2019 In Review: 27 Years Guiding On The Bay!
by Capt. David Bitters, F/V BAYMEN, baymenlife.com
Looking over my fishing logs for 2019, I am stunned to see we had six days of fishing with over one-hundred striped bass caught and released, and eighteen days with over fifty striped bass caught and released. Our two biggest days were September 9th and September 27th – the peak of the Fall Run in our waters. These Big Catch Days were some of the best days out of one-hundred-twenty-five days of fishing.
On September 9th we caught and released two-hundred-seventy-three striped bass. I had some of my regulars on board, Frank Harrington and his sons Greg and Frank Jr. and their good friend Ken Hartshorn. This crew has been fishing with me for many years. On this day, we had a light north wind and rising tide. Water temps were sixty-four degrees. There were huge balls of bait in the bay and we caught fish on the rising, slack, and dropping tides. The peak of the fishing was the rising high tide on the first two hours of daylight.
On September 27th we caught and released one-hundred-seventy-seven striped bass. Once again, I had Frank Harrington on board, and his three sons: Brian, Greg and Frank Jr. Water temps had fallen two degrees in sixteen days, to sixty-two degrees. Winds were light WNW and the flats and bay were loaded with bait, birds and bass. One of the biggest schools of fish stayed on topwater for two hours straight, driving the bait balls to the surface and absolutely destroying them. It was amazing to be participants in nature, in that school of bass… An exciting moment for us all was when a Bluefin tuna leaped clear out of the water right beside us on Brown’s Bank, feeding on the striped bass that were feeding on the baitfish.
As incredible as these two particular days were, I must take you back to one of the most spectacular striper blitzes I have ever fished: September 13, 2017. My crew this day were some of my regulars, Al Uhler, Ted Healey, and Jeff Hardenstine. We had a west wind, high tide dropping, and the Mother of all striped bass blitzes! We got into a school of topwater bass that measured one mile long by one-half mile wide and for five solid hours the fish drove bait to the surface and destroyed them non-stop. We caught and released a whopping BAYMEN Charters record of four-hundred-two striped bass for three rods, in five hours! Only seven of the fish were keepers, and our biggest bass was thirty-seven inches, eighteen pounds, landed by Jeff Hardenstine.
You may be wondering what we caught all these fish on and it may surprise you: four inch rubber shads. Doesn’t matter the brand but the size is important to match the size of the baitfish. Keep a variety of sizes in your tackle box at all times. There are days when the striped bass want one size only and if you don’t have it, you won’t catch them. I have been in massive blitzes over the years. As you pull into the fish, you are thinking they are so thick and blitzing so crazy, they will take whatever you throw at them. Some days this is true. But many, many days the fish will humble you if you do not have the size of the bait that they are feeding on. Trust me on this! The way that striped bass think is: size first, shape second, color third. If you have two out of three, you are going to catch a lot of fish. If you have all three, it is going to be a grand slam day. But if you only have one of them, it had better be the correct size. We call this a Selective Feed. Acres or miles of fish will key in on one size of bait. The entire school goes selective. It is a phenomena that has to be experienced more than once to be understood or believed. I want to add one comment on bluefish while we are on the topic of tackle and baits. It does not happen that often, but I have been in schools of blues that were on a selective feed. As you know, they will almost always take whatever you throw at them. But more than once I have been in a school of blues and they were in a selective feed and if you did not have the tiny size of that bait they were feeding on, you did not catch fish.
I won’t give you the exact number of striped bass we caught and released in the 2019 season, but over the past twenty-seven seasons, we have caught and released a staggering eighty-one-thousand striped bass! That is hard for even me to believe, but my daily, detailed fishing journals and logs don’t lie. The numbers are real.
I often get asked the question if I could only fish one rod and one lure for striped bass, what would it be? The long answer is, when I started guiding back in 1993, I only guided fly fisherman the first three seasons. The movie, A River Runs Though It came out in 1992, and suddenly a large portion of American anglers wanted to drink whiskey, gamble their life savings away playing poker, and take up fly fishing. Thankfully, I gave up the first two completely. But I had been fly fishing since I was ten years old when my Dad bought me my first fly rod, a fiberglass Berkley, at Stones Department store in Hanover, MA. I still have that rod and reel and it casts terrible compared to the very fine rods we have today, and I have cast just about all of them. Winston, Sage, Orvis, Temple Fork, Thomas & Thomas… I’ll stop there even though I have fished with at least thirty or forty brands. These are my all-time favorites. Add Hardy if you wish. A fine name is to be desired more than riches.
Well, the hoopla of A River Runs Through It started to die down after a few seasons, probably because everybody started to go broke and have health and marital problems, and the golden calf of fly fishing began to die down as well. But it did not die out. Far from it. What it did was gain new life and new recruits that became masters of the craft to take up where the old masters left off. Fly fishing is alive and well today and has an almost cult following like nothing we have ever seen. But I’m a Christian fly rodder, so I wouldn’t know anything about that.
Three years into my guiding career I added light tackle. Fly fishing was dying down but light tackle was absolutely exploding. At the same time, the striped bass population crash of the early 1980’s ( I actually think it started in the late 1970’s) was rebounding and, “striped bass were so thick, you could walk across the backs of them,” as our Pilgrim forefathers experienced and wrote about in the 1600’s. For many seasons, I had to keep both fly fishing and light tackle on my boat for all my charters. It was a lot of gear to manage. And most of the fly rodders could not throw a fly to save their lives. But they still enjoyed trying and they landed fish. But fly fishing is like golf: If you don’t practice a few minutes every day, when you get out on the course you won’t be “one of the boys” as they say. So, fly fishing finally became a separate entity, and anglers switched over to light tackle with great vigor. They slammed the fish on Baymen charters like you would not believe. I perfected light tackle rubber crank bait techniques for striped bass and the rest is history. That brings us up to today, the end of the 2019 season. I have a dedicated following of expert fly rodders that seek me out to guide them to striped bass, from all over the country and from many parts of the world. And I have a huge following of light tackle anglers that do the same each season. My repeat business is very, very good and I often have to put anglers on a stand-by list. I book up charters two years in advance. God has blessed me with amazing anglers and friends and I am forever grateful to Him. Somewhere in there is the answer to the original question, “If I could only fish with one rod and one lure for striped bass what would it be…?”
Over the years, Baymen anglers have set many records while fishing with me. Just when I think a record will never be broken, a very skilled angler or group of anglers breaks the old record. The September 13, 2017 Light Tackle catch and release record of four-hundred-two striped bass broke the old record by more than a hundred fish. I have said it before and I will say it again: This record may never be broken on a Baymen Charter…
On September 21, 2019, another Baymen Charter record was set on my boat. A fly rodder set the new record for the most striped bass ever caught and released by a sole fly fisherman. One of my regulars, Lt. Col. Richard “The Machine” Comstock, caught and released one-hundred striped bass on the fly with me. If you are a fly rodder, you know an amazing day is maybe 15 fish. That is about as good as it gets. If I land a half-dozen fish on the fly, I count that a great day on the water for myself, personally. On this particular record-setting day, we had some unique conditions. Winds were light East, and water temps were 61.8 degrees. The bay was like a sheet of glass. The high tides were a +8.8 and low tides were a +1.5 – +2.0! What that means on your tide chart and on the bay is, at low tide, there are still two feet of water covering the flats! And what that means to striped bass is two days of feeding Euphoria. I call it “Striper Bones” fly fishing because it is identical to bone fishing in Belize or the Bahamas for bonefish. Miles of flats around the bay still have water over them at low tide. Schools of striped bass numbering a dozen to seventy fish or more in a group, slowly cruise the flats looking for crabs and schools of baitfish. When a school of baitfish is discovered, the bass go into full attack mode and drive the bait up against a bank or bar and slash through them in a feeding frenzy. Often the backs of the bass are totally out of the shallow water and the bass are moving at intense speeds. Many times, you will see a single bass streaking across the flats, pushing water into a “V” as it pursues a single baitfish that has been separated from the school. It is very, very exciting and rewarding to fly fish these conditions and it takes time and patience by very skilled fly rodders. And it only happens for a few days in the fall when tide and wind conditions are perfect. Like the saying goes, “you got to be there.”
Well, I hope you have enjoyed reading these highlights from my 2019 season. Twenty-seven years of guiding on the bay seems like both a very long time and a brief moment in time that has past by. I have enjoyed living a life on the bay and guiding wonderful anglers from around the country and overseas. I do get tired in the work. The days are long and often grueling. There is constant pressure on you to produce for your clients. The wind is forever your nemesis. Starting at three o’clock in the morning and wrapping up around dark is a very long day, every day, for six months, all season long. But that is the life of a guide. The pay is good if you are a single man living simply. But the pay is a working wage for the guide with a mortgage, a wife, three kids, private school tuitions, and all the typical and many non-typical unexpected daily expenses of family life. I am horrified by my annual family household budget, no matter how much I cut out of it. But somehow, by the grace of God, I have been able to manage it for twenty-seven years and keep my head above water. Would I do things differently if I could go back and live it over again? Absolutely. But not everything. I would never change my client base or wish for a different crew of anglers, or for better fishermen. I am very spoiled by my clients.
But as a young man (or woman) you make decisions that will affect you the rest of your life, good or bad. The best advice I could give a young man today is, stay clear-headed, always think through everything thoroughly, and never rush into anything. Move forward at a steady, comfortable pace. Listen carefully to many elders because they know more about life than you do. Seek God with all your heart because He knows everything. Be sure of your decisions but never hesitate to stop and reassess when things are not going as expected or desired. Make changes sooner rather than later. Many of the life choices you make now as a young man, will stay with you the rest of your life.
Tight Lines & Good Fishing,
Capt. David Bitters, F/V BAYMEN, baymenife.com