The sandy point belonged to us, and us alone, as Anthony DeiCicchi plunked down the bait bucket and I set to clipping pyramid sinkers onto the rods. The lack of company wasn’t particularly surprising, given the distance we’d walked to get there, but as we rounded the final bend to the point, I half-expected to find the silhouettes of other casters, perhaps some with rods bent deeply under the strain of big bass. This is to be expected when surf fishing with bunker chunks.
Inside the bait bucket rested the results of a twilight spent harrying the local bunker population with the always-dependable three-eyed squid. A half-dozen baits seemed sufficient at the time, but as I watched the outgoing tide flow seductively around the point, I cut the first bunker into four pieces instead of three.
Surfcasting canon anoints the head of the bunker as the most productive piece—naturally, I took it for myself. DeiCicchi had contributed nothing to the bait-snagging, rod-rigging, or plan-making efforts, so fishing the less prime chunks of bunker would be his penance.
I paid the price for my hubris on our first casts. Shortly after his sinker settled to the bottom, the sharp raps of an interested fish transmitted through DeiCicchi’s rod. He bowed to the fish, in rod and body, waiting for it to pick up the slack. When it did, he began to reel, straightening up, and allowing the steady pressure to lock the circle hook’s point into the corner of the fish’s jaw. At least that’s how it was supposed to work. The rod loaded up and snapped straight, the hook failing to find its mark.
Getting used to circle hooks in the surf has been one of the growing pains striper fishermen have endured since the catch-and-release-friendly hooks became a requirement in 2021. Ultimately, after many, many misses, I learned that when chunking bait on circle hooks in the surf, the sand spike is my friend. This flies in the face of the previously accepted wisdom that serious surfcasters must keep the rod in hand when fishing bait. Back when many of the serious surf fishermen chunked with monstrous J-hooks designed for catfish or sturgeon, having the rod in hand for a quick hookset helped avoid gut-hooking a bass.
While a J-hook can find secure purchase at any angle, for a circle hook to lock in, the fish must be moving steadily away from the angler. In a drifting boat, this is easily accomplished, but from a stationary position in the surf, anglers need saint-like patience to wait for the fish to turn and swim off with the bait. Yet even the most patient angler falls short of the infinitely stoic sand spike.
This revelation did us no good on that evening, however, as my sand spikes remained uselessly propped against the corner of my fillet table. So, DeiCicchi rebaited with another chunk of menhaden body and made his second cast. My clue to where this evening was headed came when, once again, DeiCicchi got bit immediately after his rig hit bottom.
Surfcasters have theorized that the head is the superior cut of bunker because when bass and bluefish are mixed, the bluefish—in their insatiable bloodlust—swim around biting off the tails and bodies of the bunker, leaving the heads to sink slowly to the bottom. Then, the bass move through, like a late-night custodial crew, cleaning up the scraps left by the blues’ messy eating. Some fishermen so thoroughly subscribe to this theory that they cut half-moon shapes out of their chunks to mimic a bluefish’s bitemark.
I have no doubt that this scenario plays out in the striper surf, but I don’t consider the presence of bluefish a prerequisite for successful bunker chunking. The real power in the bunker head is its ability to deter smaller-mouthed bait-stealers. Skates and smooth dogfish that have no problem mushing up a softer chunk of bunker are thwarted by the bony heads. Large stripers, with their cavernous maws, have no such issue.
On this second bite, DeiCicchi’s circle hook took hold. As he fought the fish to shore, instead of the powerful thrashing of the striper’s square tail, we heard the wimpy dribbling of a smooth dogfish writhing at the surface.
I remained undeterred. I’d chosen this point due to its location near the mouth of the very harbor where I’d snagged the bunker. I knew from a small legion of kayak fishermen that medium-sized striped bass had been caught in the vicinity of those bunker schools during the day, and posited that large bass might arrive after dark. The point would be the perfect location to intercept them as they moved into the harbor, following the scent of the menhaden washing out with the tide.
As DeiCicchi wrangled the dogfish, I reeled in to check my bait and ensure that crabs hadn’t been pecking at it. It appeared clean, but a backlash on the following cast tore the head from the hook and sent it further into the bay than I could have ever hoped to cast. I took the final body piece from the bunker, and moments after the cast landed, found myself tight to a smooth-hound of my own.
I cut the next bunker into even smaller pieces in an effort to extend our bait supply, but this only led to more dogfish. Finally, we both baited up with bunker heads and waited out the bass. After 20 minutes or so, a thump reverberated from my braided line to my bones as the big bunker head went down the hatch of an unseen predator. Steady pressure applied with rod and reel helped the circle hook lock in, and the heavier weight at the end of the line quickened my pulse. The fish was more than 50 inches long, from its pointed snout to its asymmetrical tale—the St. Bernard of smooth dogfish.
The dogfish had nearly exhausted our bait supply when, just as the outgoing tide was exhaling its last, a 15-pound striper took a tail chunk—the least choice cut. It was DeiCicchi who had his number called, catching the lone bass among the dogfish.
When the last of our chunks disappeared into the gullets of a few final smooth-hounds, we left just as a soft orange glow was seeping up through the eastern horizon. Though disappointed by the outcome, I felt satisfied by the effort, by seeing my plan through. Plus, that lone bass, caught at the end of the tide, may have provided the clue to the next move in the surfcaster’s never-ending game of cat and mouse. I must have had it wrong, thinking the outgoing tide would produce. Of course! Those big ol’ stripers wanted the current at their tails when they pushed into the harbor to feast. I told DeiCicchi to get a little sleep before work. We needed to snag more baits and pack the sand spikes—a new game started in 12 hours.