You can never catch a squawfish when you want to.
We were two hours into our trip and Mac and I didn’t have one lousy squawfish to our name. We couldn’t buy one, not even a nibble. Oh sure, we started getting bites about 30 seconds after we’d dropped the anchor and put our lines out, but they were all stripers.
“Crap, another striper,” Mac says as he hauls our 20th bass over the side. “When you’re fishing salmon out here, you can’t keep the squawfish off your baits. But now, I couldn’t catch one to save my own soul.”
And so it goes until darkness sets in. We’ve caught more 8- to 14-inch micro striped bass than we can count but our squaw total still sits at zero – and we’re bummed.
I guess I better back up here.
This fishing mission was spawned last fall when I stopped at a seedy bait shop somewhere down in the backwaters of the Delta. On the wall were several Polaroids of guys holding up huge striped bass in the 40- to 52-pound class.
What really struck me was the dates on the photos – they were all taken in August, a time not generally considered prime time for lunker stripers.
“It happens ever year, amigo,” said the guy behind the counter with a wink. “Not too many people know about it.”
At that point, I thoroughly interrogated the guy and he told me where the fish are caught each season and that they are mainly hooked on live squawfish. I thanked him and made a mental note to return in the summer.
Fast forward back to the present and we’ve moved from the squawless hole to the giant striper grounds that the guy had told me about. Mac and I aren’t entirely confident that we’re going to hook one of these giant bass without live bait, but we’re here, it’s a nice evening and we’ve got kitchen passes from the wives. We’re not headed home anytime soon.
I tie up a tandem hook rig with 8/0 hooks, 50-pound leader and a 10-inch sardine with one side filleted off. After chucking the bait out, I engage my ocean reel’s clicker and pop the rod in the holder. Mac’s still running tiny pieces of sardine on a trout rod in a last ditch effort to procure some live bait.
My sardine has yet to get touched but Mac’s still hauling baby stripers over the side at a rapid clip. After about his tenth fish, he finally hits pay dirt and lands a squaw.
Unfortunately, it’s about 8 pounds.
Not that a 50-pound striper couldn’t eat a fish of that size but I was hoping for something more in the 10- to 12-inch range, so we toss our lone piece of live bait back. At that point, he switches to using a big hunk of sardine and we settle in for an epic moonrise.
As the big yellow ball climbs higher over the river, we get a few bites from shaker-sized bass on our big baits but nothing to get too excited about.
The evening’s incredibly warm and beautiful and we cover all the topics old friends typically hit – jobs, family, dream fishing trips, sports and hot celebrity women. We get a chance to fish but once a year together anymore and we’re having a great time catching up. The hours fly by and, suddenly, we’re approaching 1 a.m.
We’ve stretched this thing out, this dream of a striper the size of a baby hippo, long enough and it’s time to let it go.
“Maybe we’ll have to make this an annual thing,” says Mac. “Let’s try again next August, OK? It will be our little thing we do every year.”
Then my clicker starts talking.
It’s just kind of a chirp at first. Zip, zip…zip. But then the fish takes off on a mad dash back towards the ocean. The thing’s making all kinds of noise now and I’m fumbling to grab the rod out of the holder as line’s flying off my reel.
Something big has got my bait and I can already see the picture of me on the bait shop wall, posing with a 50-gallon drum with black horizontal stripes and a mouth the size of a basketball.
But then the fish just drops the bait and is gone. Neither of us says a word for a bit and then Mac breaks the silence.
“What are you doing tomorrow night?”