The beast exists because it is stronger than the thing you call evolution. In it is some demon, driving it through millions of centuries. It does not surrender so easily to weaklings like you and me. –-William Alland, producer of The Creature from the Black Lagoon
Every angler is haunted by a certain fish. Mine, a redfish I hooked in the surf off a barrier beach in South Carolina, spooled my reel when I was 13 years old. I can still vividly recall the steady thumps of its powerful body as it swam seaward and the whine of my reel's drag. The fish stopped briefly on its march to deeper water, tilted its head toward the shallow, sandy bottom, and inadvertently waved its massive tail above the surface. It gave me a second of hope – maybe I had turned it! But the redfish picked up speed again, and in less than a minute I watched the last of my line unwind. My rod, now feeling the full force of the fish, bent deeply and the line snapped, its parting marked by a sound similar to the report of a .22 rifle: pow. I dropped to my knees and wept, sure that I had lost the fish of a lifetime.
The wound never heals, but I apply salve by telling my story to other fishermen. They understand. And then they relay their own tales. That's what's happening on a small dock near the Susquehanna Flats of the Upper Chesapeake Bay. Albert McReynolds is telling me about his fish. It swims in his dreams and swallows the sinker of his thoughts. Twenty-two years after he hooked the creature, McReynolds still blames it for his gypsy lifestyle and the lack of anyone he can truly call a friend. In fact, McReynolds claims the fish ruined his and his family's lives. The strange thing is, he actually caught the fish.
On September 21, 1982, McReynolds met his buddy Pat Erdman for a night of surf fishing. The first day of fall had arrived in bluebird fashion, but a nor'easter was now pinwheeling toward the coast. Thirty-five-mph winds, eight-to-10-foot swells, and lashing rain were predicted along the Jersey Shore by midnight. After plumbing a few spots without much luck, the two men pulled up to the Vermont Avenue jetty, at the northern end of Atlantic City's fabled boardwalk. The jetty extends roughly 25 yards into the ocean and is made up of a jumble of large granite boulders capped with uneven concrete.
As McReynolds and Erdman watched from the beach, large waves roared over the entire structure with a force strong enough to lift a man off his feet and into the sea. But in the water the two fishermen could see thousands of silver flashes. Schools of mullet were rushing along the length of the jetty, their flanks reflecting the light from the Showboat Casino. McReynolds understood that striped bass had the mullet pinned against the rocks and were gorging on them beneath the cauldron of whitewater.
McReynolds and Erdman pushed out as far onto the jetty as they dared and took root. The wind drove rain into their eyes, and sea spray seeped through their foul-weather gear, soaking their heavy sweatshirts. Each time a particularly large wave broke on the rocks the men were inundated with a flood of whitewater swirling up to their knees. When it receded, dozens of five-inch-long mullet were left flopping on the jetty. After a feeble cast into the maelstrom, Erdman hooked the first of many nice stripers.
None of them would compare to the giant that swiped McReynolds's lure, a five-and-a-half-inch black and silver Rebel swimming plug, at 10 p.m. The fish opened its mouth just beneath the lure, creating a hole on the sea's surface. "It looked like someone pulled the plug on a bathtub," says McReynolds. Then the fish's head rose above the foam-streaked sea, the lure resting crosswise in its mouth. For a second or two the striper seemed to be "looking dead at us," says Erdman. "It was really strange. Then it just sank straight back, tail first, like a submarine. It was the only striper I've ever seen that didn't turn and run." McReynolds reared back, driving the treble hooks into the fish's mouth. The striper responded by ripping 150 yards of 20-pound test line from his reel. The striped bass fight of the century was on.
The battle began as a one-sided affair. The fish used its enormous size to bully McReynolds and his fairly light tackle. The rod was bent to the handle as the wind blew a haunting whistle across the tight line. More than once McReynolds looked down to see that he had just a few feet of line left on his reel, so he applied as much pressure as he dared, tempting the line to break, and turned the fish. "My back was aching and my forearms were locked," he says. "I was just praying to God that I would get a look at the fish." The struggle raged, each participant giving and taking, for an hour and 20 minutes before the striper finally surfaced on its side. Now McReynolds had to step down into the raging water to recover the beast. It's a tricky endeavor when the weather is calm, requiring the agility of a sandpiper. When the weather is sloppy, it can be deadly.
McReynolds brought the fish in close to the rocks, timing his move with the passing swells, swung at it with a small hand gaff, and missed. As he readied for another shot he lost his footing and slid down the slime-coated rocks into the water. When he surfaced the behemoth was floating in front of him. "She was opening her gills, so I stuck my fist under the gill plate, and I bear-hugged her," says McReynolds. "Then Pat came down and dragged me up by the hood of my sweatshirt."
McReynolds literally collapsed on the jetty next to his fish while Erdman shouted congratulations. Then, above the roar of the breaking surf and the howling wind, the striper's sides heaved, and it seemed to exhale in a loud whoosh. Neither of the fishermen had ever heard a fish do anything like that. But it did it again and again. Soon the men were staring wide-eyed at their quarry, not sure they had even caught a fish but possibly a sea monster in the shape of a striper.