How to Land a Big Bass

You’re on the south shore, suited up in Neoprene waders with a watertight top and a fisherman’s life jacket. You’re standing in four feet of water, the night dark, the tide running to the west, the surf heaving around your waist and chest. Your reel is greased, your guides smooth, your line (twenty-pound test) new, and tied by a fisherman’s knot to a monofilament leader (sixty-pound test) and an offset, single Mustad hook, run through the mouth and cheek of a live eel. Keeping the tip of your rod up, you reel slowly, then quickly, just as an eel would, and then – you feel the tap of a biting bass.

You forgot to ask about this part.

“When I feel that tap, I immediately drop the tip of my rod, point it towards the water,” says Steve Morris, who’s owned Dick’s Bait and Tackle, his grandfather’s Oak Bluffs shop, since 1985. “The first hit I get, I open my bale and do a short count to five or ten, because generally they hit it and swim away with it, taking the line. Then you close that bale, and when you feel that line come tight, you set the hook by pulling back on the rod.”

Morris, past chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, has won the grand prize twice, the first time with a 49.98-pound bass caught from shore in 1983, and with a 41.78 pound bass caught from a boat in 2000. He knows this stuff.  

“The most important thing is to keep the rod tip up,” says Morris. “The bass, when he feels that hook penetrate him, he wants to get his head down, get his nose into the rocks, and get whatever it is out of his mouth.”

You can often feel your line sawing over the rocks. That spells trouble. “It hits a sharp barnacle, a mussel bed, something like that – bam,” says Morris, the “bam” meaning goodbye bass. “If I get a fish that’s on the rocks, I’ll tend to open the bale, let him take some line, keep tension on it. If I think the rock
is on my left, I want to try and walk right. Get the line tight again, get the tip of your rod up, and sometimes you’ll get it free. Other times it breaks off.”

Back up to the beach, reeling when you begin to feel the bass ease off. “The waves can help you, but they can hurt you. When the waves break and the water goes back into the ocean, you’ve got to be real careful there, too, because it puts a lot of tension on the line. You don’t want to be pulling too hard, because you’ll part your line. You’ll wash a big bass right up onto the beach if you time it right.”

Whatever you do, don’t tighten the drag as you reel. “Because if you tighten your drag and he takes off, or the pressure from the water coming back out takes him, there’s no give. The line’s going to break if you’ve got a weak spot.”

And a final word to fellow competitors in this year’s Derby: “You don’t know what fish are swimming out there. So you want fresh bait, fresh line, make sure your reel’s working properly, make sure your guides are all set. You don’t want the advantage for him. You want the advantage for you."