Pictured above: Russel Zivkovich fooled this 50-inch striper under a June full moon.
Is striped bass fishing during the June moon really worthy of all the hype it receives?
Booking a June moon trip with a topnotch Cuttyhunk skipper has always been about as likely as drawing the inside face card for a royal straight flush. It didn’t happen often and when it did, it was usually the result of someone else’s misfortune. Famous Cuttyhunk guides seldom, if ever, advertised trips, at least not for June because those dates were never available. The same fares that fished the “Moon In June” in 1959 booked the same times slots for the 1960s years in advance, many paying a premium for the probability of hooking up with a record linesider.
I fished that very same June moon in my own boat, but never in the traditional manner of dragging a huge swimming plug on wire along the wave-washed boulders that form Sow and Pigs Reef off Cuttyhunk, because it was too dangerous. Certainly the jagged boulders lurking just below or breaking the surface were a problem, but nothing akin to being rammed or driven onto the rip by the guides. This was their domain, and they were ferociously custodial about protecting it from trespassers. If that sounds like an embellishment, just ask Charlie Cinto, who captured the first modern-day 73-pound striper, or Jay Vee, who caught numerous 50s on the Pigs. Anyone who fished with Sabby, Smitty or Hague understood the danger of trolling a plug along what the guides considered their private domain. The competition between the guides was so intense that if you happened to witness the way they acted toward and treated one another, you’d have understood what they might administer to an interloper. There were some huge bass hooked, landed and lost during the brief window of the June full moon, but larger stripers were caught during the remainder of the season under little if any moonlight.
You could ask 20 prominent striper fishermen and receive 20 different answers as to why the June moon was always considered so advantageous. However, for this piece, I’ll provide my personal observations along with that of some individuals who broke the magic 60-pound barrier, as well as some of the most famous of all the Cuttyhunk guides, including one who initially tried to run me off the island. After he suspended his efforts to drive me onto the rocks and ram me, I ran an errand for him and he actually began to treat me civilly, even confiding in me after I became his personal gofer between Cuttyhunk and the mainland.
May has always been one of the most productive months for catching trophy bass in relatively shallow inland waterways, where they follow the scent of the spawning herring up into the heads of rivers and salt marshes. June is when the big spawners arrive off the coast of the Northeast, stopping to feed in New Jersey, Long Island, and Block Island before moving farther eastward on their spring migration. Even if I could have arranged for a trip with one of the famed Cuttyhunk skippers, I would never have been able to afford it. It wasn’t that you had to be a high roller to fish the June moon, but it was usually businessmen or perhaps an ironworker like Charlie Cinto who banked all of his vacation and overtime earnings to finance his trips.
One of our bass club members owned a Brownell bass boat, as well as a lucrative business, but he was usually too busy to use his own boat. He sold the boat and began booking charters with the top Cuttyhunk skippers and informed me that he came out way ahead financially, enjoyed the fishing a lot more, and had fewer headaches from the problems associated with owning a wooden boat. Over the years, I’ve learned there is only one thing worse than not having a boat, and that’s owning a boat and not having the time to use it. This businessman was a sharpie, and he learned a great deal about fishing with the best of the best, but he never overcame his fear of fishing nights on his own. He referred to my little inboard bass boat as a “catcher,” because she was very quiet and left a tiny footprint. One late afternoon, when he and a fellow entrepreneur came alongside to jig a tidal rip, their loud V-8 bass boat with underwater exhaust spooked the fish while my quiet little rig moved among the schools, catching doubles on every pass.
After that episode, he made several trips with me, jigging that rip where we caught stripers from three to 30 pounds. But, the big trip was a three-day June moon trip to Cuttyhunk that he and his buddy had booked with one of the legendary guides a year in advance. This guy was no rookie—during a June moon trip he fished several years before, he counted nine 50-pound-plus bass unloaded from six island charter boats; one was his own 55-pounder. In previous years, he had won three of our club’s tourneys, with bass of 56, 55, and 53 pounds, all caught during the celebrated moon. This year was different.
They fished the early evening of the night before the full moon, jigging up bass from 12 to 20 pounds until the sunset and the action quit. That night, they fished the famous rip at Sow and Pigs and did not catch a single heavy bass, while another charter boat fished Gay Head off Martha’s Vineyard and recorded a solitary 30-pounder under the moonlight. Every morning before the sun came up, they had fast and furious fishing, wire-lining bass from schoolies to the mid-20-pound class. But, on their three-day stay, they did not catch a trophy while the moon shone or much of anything after daylight or moonrise. Most sports treated to that kind of action would say they had experienced great fishing, yet these men were spoiled. Past outings had raised unrealistically high expectations, even for those days when 40-pound bass were common and there was almost always a 50 and an occasional 60 brought to the scales.
The 28-pounder brought back to our weigh station was his largest fish and it was evident he was extremely disappointed. Meanwhile, during that same period, we fished every evening into the nighttime and caught stripers from 14 to 33 pounds. Completely unbeknownst to us, the men we believed were “slaying” the bass were not privy to the same type of action. The more affluent members so accustomed to owning bragging rights to fantastic catches could not believe they were bested by a couple of kids fishing from a tiny bass boat in their own backyard. It wasn’t until the weighmaster read the affidavits and current standings at the club meeting along with our standings in the RJ Schaefer Fishing Contest that they came to grasp the reality of the situation. The point is, there was more at work there than just being with a famous guide at a legendary rip while the full moon shone in June.
Then there were the times when I had no doubt about the effect of the June moon. Three days after another June full moon, the same gentleman was aboard my boat and we were fishing the waters off Westport Harbor. We took three bass to 22 pounds before sunset when the fish turned off. We fished all the way west to Sakonnet Point, then turned back, fishing every piece of productive habitat without so much as a sniff. Later that night, as we made the turn toward the harbor to call it quits, a piece of the moon slipped over the horizon, casting a pale white glow on the water. I moved out to a shallow boulder field, and on the third cast, my deckmate was into a heavy fish. The moon began to climb into the ebony night sky, turning the seascape from black to pale light. By the time we ran out of live eels, there were nine big linesiders lying on either side of the motor box. For years, I’d been trying to determine the effects of celestial events, tides and the value of stealth, but there was no doubt in my mind that there were fish present that night, perhaps in many of the places we’d tried, and the appearance of the moon turned them on.
Is the June moon really worthy of all the hype it receives? In my opinion, probably not. While June has always been a very good month for my clients and me, I scored a 58-pound, 8-ounce striper on a dark July night and gaffed a 60 during that month for a mate during the dark period of the new moon. Despite the success I’ve enjoyed in June and July, it’s been the periods around the September and October moons that have been the most productive for me.
There are advantages and disadvantages to fishing various phases of the moon, no matter the month, and they are amplified by full and new moon periods. If there are less experienced anglers on board, the experienced fisherman comes to realize that the stronger currents usually result in a certain amount of tension in those who are not as comfortable as we who work striper habitat during the darkness of a new moon. Fishing at night is certainly not for everyone. The familiar daytime shoreline is an alien place after sunset when ranges disappear and judging distances becomes more difficult. The once-familiar passage through the clumps or boulders disappears and all there is in front of you is a wall of rocks and white water. Good electronics certainly help, but my bass routes do not contain a single location where a straight course will take me from the fishing grounds to the harbor, so familiarity with numerous ranges and highly developed night vision are imperative.
From a fishing perspective, perhaps the most difficult problem to overcome when there is no moonlight is glowing phosphorescence, which can make 20-pound-test line look like a brilliant hawser being drawn through the water, and a slow-moving plug takes on the appearance of a glowing miniature submarine. Fire in the water does not make it impossible to catch fish, it just takes more patience and skill to present your baits in a natural fashion.
One old-timer who was generous with his counsel referred to the new moon as the “black moon.” I learned to catch fish during these black periods by being extremely quiet and employing the highest degree of stealth. If you’ve fished during these times, you may have had the experience of finding a school of fish and watching what appeared to be luminescent flashes streaking in all directions. Those are schools of predators looking for any trace of forage moving and creating even the slightest bit of light. Late one very dark night, I eased the boat into a cove along the Ocean Drive in Newport and we were greeted with a brilliant light show as a huge school of stripers scattered. The bass had been working over a large concentration of forage fish they had pushed up against the beach. After cutting the engine and waiting for things to quiet down, we drifted among the fish, which we could see by the trails they left in their wake. We began picking out fish and casting eels in front of them. That night we caught fish on almost every cast because we allowed the eels to sink without any retrieve and the bass attacked them with a vengeance. Had we cast the eels and began retrieving, the lures and lines would have lit up like comets and the bass would have shied from them. That night, I understood what is meant by “shooting fish in a barrel.”
When we returned to the dock, the four other boats that left the harbor with us had returned and the anglers complained they had no luck except just before dusk because the fire in the water made fishing impossible. In order to be successful, you have to adjust your tactics to the conditions. Just because there is no moonlight does not mean predators don’t or won’t eat; they just change their tactics and you must do the same to consistently catch fish.
Look at any calendar or the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book, and you will discover there are not many nights when there isn’t at least some moonlight. Over the years, we’ve caught trophy bass during the full moon and gaffed stripers up to 60 pounds in the inky darkness of the black moon. There are some very good skippers out there, some known for their consistent production and others for their tenacity and integrity. Captain Fred Bowman of Bottom Line Charters is famous for both. In 2002, he guided his parties to two 50s and six 40s, all in the month of June. In 2001, it was five 50s and a like number of 40s, but here’s the kicker: the majority of these fish came in the daytime hours. Three of my own 50s came during the daytime, two of them on eels and one on an umbrella rig at 11:30 in the morning. My recent research resulted in 27 50-pound-plus stripers that I could verify for the 2002 season, and guess what? Not a single one was landed on the night of the full moon.
The days and nights around the moon in June have always been one of the most productive periods to land a trophy or record fish, no question about it. Just don’t fall for the idea that it is the only time to take a trophy striper.