The Modern Surf Fisherman: A Different Breed

It can take months to get proficient in the surf fishing game. It takes years, if not a lifetime, to master catching large striped bass from the surf. Unlike the boat bound anglers, the surf fishing crowd is a different breed. They spend countless nights sleepless and skunked, even going as far as dawning a wetsuit and swimming out to normally unreachable structure. If you ask around, you will hear all sorts of surf fishermen stereotypes, but the one that always comes up- they have a screw loose. That’s what these fish do to this dedicated group of anglers. They are tight-lipped, scientists of their craft, and constantly pursuing that next epic bite.

We decided to pick the brains of Simms Ambassador Frank Goncalves– plug builder and big fish enthusiast – on what it takes to be successful from the surf. Frank spends his whole spring, summer and fall targeting large striped bass from the beach and rocks, often in the middle of the night. He is a bit of a jedi knowing where to be on what tide, what moon cycle to fish, and which hand-built plug is going to serve him best on any given night. If you want to learn about what it takes to be successful from the rocks, check out the conversation below with one of New England’s best.

Simms: Hey Frank, good to hear from you man. We are sitting down for this talk at the end of June, which means your season is already well underway – how’s it been so far for you? We just have to know…

Likewise! As for the 2020 season, thus far, it’s had its solid nights followed by some really slow nights. Which is expected, of course. It seems to be another season, where some serious dedication and sleepless nights are the only thing that yield solid results. Which, of course, I’m all for but I won’t argue stumbling across some easy bites. Hoping as we enter summer, patterns from previous seasons mixed with what has been working for this season all comes together. Fingers crossed!

Simms: Alright now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, tell us a little bit about you- who you are, how long you’ve been surf fishing, what you spend your fishing time doing, what you are targeting, etc.?

Frank: I’m a surfcaster living in South Eastern Massachusetts, where I was lucky enough to be born and raised. Although I fished most of my childhood, from boat and shore, I was drawn to surf fishing about fifteen years ago. If I wasn’t already addicted enough to fishing, the combination of targeting striped bass from rocks and doing it through-out the night, made for my perfect recipe.

Simms: Now let’s get into the knitty gritty of it all. Can you give us some insight into fishing during the day versus the night game? I have a feeling I know your preference, but I’d love to hear your thoughts about your favorite conditions?

Frank: Like most surf rats, I primarily fish nights, dark ones preferably. I do, however, really enjoy day time fishing early spring and late fall. Hard to beat topwater after a long winter or after a long, tiring season.

As for conditions, it’s mostly dependent on the spot. In saying that, it’s tough to beat a big tide around the new moon. I love finding light wind out of the southwest and just enough swell to drown out any noise. The fish just seem to feel much more comfortable in tight to structure during those times. There’s always a balance with the wind though- I like just enough to cause some surface disturbance but not enough to dirty up the water.

Simms: The fishery changes a ton throughout the season. Aside from the obvious- hotter/colder longer/shorter days- what changes do you see throughout a fishing season? 

Frank: Fish behavior for sure. Often spring and fall, I feel like I’m targeting a completely different species than in the summer. They often take up residency wherever they feel comfortable for the warmer months and they’re a lot less charged up than the migratory months. This makes targeting them a little less run-and-gun and a lot more finesse fishing. For me anyway. 

Simms: You mentioned the big tides and the structure around your home waters; what factors are you looking at when deciding when and where to go? Is there a golden formula?

Frank: Our tides aren’t as large as some other places so I try to take advantage of the larger tides each month. If you can pair those tides with structure where that already fast-moving water is being forced through, you can usually find larger fish. They tend to be lazy looking for easy meals, so you’ll often find them using the same structure in the same types of choke points.

Simms: Okay, hold on a second here- we need to know more about this whole moon tide situation. We hear people talking about the new moon bite, the flood tide full moons, and all sorts of strange lingo about tides. Please enlighten us.

Frank: The tides around the moons (full and new) are generally larger, therefore faster, which bass seem to use to their advantage and maybe more so tight into shore. However, if you asked any surfcaster, they’d most likely tell you they despise fishing full moons. The full moons are a love-hate relationship- if you get some cloud cover the bite can turn on, but for whatever reason the bass don’t like feeding under the bright moon light. This leaves the new moon, ideal for most surf rats. 

Simms: So conditions and locations aside, surf guys love their gear, to the point where they often start making their own. I’ve seen the plugs you’ve built over the years, and it’s left us drooling over at Simms. Tell us a bit about what got you into plug building?

Frank: Since I started surfcasting, I’d use a variety of plug styles from various builders. Most from small volume builders that I grew to respect. While most were great swimming plugs that were extremely well built and caught, I thought I could build my own and make them specific to the spots I fished. Much like tying flies, I guess.

After toying with the idea of building in the off-season, I built my first few plugs about thirteen years ago after buying an old lathe. I had success on some and each winter, I’d try to improve on those styles while creating new ones. I’d also clone classic styles and fish them to see what made them popular for so many years. Not much has changed in design over the years, so you can learn a ton from any plug.

Simms: I need to know, do you still have the first plug that you built? Did it actually work or was it just a throw away?

Frank: I actually do! Well I have the first plug that actually caught fish from the first set I built. It was no eye-catcher, but I did manage a handful of fish on it including a 22lb bass. Before losing it, I decided to fish a duplicate and hang that one up. I’ll spare everyone a look at the monstrosity but it still hangs on my shop wall, slightly hidden.

Simms: If you had one lure/bait to fish for the rest of your life, what would it be? Swimmers, Jigs, eels ? 

Frank: Tough one here, BUT, I’d have to go with a darter. A rigged eel would be a very close second! Although, it’s still early on in the season, and metal lips have produced more for me than any other plug- I’d be surprised if that holds true all season. Season after season, darters just produce for how and where I fish.

Simms: By your standards, what is the mark of a trophy striper?

Frank: I mean, I consider a fifty-pound Striped Bass a “trophy” like most, but I always feel some amount of luck comes into play with a fifty. I won’t say a forty pound fish is considered a trophy but I’d be just as happy with a forty that I targeting used wind, tide and some experience over a blindly caught fifty.

Simms: What’s your most memorable fish that you have taken from shore to date? Can you give us a rundown of how that experience went for you?

Frank: Ah, another tough one. A few stand out but most of my memorable fish wasn’t the largest, actually. It was more so just how everything played out. The most recent was topwater fish at dusk last fall. Not sure a day time fish gives a surfcaster the same satisfaction as a large fish in the night, but this particular fish did. It was late season, I had dropped two or three fish that weren’t huge but I would have been happy landing. Right before I was thinking about throwing in the towel and taking a break until the night bite, I made a few more casts hoping to raise another. After feeling almost certain it wasn’t going to happen, my plug got absolutely crushed. It was one of those times when you’re actually watching it and didn’t just catch it out of the corner of your eye. BUT unlike the previous fish, I dropped it. I feel like I didn’t really have pinned- it almost seemed like it clamped down on the plug so hard it took drag before letting go of the plug. After throwing my head back and rolling my eyes with frustration I started to burn my plug back in. Two fast cranks in, it came back and hammered it. All shoulders and tail and twice as angry. I’m almost positive it was the same fish as they’re certainly weren’t many around that size and like I mentioned above, I don’t think I ever hooked it, as it’s rare a hooked large fish comes back. Anyhow, after one of the grittier fights I can remember, I got her in and I remember mumbling while out of breath “I freaking love this stuff”.