the spot,” you can get skunked within a quarter-mile of a guy who can’t seem to keep a line out for 30 seconds without a 40-pounder trying to hang itself on each rod.

Patience is mission-critical to successful spot recon—not just because it takes time to learn the many nuances of a good hang, but because you may need to hit a given spot many times before you end up there for a prime “teachable moment.”

To elaborate a bit, for many aspiring stripermen, no amount of strategic theory can drive the point home. But give them the chance to watch, from a respectful distance, while another caster extracts a couple fish from such and such spot, and he’ll figure the place out in a day or two.

That said, few of the bona fide sharpies love the idea of giving a stranger a guided tour of their pet places. But if you can get a rough idea about the conditions under which the spot usually holds fish and attracts some casting talent, you can time your scouting accordingly. A trick I’ve used has been hitting unfamiliar spots when I suspect I’ll have company there; but rather than showing up in full gear with a million questions, I’ll wear civilian clothes, leave my rods at home, carry a pair of binoculars and a sketch book so I can make careful notes about the lay of the place, casting angles and safe footing and fixed reference points to carve up a larger area.

Same goes for boat fishermen: If, as so many newbies do, you roll right up on another vessel whose crew is putting a hurt on fish, don’t expect your unwitting teachers to stay put and help you learn a prime piece of bottom on their dime. Instead, hang back a good distance and observe. The act of showing some restraint and giving the sharper guys some space almost always pays off in the longer run—if only because you give them no reason to cover their tracks or go into counter-intelligence mode.

Another thought: I learned early and often that the quickest way to get nowhere in the spot department is to play 20 questions with locals. If you want to learn about a certain reef that’s said to hold corker sea bass, don’t ask the guys who work it daily—who tie their boats up a mile from the place. Take your question to a shop 15 miles down the coast. Ask a charter captain who never hits the place. Don’t expect anyone with so much as a grain of salt in his socks to shit where he eats, as the saying goes. But find a solid fisherman who has no personal interest in keeping your place quiet, and you might be surprised at how much he knows about the place, learn that he hates a guy who fishes the place, and is this more than willing to spill the beans.

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