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Chumming is the process of throwing out on the surface some food which the fish might like, and thus attracting them to or near the surface where the fly can be presented to them. In the Chesapeake Bay and many other places, striped bass fishermen have long chummed with shrimp, pouring them overboard until a heavy slick is formed, into which the stripers eventually work. In many of the bays where there are crab canning plants, there is a more or less constant flow of natural chum in the waste that is dumped, and fishing is frequently very good in those areas. Another natural chum that attracts fish is spread out in the water when oyster tongers stir the bottom, and the fly caster who anchors downtide from them and casts his fly in the general direction of the oysterman has a good chance of coming up with stripers that are there feeding on the tidbits pushed up by the tongs.
In Bermuda, where chumming is common because of the deep water around the island, one of the favorite chums is hogmouthed fry, and inch-long, silvery minnow that is all head and mouth, as his name implies. A handful of these fry thrown on the surface will usually bring a concentration of gray snapper and yellowtail and other reef dwellers to feed, and once they start to feed, a well placed bucktail tied to match the fry, will usually get hits.
Fly casting into a chum line doesn't call for any particular skill because the fish are not usually far away and will stay in the one area. It does, however, demand extreme care with equipment. Everything must be right, from the knots in the leader to the mechanics of the drag on the reel. Even hook points should be thoroughly sharpened. Some terrific fish come to the chum line, strong fish and fast fish and long-running fish, and to be prepared for their maneuvers everything must be in the angler's favor when he fights these ocean roustabouts.
In almost all chum fishing, and especially when fishing for snappers, no motion is given to the fly, as these canny and sharp eyed "sea lawyers" are seldom taken in by a trick. The fly must be allowed to float along with the fry, looking just like it, at the mercy of the tide. The slightest movement, and a snapper will spot it as a phony. He may tear right up to it in his wild feeding, and then, at the last second he will slam on the brakes and give it the old cold eye. But let it float "dead" with the rest of the fry, and the angler is in for some fun. Gray snappers are very strong fish and usually they dive straight for the bottom and cut the leader on the rocks.
After the chum line has been out a while, it will extend far downtide and cruising fish, crossing it, will turn and follow it to the boat, feeding as they come, grabbing the hogmouthed fry avidly and moving in fast on the source of supply.
The first time I chum-fished in Bermuda, we anchored the big Aquarium boat, the Iridio, about Io miles offshore, over 6o feet of water. In no time, our chum line pulled in a large school of yellowtails, so many that the water around them appeared yellow. They were big for the species, five- and sixpound fish that worked through the chum, sucking it in as if they had magnets in their bellies.
A pink shrimp fly tied on a number 2 hook did the trick right off. We dropped them into the floating chum and whammie, a big yellowtail would smash into them like a blow from a hammer. Yet even so, once in a while those sharp-eyed babies would give us a fit, dashing headlong at the fly, then turning off at the last second, coming so close to taking that we would often strike.
Then far out on the chum line we saw other fish breaking. "Mackerel!" shouted Brose Gosling. These were the same fish as the Florida false albacore or little tuna, fish strangely built by nature so that they always have to keep swimming. The gill structure is such that if they stayed still they would die.
Now we saw them slipping through the chum within 30 feet of the boat. They didn't hesitate, but seemed to grab the floating fry at top speed. When they turned, they went far out, then getting a bearing they charged back into the fry. This time we were ready.
Both Brose and I dropped flies in front of them. Fish took both flies at the same time and the two reels went into high. I thought those fish had been traveling at top speed before, but now they really turned it on. They ran 500 feet before we finally stopped them and it was 20 minutes before we could finally boat that pair. They weighed seven pounds apiece . . . as nice an example of what the fly rodder may expect from the chum line, as anything I could name.
Bread is also widely used as chum in Bermuda. There, along the beautiful pink beaches, the gaff topsail pompano often come inshore and can be seen swimming through the curl of the breakers.
These tough bits of fish flesh, also called palometa, have a top weight of four pounds and average just under a pound. But they're as strong as little bulls. A two-pounder can snake out a fly line and a hundred feet of backing before he stops. They feed extensively on sand fleas and nature has equipped them with amazingly sturdy ribs that are built to take a beating as the fish dash ashore in the wake of a receding wave and grab a flea before it can bury itself in the sand. Sometimes the game little pompano are left almost high and dry, flapping their bodies hard to get back to the water. Then they will come in again, their long, black dorsal and anal fins showing dark in the clear green water, just under the crest of the breakers.
They will hit a very small fly and spinner combination as well as an inch-long white or yellow bucktail, and will take almost any of the small spoon-type lures that fit a fly rod. Because of the clearness of the Bermuda water, these all have to ride on the end of a fine tippet, one that tapers down to at most 4-pound test.
When the gaff topsail pompano are first spotted, they can often be taken without chum, but as they are fished they grow a little scary and move into deeper water, and then the bread is crumbled into little balls and thrown out, and this coaxes them back within wading and casting distance.
It used to be that the light tackle angler was not very welcome on charter boats, largely because when he hooked a big fish it took him so long to land it that the other fishermen sharing the charter became disgruntled. However, in the past few years, more and more light tackle anglers are using charter boats to go after unusual and sporty catches in the deeps, and when several pool their funds and go together, the charter men are only too glad to have them.
Casting from a charter boat has its hazards because of the superstructure, but usually the backcast can be managed without snagging a mate, an outrigger, or a fellow fisherman, as almost all casts in this kind of fishing are short, seldom more than 50 feet. And since the fish sought by this method are usually close to the boat, feeding on chum, or are school fish like dolphin and are following an already hooked fish, there is no need to hurry the cast.
There are other hazards of fishing the deeper water, too. Sometimes a hooked fish is lost to sharks and sometimes a fish will dive to the bottom and cut the leader. Or the angler may tie into such a big, seagoing speedster that it just won't stop at all and ends by either snapping the leader or breaking the backing where it is tied to the reel core. But these are pleasant risks to take, with the ever pleasant chance of coming up with something really unusual.
A lot of this kind of fishing is done on the Florida Keys, where charter boat captains are all "light tackle minded." Last spring Captain Howard Victor took us out on his boat, the Cadet, to look for school dolphin in the line of driftage along the Gulf Stream just off Islamorada. Pete Perinchief of Bermuda was with me, making his first go for dolphin.
"Let's try these big red and yellow streamers," I suggested. "But first, let Vic get the fish in here where we can reach them.
"Vic put out a trolling outfit and handed Pete the rod.
"Get one on," he instructed him. "And hold it. Bring it in to about 20 feet from the boat and just keep it there. The whole school will follow and stay with it, and then Joe can cast to them with his fly rod."
Ten minutes later Pete's rod bounced down and he held on while something tore line from the reel, then came out in a beautiful jump-a leaping, rainbow-hued dolphin, about seven pounds.
He slipped back in and Pete fought him hard for five minutes, then began to get him in. We could see him out there in the water, and right in back of him were the brilliant yellow, golden and green streaks that told us the rest of the school was zipping around him, staying with the hooked fish.
I false cast line out, dropped the big streamer near Pete's fish. It looked as if the entire school rushed it at once. One socked it hard, and I set the hook and leaned back on the rod. Out he came in a really high jump, a dolphin that could have been the twin of the one Pete had on. It took me 15 minutes to land him.
Pete was still holding his hooked fish out there.
"Here," he said, shoving the rod at me and grabbing his own fly rod. "I gotta get in on this."
The school was still there and Pete was into a fish on his first cast, a leaping, jumping powerhouse that looked like flames from a wind-driven fire. He was in and out of the water like something was after him, but he finally tired and Pete got him in. As he released his catch, I brought the decoy in.
"We'll release him, too," I said. "He deserves it."
We hit two more schools in short order and each time we had the same fast action. Then a bit later, as we cruised along a heavy mat of sargasso weed, we saw something dash out from it, right along the top. It hit the bait like a ton of bricks. This was no school dolphin. This was a good big bull.
"He'll go 30 pounds," said Captain Vic.
I had the bait rod at the moment, and that fish kept me tied to it for half an hour. It was touch and go the whole time. Then he began to tire. He surfaced, away out, and right back of him we spotted another shape, something long and brown looking.
"That's another big dolphin," shouted Vic. "Get your fish in closer, ,Joe, so Pete can put a fly to the other one."
I pulled harder on my now tired fish, and brought him closer. The brown shape followed like a shadow. They were both at 35 feet.
Pete shot the fly out, a perfect cast that dropped the fly two feet in front of that shadow. The dolphin took at once and came out in the most tremendous leap I've ever seen, an arching jump that took him Io feet in the air and carried him 30 feet across the ocean waves before he lit.
Pete's mouth was open, his eyes gleaming with a mixture of delight and disbelief. I probably had exactly the same look on my face. Never was there such a wonderful sight as that beautiful fish jumping across the ocean. Then I looked to the rear where my fish had been dogging it during all this wild excitement. Suddenly, as if jealous of the show his pal was putting on, he rushed to the top and came out, too, in a straight up jump, and threw the hook. I heaved a sigh and started reeling in, and suddenly, right where my hook was, Pete's fish came up, busted into the sunlight and threw Pete's fly. We reeled in a couple of empty lines.
Pete took three seven-pounders on his fly from the next school that hopped onto the trolled bait. They really punched holes in the ocean, like fast moving sewing machine needles.
"Catching 'em or losing 'em," said Pete, "if there's any better kind of fishing than this, I've yet to see it."
I thought of Pete that winter when I was using a popping bug for dolphin, down in Panama Bay. There are all kinds of strikes to a popping bug, fast ones, slow, majestic ones, sloppy tries, and pinpoint aiming. For pinpointing, the dolphin probably takes the diploma. They like poppers, and when one of those flossy looking numbers comes from under seaweed or a floating log to bop down on a lure, he does it with mathematical precision.
Dolphin are very curious about the noise made by a popper, and on this trip out in Panama Bay I coaxed a whole school of about a dozen 20-pounders out of some driftage to see what was going on. They bore down on that popper like a cavalry charge. The smallest one got there first but even so the hit was so strong that it pulled the fly line out of my left hand and I had no control over the line until it hit the reel with a bang, and the leader snapped like a strand of spider web. The rest of the school followed that brilliantly hued dolphin as he leaped and leaped, trying to throw the fly, and every now and then another dolphin would jump clear to see what was happening. Then the whole bunch faded under the line of driftage and didn't come out again until we popped the next bug.
Dolphin will hit just about any feathered lure or popper that is tossed to them. But after a couple of fish have been taken from one school with the same fly, they will often stop hitting, as if getting wise to the lure. Then a change of color or pattern will usually stir them up again and put the angler back in business.
In the Florida Keys area, the hot time for this kind of fishing is from about May 25th to the end of the first week in July. There are some school dolphin around all the time, of course, but they are spotty, and you may lose a lot of time hunting for them before ever getting a cast. But in the spring months they appear in numbers, following the line of sargasso weed, hanging around it and hiding under it, using it for a salty umbrella.
In July these Florida fish work northwards and during the summer they furnish great sport off the North Carolina coast. In Panama Bay, on the other hand, the dolphin continue on into October, following the fallen trees and driftage that float out into the Bay from the rain-swollen rivers.