“The Fish of Dreams”
Keith Allonardo “Hip Fish”
I got very lucky one day in Cape May, NJ and If you have seen the video then you already know my final words upon landing the largest striped bass I have ever caught on the fly; This is the One I’ve been Dreaming of. People on social media loved it, talked about it, chuckled, and embraced my elation. I suppose it is kind of funny and I have laughed at myself watching it. Those words had so much meaning behind them that it is hard for people aside from my wife, Amy, to comprehend. That fish was the culmination of years of imagination, hope, and unfortunately disappointment. This story is for the average fly fisherman like me. The anglers who do not live among the best waters or have the time to chase every bite. This is for everyone who is following the guides, the travelers, and the people on social media who seem to fish every damn day and catch amazing fish! This story is for the rest of us dreaming of the one. I have caught a few decent fish over the years but my quest for a true giant on the fly was something that I could not make happen for one reason or another.
It is mid-spring and while I caught a lot of Stripers it has been my worse year to date. I did not break twenty inches let alone twenty pounds. I decided to shift my focus to Weakfish as I caught a small one mixed in with my usual Stripers. The weekend looked fairly dreary with a chance of rain both Saturday and Sunday with Saturday looking like the best day to get out. We awoke Saturday and the first thing Amy usually ask is, “should I get ready?” This day I said nah, not yet. I was not very motivated to do much of anything. We hung out a bit and my mind was racing wondering what I wanted to do. Going fly fishing won the debate as usual. I said, “Let’s go down the shore; I want to try for a good Weakfish.” That meant going to our favorite town, Cape May.
I went bayside and made my way out on a falling tide. The water was a bit stained but looked good enough to make a go of it. My choice for Weakies is normally a 7wt but laziness won and I was going to fish an 8wt I already had in my van. I started working the area I was in with a 2/0 pink and white Bunny Strip Clouser I tied the week before. It was more of a Half/Half sans feathers. A fellow angler came out with a spinning rod and I could tell by his choice of lure he was after Weakfish. I asked him if he had been out and he said this week and that he caught a few Weakies. My confidence level started rising as the breeze died and the gnats rose from the rocks and grasses. No-See Ums. Why the hell were these evil things created? I’ll take Mosquito and Green Head bites and keep fishing but these little bastards are unbearable. I had my t-shirt over my face and my hood up and strings pulled tight. I looked like a fat kid trying to be a Ninja assassin. Amy was long ago packing up and escaping the onslaught of gnats trying to enter every orifice of our bodies. I quickly made haste and joined her back at the van.
The day does not end there. I was not going to resign myself to the Lobster House Raw Bar for shrimp, clams, crabs, lobster, or soup. Not yet at least; not without making another attempt for a solid Weakie. I was not giving up; no way. I made my way oceanside and walked out onto one of the jetties jutting into the ocean. I tossed that same fly into the rip at the end of the jetty. I worked both sides of the rocks, I worked the surfline, and I covered water looking for that take. Far beyond the jetty were birds and dolphins harassing bait, nothing unusual. Amy says “It looks fishy” and I responded, “it always does.” I saw what I believed to be Hickory Shad leaping out of the water in casting range. We both saw it. The Shad popped out of the water maybe five times but no tell tale signs of anything large chasing them. I like chartreuse for stripers so decided to put the same fly on in chartreuse and pink thinking maybe there are some stripers around. I began working the same part of the rip in hopes SOMETHING was in the water that was hungry. Maybe the third cast my line came tight and my strip strike felt like it drove my fly into a sack of potatoes. The fish rolled on the surface and I realized in that moment I hooked a big Striper. How big? Twenty five pounds at least. So I thought.
I was quickly making my way off the jetty as I was clearing line being violently torn out of my grasp by this fish. I was not wearing my Korkers but my Chotas w/felt souls and studs kept me upright on the green rocks. I am still not sure how I did not go down as I was moving fast and without even looking where I was stepping. I clambered onto the sand and with one hand unsnapping my stripping basket and tossing it on the beach had the Striper on the reel as backing screamed out. The drag on my Nautilus CCFX-2 was smooth as I expected it to be. My Scott A4 8wt has already been proven capable on thousands of fish. I did not fear my gear failing. My knots failing as I was putting good pressure on her was a thought I had till the end. Was my Albright from line to backing smooth enough to not catch the guides? Will my whipped loop on the flyline slip? Will my loop on my 20lb Seaguar leader pop? Is my Lefty Loop connecting the fly gonna take this pressure? So many what ifs between me and my largest Striped Bass doing her best to be free.
I was looking out at the end of the jetties and the bass was making a blistering run well beyond. I did not want this fish to get around the front of the jetties on either side of me so I moved to the middle of both and decided that is where this epic battle would take place. It was my best tactic to control her and keep her from pulling off a hasty escape. To my surprise I start gaining line and while she made a few more runs, I was winning this battle of wills. She turned, I turned her back. She made a run, I kept her tight on the bend of the rod. She ran at me, I reeled fast and furious. She is now in the surf line and I have the perfect swell to guide her onto the sand. I knew this is where it could all go wrong. Where my heart could be broken again; my soul crushed again. I was in the most tense part of this exchange. As I pulled her to the top of a swell thinking this is it, I win, she digs deep and back into the depths. This big girl had more fight in her.
My thought in that moment was please do not let it end like this; I am too close. A few half hearted attempts to head back out on her part were unsuccessful. That beautiful fish comes up sideways at the top of a swell and I knew it was my time. I walked back and slid her onto the sand. As I scurried into the wash to grab her It was then I realized just how immense she was. I boosted her onto my knee and Amy stopped recording and took a bunch of pictures. She said, “Got it”. I brought her to the water’s edge and walked into the mid-50s ocean up to my waste. I was in shorts but felt no difference in temperatures. She grasped onto my hand instantly with her mouth and then thrust to break free.
I worked her back and forth maybe twenty seconds and all she wanted to do was be out of her current situation. I let her go into the next swell and she kicked her massive tail and was free. I felt the rush of water from her tail against my legs. Maybe she thought she won that day as she swam off. I know who really won that foray. I admired that fish for less than a minute and she was back in her element. I walked back onto the sloping sand and Amy watched me as I fell to my knees overwhelmed by what just took place.
Keith Allonardo “Hip Fish”