The Mad Russian

Sergei de Somov was legendary in Island fishing circles. Artist and fellow angler Kib Bramhall writes about the three-time Derby winner in his new book, Bright Waters, Shining Tides: Reflections on a Lifetime of Fishing.

A night for bass.

The rising tide laps softly against a rock-strewn beach, while beyond the swelling breakers the ocean is rippled by a gentle onshore breeze. The pale glow of a waning moon filters through the misty dark, punctuated by mysterious cloud shapes that drift across the sky like apparitions. Bait fish rustle nervously in the wash of a deep hole formed by the movement of tides and waves through a break in the offshore sandbar.

A mile to the west and a half mile off the beach, a pod of large stripers moves out of a dying tide rip, slowly following the current, heading toward the surf.

At the same moment, four miles inland, a wraith-like figure emerges from the doorway of a shingled cottage and ghosts through the darkness to a Jeep concealed behind nearby foliage. It has already been loaded with heavy-duty surf tackle, an assortment of customized lures with hooks filed to pinpoint sharpness, waders, gaff, billy, a container of live eels, and perhaps some lobster meat for gourmet bass bait. The engine coughs, shattering the night’s stillness.

Sergei de Somov, the famed Mad Russian of the Northeast striper coast, moves toward another rendezvous with his prey.

It is the hour before dawn, and the pod of bass is moving faster now, almost with a sense of urgency. As they reach the break in the offshore bar, several of the fish swim through into the deep hole, warily at first and then with a surge. These forerunners move into the wash of the surf, and the rest follow. Thousands of bait fish panic as big stripers move in for the kill.

Minutes earlier a blacked-out Jeep had coasted to a stop behind a dune overlooking this hole. The beach is deserted except for the figure moving from the vehicle toward the surf.

It is no accident or stroke of luck that Sergei has come to this particular stretch of beach at a magic hour when trophy bass have arrived for a predawn breakfast. His trip had been planned with scientific precision that took into account many factors: wind direction on that day and several days previous; tidal stage and direction of flow; the amount of bait along this beach and in adjacent waters; recent and past patterns of striper movement and behavior in this area; water conditions, including clarity, temperature, and roughness; the hour itself.

All these things had been observed and weighed with penetrating Russian logic and an answer arrived at.

Sergei’s eyes sparkle, and a wide grin creases his face. He knows his decision was right. Bait fish are being driven high onto the beach by the marauding bass, and the swirls of big fish can be seen in the eerie moon mist.

The long surf rod is swept back to make the first cast – but wait!

Headlights bob over the horizon half a mile down the beach. A vehicle has turned off the access road onto the sand and is driving toward him. Sergei swiftly retraces his steps to the concealment of the dune and watches as it stops a couple of hundred yards away. Dim figures emerge, spread out, and start probing the surf. False dawn has nearly arrived, and Sergei might be seen if he goes back to those bass. He has only one alternative, and he takes it without hesitation. The rod is racked, the engine coughs, and with lights still extinguished he vanishes down the beach.

Has this expedition been a maddening failure? Not completely. Not to the Mad Russian. It was galling, of course, that such careful plans had to be abandoned at the very moment of consummation, but this was balanced by his success at having avoided detection. It had been a close call, but in the end no one had caught so much as a glimpse of him. Those other anglers had been unaware of his nearby presence. He had remained a virtual phantom of the surf.

Well, it might have happened that way, and then again maybe it didn’t. There is no way of knowing, because it was im-possible to penetrate the closely guarded secrecy that cloaked the Mad Russian’s surf-fishing trips – secrecy that helped make this eccentric, brilliant fisherman a legend in his own time.

Although Sergei’s methods, his nocturnal wanderings on the striper coast, and his battles with outsized stripers were shrouded in mystery, his exploits were not. For the past two decades he had racked up eye-popping catches on the beaches of Long Island and New Jersey, as well as on the Vineyard. And that is what made him such a compelling subject of speculation among the hard-core fraternity of surf men. The courtly gentleman with the foreign accent kept showing up with big stripers, and no one knew exactly how, when, or where he caught them.

Perhaps his most astounding accomplishments occurred on Martha’s Vineyard during the Island’s annual striped bass and bluefish derbies. These month-long autumn contests attract thousands of participants, including many of the most skilled surf fishermen on the Northeast coast. For three consecutive years – in 1963, 1964, and 1965 – Sergei took on all competitors and won top honors for the largest striper (with fish of fifty-two pounds, thir-teen ounces; fifty-four pounds, fourteen ounces; and forty-nine pounds, ten ounces). No one else has matched that achievement in the contest’s venerable history.

Sergei de Somov was born on Christmas morning 1896 in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was in the diplomatic service, and Sergei gained working knowledge of eight languages during his cosmopolitan upbringing. After graduating from college he became a member of Her Majesty’s Imperial Lancers and rose to the rank of major. He immigrated to the United States in 1923 and settled in New York City, where he taught school, then worked on Wall Street, moved to the Edison Company, and finally joined the National Broadcasting Company in 1929, where he worked for the next nineteen years.

The salt air and sea beckoned, and in the early 1930s Sergei moved to Long Island, where he joined the East End Surf Fishing Club. From that time forward, the angling world began hearing colorful tales of piscatorial prowess, of strange homemade lures, of occult nocturnal fishing trips, of an elusive foreign gentleman who consistently beached big striped bass –  always while fishing alone.

The beginnings of Sergei’s fishing career were as exotic as his methods were bizarre. In 1911, when he was fifteen years old, his father introduced him to the fine art of angling on the Hangang River in Korea, where the elder de Somov was stationed as a representative of his country’s government. The quarry? Korean fahak, or blowfish. The tackle? Spinning, decades before it made its appearance in this country.

In spite of having been weaned on spinning tackle, Sergei had no love for it when I knew him in the 1950s and ’60s on the Vineyard. A surf spinning outfit was a “yo-yo” rig as far as he was concerned, perfectly okay for small fish, but not adequate for the trophy bass that were his quarry. For these he used heavy-duty conventional tackle: rods with stiff backbone and revolving spool reels filled with a minimum forty-five-pound-test Dacron braid tied directly to his lures. When he thought there was a chance for a record striper, he upgraded to his “man-killer” rig – a Herculean rod mounting an oversized reel spooled with eighty-pound test. He was only interested in catching big bass. Schoolies were “nuisance fish.”

He made many of his own lures, but he caught one of his Vineyard Derby winners on a plug that he had borrowed from me. It was a big swimming plug called the Sea Serpent, which was armed with two large, extra-strong single hooks. It was made in Germany and designed to catch tuna on the North African coast. I saw it in a tackle store in Paris and brought it back to the Vineyard to use on striped bass. I showed it to Sergei, who said, “Ah, Kib, that is a very serious plug. May I borrow it?” Of course I loaned it to him, and he gave me a photo of his winning bass with it in its mouth. The plug itself, however, I never saw again.

Sergei was seventy years old when I got to know him in 1963. He was of medium height and appeared slight in physique, and I wondered how he could wield such heavy tackle until we shook hands. He had a grip like a professional football player. He kept himself in superb physical condition, walking countless miles along the beach, observing water and topographical conditions every step of the way. He tested water temperatures and took note of holes and hidden bars, of water clarity, of bait fish, of gull behavior, and then sifted and stored the data with scientific thoroughness. When he decided – and the decision was nevercasual – that all indications pointed favorably to the likelihood of big stripers visiting a certain stretch of surf, only then did he make plans to be there too. And, of course, such plans were always contingent upon his being able to fish alone and unobserved, except for his wife, Louise, who was an excellent angler in her own right, and with whom he conversed in French, Russian, and English – all in the same sentence.

The Mad Russian was a topic of conversation wherever surf men gathered on the Northeast striper coast. His skill at beaching big bass would, by itself, have been enough to ensure his fame. The added elements of secrecy and continental politesse enhanced it tenfold. Many regarded him with awe akin to that commanded by the ancient deities. Others simply respected him. A jealous few protested that his skills were no more than ordinary, and that his elusive tactics were merely designed to mask the fact. But there is no disputing that he was and remains a legend. He added an aura of mystique to a sport that too many of us allow to enter the realm of the prosaic, and he brought a touch of poetry to the world of the high surf. It was a better place because of it. Sergei was inducted into the Derby Hall of Fame in 1999.

This is an excerpt from Bright Waters, Shining Tides: Reflections on a Lifetime of Fishing (Vineyard Stories, 2011). One of eleven essays in the book, this is an amended version of “Phantom in the Surf,” published in Salt Water Sportsman (March 1967).