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John Skinner

John Skinner is the author of Fishing the Bucktail and A Season on the Edge. He’s the creator of the fishing log software FishersLog. He’s a consistent producer of trophy striped bass and holds the current New York State false albacore record.

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April 29, 2013

Penn 706Z and 704Z Surf Reels to Return

by John Skinner

Could a new Penn 704Z or 706Z be in your future? Up until very recently, I would have said only if you were willing to drop about $300 on EBAY. That's the average price of the two 706Zs I've sold there in the last year, and other sellers have done much better. I guess Penn took notice. According to Penn Business manager Mike Rice, the 704Z and 706Z are being brought back due to popular demand. These will be exactly the same reels they sold before with the same parts so that the parts can be interchangeable with the reels already in use. This is rather huge for the many current owners of these reels, because parts were beginning to dry up. Rice expects the reels to retail for about $200. There's no firm date yet on when they'll hit the market, but they should be available by the end of the year.
Both of my 11-foot workhorse surf rods have Penn 706Zs on them. I'll be experimenting with replacing my inlet reel with a new Spinfisher SSV 8500 this season, but it's going to have to be a mighty fine reel to push aside the bail-less and relatively lightweight 706Z. To have yet another proven surf reel choice on the market is a big win for surfcasters.

Simplicity is one of the strong points of the Penn 704Z and 706Z reels.

April 16, 2013

A Fish Story!

by John Skinner

I had a five night shot at shore-based tarpon on last week's trip to the lower Florida Keys. Arriving on the heels of a cold front, the fish were a little off, evidenced by the fact that I didn't hear a single splash the first two nights. Still, I was doing OK, landing 3 of 14 hookups, with one of those being a trip-maker in the 80- to 100-pound range. I was real happy. Tuesday night was the last time I saw the temperature drop below 79 degrees, even in the middle of the night. It was in the mid-80s with strong sunshine during the day. By Wednesday night, I knew things were going to be different when I heard the first surface busts as the flood current began to weaken.
The next two nights were among the most exciting and frustrating I've had fishing. Big migratory tarpon were moving through and were responding to my swimshads. Over the two nights I had 5 jump-filled battles with tarpon that lasted between 15 and 25 minutes. There was one pulled hook, one cutoff on a piling, one break of brand new 50-pound-test braid when a jumped fish must have come down on the line with its gill plates, and two that chafed through 80-pound-test leader material. Having relatively little experience fishing for tarpon, this was the first time that 80-pound leader material was insufficient. In addition to these extended hookups were 17 fish that threw the hook on the initial jumps. I was now 3 for 36. I've read that the normal landing rate for hooked tarpon is about 1 in 10, but most of that is from boats.
My final night I arrived rigged with 100-pound leader material, but it was a slow start and it didn't seem that the great action of the previous nights was going to materialize. I began to think back with satisfaction on my 5 days and nights of fishing. I had actually landed a big tarpon, along with smaller 20 and 40-pound-class specimens. I had some intense jump-filled battles that I'd never forget. Despite the wind, I had managed a couple of enjoyable days fishing for barracuda on the flats in the lee of one of the larger keys.
The rare moment of reflection was interrupted by a solid jolt, and I knew from the deep rod pulsations this was another big fish. The first jump was the most spectacular I had seen in the well-lit night setting. The huge chrome fish 4 feet out of the water and flying easily 15 feet through the air laterally in front of me. It crashed to the water and just kept going with the flood current. It made several jumps on the first run and didn't stop until my spool was over two thirds empty. It was in open and obstruction-free water. A tug of war ensued for about the next 15 minutes as I gained a lot of line back as the current weakened, and finally slacked. This was the perfect scenario of fighting the fish with slow to no current. I had done the same the previous night with the first fish that broke the leader. After about 20 minutes the fish crossed in front of me, and then was in the difficult position of being downcurrent in the strengthening ebb. I didn't realize how far away the fish was until it leaped out of the water and grazed the same piling that the fish had frayed my line on the night before. This fish seemed to spook from the piling and move into the current, allowing me to gain some precious line. Throughout all of this were occasional jumps. If they don't throw the hook, jumps are good when fighting a tarpon because they zap some of the fish's energy. After each jump I'd aggressively try to put line on the reel before the fish recovered from crashing on the water.
At what I think was about 30 minutes into the fight, I had the fish in front of me and close, but we were in a standoff. The fish finally somewhat weakened, but angling its immense profile against the current. I felt a violent tug and the fish jumped close enough to splash me when it hit the water. I saw my opportunity to exploit the effects of the jump and pulled hard enough to turn its head toward me. With two more sweeps of the rod I grabbed the leader and pulled it into a corner formed by the small cement structure I was standing on and the rocks that lined the shore. I had already surveyed the water beneath me for a possible landing and knew it was only knee-deep with a firm and level bottom. With the rod in one hand and the leader in the other, I jumped in beside the fish, released the leader and grabbed the fish's lower jaw and led it a few feet into the small corner. I feared the fish would give me a nasty thrashing, but figured I could just let go if I couldn't handle it. Instead it just wobbled back and forth a couple of times and came to rest.
I knew I had little time. As I've done with stripers many times, and one other time with a tarpon, I grabbed the 10-year-old Pentax Optio from the side pocket of my surf bag and sat it on one of two perfectly positioned rocks at the water's edge. It took three button pushes to commence a series of five photos. I cut the leader, stepped back with the fish, and let the camera do the rest. I needed only to hold the fish in front of the camera as the pictures were fired off at five-second intervals. In one more button push, I was able to confirm that the fish was reasonably framed. I then grabbed my leader spool, made a loop, and hooked it over the lower jaw of the fish while I ran the line straight back to the fork of the tail. I snipped that, stuffed it in my bag, and then ran another length of line around the midsection, just ahead of the dorsal fin. There was only a jig hook where the swim shad used to be, and it popped out of the inside of the fish's mouth pretty easily. Less than two minutes had passed since leading the fish to shallow water. Reviving the fish was facilitated by the flow of the ebb-current, which now had some force behind it. It took little time for the fish to regain its strength and propel its way back into the channel. That would be my last cast of the trip.
I measured the length and girth leader segments the next day. The fish was 75 inches long with a 37 inch girth. The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust tarpon weight calculator converted that to 151 pounds. The fish was landed on a 7-foot Penn Legion Inshore 15-30 rod with a Penn 560 Slammer with 50-pound-test braid and 100-pound-test leader. A lifetime memory for sure. Now it's striper time...

April 09, 2013

More Southern Fun!

by John Skinner

Lots of wind in The Keys keeping me out of the kayak today, but the night shore bite worked out for my first night last night. Landed 2 tarpon out of 7 hookups. One was only about 20 pounds, but the one in the picture was a good one. 3-inch Gulp shrimp on a half-ounce jig head. Everything loves Gulp.

April 04, 2013

A Special Place

by John Skinner

Each day on my way to work I drive past a little cafe named "The Grind" across from the pond in Wading River. The cafe brings back memories for me because of its former life as Wading River Bait and Tackle, which occupied the building for about ten years. The tackle shop's owner, Matt Maccaro, gets the credit for getting me into kayak fishing when after I looked over one of his kayaks for about the 20th time he said - "Take it with you already and bring it back when you're done!" My fondest memory of the shop was the morning I finally got to see a scale go past fifty pounds on one of my surf-caught bass. I miss driving by the tackle shop, but it's a mighty tough business nowadays.
It's some consolation that the new cafe has excellent food at a reasonable price. Now there's another reason to make me smile when I go into the old familiar building. There are some beautiful pictures on the wall, and one of the scenes is a little more than familiar. Entitled "Wake Reflections", it's a tranquil water scene of a dock and reflections of fall colors blended by a gentle boat wake. It also happens to be the place that made some of my earliest memories, and where my parents still live.
A memory that remains vivid involves the first time I hooked a weakfish when I was no more than 8 years old. I was on a small sand point exposed by low tide on the far left hand side of the picture casting a Johnson Sprite spoon in hopes of catching one of these colorful fish that my father and older brother caught with regularity, but had always eluded me. I had been casting straight out, but a boat was coming, so I made a cast to the side to avoid having the boat run over my line. I remember that retrieve stopping like I had hooked bottom, but then the rod was pulled to the water as line peeled off the lightly set drag. That the fish was named "weakfish" because of its weak mouth had been overly impressed upon me to the point that when I got it to the shore, I was afraid I'd rip its mouth if I tried to pull it onto the sand. I screamed so loud for a net that my parents came running because they thought I was drowning. I wasn't, they didn't bring a net, and the fish didn't wait around long enough for my father to tell me that I could have just pulled it onto the beach. My first weakfish was gone, but many were landed in the coming summers as I got a little smarter.
Whether it was weakfish, snappers, or small bass, no fish was ever larger than about 16 inches. There was no house on the property back then – just a shed, a dock, and an old wooden flat-bottomed boat. On the rare occasions when adult bunker would swim through, I'd row out into their path and try to snag them, because they pulled harder than anything else. One day while reeling in a snagged bunker, my rod doubled over and I watched almost all of my line go off the reel. Somehow I held it together and managed to get all of the line back. By the time I did, the 11-pound bluefish, a monster for those waters, was so whipped that I was able to grab its tail and slide it over the side. It was the biggest fish I had ever caught at the time, beating out the 8-pound bluefish that I wrote about in A Season on the Edge.
There are many other memories as well, often involving crabs, clams, and flounder. Even though I don't think I've ever admitted it, there's also the realization that I probably would have drowned there as a child had my older brother not reached me with an outstretched oar from the old wooden boat.
One day last fall, Captain Jerry McGrath, aka "Schoolman" on Noreast, saw something special in the place as he was cruising up Mattituck Inlet and heading for the Sound, so he snapped a picture. It's now one of the most popular in his gallery of prints that he offers on his website, and a reason for me to smile while I'm waiting for a sandwich at The Grind. You can see more of Jerry's work at or on his Facebook page

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