The early hours of a mid-July morning found me barreling south on I-95 alongside On The Water producer, Adam Eldridge, on our way to the historic beachside village of Niantic, Connecticut. There, the Blackhawk II awaited its crew for another day of porgy fishing.
While it’s unreasonable to expect “drop-and-reel” fishing, that kind of nonstop action tends to be the norm during the height of the porgy season on Long Island Sound. I was anticipating a heavy cooler, and many grateful family and friends following the trip.
The “panfish of the sea,” porgy are plentiful bottom fish that fight considerably above their 1- to 2-pound weight class. Built in the shape of a deflated football, it has giant pectoral fins, a single tall dorsal, and a waning crescent-moon-shaped tail to keep it upright while maneuvering around structure in strong currents where it feeds. One of more than a hundred members of the Sparidae family, the Northern Porgy (commonly called scup in New England) are found from South Carolina to Massachusetts, taking up residence as a nearshore bottom dweller.
Porgies are aggressive, and willingly strike baited hooks and teasers, as well as metal and bucktail jigs worked near bottom. With their schooling nature, it’s common to catch big numbers on a porgy trip, making it ideal for children and beginning anglers, and even more experienced anglers looking for fun fishing and tasty fillets.
I’ve caught many porgies, but before boarding the Blackhawk II, I’d never actually set out with porgies as my primary target. They often mix in with black sea bass, fluke, and tautog that I do target, so I was eager to see what a dedicated porgy trip was like.
I had two combos, a Tsunami Trophy Series Slow Pitch spinning rod paired with an Evict 3000 Tsunami reel for working a baited Spro bucktail jig and teaser, and a Tsunami Trophy Series conventional rod paired with a Tsunami Forged 8 reel for fishing baited hooks on a high-low rig I’d tied. My high-low rig consisted of 25-pound-test Seaguar Inshore fluorocarbon leader and 2/0 Gamakatsu octopus hooks baited with fresh hunks of clam that the crew had procured from New Bedford clam boats.
Our first stop was over 35 feet of water with a swift current, so I finished off my rig with an 8-ounce bank sinker looped onto the double surgeon’s loop I’d tied below the hooks. As expected, the action was fast and furious. It was immediately clear there’d be no issue filling my cooler, so I switched to the light-tackle spinning outfit to see if I could cull out larger fish with the bucktail jig and teaser.
I switched between a Spro 6-inch Wavetail Grub and bucktail teasers, settling on the Spro bucktail teaser since it had a more compact profile and a smaller hook. I had immediate success catching larger porgies.
The Black Hawk II’s owner and captain, Greg Debrule, worked the deck along with a trio of knowledgeable, energetic mates who, before granting passage aboard the boat, meticulously reviewed all the details a first-timer should know to have a successful day of catching. They demonstrated how to hold the conventional rods, engage and disengage the drag system, how to ensure bait was in the strike zone, how to set the hook, and how to fight a fish. This was followed by an open invite to “Blackhawk Fishing School” on the ride out, a hands-on crash course to ensure nothing but a day of fun was ahead for every angler on board.
The passengers that day were a mix of first-timers and regulars, and all of us were greeted with hungry porgies from the instant the rigs touched bottom. As I looked at all the cheerful anglers around me, I realized how important operations like Black Hawk Sportfishing are to the growth and well-being of this beloved sport, and to the community that thrives within it. Captain Greg and his staff have perfected the art of teaching while keeping things light and fun.
Far too often, I think some of us focus on our own goals and success when fishing. It’s all too easy to make fishing competitive between anglers, but one lesson we can all take from Captain Greg and his crew is that getting into fishing doesn’t have to be intimidating or a competition. In the end, we all win when more people have successful trips and become lifelong anglers. The more active, passionate anglers there are, the more stewards of sportfishing there are, and the louder the voices when it’s time to fight for conservation or against threats to our fisheries and waters.
Midway through the trip, one mate came up to me and said, “So, Cheech, since I just met you, I’m not going to say this out loud, but one of your buddies just texted me and wanted me to pass this along.” He held up his phone, showing a text message from my friend Brian Weiss. Most of it wasn’t fit to print, but the gist was, “I hope Cheech gets skunked.”
Brian is a heck of an angler I first met over a decade ago down in Marco Island at his older brother’s (my college roommate) wedding. Brian then began texting me, threatening to end our friendship if I didn’t join him after the trip for some striper fishing aboard his boat, which was berthed just 5 minutes away from the Blackhawk II.
Since we’d left home at 3 a.m. that morning, I bounced Brian’s offer off Adam, who was filming the trip for an episode of On The Water’s At The Rail, since we were traveling together. Adam quickly said, “Heck, yeah!” to the opportunity, and the plan was hatched. Five minutes after disembarking from the Blackhawk II, we climbed aboard Brian’s boat.
We pushed off and headed for a reef that Brian said had been fishing well. The haze we’d been dealing with all day was providing just enough cover for us to throw large topwater plugs at the structure. The tide was perfect, and we didn’t have to wait long to see if the stripers were there. A massive bass unloaded on Adam’s plug so close to the boat that there wasn’t much he could do but leave the plug in the water and watch the fish return in the direction it came from.
As I worked my plug back toward the boat, there was a similar explosion around my lure, and I instinctively reared back and drove the single inline hooks home. A jumbo striper thrashed on the surface before making the first of three incredibly long runs. When I brought the striper to hand, I didn’t immediately realize that I’d topped my personal best, set when I was just 12 years old! It wasn’t until I held the fish up for a quick photo that I realized I was holding the biggest striper I’ve ever laid hands on.
I took all the time needed to properly revive the fish, holding her by the lower lip while Brian slowly idled back to where we’d caught her. I watched as the fish regained her strength, and with a strong tail kick, she thrashed out of my grasp, leaving me with a spray of saltwater to the face.
I’d come to Connecticut for porgies and was going to leave it after breaking my 26-year-old personal striper record. A smile stayed on my face as I resumed casting, but this time, I didn’t care if I moved another fish. Adam cast with a bit more intensity, and his Doc drew a pack of stripers to the surface. While several large fish intently followed the plug, a schoolie blinked first, attacking the plug and finding the hooks.
I turned my attention back to my Doc, watching it zigzag perfectly back to the boat when a wrath of striper fury was unleashed on it. The Doc disappeared into an open mouth the size of a 5-gallon bucket, but when I set the hook this time, the massive striper stayed right where she ate the plug. The upper two-thirds of the fish’s body came out of the water as she fought violently to rid herself of the hooks. Next came the tail slap from her extra-large corn-broom tail attached to a caudal peduncle so thick it didn’t seem real. She rolled over, giving me a clear look at her gill plate and girth.
Through the chaos, I heard Brian say, “That’s a real one. Get some more drag on her, Cheech.” I tightened the drag knob a full turn, putting on as much pressure as I could without risking a straightened hook or broken line, but she just kept going. When she finally put on the brakes, the most massive headshakes I’ve ever felt were transmitted through the line to the rod … and then nothing. I reeled feverishly to find that my Doc and leader had a little clump of seaweed on it—the kind that comes from a rock. The big fish grow big for a reason, and that fish had fled to a boulder and used it to remove the plug from her maw.
Brian broke the silence. “That fish was all of 60 pounds, dude. Big fish.” Trembling and stuttering, taken back by his matter-of-fact assessment, I asked if this was a common occurrence. “Well, the biggest one I’ve landed was fifty-two pounds. I’ve hooked way bigger, but those really special ones just have a knack for getting away.”
I couldn’t be sad since I’d just caught my largest striper, a species I’ve fished for over 36 of my 38 years on this planet; however, what I’d just witnessed will surely be something I will dial up from the visual memory bank for the rest of my life. Perhaps this summer I’ll get one more shot at a fish like that—with a different ending.