The Midnight Rambler….Addition By Subtraction



The Midnight Rambler

John Papciak

Addition By Subtraction
I’ve been lucky enough to have been mentored by a few very good surfcasters over the years. I am guessing that some of the willingness to clue me in had to do with my rookie enthusiasm. But I also know that some of this “mentoring” only happened because of my ability to change how I approached things. And along the way, this very often required me to take a jab.

Years ago the late George Wade gave me an important lesson on bucktailing at North Bar in Montauk, during a Nor’easter. After he set the hook on the second fish – to my zero – he looked my way.

“What the F*** are you doing?” he screamed above the roar of the white water.

“This ain’t no Moriches!”

“Any @sshole can drop a bucktail into a inlet and catch a bass.”

I knew this was intended to be a dig on any residual confidence I might have been hanging on to after a good run in the spring at the said location.

Some other surfcasters might have been offended. Maybe it was just me, but I thought this was incredibly funny – and maybe a little true.

Ken Kassan, on the other hand, tended to be a bit softer on the delivery, but often just as direct.

“You really want to know how to fish bucktails?” he once asked.

“Go out fishing next time with a handful of bucktails in your pocket, nothing else…better yet, go out for a whole month with only bucktails. Leave all that other sh*t at home.”

And so I started to realize that addition by subtraction had an important place in surfcasting.

To put this into my own words: You might never really learn to fish a certain plug, or a certain style of fishing, unless you are mentally committed to fishing this way. And how committed could you be, if you could easily make a change the minute you thought it wasn’t working out?

Going out with the kitchen sink is probably the worst thing a fisherman can do, especially a beginner.

It is easy to understand the fear of possibly being stuck on the water without the hot plug or the hot color, but there is this fine line that is easily crossed when all those options becomes a major distraction.

I see evidence of the phenomenon whenever guys get together to talk about their favorite plugs.

“I really love the Gibbs needlefish, this is my favorite lure when fishing Montauk,” one might say.

“Really?” asks the next. “I’ve never had much luck with them.”

“When have you tried them?” inquires the first.

“Oh, a bunch of times, but I never get anything so I switch after a few casts,” is the common reply.

On the water we all do stupid things. On land, it all seems so obvious. You don’t fish a plug because you’ve never had much luck with it…but you’ve never had much luck with it probably because you’ve never really fished it long enough to know.

Well, I did take Kenny Kassan’s advice, way back when. At the time, Long Island had this electric Power Plant in Northport. Hot water spilled into Long Island Sound all winter long, and there were very often willing takers staged in the outflow on the coldest nights in February. A perfect place and time to dedicate night after night to bucktails. I learned about speed of retrieve versus current versus weight, and I learned the subtle differences of pinging the bottom every now and then, versus dredging the bottom – all stuff I might never have understood if I were rotating through the surf bag.

The same thing happened with needlefish.

You’d have to agree with me on this one – you pull a needlefish through the water and you wonder how in the world a fish might be drawn to strike this lifeless stick with hooks, right?

I was not an early fan, and I remember many conversations with many surfcasters, from Jack Yee to Manny Moreno. Manny finally convinced me I needed to change my thinking, and I agreed to take a few sessions in mid November and dedicate those to needles. And so one week I tried to put all the distractions of fishing reports here and there out of my head. My game plan was simple – start at a beach – any beach would do – and just walk and cast Gibbs needles. In this case, Jones Beach Field Six would fit the bill nicely, and so with a NE wind and building seas, I set out walking. It worked! After the third or fourth fish I learned that these stupid lures could catch fish.  It certainly helped that I was fortunate to have intercepted fish when prevailing reports were not so encouraging – to the point that my results were strong enough to tempt others to hit the same stretch of beach… using the same lure I had so little faith in a few nights earlier.

The latest experiment concerns fly fishing, and for the most part, the story is not so different.

A good bit of my current MO involves back bays in and around the Long Island Jones Beach area. This time of year, I’ll pack a ten weight along with a 10 foot Kennedy Fisher matched with my trusty old VS 300. I have found it hard to leave the spinning rod at home, but most nights the fly rod does match or out-fish the spinning rod… oh but I still fear those few nights when wind, depth or distance makes the fly rod a handicap.

Yes, I know there are some aspects of fly fishing the Northeast at night – under a variety of those less favorable conditions – that will never be fully mastered unless I resolve to leave that spinning gear at home.

Addition by Subtraction.


8 comments on “The Midnight Rambler….Addition By Subtraction

  1. Steve Tag

    Sounds like George, and sounds like Kenny!

    Speaking of bucktails, needlefish, and the north side, I would often throw the stubby SS needle with just a bucktail or feathered siwash, sometimes a thin strip of Uncle Josh, no treble, or when the wind was really howling in your face and the water not very deep, a fat 3 1/2 ounce Hab’s Night-N-Gale. I always thought of those as variations on a bucktail.

  2. Bob Jones

    You gotta love George. He gave me at least 50 lectures like that over the years. It was his way of saying: I love you. Tough love.
    If he didn’t like you, he would just say: Go f…. Yourself!
    nice piece, John.

  3. Awesome John

    Ken Kassan was my mentor…

    he used to go crazy when I brought a briefcase full of lures to the beach and changed the plug every other cast 🙂
    The late George Wade was a very outspoken guy with serious rough edges in his educating style.
    Getting school by Georgy Wade was like getting sandblasted when you had a sunburn. Jeez was he blunt.. but every one he taught (Ken Kassan included) turned out to be a very great fisherman…

    Those guys would leave the truck with one plug on the rod and another two in their belt pouch and that was it…

    Ken told me once “if a bass is hungry and on the prowl he will take a presentation if it is presented properly in front of him… it really don’t matter what lure ” I had a hard time understanding that at first until I sat on the docks at Cuttyhunk and watched the bass pick off the squid one by one…. then Kenny came by and we went to the sand bar by the jetty and he put on a bomber (knowing that they were hitting squid) and picked up a huge bass… then he put on a bucktail.. picked up a bigger bass… he turned to me and said “ya see, when their hungry the will take every opportune meal in front of their noses “but” you must learn to work the plug CORRECTLY”…

    These guys had their hand skills honed to the T…. they were masters of the bucktail, the redfin and the bomber, the pencil popper and the tin… thats all they took to the beach and fished “their plugs” perfectly and ALWAYS out fished everyone else… Vito is like that too…. I saw him out fish “everyone in Montauk all week long” with one plug.. he didn’t even take a bag with him… just had his pockets stuff with a certain plastic shad that he made dance in the water perfectly..

    Its the way of the Grand Masters….
    their humble approach is built on years of experience with each plug…
    They are very keyed in on “presentation” and have had skills that are perfectly honed to the lure they are presenting… I have seen Kenny with my own eyes walk up to a line of fisherman 200 years long and everyone catching “nothing” and Kenny would take two casts… and land two fish.. and smile and go back to the jeep and sit down.. he would do this every 20 minutes repeatedly just to freak everyone out… everyone else was so frustrated casting so far and working pencils and tins in a strong breeze.. Kenny was nailing fish on a short cast with loaded Redfins…. He told me he learned how to use a Red fin from the late Percy Heath who was the master of the Redfin.

    Ah yes when you watch and learn from these great fisherman you see that “less is more”

  4. Steve Tag

    John, I bet you’re talking about up at Great Point on Nantucket. I’ve seen big Ken do that there too, middle of the day…..

  5. JohnP

    A bit of an epilogue to this entry. So Saturday morning I found myself on the east end of Long Island. There was bird activity a good long cast out. I first brought out the fly rod, but after a couple pathetic casts, I became frustrated with the west wind and chop, I came to the firm conclusion that I was going to be handicapped with the fly rod.

    I’m no fly rod purist. You do what you gotta do!

    They were too far out.

    So I got the spinning rod off the roof, I had to get a fish. I had to.

    I make my first cast, sending my favorite sand eel tin right into the splashes. “Oh baby, here it comes,” I thought. I took the first few cranks just waiting for the rod to be taken down.

    Then something aweful happened.

    My reel handle broke! Broke, like snapped!


    Now I was screwed royally.

    Now I was on a beach with some fish – like one of the only times I’ve seen fishing like this during this entire pathetic fall run.

    But now I could only watch?

    The fly rod would have to do. I would have to use it. I would have to find a way.

    And it worked! I had fish, just as much action, or more, than the other guys. At least on this day.

    I guess someone from above intervened, addition by subtraction yet again.

  6. JohnP

    Great comments guys! I guess we were all very lucky.
    Some nights I’m fishing a place like Shagwong, all alone.

    I hear only the wind.

    But sometimes I feel like I can hear George, screaming…”Vito, what the &^*%…” Or I still swear I can hear Kenny yelling back at George…

    It almost brings a tear to my eye.

    I was so so lucky to have been part of that. You guys were too!


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