Note: Charlie Cinto died unexpectedly on Jan 25, 2020 at the age of 91. He is sorely missed by the author and his family and those who had the good fortune to have known, spoken to, or fished alongside this honest, talented, humble, and generous man. This article, “40 on 40,” was originally published in the June 2008 issue of On the Water.
Charlie Cinto’s 40 on 40
The first glimpse of color shifted my focus to the fish’s size rather than its proximity, but I do recall taking a firmer grip on the gaff. We knew this was a good fish, much stronger than the two 25-pound-class bass that we had previously brought alongside and released. This fish was a trophy-class specimen, one that we suspected might break the half-century mark, and by the way she had flexed her muscles during a knockdown, drag-out battle in the boulders, I knew for certain that she was special.
The final 30 seconds of this encounter seemed to last forever. Even though I’ve gaffed thousands of bass – many much larger than this one – this was a very special striper, and I concentrated hard on the task at hand. At long last the fish was brought alongside, and its weight on the handheld Rapala Lock ‘N Weigh stated that my “brother of the bass” had hooked and landed a 43-pound striper on a live eel, shortly after 7:00 a.m. on a delightfully calm Friday morning.
It was a special day, at least for me, because it was June 16, 2006. I should remind you that math has never been my strong suit, a fact that was demonstrated when I congratulated my friend on his 40-pound catch on the 40th anniversary of a very special event. The man who climbs all over the boat like a kid, a practice that has earned him the nickname “Spider,” smiled and wrinkled his eyes in perplexity. After a brief discussion, I realized that I was off the mark by one year. I promised him that if we were both still on the green side of the grass when this date in 2007 rolled around, I’d do my best to put him onto another 40-pounder. He assured me that a striper of any size would be agreeable.
June 16, 1967, is a landmark day in the history of recreational striped bass fishing. It wasn’t one of the choice full moon dates that Cuttyhunk patrons placed deposits on to hold, often several years in advance. Rather, it was a snotty afternoon, and fishing on the rips was a difficult proposition for both skipper and patrons. Fortunately, the June Bug was a rugged McInnis-designed Brownell bass boat that was painstakingly crafted to handle just such conditions.
That day, a blue-collar working man named Charlie Cinto and his friend Russ Keene split a charter fee to fish with legendary Cuttyhunk skipper Captain Frank Sabatowski. For the princely sum of $60, they purchased a night of striper fishing that was to forever change their lives, as well as the outlook of those of us who had almost given up hope that there might be another opportunity at the Holy Grail of striperdom.
Cinto and Keene had worked out an arrangement with the skipper for splitting the catch between the two parties, with 50 percent going to the boat and the remainder to the fares. That was a much better deal than most other fishermen who aspired to fish with one of the best striper guides on the East Coast were able to fashion. The occasional anglers usually paid a $75 fee and were allowed to take their two largest bass while the remainder of the catch was consigned to the boat. There were numerous other forms of arrangements, but in the persons of Cinto and Keene, Sabby knew he had two high-line jiggers onboard who could help him turn a buck by smartly snapping the same homebrewed Smilin’ Bill jigs that I once had the pleasure to help fashion in the skipper’s kitchen in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Even with the prevailing rate for stripers paying somewhere between $.25 to $.40 a pound, a good afternoon and morning tide could fill up those wooden fish boxes and help pay for a portion, or perhaps the lion’s share, of the charter.
I fondly remember pushing a wheelbarrow full of Sabby’s stripers from his slip at Captain Leroy’s across U.S. Route 6 to Tex Bowdon’s wholesale fish market. Those of us who were privileged to have experienced those exhilarating decades of plentiful super-sized stripers have a great deal to be thankful for. My memories of fishing the Pigs, Devils Bridge and Quicks Hole during the 1960’s and ‘70’s are filled with torrid late-afternoon to sunset action, snapping wire and bailing fish from schoolies to specimens in the high teens, with the occasional stout 30-pound fish in the mix. When the last blush of sunset vanished beyond the western horizon, we’d switch to heavier gear and rig for the night bite. The jigs we used during the day were replaced by jumbo swimmers and eel skin plugs, because all that transpired before sunset was just a prelude to the quest for trophy stripers. This is what made trolling the rips well worth the price of admission.
Hooking up with jumbo linesiders was only half of the equation; getting them to the boat was the other. Fishing in this gnarly environment was not only difficult but also dangerous. Stripers seldom live much beyond their twelfth birthday by being careless, and that was the case with the old cows that set up ambush around the boulders of Sow and Pigs in search of a fulfilling meal. I can recall trolling Creek Chub Giant Pikies draped with eel skins along the eastern break in the Pigs that I named the Bosworth Hole after a famous Cuttyhunk guide. On that late-June night, we hooked, fought and lost five huge freight trains. Despite locked-down drags, they took us into the boulders and scrubbed us off, leaving me with just one badly mangled pearl Pikie for my troubles. After all of these years and all of the fish we have rolled over the covering boards, I still wonder about the size of the fish we ran into on that memorable night. And that, my friends, is the very reason men like Charlie Cinto, his dear departed friend, Russ Keene, and I would continue to roll out of the rack at 3:00 a.m. or fish from sunset into the wee hours of the morning: the opportunity to hook up with one of these prized fish.
Fate was at work on that remarkable night of June 16, 1967. Based on the previous day’s fishing, Captain Sabatowski had decided that the rip on Devils Bridge would present the better opportunity to deposit a few heavy fish in the box, and so the June Bug embarked across the sound to fish those turbulent waters. They worked the rip for several hours and were rewarded with a few fish in the 25- to 30-pound class before the tide changed and the wind kicked up. It was a wild ride back to Quicks Hole, and at one point Cinto’s face came down when the windshield went up and he cracked his nose so badly they had trouble arresting the bleeding. Even though Charlie was in severe pain, he was in his element, and nothing short of a fractured skull was going to prevent him from fishing out the remainder of the trip. Quicks was dry, so the skipper suggested a few hours’ rest in the cuddy before heading out to fish the rip on the Pigs, which was scheduled to make up at 3:00 a.m. Cinto said it seemed as though they had barely drifted off to sleep when the June Bug’s engine came to life and they headed out to Sow and Pigs to fish the running tide.
It was 3:30 a.m. on an eastward pass toward the island when Cinto reacted to a crushing strike, rearing back and setting the big trebles into the hard bone of a striper’s maw. Despite the locked-down drag, the big fish headed for the stones while Sabby turned the Brownell out and away from the rip. Cinto doesn’t recall just how long he fought that fish – he was too busy to be keeping count – but it didn’t seem like all that long, considering he had a busted nose, was dressed in oilers and was chilled to the bone due to the pre-dawn dampness. The huge bass had attacked one of Leo Cooper’s outsized creations, a bass bait called the Goo-Goo Eye that was popular with the guides. A nifty method of boat handling and gaffing finally put the great fish on the deck for all to see. Having several 50’s to his credit, Cinto was certain this fish would break the 60-pound mark, so it was hefted into the box. Several other stripers were piled on top of it before the first rays of the sun lit up the horizon between Nobska and West Chop.
Sabby headed his boat toward Canapitset Channel, anxious to get back to the mainland to get Cinto’s fish to a certified scale, but then he changed his mind and decided to hang it on the Cuttyhunk scale to get some idea of its size. The guide’s dock was deserted apart from Captain Bob Smith, who just happened to be the island’s official weighmaster. The great fish was suspended from the hook and took the scale down to 75 pounds, but that weight was not to be. Smitty jiggled and adjusted, tweaking the scale until he turned to Cinto and said, “The best I can give you is 73 pounds.” At this point I must add a disclaimer: If you knew Captain Smith and the Cuttyhunk scale as I did, you would know that Cinto’s fish was every bit of 73 pounds, and in my estimation perhaps a few pounds heavier – Smitty never gave anything away, especially to a rival captain.
That weight was 13 pounds heavier than his original goal of 60 pounds, so Cinto agreed, Smitty affixed his signature to the official R.J. Schaeffer Cup contest affidavit, and the rest is history. That 73-pounder tied the previous world-record 73-pound striper caught by Charles B. Church in 1913, also in Vineyard Sound. However, because the IGFA did not recognize wire line and treble hooks, the world-record designation was never made official. That is a travesty, because if the IGFA was aware of the extreme difficulty of fishing wire line and treble hooks in one of the most gnarly striper haunts along the entire coast, they would realize that catching a fish that size on a single hook using pliable monofilament or braided line has a significantly reduced degree of difficulty. Cinto was never a showboat, so he took his trophy for what it was worth and was happy with the outcome.
Over the course of our friendship, the subject of that historic trip has come up often, particularly because I know how rough it was that night and I understand the vagaries of the old swinging scale on the guide’s dock. Some time late in 2005, my friend told me that he hoped he would be able to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that momentous night by fishing with me along the coast of what I refer to as “the place God created for striped bass.” We only joked about it, but I immediately began concocting a plan, and I never mentioned it again until the aforementioned morning of June 16, 2006 – when I put my plan into action one year too soon.
In June of 2007, the day before the actual 40th anniversary, I had located a pod of hefty stripers, the type that take your bait or lure and swim for the rocks to scrub and scrape their way to freedom. Because of the crowds, we usually either skip fishing entirely or fish very early on Saturday mornings. On Saturday, June 16, 2007, we launched the boat in the darkness of the deserted harbor and headed out with 16 of the heftiest live eels Cinto could stuff into his live bait container. The odds of duplicating the feat of the previous year were small, but it was not out of the question, particularly in view of the fact that there was a large school of jumbo stripers in residence. Since my last trip the day before, those fish had moved from their previous location, and once again we were on the hunt. Two stops later, all we had to show for our efforts were a 20-pound bass in the box and five beautiful eels chopped to stubs by a pod of harbor bluefish hellbent on destruction.
At the third location, I suggested to Charlie that he cast toward the hump created by a swell over the top of a knob, and he was rewarded with a hit and run. When he set the hook, the fish took off and Charlie turned and smiled, hanging on to the heavy custom-built rod he had designed for just such boulder-hopping. I headed the boat toward the fish at an angle, then shifted into reverse and began pulling the bass away from the rugged boulders on the inside of that knob. Cinto worked the fish for all he was worth and finally moved her out to where she appeared briefly on the surface, rewarding us with a huge tail slap. Slowly but steadily, the great fish gave in to the pressure, surfacing yet again and swimming in a wide arc off the bow. Reluctantly the big cow gave ground and came closer to the boat until I could finally reach her and heft her over the rail.
That fish pulled the needle down to a point where it bounced between 43 and 44 pounds. Once again, fate and determination had played a role in the realization of what I can only describe as a minor miracle. There were several nice fish in that boulder field that morning, and five that were big enough to put the frosting on most fishermen’s seasons were revived and sent on their way. This year, with the grace of God, my friend and I will be probing the water with jumbo swimming plugs and live eels, searching for that one special fish to best the Massachusetts state record, still holding these 41 years later.