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Ghost Fish!
The Stuff of Dreams...That Came True Once

By Russ Bassdozer

Take this surf legend for what it's worth, guys. Don't start telling me I am full of bull, cause I'll only tell  you to go pound sand, tough guy.

The giants that came in at Block for only a few years were incredible fish, bigger than you probably realize. It definitely seemed to me there was a certain "core group" of those huge fish that, shall we say, were a "family" of big fish that physically resembled each other, perhaps related by birth or perhaps with physical features - hard, dense bodies and snout-like heads - molded by an offshore existence. In my opinion, this particular phalanx almost always stays far offshore not even coming close to any islands. So far offshore that they hardly ever encounter man.

Why this legendary school hit Block? Maybe it's a natural phenomena - like a comet that only orbits close enough to be within our sight every hundred years or so. Maybe Nature has given them a primitive bio-cyclical instinct that drives the species to deviate from its normal course once in a lifetime in order to cyclically and instinctively explore all options to ensure its survival. Or maybe they were there to recruit other big fish coming down the coast, to muster with them and lead them offshore. No one knows why they were there, but one thing is sure, we have not seen them since.

Sure, there are many other aggregations of big fish that take traditional coastal routes going down the islands or right down the mainland, but that's not the elusive school of giants I am writing about here. I'm talking about ones that altered their traditional deepwater offshore routes and swam south past Block for only a couple of years.

Most likely, these are the "ghost fish" that winter-over 100 miles off the Carolinas. Every 5-10 years, there are reports of Carolina deep sea commercials meeting up with them far offshore in the winter - but not for long. This is most likely a very broad area off the Carolinas that adult eels from the mid-Atlantic pass through during mid-winter as they migrate back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn, but no one knows too much about how the eels do that or where they go either.

These bass stay on the bottom in deep water and usually migrate north in springtime far ahead of the mackerel migrations where a very few are occasionally caught deep offshore by long-liners by accident. They use offshore water and feed on winter groundfish and pelagics like squid and sea herring. They are big, fast-swimming and streamlined. In fact, the snouts and heads on the truly big members of this family get super, super pointy and they always reminded me of mean-looking alligators in that respect. No doubt, this head shape can be an advantage for swimming long distances more easily.

There's less hearsay as to where they might summer-over, but my suspicion is it's gotta be offshore of Arcadia, Canada. Whatever, they usually migrate last south late too, using their offshore express lanes. I believe this is a school of huge offshore fish that winter far off the Hatteras and rarely ever come within fishing range.

Most people believe there is a separate Hudson stock, separate Delaware and Chesapeake stock...and a few say there's an old stock of fish that still persist in rivers of the southern Carolinas, wrapping round to Florida's Gulf Coast. In fact, I believe that there are (or were...prior to man's intervention) some fish that winter-over and are native to practically any freshwater creek that can sustain them without freezing them solid. Even still, the smaller, resilient pre-migratory juvenile fish can withstand being frozen solid in a state of suspended animation...and they will thaw out just fine.

However, the larger the fish get, the less able they are to withstand freezing or harshly cold winter water in these "local" freshets. As they get moderately bigger, they start wintering over in moderately bigger rivers near to their natality. Eventually, they're all funneled into the very big catch basins, rivers and estuaries - the Hudson and Chesapeake being the two biggest and best-known of them.

Now, let's talk about the big schools of predominantly thirty to fifty pounders that have been identified as wintering-over offshore of the Hatteras Banks. The fish on these wintering grounds have really only been pinpointed with any precision during the last fifteen years. It is interesting that these are not exclusively Chesapeake fish. To me, they are big specimens of "every fish" of every natality up and down the coast - all mixed stocks wintering together off the Hatteras. But even these fish are small compared to the extremely big ones that eventually grow so large that they find the known Hatteras grounds to be too inshore and intolerable for them. They increasingly prefer to winter-over more offshore - the bigger they become - the deeper and further offshore they will winter - and tend to remain for the rest of their lives even though they do migrate up and down the full range of the coast - hardly ever encountering a hook. So, these are all the super-cows of every natality - the very best and fittest of the species from the entire coast all together leading an exclusively offshore existence.

Why so distant and elusive? Why not come into our grasp and swim into our range so that we can catch them? Maybe it's God's way to ensure a special reserve of prime fish will always be waiting far offshore in case the entire inshore striper population ever faces a calamity of disastrous proportions. A calamity from which it cannot rebound. It could happen, you know, and it could be man that makes it happen - massive destruction of the coastal environment, commercial and recreational fishing pressures, dumping man's harmful wastes and contaminants not very far offshore, heavy industrial and residential development of waterfronts, dammed rivers and wetlands, toxic spawning and nursery areas, polluted waters, inedible fish. Why?

Nature rarely puts all her eggs into any one basket. There are many exceptions - in fact, every diversity exists within Nature. Under Her plans, many specimens of every species do not live where, how, when or within what our scientists prescribe to us as their so-called normal ranges. Especially under the sea, there's so much we don't know yet. And when it comes to the ghost fish, Nature has intended for us to never really find them.

They're out there. It's me and to a few other people too. Definition of true? It's what I believe the glorious mystery of fishing is to me and how I do it...which may not be someone else's definition of what fishing is to THEM and how THEY do it.

Well, I've told you more about the ghost fish than I should have already. They're there for you guys to dream about, and if you want to tell me I am full of it or invented it, I will just laugh at you anyway, so DON'T EVEN BOTHER TO DO IT!

But now, here's something else I will tell you about Block, and don't spread it around either:

Big schools of fish typically surface out of the deepwater on SE winds about 1/2 mile offshore between Old Harbor and Green Hill. They stack up in a blue hole that you can see if you go up on the cliff over the left hand rim of the bowl that contains the Sh*t Chute. Like, there's a church on that promontory, and you take a trail to get up there that starts over near the spring. Well, from up on top, you can look towards 1 o'clock, and if the visibility and sea conditions are good, you can see huge brownish-copper schools of bass far offshore in the blue hole. They usually come up there around 9-10 in the morning, and what they do is called "muster", which is to send out a chain or relay race of scout bass, that are hyperactive biologically, and that race down the shoreline to detect enough food to sustain the school. This is serious scouting, and the bodies of the fish that function as scouts often transform into big heads, fins, tails with thin bodies. If the chain of scouts don't circle back up their living chain and return to the school before dark, then the rest of the school will follow the chain down onto the shoreline after after dark. They generally will not eat, until the chain of fish draws them into heavy bait, when pods of bass will begin splintering off, the school starts to disperse and basically eats the beach. But the end of the chain keeps swimming further until they find so much bait, that the instinct to gorge overpowers the instinct to scout, and there you have it - an unbelievable blitz! Often, the scouts, or "racers" as they are known, would not detect bait, and the mustering schools would not come up on the beach at all, but just vanish by nightfall. But, in the meantime, some of the locals would take boats out to the blue hole and tong them. But when they do come up on the beach, they head towards the jetty at Old Harbor, bank a turn off that and proceed down through Old Harbor, Green Hill, Southeast Light, Snake Hole, Black Rock, Tin Lizzie, South Cove, most of the mass ends up at Southwest, where the scouts and then the pods begin circling back on each other and raiding the beach as they circle back. A few adventurous pods may spill over further towards Cooneymus, Dories, Gracies, the Dump, Charlestown, and New Harbor. The next morning, the well-fed school again musters, this time off Southwest, while waiting for all the pods to rejoin. This is usually over the deepwater drop, where boaters will hammer them, but occasionally they muster right on the shoal. When they muster on the shoal, which isn't often, they don't bite, but some mornings you could have waded out there with a pitchfork and bale them like they were striped hay!

When the muster has recollected all its members, it must make an instinctive decision to follow schools that went before them towards Montauk and therefore, make an important migratory decision that the school will migrate down the South Shore to a massive staging grounds offshore of the Hudson Grounds, usually within two weeks time after they hit Montauk. Or the school will instinctively choose to go deep and follow those before them that took the offshore routes, thereby appearing much sooner on the deeper staging areas offshore from the Hudson Grounds. Again, the bass have a continuous stream of living fish moving ahead of them that provide them with reliable feedback as to which route this school should take as they depart from Southwest Point.

It's winter as I write this. A cold day with a bowl of steaming hot soup set before me...and vaporous dreams of ghost fish that swam within reach of surfcasters once and vanished back into the sea from whence they came.

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