On The Hook: Fishing’s musical chairs

Bill Walsh

Willing to bet most anyone that has fished in even the most miniature of boats that this has happened to them. Double down bets for multiple times.

On our hypothetical trip, the 20-foot center console is anchored up today on a great spot with lots of action. Everyone is getting strikes resulting in missing baits; lots of muffled expletives are heard as frustration grows. 

After the first maddening 15 minutes you begin to get some heavy strikes and are pulling in some nice “take home” fish. Comparatively, you are doing much better than the other three anglers.

Man fishing from boat on a bright sunny day

You begin to get envious glances and seemingly friendly questions et al “what size weights are you using?” “Are you keeping motion in your bait?” As the trip wears on and your catch continues big and often and the others seldom and small, those innocuous inquiries turn into envious jibes and hidden sneers.

Being Mr. (or Mrs.) Nice Guy (or Gal) and knowing your catch cooler is heading to overflow, you casually inquire to all, “would anyone like to switch places; I’d be happy to switch with someone.” You don’t want to call it a stampede, but all the other four are rapidly reeling in and heading your way.

So in a moment of reflection as you move into a “non-hookers” spot you recognize that all of you are not at the rails of the Queen Mary. You’re literally a few feet apart. What could changing places possibly do to reset the deck?

Well, welcome aboard a charter I ran a few years back that may provide some answers to that fragile question.

Our charter crew for this remarkable trip are four guys who all live in North Jersey; all members of the same golf club and who play poker together at least once a month both back home and here as well. But most of all they love fishing, again in both locales.

They charter with me once a month during the “season” so I get to see the lot of them three or four times a year. They expect every trip to be the best that ever was and “bad trip” is not in their vocabulary.

Hidden under their affable demeanor and seemingly good-natured camaraderie to one another lies the competitiveness of Olympic athletes. Woe be the guy who doesn’t contribute his share of fresh filets for the ceremonious monthly group fish fry.

With that as backdrop, we head out on the briny on that infrequently nice early March day. Mercifully, the wind was easterly and under control that then graced the gang with cleaner water and a stable water temperature tickling just a degree or two on either side of 60 degrees.

Big smiles as they tumbled aboard that morning, with thoughts that the stable conditions should give them a shot at a banner day as the sheepshead season was heading to closure as winter conditions waned.

Our trip out to the nearshore reef was uneventful; in fact it is remembered as remarkable. With the sun’s warmth and the flat seas and our last trip of the year on everyone’s mind. It was last chance of each of them to shine.

We set up on our oft used familiar spot just west of Caxambas Pass and went through the ritualistic changing of reel handles; parceling out the shrimp bait; distributing the rods and then getting the h**# out of the way. They all had their favorite fishing spot on the boat and whoa be it if anyone sets up otherwise. Baits were in the briny within five milliseconds.

Five milliseconds later two of them announced they didn’t have any strikes yet. Evident attitude: We are here and fish should know not to keep this crew waiting.

A few minutes later there were yells and hoots as one of the guys up front landed a mega sheepshead. His self-adulation and posturing set the crew’s competitive juices screaming into overdrive.

As the baits and activity aroused the “sleeping” sheepshead we began to take a number of nice sheepshead. Not jumping in the boat, mind you, and it took some nurturing and patience to entice the sheepshead into feeding. They were all landing fish periodically and the fish fry that Friday was looking good. All were landing fish except Marv.

Now, Marv’s “spot” was port side aft and he was having a terrible time. He would get his bait in the water; get a bait “bump’; retrieve and the bait would be gone. This went on and on and, singlehandedly, Marv was decimating the groups bait supply. We began giving him half shrimp baits.

The other guys were having a field day. They moved their keeper size from 12” to 14” voluntarily. But they were also giving Marv the “business” … “keep feeding then Marv, they’re going to taste like shrimp.”

Late in the trip compassion raised its sympathetic head when one of the high hooks from the bow announced “OK Marv, lets switch spots, I’m worn out lugging them in.”

Marv made the switch. He wasn’t looking for charity but neither could he survive the non-performance label at the fish fry.

They switched and everyone anticipated the scream of glee on Marv’s first fish. But that’s not exactly what happened.

Five minutes into the switch the volunteer, now in Marv’s old spot announced, “Fish on … humungous sheepshead. Poor Marv just sat there as he watched the fish he “fed” all morning being caught.

They switched back to their original spots and Marv was so down, I thought we’d have to get him to immediate “Fishing Therapy” … his spirits were crushed.

I sat with him for a moment and gingerly advised … “Marv, when all are landing fish and you’re not … it’s not the spot you’re fishing from … it’s your technique.”

In the waning moments of the trip we went over his fishing technique and noted he was taking his old sweet time in getting the slack out and gently lifting the bait and sinker.

As the trip ended, offered to go over sheepshead technique at dockside some day and that could well be the answer to his improvement and not changing spots.

So, the message delivered is that when the “music” starts stay in your chair and remake you fishing technique.

More:On The Hook: Comparative sport fishing

More:On The Hook: Incentive fishing

Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolmarco@cs.com.