Hooked for Life
By Edwin L. Aguirre
I love fishing, especially saltwater angling. My passion for fishing (my wife, Imelda, calls it an "obsession") started in mid-1999, when a colleague at Sky Publishing organized a day-long company outing to go deep-sea fishing in Massachusetts Bay. There were about a dozen of us who joined this fishing party aboard a Captain John & Son boat that sailed from Plymouth.
It was a beautiful summer day, with a cool, gentle breeze and perfectly calm sea. After the boat anchored miles offshore over Stellwagen Bank, our group and the other fellow passengers started the fishing frenzy. Using fresh clams supplied by the boat’s crew for bait, I caught a couple of cod and spiny dogfish (small shark, Squalus acanthias). I was hooked!
Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) caught in Stellwagen Bank
aboard Captain John & Son's deep-sea fishing boat.
Prior to this, I had only a casual interest in fishing. While still living in the Philippines, Imelda and I would occasionally take her young cousins to Bunot Lake near San Pablo, Laguna, to fish for tilapia, a type of cichlid that is a popular table fare.
But that summer trip in 1999 changed all that, and I became determined to catch as many different kinds of fish as I could. I started reading fishing articles in books, magazines, and websites, and watched fishing shows on TV religiously every weekend to learn the right gear and technique.
I approached the hobby from a scientific point of view, studying the behavior, life cycles, and migration patterns of the various game fish that inhabit the waters off New England. I began analyzing their preferred natural habitats and prey, their hunting, foraging, and feeding characteristics, and how the lunar cycle, tide, wind, current, water temperature, turbidity, etc., affect all these. I found the subject to be very fascinating and challenging. As you can see in the photos in this page (all taken by Imelda), I’ve achieved modest success in my quest.
I find fishing so relaxing and peaceful. I find the Sun shining on my back and the salty breeze blowing across my face refreshing and uplifting. It’s as if all the stress and worries of the office and life itself are light-years away, and I can just let my mind and imagination wander in silent contemplation. I can spend a whole day out on the beach or pier, without minding the time, weather, or mosquitoes. I feel intimately connected with Nature when I’m fishing.
There is also the thrill of the hunt, since fishing is all about being at the right place at the right time, and being prepared mentally and physically when you do encounter your quarry. (Marine fishes are highly mobile and migratory, and they won’t stay in one spot for long.)
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) from Castle Island, Boston.
Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus)
from Salem, Massachusetts.
It is all a matter of tempting the fish and eventually outwitting their keen sense of smell, sight, and feel with your natural-looking presentations. And there is also the element of surprise, since you never know exactly what you have caught until it is close to the water's surface.
I now have a growing collection of fishing books and magazines as well as an assortment of Penn, St. Croix, Daiwa, Shimano, Okuma, Shakespeare, and Abu Garcia rods and spinning/baitcasting reels loaded with braided or monofilament lines and fluorocarbon leaders. Each rod/reel combo is used for a specific application and for targeting a particular species.
Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) from Stellwagen Bank.
My tackle boxes are full of artificial lures — various swimming/diving/popping plugs from Rapala, Yo-Zuri, and Atom, as well as spinners, metal spoons, bucktail and diamond rigs, and three-way swivel, fishfinder, and Sabiki rigs. I also have plastic eels, worms, and shads by Berkley, Storm, Slug-Go, Felmlee, and Fin-S.
For natural baits, I use live eels as well as fresh or frozen mackerel, herring (my favorite), menhaden, squid, seaworms, clams, and nightcrawlers (for freshwater fishing). To catch carp in the Charles River, I use sweet corn for bait and rabbit pellets for chum.
Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) from the Cambridge
side of the Charles River.
To present the bait to the bottom, where the big fish are located, I use snelled J and circle hooks by Gamakatsu, Mustad, Matzuo, Zing, and Eagle Claw that are weighed down with pyramid, bank, or egg sinkers, depending on the type of bottom and the water’s depth and current.
The best time to fish from shore in New England, as far as I’m concerned, is spring and autumn, when the big game fish are actively pursuing the small baitfish as the latter migrate along the Eastern Seaboard. During the heat of summer, they all tend to stay offshore, in cooler, deeper waters. (The bitter, subfreezing wind chills and the danger of venturing out on icy shores keep me indoors during winter.)
Small baitfish, possibly "peanut bunker" (menhaden), in Boston Harbor.
Striped bass caught by our mom from Boston's Black Falcon cruise ship
terminal, across Logan Airport.
Mommy all bundled up for a cold, early morning fishing session in Salem.
Some of my favorite places to fish are beaches, jetties, piers, bridges, estuaries, and river banks. These include Boston’s Castle Island and the Black Falcon cruise ship terminal; Willows Park in Salem; the Eastern Point Lighthouse in Gloucester; Salisbury Beach; Plum Island; the fishing pier in Wareham; the Cape Cod Canal; Race Point in Provincetown; Martha’s Vineyard; Nauset Beach; Chatham Beach; the Nubble Lighthouse in York, Maine; and the Goat Island marina in Newport, Rhode Island, to name a few.
Striper from York Beach, Maine, caught near the Nubble Lighthouse.
Summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus) from Wareham,
near the Cape Cod Canal.
Scup or porgy (Stenotomus chrysops) from Goat Island in Newport,
My favorite places to hang out are the Kittery Trading Post in Kittery and the L. L. Bean store in Freeport, both in Maine. I heard there is a Cabela’s store that opened in Scarborough, also in Maine, so I am going to check it out one these days.
It has always been a dream of mine to go to the Florida Keys, Hawaii, Alaska, Costa Rica, the Caribbean, and French Polynesia to do some serious, non-stop shore and boat fishing. I hope someday I’ll skipper my own boat so I can go after big game fish such as tuna, marlin, swordfish, shark, roosterfish, mahi mahi, tarpon, and halibut!
(I now regret the fact that for the 1991 total solar eclipse, Imelda and I spent a week and a half at a private beachfront property in Baja California, facing the Sea of Cortes. We brought down all the telescopes we needed, but no fishing rod. That would have been a perfect way for me to spend my free time since there wasn’t really much else to do down there!)
My most memorable fishing moment to date occurred one beautiful October afternoon in 2007, when I went pier fishing with Imelda at the Black Falcon terminal. That was the time I landed a bluefish and a striped bass less than 15 minutes apart on an incoming tide and using frozen herring chunks as bait. It was a lot of fun! (Two bluefish also got away that day by cutting off the lines with their sharp teeth.)
Bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix), top, and striped bass
from Boston's Black Falcon cruise ship terminal.
Although Imelda doesn’t share my passion for fishing (she says she doesn’t want to “hurt” the fish), she has been supportive of my hobby from the beginning, and I am forever grateful for that.
One unpleasant fishing experience for Imelda happened in 2002, when we went deep-sea fishing aboard a Yankee Fleet boat from Gloucester. It was her birthday treat for me. What would have been a pleasant day at sea was marred by 20- to 30-foot seas. We were feeling the effects of the tail end of a hurricane well out in the North Atlantic.
There was no warning about the sea conditions from the ship’s captain and crew before we left port, and there was no turning back. For eight hours, our boat pitched and swayed in the huge, white-capped swells. It was like a scene from the movie The Perfect Storm. Many of the passengers got violently seasick, including Imelda, who hugged the trash barrel for the entire duration of the trip. But she never complained; she was a real trooper. I did snag a few spiny dogfish but no cod or haddock.
Back in port, we complained to the office staff about our experience. The staff did admit that the sea’s condition also caught them by surprise. They didn’t offer us a refund, but they did mail a couple of free passes for a future fishing trip. We never did go back to them.
The most unforgettable (and painful) fishing experience for Imelda took place on a Labor Day weekend in 2001, when she, our mom, and two friends from college went to Black Falcon for some early morning fishing.
Since Imelda always tried to keep herself occupied while I’m fishing, she decided to learn how to rollerblade that day in the pier's parking lot. During her practice run, however, her feet somehow got crisscrossed and she lost her balance. Her entire body weight landed on her left leg. She was in agony!
I immediately rushed to her side. As I was carefully removing her rollerblades, our mom excitedly called me, saying my fishing rod was bending wildly. I had caught a fish! Although Imelda was grimacing in pain, she told me to go ahead and reel in the fish, which I did. It turned out to be a 24-inch bluefish! Afterward, I brought the fish to her and had a group photo taken.
We continued to fish, while Imelda sat quietly on the tailgate of our pickup truck. Finally, after about an hour, we noticed her leg had started to swell, so we decided to bring her to the hospital emergency room. We thought all along it was just a bad sprain, but the attending doctor could tell right away it was more than that. X-rays revealed Imelda had fractured her tibia and dislocated her ankle.
The doctor placed her leg in a non-weight-bearing cast and sent her home to recuperate. But a few weeks later, she was back on the road with us. This time I was participating in Boston Harbor's Long Island fishing derby hosted by Mayor Thomas Menino. The derby spanned three successive weekends, and despite having trouble navigating the island’s rocky shore on crutches, she was there with us every single day, sitting on a folding chair and quietly reading books and newspapers while munching on doughnuts. She’s a real sport. What a catch!
The Importance of Conservation
Fishing has taught me the importance of conserving and protecting our natural resources, like fish and other marine life. Many people think that the seas offer an inexhaustible supply of fish. But far from it. The world’s wild fisheries are highly susceptible to over harvesting and climate change. These factors don’t allow the females to reach full maturity and bear eggs to replenish their stock.
Raw, untreated sewage from residential homes and toxic industrial wastes from factories lead to mass die offs. Algae blooms also put stress on fish populations, forcing the fish to move elsewhere. This was the case with Boston’s Charles River and Boston Harbor in the 1960s to the 80s. It was so notoriously contaminated that the fish were all gone. (The 1966 hit song “Dirty Water” by The Standells alludes to the city and its polluted river and harbor.)
But since then, thanks to the federal Clean Water Act and its strict implementation in the state, the river and harbor have made a dramatic comeback. Their waters are now relatively clean and teeming with aquatic life. Native fish species like smelt, herring, striped bass, and bluefish have returned to Boston Harbor, along with porpoises and seals. (Although personally, I still have reservations about consuming bottom-dwelling fishes, crustaceans, and shellfish from these areas, the shores are now lined with fishermen and their families and friends who enjoy weekends of fishing while taking in views of the city’s beautiful skyline.)
Striped bass from Boston Harbor.
I wish the same could be done in the Philippines, especially in transforming the highly polluted Pasig River and Manila Bay.
Like many fishermen, I practice “catch and release,” in which fish that I don’t intend to consume are landed and released back into the water quickly and safely. Here in New England, there are laws that regulate the size and quantity of fish you can keep each day. This ensures that juvenile fish can grow, mature, and reproduce.
A "schoolie" striper (juvenile striped bass) taken from Plum Island National
Wildlife Refuge north of Boston. The hook was quickly removed, and the fish
released back into the water.
In Massachusetts, you don’t need a license for saltwater fishing, but you do need to purchase one each calendar year to fish in freshwater lakes, ponds, and rivers. The funds raised by the licenses help support the state’s trout hatchery and restocking efforts as well as conservation education programs for kids.
In contrast, Imelda and I have seen and experienced firsthand how the fishing industry in Bagac, Bataan, had collapsed due to over harvesting by local fishermen and their indiscriminate use of dynamite and cyanide to stun the fish.
In 2006 and 2008 we vacationed in Bagac for a few days, and I tried to do some surfcasting. But no matter what I did or how hard I tried, I came up empty handed. There wasn't even a single bite. It’s like the entire cove was devoid of fish.
We even hired a couple of local fishermen to take us offshore on their banca (motorized canoe with outriggers) and to troll along the coral reefs. Still, nothing. Through the crystal-clear waters, we could see the reef below us, and they all seemed dead. No sign of any fish.
Edwin trolling the waters of Bagac, Bataan, aboard a motorized canoe.
We remembered that back in the 1980s, every morning at daybreak we would see fishermen coming to shore, their bancas loaded with fish. Droves of villagers would then meet them to buy their catch. And in the evening we would see the powerful lights of huge fishing trawlers, probably from neighboring Asian countries, dotting the horizon all night long.
These were no longer the case. During our recent visits, there were no fishermen coming in with their haul. Even the trawlers were all gone, having moved to new areas to exploit.
One early morning in 2008, while Imelda and I were strolling down the beach, we had a chance to chat with a fisherman pulling in the net he had laid out in the surf. (We saw only a few, measly fish in his bucket.) He basically confirmed what we had suspected all along — fishing in Bagac is now dead.
Except for a few seasonal species they could catch with nets from shore, to support their families the fishermen have to venture farther from home in search of fish, to neighboring towns like Morong. Life is really hard for a community that relies mainly on fishing for livelihood. Unless the government and the people start to take action, the situation will only worsen and become widespread.
A Silver Lining
One glimmer of hope we saw during our 2008 visit to Bataan are the conservation efforts that the local people are doing to save and protect the endangered pawikan (sea turtle). We experienced them firsthand at the community-based marine sanctuaries at the Montemar Beach Club in Barangay Pag-asa in Bagac and at the Pawikan Conservation Center in Barangay Nagbalayong in Morong.
The sea turtle conservation center at Montemar Beach Club in Bagac, Bataan.
Of the seven species of marine turtles in the world, five of them are known to migrate to the Philippine waters: the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas), the Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), the Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), the Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta), and the Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). The coasts of Bagac and Morong, facing the South China Sea, have long been the favorite of the Green, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles during their nesting season, usually from October to February.
A Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) being
rehabilitated at the conservation center in Morong, Bataan.
A pair of Olive Ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea)
In previous years, the rampant illegal hunting and slaughtering of the turtles and the harvesting of their eggs have decimated the local migrant population. (Turtle meat and eggs are considered delicacies and are highly sought for their aphrodisiac properties.)
It is so nice to see how local fishermen have become more aware of the importance of conservation and eco tourism, turning them from poachers to environmental advocates and protectors. Working with biologists, volunteers, and the staff in Bagac and Morong, as well as foreign, national, and local government agencies, trained villagers have gathered thousands of eggs for hatching. They also rescue weakened or injured adult turtles for rehabilitation and tagging before releasing them back to sea. These initiatives help ensure the species’ long-term survival.
Sea turtle nests (top), egg (middle), and hatchling.
For a few dollars, you can actually “adopt” a newly hatched turtle and personally release it into the water. There is even a “Pawikan Festival” celebrated in Morong each year around November.
Imelda and Edwin enjoying some quality time with Hawksbill turtles
at the Montemar Beach Club in Bagac.
Similar conservation efforts are also being carried out in other countries, including the Caribbean island of Trinidad, off Venezuela. Here volunteers patrol the beaches of Matura every night during the nesting season of the critically endangered Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), protecting the eggs and also tagging and weighing the females for scientific study before they head out to sea. More than 5,000 leatherbacks lay eggs in the area each year.
The future looks bright indeed for these magnificent, ancient mariners of the sea.