Spot Burnout: Will Secrecy Be Our Undoing?

By Zach Harvey

I shudder to think how many grand-total hours I’ve frittered away worrying about a not-insignificant amount of hate mail and/or various generous offers to destroy my property or inflict all sorts of bodily harm from a small but extremely noisy minority of the local fishing population that works itself into a quivering rage every time anyone dares to mention a named fishing spot in a fishing report or any other vehicle capable of delivering fishing information to the larger fishing public. To name place in conjunction with fish caught, or to divulge the particulars of successfully fishing a specific beach, rockpile, ledge, or channel edge, is to engage in the heinous act of spot-burning.

It had been some years since I’d heard the dreaded words when my friend, Dave Henault, owner of Ocean State Tackle in Providence, RI, posted a fishing report a few weeks back. In said report, Henault mentioned a couple of relatively well-traveled spring striper grounds in the upper reaches of Narragansett Bay and touched off a minor doodoo storm of harsh words and hostile emoji’s on the chat boards. Damn you, Dave Henault, cried the internet fish-report etiquette police, Damn you to hell, you person who talks about places…you public fishing-area discusser…you shameless mentioner of places people sometimes try to catch fish. You…you…you…SPOT-BURNER.

Much as, in the wake of my recent spot-burn flashback, I’ve been toying with the idea of incinerating a prime June piece in one of those once-a decade “park-there-stand-here-cast-this-there-then” features, my Inner Rotten Bastard tells me I can stir up more trouble over more coastline, and probably help a few more of y’all who read this catch a little better for longer if I avoid spot specs all together.

Let me rephrase that: Why burn only one spot when, in a manner of speaking, I can burn every secret spot with an article or three?

The Secrecy Problem

What any fisherman with a little time in the hunt knows—and every neophyte learns early and often—is that knowing the where is helpful, but being able to recite a nautical sounding name for a little tract of unseen seabed is not the same thing as pulling up on a set of lat-lons and sinking the boat with fish in 20 minutes. Hell, “where” is a 10-part decision. Then there are a half-dozen variables that feed when, another 10 that add up to how.

On face value, fishing reports are entertaining—good fuel to life-support your brain through a Friday afternoon clock-watch at the office. But unless the info is minutes-old and straight from your Grampa, don’t expect one-stop shopping in the truth department. But if you’re serious about improving your catch rate this year, and willing to invest some real time and energy in a bit of background study, you can start to extract real, live intel from even those seemingly useless entries your BS detector tells you are written purely for marketing purposes.

There’s an art to pumping your fellow rodmen for information; if you work at it, you’ll discover that, armed with two or three relatively innocuous details from the guy who clobbered fish last night, you can look up, manipulate, cross-reference, and calculate most of the fragments he withheld—and weave all those loose strands into a pretty solid picture of what put a load of good fish in the guy’s boat. With some practice and disciplined record-keeping, you’ll be stunned by how much you can learn in a few months’ time. If your family of origin tempered your character with some old-world dysfunction—armed you with the power of manipulation—you might find a year or two down the line that you’re ready to go pro.

Reverse Engineering

Regardless of your target species, first piece of the local puzzle is to cultivate a pretty thorough understanding of the major over-arching tide influences. That means learning the directional orientation of the flooding and ebbing tides relative to various important grounds within your range. When I fished Block Island on a daily basis, knowing that off the SW Corner, flood tide runs approximately SE to NW, ebb about the opposite lets me predict the interplay between forecasted winds, sea conditions, and tidal current, which in turn lets me make reasonably sound predictions (or calculations backwards through time) about actual drift/trolling/anchoring conditions. Certain sets of conditions favor good fishing in certain areas, but also create nightmarish sea conditions in others, helping (forward or in reverse through time) to rule out areas of likely fish production that were or will be unfishably horrid.

Figuring out where Capt. Fantastic was when he took three 40-pounders last night gets easier when you can rule out two of his five known secret spots with conditions, two with tidal timing relative to when he left or got back in. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I’ve written before, I gained my basic tidal current knowledge from poring over the all-important “current charts” in the annual Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book. When you look at the big picture between Montauk, Block Island, Watch Hill, or Long Island Sound, you’ll start to find predictable order in what initially looks like tidal chaos. When you’re working backwards, trying to time a secretive captain’s big haul, cross-referencing current tables against the aforementioned current charts, which illustrate tidal direction and velocity through an entire 12-hour cycle, and allow you to calculate timing of key alignments (or deteriorations) of drift conditions or high-percentage fishing windows.

As important as the directional orientation of the overall push and pull of water is learning in at least a rudimentary way the basic lags between tides in different parts of your home waters. Knowing that an ebb tide, which runs about W to E, roughly parallel to the shoreline along RI’s south shore “beach,” tells you that you’ll get a charge of tide much sooner off Misquamicut than off, say, Green Hill. It’s another bit of info that narrows time when you’re pinning someone down.

A guy might slip and tell you the tide had just started ebbing when he set up the first drift right at sunset. If you look up the time of sunset for the three places he might have been, the current charts might eliminate one or two, where tide would still have been flooding when the sun sank in the west.

Of course, there’s much more to the art of prediction or “postdiction” than time and tide. The next piece of the puzzle—the human variables—warrants a full investigation, and lest any of the spotophobes come up short on reasons to decorate their dartboards with my likeness, I have a growing list under the heading of the Dark Arts, techniques that should help relative beginners boost their understanding of grounds in their range despite the shroud of secrecy and distrust that has eroded much of the solidarity in our so-called fishing community in recent seasons.

Stay tuned.