SI Vault
Emmett Gowen
October 24, 1955
Usually content to live on faith alone, the striped bass surfcaster who hasn't had a strike in years finds Montauk, L.I. a place where the miracle can happen
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October 24, 1955

Struggle For Stripers

Usually content to live on faith alone, the striped bass surfcaster who hasn't had a strike in years finds Montauk, L.I. a place where the miracle can happen

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For 10 years, since moving away from Manhattan, I had nursed a nostalgia for but one thing about it—and that was somewhat removed. I had yearned to fish again at Long Island's Montauk Point, 126 miles from Times Square. On a crisp October afternoon my wife and I pulled into the parking lot there, switched off the engine and sat quietly in the delight of an old and beloved scene revisited. We marveled that nothing seemed to have changed. Up over the dunes, like an angler's mystic vision, came a man in surf costume, carrying an exaggerated reality of a fish. He came down the slope from the lighthouse, which sits on the highest eminence. He carried the fish over his shoulder by a sash cord; its tail flapped on the concrete steps of the descent into the parking lot. A beggar gull stood with the people who watched with excitement. The fish would undoubtedly be the great one of the season for him.

To the north on the horizon lay Connecticut and Rhode Island, eastward, Block Island—way stations of the "northern fish" which come across the sound. Montauk Point is the axis of the migrations.

At high tide late the next afternoon, which had become brilliant with sun, the stripers came in. They came on Jones's Reef, gulls working over fish swirls. The east wind had brought the fish, but it was a sunshiny gale which piped up such a surf it was impossible to wade far enough to reach them. The anglers watched the foaming crests forlornly, then went off casting doggedly at other places known and named as spots where fish are caught, when they are caught—North Bar, Scott's Hole, Under the Light, Turtle Cove, Brown's and the Cocoanuts.

In all the man-days fished that day, say a score of fellows fishing all day long, one fish was caught, a 25-pounder, under the light. The car campers were talking about it in the night, across which cut the flashes from the lighthouse's revolving lamp. A woman said:

"But how do you know? Some of them are so jealous they keep it a secret. They'll hold the fish down under water to string it, or if it's night they won't turn on their light but gaff the fish in the dark."

There was truth in the woman's voice, not just in what she said but in what was back of it. For more despair of ever being able to catch a single one, more hope, more thrill and more envy, even jealousy, are experienced in this fishing than in any other. A striper surf-man persists on faith, and faith does move a mountain of effort finally to success. Then, after all the strivings, when the accomplishment comes, the triumph is followed by anticlimax, a realization that a glorious game has been played, that now it is over and you have nothing but a fish. This feeling, too, is a wild one in a sport of great emotional range. However, no matter what the outcome, there is consolation. It is something just to be at Montauk Point, after the bathing and family picnic season, projected out to wild sea but still on land.

Late in the dark gray afternoon of the next day two oldtime Montauk striper experts deliberately spaced themselves to take up the whole fishing place of Jones's Reef. That, too, was just like 10 years ago. To reach the fish they had to battle the waves to the absolute maximum of possibility, the water to the tops of their waders. Waves crested to their shoulders and were kept out, partially, by the parka being belted down tightly and a towel around the neck to catch wet dousings. One had a fish on his stringer, and, while I watched, the other caught one. He began backing out, fighting it, his rod arching thrillingly.


I struggled for footing against the blows of the waves and moved out to try to reach the school of fish. With cold water sipping into my waders, and crests slapping my face and going down the neck of my parka, I stood in line with the oldtimers. In the gloom of dusk the big waves were intimidating. One of the oldtimers quit and backed out. The other griped at me:

"You got to give me room," he said.

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