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The Anglers' Library: Books to While Away a Chilly Winter
Jan 29, 2007
by Jerry Vovcsko

Up here in the Northeast, the fall/winter migration is just about over and the striped bass are bound for points south with maybe a few holdovers sticking around in the local creeks, rivers and estuaries. What to do until next season rolls some four months from now? I don’t know about anyone else but I intend to keep the woodstove well stoked with kindling and hardwood chunks, the coffeepot on low simmer and a goodly supply of fishing-related volumes close at hand.

Which ones? Well, pretty much anything by Hal Lyman or Frank Woolner. Ditto Frank Daignault’s nuts and bolts look at hook and line commercial striper fishing in the sixties and seventies. And any book, magazine article or newspaper column with Phil Schwind’s moniker on it. Articles by Jim Harrison (who wrote a book, Legends of the Fall, that eventually became a movie starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins). Speaking of magazine articles, a local gent by the name of Jack Fallon used to write pretty good stuff for the Salt Water Sportsman magazine and I consider that a bonus when I run into one of Jack’s savvy pieces on anything from dunking herring for stripers in the Cape Cod Canal to catching smelt in Boston Harbor.

And let’s hear it for Tom McGuane. In front of a group of guests at author McGuane’s home, his eleven-year-old daughter once blurted, “All my dad cares about is the “F” word. When he’s not doing it, he’s writing about it.”

Naturally, that remark brought a moment of silence to the room, but his daughter was only referring to Fishing, an activity which her dad practices as well as writes about with supreme skill and an artist’s vision. Author, raconteur and wild-boy-emeritus, Tom McGuane has compiled a collection of essays that goes a long ways toward taking the edge off those chilly winter winds. It’s called: The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing, and it covers a lifetime of fishing adventures including the day after the hurricane of 1954 when McGuane and his cousin Fred went trash picking through a “lovely rubble” of smashed fishing tackle boxes, marine radios and swordfish harpoons washed ashore near Sakonnet Point by the storm.

A charter member in good standing of the Wild Boy’s Club, along with fellow flakes Jimmy Buffet, western painter Russell Chatham, and the late Hunter S. Thompson, McGuane seasons this collection of essays with a twisted sprinkling of wit, insight and off-the-wall vignettes drawn from the life of one who has dipped fly lines in western rivers, pursued tarpon and permit off Key West and cast for striped bass along the rocky shores of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Along the way, McGuane also managed to lift a glass of spirits or two with Roderick Haig-Brown, while spending many a pleasant hour with the legendary outdoor writer and fisherman pursuing steelhead in the icy streams and rivers of Vancouver Island.

About Haig-Brown, McGuane remarks: “He was trying to define the space we give to angling in our lives, and to determine its value by finding meaning in his own life. It is this that gives Haig-Brown’s writing its lasting quality.”

In an essay entitled “The Twenty Fish Day”, McGuane tells about a fishing trip back in the 60s off the Elizabeth Islands in which the bass were so thick that he and his friend considered putting their rods away and “...lipping the fish from the boat.”

Ever on the alert for the Zen element of the fishing experience, the author describes a bonefishing trip with his grown son, Thomas, and concludes: “It’s a great triumph over something or other for a father to view his son without skepticism.”

The Longest Silence was published by Alfred Knopf in 1999.

Since I started writing a column for Nor’east I’ve had a few dozen e-mails from individuals asking for directions to “...a good spot to fish from shore on the Cape.” Well, Gene Bourque, editor of “On the Water”, a Cape Cod oriented fishing publication, wrote a book entitled: “Fishing New England: A Cape Cod Shore Guide”. Not only does he list more than forty places to fish, he includes maps and directions on how to find these spots, how-to suggestions for fishing them, and tips on accessing the locations without running afoul of landowners or town officials.

A compilation of access information for locations from Bourne to Provincetown serves as a reminder that it’s always a good idea to check ahead about such matters as guidelines and permits for using four wheel drive vehicles at the National Seashore, regulations and licenses needed to obtain herring from the Cape Cod Canal herring run, parking fees and ramps and so forth. A call ahead can prevent nasty, last minute surprises, and the book includes both phone numbers and addresses for town officials.

Starting at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the guide mentions several good spots to fish along the Cape Cod Canal. This is not vague, general information. It’s specific to the point that it spells out what sort of conditions apply at each spot. For instance, at the Cribbin (named after the retaining wall that runs along the embankment), located between mile poles 220 to 245, the book reports:

“On a west tide one to two hours after the turn, a good rip forms close to shore here. Try below pole 235, at the base of the steps where there is a mussel bed. Toward the end of a dropping west tide, move down to pole 245. This is a great spot to drift an eel after dark.”

That’s good information, very specific and the product of years of accumulated experience. You could fish the Canal for a long time and not figure out something like that without shedding a lot of lures on the rip rap that litters the bottom of the Big Ditch. Actually, Canal guru Dave Laporte is among those who contributed local information to the book and when it comes to the Canal, if Dave says it’s so, you can take that to the bank.

Besides the more well known locations like the Canal, there are a number of obscure but hot-producing sites that go untraveled because they’re a bit out of the way. The Knob at Quisset Harbor is one such. Accessible via a trek through the woods across Conservation Commission lands, the Knob sits out at the end of a promontory jutting into Buzzards Bay just around the corner from the Woods Hole channel. It’s a great spot to toss plugs and poppers for blues in early summer.

And speaking of Woods Hole, directions are provided to one of my personal favorites, the stone pier behind the marine biological labs, one of the few places on the Cape where shorebound anglers have a legitimate shot at hooking up with bonito or false albacore in the late summer. And for those early season bluefish, few places deliver as well as Popponesset or Oregon beaches on the Cape’s south shore. Good maps as well as detailed instructions will bring you right to water’s edge side by side with locals who know these shallow water beaches will warm quickly drawing hungry, sharp-choppered, early season arrivals within casting range.

Scorton Creek just east of Sandwich holds winter-over striped bass and serves as a good place to get out of the way when high winds take more exposed beaches out of play. Bone Hill, the outer side of Barnstable Harbor, draws fly fishermen because of shallow, easily waded flats with plenty of drop-offs and channels between the bars. Interspersed with how-to-get-there instructions are useful gear tips, such as this one:

“Whenever possible, tie directly to the lure or use a snap or snap swivel when striper fishing. Steel leaders are unnecessary and in fact may impair the lure’s performance. Also, stripers see very well and a steel leader will spook wary fish feeding over a clear sand bottom.”

The book covers Chatham, Eastham, Truro and Provincetown with stops on both the Bay side and the outer beaches, including: Coast Guard, Head of Meadow and Race Point. As always, there are useful tips about lures, gear and bait, as well as maps and directions on finding good, productive places to catch fish.

I do wish names and locations of bait and tackle shops had been included and I would also have liked to see the Vineyard and Nantucket included in the coverage but maybe that will happen in subsequent publications. However, this book is a must-have for anyone thinking about fishing from the beach on the Cape and for $14.95 it’s one of the true bargains around. Published by the folks at “On the Water”, it can be obtained at local tackle shops, or via a call to 1-800-614-3000, or on the net at: www.onthewater.com.

“Will you catch more fish after reading this book? I can’t guarantee it. But I feel sure you will better understand the ocean and more fully enjoy your fishing.”

That’s David Ross talking and the book he’s referring to is “The Fisherman’s Ocean”. Ross, a PhD, should know. After all, he’s the author and a long time scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Not only did he make a career studying the ocean, he spends a good deal of his off time fishing it with fly, spinning gear and an occasional stint trolling when the blues and stripers play hard to get.

The book is crammed with fishing tips, descriptions of fish behavior and habits, insights about the marine environment and just about anything a fisherman might find useful in his pursuit of finned prey. Take for instance, Ross’s explanation of Snell’s Window. This esoteric scientific phenomenon has some very practical applications for us anglers, even though we may never have heard the term. Simply put, it’s the name for the small “window” of sight available to a fish looking toward the surface of the water from down below. It means that a fish looking up does not see 180 degrees from horizon to horizon but, rather, through a circle formed by a cone of about 97 degrees above each eye. That window is decreased, however, should the water be rough. And who cares, you may wonder? Well, if you’re pondering where to place your cast so that fish will actually get a look at your lure, the answer is: you do. Ross spells it out: “If you are casting a surface fly or lure to a specific fish, and it lands outside the fish’s Snell’s Window, it will not be seen by that fish.”

And why should saltwater anglers be concerned with moving water? The answer, says Ross, is simple. Because marine fish tend to feed when the water is moving, and you will catch more fish when the fish are feeding. Elementary? Yes, but he goes on to say a lot about how and where to fish that moving water. Of particular importance are his sketches and diagrams of where fish are most liable to position themselves in relation to a moving current, where they are likely to locate in an eddy, or in the long “fronts” created by current flow, and he reminds us to fish a current vertically by working the lure through different depths in order to search out where fish may be positioned. Ross points out that, in general, the velocity of a current near the bottom is about two-thirds of the surface velocity and suggests that big fish may prefer to hang around there.

“Like most organisms,” he notes, “fish want to conserve their energy; therefore, they perform life functions such as feeding in a manner that’s as easy and expends as little energy as possible.”

Sections on fishing estuaries and salt marshes are packed with useful information for the fisherman willing to study structure and environment. Ross cautions against retrieving lure or fly against the current when working the mouth of an estuary. “A small baitfish doesn’t attack a larger predator,” he says, and suggests that drifting a fly or lure through the current is a better technique which often draws a hit as the line comes tight near the end of the drift.

The chapter on beach fishing alone is worth the price of the book. Here Ross brings to bear his vast knowledge of topography, ocean dynamics, tidal effects and fish behavior to spell out the where, when and how of improving one’s chances of nailing a big striped bass. Detailed information about bars, rip currents, troughs and general bottom structure will alter the thinking of even long-time surfcasters. These beach-reading tips, for example:

“Fish such as Atlantic bonito and little tunny tend to avoid heavy surf, probably because the sand suspended in the surf irritates their gills. These fish, however, often come near the beach when surf conditions are modest; you can catch them from the beach, or from jetties that extend into or beyond the surf. Sometimes you can see fish feeding beyond casting range. If the tide is rising, these same fish may be catchable in an hour or two.”

Ross explores colors, saying that chartreuse appears to be the color of choice for most fishing situations; examines the effects of sound on fish, including some interesting thoughts about boat motors; talks about lure selection, “hookwise” fish, the Coriolis Effect on currents and a plethora of useful stuff. As this fisherman/scientist says in his introduction, he doesn’t guarantee that his book will automatically catch you more fish, but there’s no question that it will give you a much deeper understanding of what goes on in the marine environment and that information cannot help but make for a more effective fisherman.



The Fisherman’s Ocean

Published by Stackpole Books

(www.stackpolebooks.com)

$19.95 in soft cover



Do-it-yourself lure crafting seems to have recently exploded into a red-hot winter activity - year around for some folks - for anglers all across the country. Where in the past anglers automatically headed for the bait and tackle shops or discount department stores to pick up the latest offering from Rapala, or Rebel, or Creek Chub or maybe Heddon, these days it’s out to the workbench for a stint behind the lathe. Dremel tool in hand, the modern day fisherman is busy turning out his own creations.

One reason for this burst of creative energy is the ever-escalating cost (along with a commensurate drop in quality control) for some of the lures appearing on the market today. With a single YoZuri taking a big bite out of a double sawbuck, lots of folks begin to look for ways to offset the rising costs of quality plugs. Especially when it’s likely that said plug is liable to be bitten off by the first bluefish to happen across it, or sent flying into orbit should an errant loop of mono catch the bail on the way out. Whatever the reason, a small army of anglers, some of whom barely recognized wood rasp or gouge when they began, have headed off to the workbench determined to fill their tackle box before the following season rolls around.

For those folks, as well as for the more knowledgeable wood carver, I would offer a suggestion by way of the one book to have on the bookshelf if lure making is to be a part of the future. And that is: “The Complete Book of Tackle Making” by C. Boyd Pfeiffer. Now the libraries are filled with information-packed volumes on anything from plug carving to making metal spoons, offshore lures, lead jigs or wire leaders and specialty rigs. There are books to tell you what kind of tools to buy and how to use them, learned tomes containing tips and tricks on painting wood, plastic or metal lures. Want to know how to go about pouring soft plastic baits? No problem, the local library will have a couple of books on that subject and if they don’t, or can’t get one, Amazon or Barnes and Noble has them a keyboard away, have your credit card ready, thank you very much. Maybe you’d like to build a custom surf rod but you don’t know how to get those nifty diamond wrap designs the pros come up with? Yep. They’ve got books about that as well.

So why am I mentioning Pfeiffer’s book when there’s all that stuff available out there? Simple: because that stuff’s ALL there in his book, a veritable bible of anything to do with making fishing tackle. I was especially intrigued with the chapter on making metal spoons. It’s packed with useful information that steers you through the process from making wooden molds to hammer out the concave metal shape to marking “scales” using stamps made from cut-off nails. Pfeiffer writes in clear, straightforward prose that manages to convey even the most complex material in understandable terms. And he finds money-saving ways to build good stuff. Like the metal lure that emulates a Hopkins or Swedish Pimple...he does it using the cut-up handle from a dinner spoon. Or how about employing discarded condiment jars or plastic Popsicle molds to make the acrylic heads for bluewater tuna lures.

How’s your tackle box these days? Got some busted up divider sections and a hinge that may or may not hold the thing shut? Leaking is it, and you keep meaning to replace it but can never find the time? Don’t fret...there’s a section on making tackle boxes and some specialty items that should catch a surf fisherman’s interest in a jiffy...like a floating tackle box that you can string on the end of a line while you’re mucking about out there in your waders and it’ll follow you around instead of having to carry it.

There’s useful, practical advice on working with resins, plastics, lead, rubber...you name it. Never whipped a rod wrap before? No sweat...Pfeiffer’s got it covered with excellent illustrations all along the way. Want to turn plugs but can’t afford a lathe? There are plenty of ideas on how to get around that, including making your own lathe-like device using a power drill.

It’s all there and if you think you might want to make yourself a few poppers or needles, pour a rubber eel or mold a few jigs, I’d say you owe yourself a look at this book before you get too far into things. And the best part? It’ll cost you somewhere this side of a twenty-dollar bill to buy it...and likely be among the best investments you’ve ever made so far as lure craft goes. That’s C. Boyd Pfeiffer, author, and if you’re tracking it down, Lyons Press publishes it. A great winter read. Enjoy it.

These books will entertain you. And maybe even help you catch a fish or two. The thing is, when you catch them, you’ll probably want to cook and eat them. Here’s just the cookbook that can help with that. Although I browse regularly through a variety of seafood cookbooks, there is one that I consider my personal bible. The late Howard Mitcham’s “Provincetown Seafood Cookbook” is, to my mind, the best of the best. Published originally in 1975 the book has been through multiple printings - my copy is from the seventh printing, circa 1984. But, like a good bouillabaisse, it only gets better with age and additions.

Consider, as an example, that this is perhaps the only cookbook - certainly the only one that I’m aware of - that offers a recipe called “How to Cook a Sea Serpent”. Here is Mitcham at his very best:

“The only really good part to eat is the tail, starting just below the 132nd cervical vertebrae and moving outward. So you make like a chiropractor and count down to the 132nd knuckle of the backbone and cut off the tail and throw the front part away, or feed it to the cat. Cut off as many 1 1/2-inch thick steaks from the tail as you and your family can eat the first day, and put the rest in the deep freeze. To tenderize each steak lay it on a thick block of wood and pound it for 15 minutes with a baseball bat, turning it over now and then.”

Vintage Mitcham. And obviously the words of a man who has tongue tucked firmly in cheek. But make no mistake; the recipes contained therein are as delicious and elegant as anything offered up by such as Julia Childs or Jacques Pepin. And Mitcham writes with a flair and clarity that makes you want to settle down with the book and a glass of wine and read for the pure entertainment that it offers.

For instance, on the subject of cooking swordfish he has this to say:

“But dammit, most cooks in modern automated restaurants do not know how to cook it; at those roadside castles along the superhighways your swordfish steak can be hard and dry as a bone, unchewable, unpalatable and difficult to digest. Like haddock, the swordfish’s flavor is actually improved by freezing, but it has to be thawed carefully and cooked properly or you’re out of luck.”

What follows is a beauty of a Portuguese style approach along with a quirky swordfish-boiled-in-beer gem. And for those who feel the need to dive into a few thousand calories, try the swordfish-and-mushrooms recipe that features a half stick of butter and two cups of milk to get you started. Squid stew? It’s in there. Or how about steamed mussels and mayonnaise for an appetizer? Mitcham even provides the recipe for a tangy homemade mayonnaise because he hates the greasy, bland, store-bought stuff. And then there’s his own personal favorite recipe for “Haddock Amandine Meuniere”. Mitcham describes it as a dish that Provincetown fishermen would order at his restaurant, and about which he observes:

“And brother, when you sell a piece of fish to a Provincetown fisherman you have got it made: when they dine out in restaurants they usually order T-bone steaks.”



Here’s the recipe for Haddock Almandine Meuniere:



6 3/4 lb. haddock fillets

juice of 2 lemons

milk

1/4 lb. sliced natural almonds

flour

4 fresh mushrooms, thin sliced

1/2 lb. butter



Dip haddock fillets in milk, then dredge them in flour. Shake off excess flour. Melt butter in a large skillet and place fish, skin side up and cook slowly until brown, then flip the fillet over and brown the other side. Remember, saute, a long slow cook, not a hot fry - you don’t want to ruin the delicate flavor. Remove fish to warm serving plates. Add lemon juice to the butter in the pan, add mushrooms. Raise the heat high, stirring and scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to get those crisp, browned crumbs. Stir until almonds are a light golden brown (be careful about overcooking them, lest they turn bitter) pour this sauce over the fish and serve right away while it’s still hot.

I have positively salivated over this dish. I tell you truly it’s the finest fish recipe I’ve ever run across. And the best part is after you use the cookbook to make it, you can let out a notch or two on your belt, sit back and enjoy Mitcham’s prose while you eat.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are so many others.

Journeys Through the Inside Passage and Alaska Blues by Joe Upton a longtime commercial fisherman who trolled and gill-netted salmon in the deep, cold waters off the coast of Alaska. Joe happens to be a knowledgeable fisherman as well as a fine writer who knows salmon fishing inside and out and who describes such places as the Yuculta Rapids off the coast of British Columbia where the current builds to a mind-boggling sixteen knots and boats have something like a twenty-minute window of opportunity to make it through or they have to wait six hours for the tide change.

Then there’s Spike Walker’s Working on the Edge, which is a fascinating look into the crab fishing industry in the Bering Sea where crab boats a hundred feet long and more ice up and disappear every year and a crewman can make sixty thousand dollars for a couple of months work...if he isn’t maimed or killed first.

Stripers: An Angler’s Anthology, edited by John Waldman holds an entertaining collection of short pieces by an all-star collection of outdoor writers, including: Schwind, Woolner, Win Brooks, Russell Chatham, Al Reinfelder and one of my own literary favorites, T. Coraghessan Boyle who writes about the year he spent fresh out of college, netting stripers as part of a fish hatchery research program. Check out Boyle’s nifty afro in the photograph accompanying the piece.

Grab anything by Al Reinfelder, and if you can locate it in the used book shops, or perhaps on eBay, try to acquire a slim volume entitled: Bait Tail Fishing that Reinfelder wrote back in 1969. Reinfelder and his fishing buddy Lou Palma developed the Alou eel and pioneered the use of soft plastic bait tails that would morph into the Slug-Gos and Zoom Flukes of today.

Anyone who finds the bluefish a worthy opponent on light gear should give a read to John Hersey’s fine classic: Blues. Hersey manages to work in references to these magnificent fish from poets such as Homer and Elizabeth Bishop at the same time that he passes along useful practical information about the habits of this marine eating machine.

Author John Hay was the president of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster and his book, The Run is a look into the migratory life of the alewife, the lowly herring also known as “striper candy”. Hay manages to take the reader inside a fish-eye view of life in the ocean and these days, with herring runs in trouble in Cape waters, The Run is a must-read for anglers and non-anglers alike.

Leo Orsi, Jr’s Striper Chronicles transports readers to the Jamestown/Block Island area of Rhode Island and paints a word portrait of the three decades during which he fished for big stripers in the surf. His descriptions of his experiences with a hurricane or two are hair-raising and will be especially memorable to others who were there at the time.

Similar in title but a totally different book is Striped Bass Chronicles by George Reiger. Sub-titled The Saga of America’s Great Game Fish, this book traces the early known history of the striped bass from the late eighteen hundreds along the east coast to its transplantation to Oregon and California and touches down on the raffish collection of characters who fished the noble creature, from western artist Russell Chatham to east coast writer Ellington White. In one of his essays White offers this whimsical observation about the life path of the striper: “Stripers seem to regard the bay as the school they have to complete in order to graduate into the Atlantic Ocean. The school lasts four years.”

And finally, The Key West Reader, an anthology that collects such writers as Tom McGuane, Ernest Hemingway, John Ciardi and Tennessee Williams under the same covers is worthwhile including just on the basis of that diversity alone. But there’s some great stuff to be found inside. Like Hunter Thompson’s The Gonzo Salvage Company (Salvage is not looting down at the Boca Chica Bar). Okay, the fishing topic is a bit of a reach but for its pure entertainment value, the Key West Reader is a must-have.

There are lots more good selections out there and some folks will surely holler that I’ve left a favorite of theirs off my list. But one thing I can guarantee: The books I mention above will most definitely get a fisherman through the long, cold, dark days of winter and what more can you ask than that?
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