By Dennis Zambrota


In the modern era of sport fishing it is the striped bass fisherman who stands alone as an icon to the humble beginning of surfcasting. Although advances in his equipment have changed for the better, the surfcaster of today still encounters the same challenges of his predecessors that fished in the earlier part of this century. In constant pursuit of the somewhat unpredictable striped bass, a surfcaster must use all his knowledge, his equipment, and an understanding of a multitude of environmental factors to hook and land a striper.
Unlike pursuing stripers from a boat where bass can often be “seen” by using modern electronics before anyone even wets a line. A surfcaster must use knowledge gained through experience, trial and error, and often times, intuition. A surfcaster must take into account the type of shoreline, weather, wind speed and direction, water conditions, time of season, tides and currents, presence of forage, what lure to use and then how to present it. Most of this is done without having ANY true knowledge that there is even a striper to be had within miles of his location. Surfcasters don’t have the luxury of an electronic fish finder that will tell them if the bass are here. A surfcaster must use all the items mentioned above to solve the puzzle. What makes this puzzle even more challenging is that it can also change from moment to moment, and it can have multiple solutions. I call this puzzle the “Great Unknown.” Solving it has become my favorite pastime for the past 40 years or so. I’m faced with the following questions each and every time I head out to cast the beach: Are the bass here? If so are they feeding and if not, why? Will they be feeding on a different tide stage or when the wind changes? Will a plug catch them? If so what color and size? If they’re not here could they be down the beach on the next bar or around the next point? There are so many spots, they all look the same, but they don’t all hold fish. How come?
The following is a typical surfcasting scenario: How many times have you run into someone else who after having a slow outing would tell you that the “Bass weren’t hitting tonight”, or “There’s nothing around.” Did you ever wonder how they knew? I mean, how does a surfcaster really know that the bass are not there? There could be thousands of bass in the water they were casting into; all watching their plugs go by but for one reason or another wouldn’t hit. You know – bass don’t eat all the time; if they did there probably wouldn’t be many left. Maybe this guy didn’t throw the right plug, or maybe he got left his favorite rock perch one cast too soon. Here’s a good one: maybe he didn’t use eels! Using eels is as close to “automatic” as surfcasters get to ensuring success. I’ve watched a caster fish a particular area for hours, get off a rock and lament the lack of bass. Another guy gets on the same rock (the rock is still warm for crying out loud!) and proceeds to catch bass on live eels until his arms hurt. Just another unpredictable part of the Great Unknown puzzle.
I’m encouraged to say that I continue to uncover secrets to the “Great Unknown” each and every season. And while at it I’m treated to the best that Mother Nature can set out for me, crisp starry nights, the sound that cobble stone makes as a wave recedes, the taste of salt spray on my mustache, the northern lights, and fire (phosphorescence) in the water. Yes, even fire in the water – yea, I hate it too but fire in the water is oh so beautiful. Just think of how fortunate you are to witness it. You tell a non-fisherman about fire and most won’t know what you’re talking about never mind seen it. Don’t take your environment for granted – enjoy it while solving the puzzle.
As I get older I continue to encounter even more questions when a new set of surfcasting conditions set up another riddle. But these questions keep the surf casting game fresh and renew my vigor in trying to solve them. I figure I have 500 questions of the great unknown puzzle solved. Only thing is the puzzle has a 1000 questions – I hope I never solve it.

Editors note :

Dennis Zambrotta is well know Rhode Island surfcaster and friend of the Surfcaster’s Journal Magazine since our humble beginnings. Dennis is also a very popular seminar speaker and he will be speaking at Surf Day this upcoming Saturday. He was fortunate to be one of the major players during the great Block Island Giant Striper Blitzes in 1980’s and he has recently wrote a  book about his experience,  Surfcasting Around the Block. You can find more information about the book by clicking on the cover. You can also purchase it from Dennis at Surf Day and other shows this winter

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10 comments on “A SURFCASTERS PUZZLE – THE GREAT UNKNOWN By Dennis Zambrota

  1. CTMatt

    I am glad that I feel the same exact way about how I fish and I feel it is engrained in all who get the bite from within. It isn’t something you learn about in a book or a web page but something you aquire solving these puzzles every night. You have to love puzzles to appreciate Surfcasting. Folks that ride the bucket brigade can’t quite grasp this 100 percent. Even with a log no two outings are ever the same. Always something new to enjoy or explore, something unique to strategically take into account. i treat my released fish with the utmost respect and i see each outing as a learning experience, a new puzzle, another reason I am lucky to be alive to enjoy it.

    I have to say as a side note…nothing beats a Block Island sunrise…or a sunset for that matter. Very humbling to fish all night and see an incredible sunrise just light up the entire horizon and then you feel its warmth. Crazy feeling. How much would it suck to go through life and not experience something so beautiful and awesome as a Commando run at night on Block? Insane feeling to just cast your troubles away at 3a.m. and just take it all in. Cool article Mr. Z.

  2. TedC

    It’s articles like this that make me realize how clueless i am about surf fishing… And thats the reason i love it so much. It is a question with no definite answer, and will humble even the most knowledgable on the topic (i am no where NEAR knowledgable compared to salty guys committed to this sport)

    I can’t think of any recreation that requires so much knowledge in so many areas of life. Surf fishing teaches you about the biology, ocean, tides, weather, geography, the mechanics of gear, organization, planning… The list goes on. In some small ways, i’ve learned more about the world around me surf fishing… Than i did in my years of school.

    Sometimes when i catch a bass it’s luck, and that’s great. But a catch i can credit to knowledge on the sport is sweetest of all.

  3. Chuckg

    I always thought that the journey to get to where I am in fishing was the most rewarding experience. Today, there are videos and books and all sorts of web sites that direct you on how to catch fish. Trial and error still remains the best teacher but you have to put the time in… So much water, so little time…

  4. BIRI

    I, too, am fortunate to call Dennis a friend (as well as President of our fishing club). We share the passion for Block Island, as well as all things “fishing”. If you haven’t been there, you’ll definitely want to go after hearing him speak and reading his book!!!

    Beware …. you, too, will get hooked!!!!

  5. crscott2

    Well written Dennis!
    I will cite this article next time a boat fisherman tries to convince me why he is a better angler.

  6. cowharbortackle.com

    I often create a plan for an outing but am often humbled by the experience whether I catch or not. Catching and releasing these fish rounds off the experience…keeping the memory and weight is often a personal thing not easily shared most times.

  7. mikebfishn

    very well said. the mental gatherings in a true fishermans head will never be understood by the weekend warriors and on-lookers. the hunt , the game , the puzzle is why we are there . obviously we want to hook up with fish but its deeper than that. gathering all info and theorys and compiling them into a strategy to locate fish is part of the obsession. Trying to out wit a apex predator in a environment we cant fully see and understand no matter how much we try . like most of you prolly do, i fish harder when i come up empty handed . the instant replay in your head doesn’t stop…why, what , where, when. changing and tweaking your approach over and over and over . Like dennis said ” i hope i never figure it out” what fun is a game that is a no brainer and you win unchallenged ever time you play

  8. Dennis Zambrotta

    Thanks for the kind words – glad you enjoyed the writing. Zeno has asked me to contribute to the blog on occasion so you’ll probably see some of my ramblings from time to time. I enjoy the feedback and feel free to ask questions.


  9. Gilly

    As a fellow surf-caster, it’s a sad moment in time when you come to the conclusion that the fish are just not there…..After trying everything in your bag (even in the small pockets), the last thing you want to think is that you just didn’t have what they ‘would have’ hit if you had it. Although most logical, I try to stay away from those evil thoughts (smiling as I type this). “The fish just weren’t there”, makes me feel more competent. There’s so much to know and so much that even if you did know, you still couldn’t nail it every time. There’s no exact science to this sport we consume ourselves with. Try this on for size: Open up GoogleEarth, zoom in as close as you can to a spot that you feel confident in, now slowly zoom out..further and further out..the possibilities are limitless as to where those few fish could be. Your fan-casting can only cover so much water, and when fishing Striper terrain, it isn’t always conducive to walk 50-75 yards down the boulder strewn shoreline every hour or so. As surf-casters, we are definitely at a disadvantage of sorts, but I will tell you this…sometimes that solace and inability to blast around from way-point to way-point IS the advantage over the boater…It’s what keeps you humble, honest and grateful for the life given you.

    Always great reading your stuff Dennis…keep it coming.


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