“Don’t let them get you down, kid. Be respectful, but remember, they are harassing you out of jealousy. One day soon, you’ll drag one of those big linesiders up the ramp onto this porch and they’ll choke on their scorn.”
Tommy was not a striper fisherman by any measure, but he encouraged me to fish for whatever I wanted and not be shamed into fishing only for the bottom fish the old-timers targeted. I loved bottom fishing (and I still do), but I had been bitten by the striper bug around the time I watched the crew that fished the Newport surf haul stripers of 20 and 30 pounds on to the bait shop scale.
One evening, after two hours of soaking seaworms on the shore, I was walking the beach to take the club’s stairs to the street when Tommy spotted me.
“Hey, kid, get over here. My friend Carl has got a story for you.” My mentor selected a sunny spot on the porch, dragged a bench over, and instructed me to fetch two Old Tap ales for them and a soda for myself from the huge folding-top Coke cooler.
The curmudgeons at the club had teased me with a story about a lawyer from Fall River who caught an 80-pound striper back in the late 1890s, but I figured it was yet another of their fabrications designed to make me envious.
Carl, however, was a learned man of means who collected sporting books. He confirmed that Colonel Francis Wayland Miner, who was a lawyer from my hometown of Fall River, had made quite a name for himself in the practice of law, as an officer during the Civil War, and later as a very successful fisher of striped bass.
Although I had heard exaggerated renditions of this huge bass’ capture, Carl’s version of the story was backed up with research. Carl said that the Colonel was a successful lawyer and partner in his own firm, which led to his election to the top office in the Rhode Island state legislature as speaker of the house. He served in the Civil War as an aide to a general, rose to the rank of Colonel, and was at one time a messenger for President Lincoln. While that information does not have any bearing on his angling skills, it does indicate that he was a man of honor and not one to risk his reputation by telling an outrageous lie about a fish.
The catch, and other information, was supported by numerous sources and newspaper articles. One was a feature story in The World. “Block Island, Rhode Island, July 23, 1887. Several gentlemen who own cottages here, particularly Messrs. Thomas E. Tripler of New York and Francis W. Miner of Providence, have been very fortunate in capturing striped bass, Mr. Miner taking nine fish last week, the largest weighing 86 pounds.”
There were also other stories about that same fish, but they referred to it as an 85-pounder. Many years later, I read an old article in Sports Afield by a writer who conducted an exhaustive investigation into the angler and the record catch. He had collected several other newspaper accounts, including one that read: “But in strong contrast with general want of success in ocean fishing is the experience of Messrs. Frank W. Miner and John H. Thatcher of Providence. From the stand near the southeast point (Of Block Island), they have achieved the following remarkable record, the weight in pounds of the fish taken Saturday, June 30th – 30, 10, 17, 25, 20, 17, 44, 17, 6. Monday July 2nd – 40, 20, 10. Tuesday, July 3rd 27, 25, 17,10, 8. Wednesday, July 4th, 37, 21, 16, 26, 23, and one small fish not weighed. Thus, in four days they have caught 24 rockfish, or striped sea bass as they are usually called. Twenty-three of the fish, aggregate 493 pounds, an average weight of more than 21 pounds each.”
The recorded history of this man’s fishing success leaves no doubt he was a highly skilled angler.
Following the other occasions when I wrote about or discussed the Colonel’s fish, I was asked why it was never declared a world record. Therein lies the rub. I have no doubt a man of his standing, fishing alongside and living with gentlemen of affluence and dignity, would not and could not pull off such a deception. While persons on the island were aware of the catch, it was reported that to be awarded World Record status, it had to be certified. Another report from The World newspaper on July 13, 1887 stated:
“A note from Block Island says that Colonel Miner of Providence, a guest at the Ocean View Hotel, recently caught a sea bass weighing 85 pounds. It will require an affidavit before Justice Miller, who is stopping by the island, to satisfy the whole country, that this bass actually weighed 85 pounds.”
The author of the Sports Afield article said that no such affidavit was ever discovered.
Of the several newspaper articles and stories penned about the fishing prowess of the Colonel, the last one I will share with you is from the year after the 85-pound striper was caught. It appeared in the Providence Journal on August 22, 1888.
“Bass fishing here was never quite better. On Monday Francis W. Miner, Esq. of Providence caught one that tipped the scales at 48 pounds, the largest caught on the New England coast this season. The same morning Francis W. Miner, Jr. caught two of medium size. The struggle with the larger fish was long and exciting, requiring the nicest skill in manipulating the slender rod and line Mr. Miner takes pride in using. When at length the trophy lay in beauty on the brown seaweed rocks, it would be difficult to find a prouder man.”
With all the information and press coverage, the angler’s status, and unimpeachable reputation, there is no doubt in my mind that Colonel Miner’s 85- or 86-pound striper was the first 80-pound striper ever landed on rod and reel.
Stripers over 100 pounds have been caught in commercial nets; the largest I am aware of was the 125-pound striper caught in a net off the coast of North Carolina in 1891. As recently as 1995, a 92-pound striper was caught in a net set by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
The size and number of stripers the Colonel bested was not surprising based on other records, namely those of the West Island Club of Little Compton, Rhode Island, where precise accounts of every fish, from stripers and bluefish to the occasional eel and tautog, were diligently recorded. The following quotation is from a member of the West Island Club.
“The water was so clear we could see them swimming in circles, almost like children at play and not at all interested in the fresh bait we were offering. Some of those fish were well over 100 pounds, with others 80 pounds or more swimming in what appeared to be slow motion.”
I have paraphrased the comments from a man who already had a 64-pound bass to his credit and had lost many larger fish due to his inability to stop them before they plunged into the rock piles and scrubbed off his gut leader. The Honorable Philo T. Ruggles was a member of the exclusive West Island Club, a man who accounted for the largest haul of stripers in club history. That catch consisted of 87 bass on August 20, 1872, registered with the club weighmaster as well as his 64-pound specimen hauled from the nearby Knob on August 13, 1872. Most of us have heard our share of fish stories about big fish from questionable sources, but Ruggles was a wealthy self-made man with a ghillie (chummer and gaffer) at his side and nothing to benefit from an exaggeration about his lack of success in enticing the school of monsters. I have no doubt whatsoever that those 100-pound-plus stripers were not a figment of his imagination.
After over 50 years and thousands upon thousands of hours in the hunt, you might think I would have become frustrated and given up on catching an 80-pound fish of my own, but that has never been the case. The opportunities to target fish of that class have been infrequent, although I believe I made the most of whatever encounters there were. I have espoused on many occasions that there are some fish that were never meant to be captured, at least not with a rod and reel. During a lifetime of fishing, I have had the great good fortune to have been connected to (and on rare occasion caught an enticing glimpse of) what I consider to be the matriarchs of striperdom. Perhaps those fish were not the size of the 100-pound Roccus in Wynn Brook’s Shining Tides, but they were most certainly linesiders of exceptional proportions. Rather than agonize over the details of those chance encounters, I can simply assure you they were experiences that will never be forgotten. After losing those battles, I didn’t suffer through the pain of defeat or discouragement, at least not much longer than the actual moment, because I considered myself extremely fortunate to have been hooked up to those rare specimens of this venerable species. It would require a full chapter to share my adventures, which some might consider misadventures, but every one of those encounters has added to my understandings of the habits of outsized stripers.
You can no more expect to go into the wilderness and bag a grizzly with a slingshot than you would attempt to take on these goliaths of boulder-strewn white water with standard tackle and come out on top. When Charlie Cinto began fishing with me, he used a medium-action spinning rod and a conventional outfit of the same weight class, both of which he built in his workshop. The spinning rod was designed to cast plugs, from his own hand-made poppers to Danny swimmers, but I tactfully suggested he might need something heavier for flipping eels into the boulders where we had to heave stripers out of their craggy lairs. He winked at me and went on to land one, but he also lost three of the biggest fish he hooked during that first week.
Less than two weeks later, Charlie arrived with a spinning outfit he’d built of the same class as my custom CMS designed for just such heavyduty encounters. Within a month, he swapped out his medium-heavy conventional for the heavier-action rod he designed and attached an Abu Garcia 7500 with 60-pound braid. He smiled and said, “It’s still a heck of a lot more sporting than dragging 12-inch wooden plugs on wire with 4/0 reels attached to pool cues.” It was a reference to the tackle he used to best his state record 73-pounder at Cuttyhunk in 1967.
Most huge stripers are lost due to a lack of experience in fighting large fish as well as the limitations of the tackle employed. When some anglers view our heavy striper tackle, they occasionally comment about overkill. If your goal is to land a monster striper, you must have the tackle necessary to bring it to the boat quickly because many of those jumbos will not survive a release if fought for longer periods of time on lighter gear.
Another of my absolute rules for battling fish in this class is that from the first run on, you must take control. You just can’t hang on and let the fish have its way. If you are familiar with an area, you’ll have a fairly good idea where that fish wants to take you to facilitate an escape. Once your fish is solidly hooked, do not give it its head. Unless you are in the surf, without rocks or obstructions around, chase it, or better yet, head it off; don’t just sit there and allow it to peel line. Your drag might slow it down, but it won’t stop a huge striper from heading into the chaos of familiar gnarly habitat and scrubbing you off.
A factor none of us have any control over is luck – we need all we can get. If you’re curious to know if I’m still looking for an 80 or larger, the answer is yes. I have no doubt there has been and will be an 80-pound striper holding in my bass routes and other similar locations from Montauk to Maine. If a trophy linesider is on your list, you would be wise to prepare for the most challenging and unforgettable encounter of your fishing vocation. I use light or sporting tackle most of the time, but whenever I am prowling in the habitat where I have fought and lost battles to stripers in the 70- to 80-pound class, I come equipped with the heavy tackle I need to stop and turn a seven-striped freight train before she has her way with me. However, unlike Colonel Miner, I won’t have to wait for the weighmaster to come to me.