Earning Your Stripes – By Matt Handelsman

A contribution from the Surfcaster’s Journal reader

Earning Your Stripes

By Matt Handelsman


Fishing was always my first love.  My family owned a lake house in the Catskills, specifically in Roscoe, New York.  Yup, that’s the same exit as the famous Roscoe Diner; home to the best short stack of pancakes along the route 17 corridor.  Every Friday night during the summer my parents would load up our station wagon after work and brave the throughway traffic and make the two and half hour trip up to the country with my sister and me.  The house was charming with no frills, perfect for escaping the mayhem of the city work week.  Highlighting the front yard was an old dock which jutted out about fifteen feet into the water.  The dock was tired and between its instability, and the growing amount of white paint peeling away from its surface, it noticeably showed its age.

I spent hours sitting on the edge of that dock with my parents, skipping rocks and staring at our reflections in the glass like water.  That dock edge also would later play host to the start of my love affair with rod and reel.  I was about two years old when my dad introduced me to the sport.  He would cast and I would reel in, over and over again for hours.  Between the jarring strike and radiant green hues along the flanks of that first largemouth bass I caught; I was hooked for life, pardon the pun.  It’s funny, I’m now thirty two years old with a son of my own, but I still vividly recall landing that first fish from the rickety dock nearly thirty years ago with my dad both acting as both cheerleader and coach.  After that first catch, fishing quickly became an obsession.  Sunday morning television went from being Nickelodeon to ESPN Outdoors with Bill Dance and Roland Martin.  Roland Martin’s enthusiasm for the sport was contagious, signifying every hook up by emphatically yelling “Oh Son, this is a big one!”

I quickly graduated from that wobbly dock, and it wasn’t long before I was out stalking the shallow flats and lily pads of the lake in the family canoe.  After a couple of summers filled with paddling and an incident in which I accidentally sank the canoe, my parents were gracious and forgiving enough to purchase me a small fiberglass skiff along with a four horsepower Yamaha outboard.  The first time I pulled away from the dock manning that boat I was all smiles, I felt as if I was driving the Cadillac of angling machines.  I remember thinking to myself; watch out Roland Martin, there’s a new captain in town!  That boat enabled me to learn every nook and cranny of Tennanah Lake, and there wasn’t a cove, rock pile, or drop off that I didn’t know about.  Not many ten year olds have the opportunity to say they have their own boat, and while I may not have appreciated my parent’s generosity enough at the time, I certainly do now looking back in retrospect.  The skill set I honed while plying the lake shoreline is the same skill set I apply to my fishing exploits today, a true gift my folks inadvertently bestowed upon me and one that will be sure to last a lifetime.

The summer of 1991 was first time my family made the trip out to Montauk.  At the urging of some close family friends my parents decided to change things up and in essence traded in the lake for the ocean.  Driving along the Napeague stretch between Amagansett and Montauk the subtle salty aroma of the beach crept through the open windows of the car.  It was impossible not to be intrigued of what lied east.  It wasn’t as if we had never been to the beach before, as we often took day trips to Atlantic Beach and spent some time vacationing in Florida, but this was something entirely different.  Our first glimpse of the ocean came atop a crest on old Montauk Highway in front of Gurneys; it was a view reminiscent of a postcard.  My mind instantly switched to fishing and I pondered what game fish could be lurking beneath the surface of that cobalt blue water.

Shortly after arriving in town my father and I found ourselves at Freddy’s Bait and Tackle on Edgemere Street.  I’m not sure if it was the assortment of colorful hand turned wooden plugs hanging from the walls of the shop, or the countless pictures of surf casters proudly hoisting their catch on the shops front steps, but while standing inside that shop I couldn’t wait to tackle surfcasting.  The green hues of the largemouth bass from upstate were now a distant memory, as all I could think about was the beautiful silver and purple shades highlighted by horizontal dark stripes making up the massive body of the striped bass.

Equipped with a handful of tins and bucktails we headed out with hopes of adding our picture to the ranks in the shop.  Before heading for the sand we chatted with a couple of old timers on the front steps of Freddy’s, their eyes tired and faces weathered.  Salt and pepper stubble from not shaving rounded out the quintessential fisherman look.  It was evident that these guys had paid their dues and knew their craft.  These surf rats, while intimidating, turned out to be real gentlemen with a wealth of knowledge.  They supplied us with some basic tide information, and pointed us in the direction of the Town Beach adjacent to the shop.

With a borrowed surf rod and our new arsenal of lures we walked to the beach.  My dad fired off a cast and handed the rod to me for the retrieve, the same tactic we employed years earlier on that old rickety dock.  Wielding an eleven foot surf stick while dodging walls of water is no easy task, let alone for a scrawny ten year old kid, hence our teamwork type approach.   We quickly realized we were a long way from that sleepy little country lake, and after about an hour of mere casting practice we walked back to town with nothing to show for our efforts.  After an early dinner we again geared up to hit the beach. “Persistence pays off,” my dad preached to me as we walked along the crushed shell path over the dunes to the beach.  The weather had turned slightly and the wind was now blowing at decent clip creating tumultuous surf.  The stiff wind pelted us with a mix of sand and sea spray, but it was going to take more than some stinging sand to break our spirit.

I was about three cranks of the reel handle into my retrieve when the rod suddenly doubled over.  The power of this fish was like nothing I had ever experienced before, and I instantly had visions of a trophy striper on the other end of my line just like the ones in Freddy’s.  “Nice and easy, don’t horse him in,” my dad coached while standing behind me ensuring that the fish didn’t take me for a swim.  The fish took off west before abruptly turning and charging toward the beach.  I reeled at a feverish pace in an attempt to keep the line tight and prevent the fish from spitting the hook.  What seemed like an eternity were probably only a couple of minutes, but finally an incoming wave left our fish high and dry on the sand in front of us.  At about twenty inches this striper was far from a trophy, but it didn’t matter to us as we had landed our first ever striped bass.  We gently placed her back in the water and with a swift kick of her broom like tail she was on her way.

A lot has changed over the last twenty two years.  I now have a four month old son, my wife and I’s first child.  The old quaint Lakeside on Edgemere Street is now the trendy Surf Lodge, and there is a Seven Eleven on Old Montauk Highway.  Surf fishing has also become a full blown addiction for me since that first striper.  The most used app on my iPhone is one that calculates tides, and Freddy’s is now Paulie’s.  That first trip to Montauk with my family not only provided me with a lot of exceptional memories, but helped me carve out a true passion in surf casting.  That old shaky dock may be a thing of the past as my old man and I have long since traded it in for the unforgiving slippery rocks under the Montauk lighthouse, but that dock and the time spent chasing elusive stripers under harsh conditions has solidified a bond between us, one that my little guy can be a part of in the years to come.  May that bond continue to be filled with health, laughs and of course lots of stripes!



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