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Striper Crazy
Swimming with the fishes--sharks included--takes on new meaning for one angler in Montauk, New York.


by David DiBenedetto


?I don?t advise peeing in your wet suit,? shouted Paul Melnyk. ?You?ll get a mean rash.?
?I?ll keep that in mind,? I hollered into the wind.

Truth was, whizzing in my neoprene suit was the least of my worries. I was standing at the edge of the roiling Atlantic in Montauk, New York. Clouds covered the sliver of a moon, and the chilly October night was as black as the bottom of a well. In a few minutes I would follow Melnyk into the ocean.

We planned to lie on our backs, buoyant in our wet suits, and kick our way 300 yards offshore. Once there, we would ride the current that ran parallel to the beach, casting live eels for striped bass. After we were carried for a half mile or so, we would kick back to where we started and begin the drift again. Melnyk, a Montauk local who invented this form of angling, calls it skishing (a cross between skiing and fishing, since he often gets towed by large stripers).

Behind a large dune, we huddled to zip our wet suits and run through our equipment. ?If a shark grabs me, I expect you to fight him off with your knife,? said Melnyk, trying to loosen up the situation. His levity was lost on me. I knew enough about the area to realize that the threat of sharks was no joke. A little more than a decade back, a Montauk charter boat had landed a monstrous great white (17 feet, 3,427 pounds) that had been snacking on a dead whale not far from Montauk Point, and just that summer a 14-foot mako had been pilfering stripers from the ends of fishermen?s lines and ramming boats near Cape Cod. Up and down the east coast, 2001 had been the summer of the shark.

There were also rip currents, some of which ran at 10 knots. If we got caught in the wrong place, we would be shot out into the ocean as if on a water-park ride.

?Let?s do this before I chicken out,? I said.

Paul Melnyk discovered his unorthodox but deadly style of fishing by chance. Since the ?50s, Montauk anglers had donned wet suits and like frogmen swam out to large rocks that, at low tide, still lay 2 or 3 feet beneath the ocean?s surface. Once on these perches the rock hoppers, as they?re known, fished water that was unreachable by shore-bound surf casters. One night in 1996, Melnyk was on Weakfish Rock, a large boulder that has a flat top the size of a kitchen table and sits some 200 yards off the point, when a wave washed him off. It happens often, but this time Melnyk was fighting a 30-pound striped bass, and it started towing him to sea. With no chance of hopping back on the rock, he decided to fight the fish in its element. His 6mm wet suit gave him plenty of buoyancy, and if he placed the rod between his legs and floated on his back ?like an otter eating an abalone,? he could actually put some leverage on the fish. Five minutes later he landed his prize. He was hooked.

Out in Montauk, hard-core surf casters weren?t too fond of Melnyk?s skishing technique. Most anglers thought it was cheating; others thought it was plain stupid. It didn?t help that the Coast Guard twice scrambled to ?rescue? Melnyk while he was happily fishing off of the point. And one early copycat did get swept out to sea in a rip. About a quarter mile offshore, the unlucky fellow, thinking fast, dropped his lure to the bottom, where it snagged and prevented him from drifting to the Azores. He was eventually plucked from the ocean by a commercial fishing vessel.

The brouhaha reached a climax during a local surf-fishing tournament in the fall of 1997. There were no rules forbidding skishing, but the tournament committee met and decided Melnyk held an unfair advantage over other casters. Melnyk filed a grievance but lost.

The feud was still flickering between Melnyk and other locals when I met up with him on a crisp, clear Monday. At the time, the idea of swimming in the ocean in the dead of night with a batch of eels and a surf rod seemed like good fun.

He pulled into the driveway of the local house where I was staying at 8:30 a.m. in his black full-size pickup truck. In the back, the big, broad tail of a striped bass poked out of a giant Igloo cooler. Melnyk had landed the fish, and four others that he released, the previous night while skishing. ?Hop in,? he said. ?We?re gonna go shove this 44-pounder in a few faces.? Melnyk, who stands a healthy 5-foot-11, had his head shaved to a fine fuzz, which accentuated his H-beam jaw. On one of his Popeye-like forearms was a tattoo of a striper turning on a bucktail.

Word had been spreading that Melnyk had been slacking off, or worse, that his luck had changed. He planned to quell those rumors with a little self-promotion. We drove from one fishing spot to the next, beckoning anglers to take a peek in the cooler. Most were unwilling, some were nasty, and others couldn?t resist. ?This burns them up,? he said.

Our last stop was Camp Hero, where some SUVs were clustered together, wet suits hanging from tire racks. The owners, who had fished all night, were asleep inside?until Melnyk began pounding on their windows. One poor soul, who was wearing an eye mask, jumped so high that he bumped his head on the roof. He ripped off the mask to see Melnyk?s smiling visage, then buried himself beneath his sleeping bag. ?He can?t help himself,? said Melnyk. ?He?ll get up to see this fish.?

He did.

After we debuted the big striper, Melnyk went to clean it and get ready for our skishing expedition. He had planned our first trip for the daylight hours to make sure I could handle myself in the water.

He came back wearing his wet suit. After cleaning his fish, he had taken the head and set it on the front porch of a ?friend?s? house, complete with sunglasses and a half-smoked cigar poking from its mouth. We drove onto the beach at Montauk Point and pulled on our gear. ?I always feel like a gladiator putting this stuff on,? Melnyk said. We zippered up, put our dive belts around our waists (these held a knife and a set of pliers), grabbed our rods and flippers, and waded in. ?Put the rod butt under your arm, lie back, and start kicking.?

Since this was purely a sea trial, we didn?t expect to catch many bass, but the bluefish were everywhere. To cast to them, I would flutter-kick, which lifted me about waist-high. With my arms clear, I could deliver a good wing before I sank back to shoulder level. I then put the rod butt between my legs and fished much like I would from shore. I quickly hooked a few 3-pound blues, which offered little fight on my 10-foot rod. Big striped bass, Melnyk told me, offer more of a challenge, especially when they get within 15 feet. ?Sometimes they spin you around, flip you over, pull you into the surf, and use their dorsal fins like bayonets.? After I hauled in a few more blues and a small striper, Melnyk pronounced me a natural, then called it a day. ?We need to save our legs for tonight. It won?t be too much different from this afternoon, just colder, windier, and dark as hell.?

As we paddled in on our backs, Melnyk grabbed a moon jellyfish, a nonstinging variety shaped like the plastic lid of a cup, and took a bite out of it. ?Not bad,? he said, ?tastes like watermelon.? I began to wonder if I really wanted to follow this guy into the ocean at night.

Out on the beach that evening, Melnyk did little to assuage my concerns. ?This is a shore break,? he said. ?It?s dangerous surf. These waves can pick you up and slam you on the beach. It?ll ruin your week.? We waded in. The surf zone was a cauldron of whitewater, and beyond it the sea?s lumps melded with the sky. When the water reached our knees, we dropped on our rumps and pulled on our flippers. With the waves rushing to shore, it was a clumsy endeavor, and twice I rolled face first into the water before succeeding.

We were kicking side by side when the first breaker rushed over us. I swallowed a mouthful of seawater and bobbed to the surface. Melnyk hooted with delight. The next wave lifted me up and carried me tumbling back where I?d started.

?Come on, Dave. Kick, kick, kick!? coaxed Melnyk. I gathered myself and pushed off. In less than 30 seconds we were out of the surf, rising and falling on the choppy waves of the ocean. At 54 degrees, the water breaching our wet suits was breath-stealing.

?This is our natural state,? screamed Melnyk. ?This is just like being in the womb or floating in space.? The womb I wasn?t sure of, but space I could give him, especially since the night sky made a seamless transition to the sea. Each kick stirred up microscopic plankton and larger moon jellyfish, causing the phosphorus in them to glow like Cyalume sticks.

?How much farther?? I asked.

?About 100 kicks.?

Suddenly there was a surface commotion just in front of our heads, like a broom slapping the water.

?Just a flock of sea ducks riding out the weather,? said Melnyk. ?We probably scared the crap out of them.?

?Likewise.?

Eventually Melnyk stopped kicking. ?We?re here,? he yelled. I flipped my headlamp on. It illuminated a circle in front of me, the strobe reaching through the gin-clear water toward the bottom. I wondered what could see me from below and inched closer to Melnyk.

Melnyk kept each eel in a sealed sandwich bag for easy handling. He passed one to me. It squirmed within its plastic confines as I hooked it through the jaw. With the hook in place I ripped open the bag, freeing the eel. It danced on the end of my line.

I turned my light off. Melnyk already had his eel in the water. He was floating about 10 feet from me. As I went to cast, Melnyk?s rod quivered, then bent deeply. He reared back on the fish, then shouted, ?Oh baby, they?re here.?

With the fish hooked, Melnyk leaned back, as if sitting in a submerged Barcalounger, his flippers poking above the surface, and went to work. He whipped the striper in less than five minutes and then grabbed the leader, steering the 20-pound, 3-foot-long fish under his arm. ?This one?s as docile as a baby,? he said. Unfortunately, the sea wasn?t as calm. A large wave, its breaking crest alerting us it was on its way, lifted us skyward. For a second atop the 6-footer, a gust of wind smacked us like a balled-up wet towel. ?Whoa, who turned on the fan?? said Melnyk. The heavy weather had me spooked.

Sensing my courage dwindling, Melnyk occasionally lobbed a jellyfish at me to liven up the evening. He also told me about the time he and a pal got lost in the fog while skishing. ?We were pretty turned around. We had to listen for the sound of breaking waves to find the beach. It took us about 45 minutes,? he said. ?Then there was the day in the electrical storm.?

A few casts later I felt a solid thump on my line and set the hook. Immediately, the fish began to have its way with me; I plunged face first into the water. I pulled my head out to hear Melnyk laughing but then went down again, kicking like mad. This time I managed to lean back and exert some pressure. The fish charged for the shore, spinning me around and, again, yanking me off of my axis, but I recovered much quicker. Back in position, I began to get towed away from Melnyk. ?Hey, don?t let me get too far away,? I yelled.

?Ha! Might be a 30-pounder!?

After 10 minutes I had the fish in close. Then it came thrashing out of the water, its teeth clacking. I was eye to eye with a 10-pound, pissed-off bluefish. There would be nothing docile about this landing. As the fish circled, I tried to grab it behind the head, but when I did it rose up and tail-walked across the surface, snapping its jaws like a set of hedge clippers. ?Watch those chompers!? yelled Melnyk. ?Lose a finger out here, and we?ll have one hell of a chum slick.? Finally I got a grip and pried the hook free.

For the next 15 minutes, neither of us even registered a hit. ?I think we need to go out a little farther. Maybe another hundred yards,? said Melnyk. ?You up for it??

?I think I might want to head in,? I said. ?I?m a little freaked out tonight.?

?We can go in if you want. Just say the?wow, what was that?? His sentence had been interrupted by a deep grunting sound coming from directly beneath us.

?I was hoping you would know.?

?Maybe it?s a blackfish marking its territory.?

?Blackfish don?t grunt.?

?Just another one of the wonders of being out here,? he said.

My wonderment ended a few minutes later when I told Melnyk I?d had enough.

As we neared the beach, we gathered ourselves and waited for a set of big waves to pass, then furiously kicked. I could hear Melnyk yelling but couldn?t make out what he was saying. Then a wave broke on me and I went under, taking a noseful of water. I stood up, only to get crushed by another wave. When the water drained, I was knee-deep. I pulled my flippers off and stumbled to shore. When Melnyk dropped me off, I took a long, hot shower, then went to the Dock, a bar favored by commercial fishermen, for a double bourbon on the rocks. I?d never been so happy to be on solid ground.

[ 07-22-2004, 12:02 PM: Message edited by: NIGHTSTRIKES ]
 

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that was one great story espn did something on a guy i dont know wether it was him or another guy. just alittle to cold for me i think.
 

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There are a couple of chapters in DiBenedetto's book dedicated to the Fall Run in NJ, and one specifically concerning the events surrounding the world record holder of the largest Striper ever caught.
 
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