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Born to Fish

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Born to Fish


  * * *

  Title Page





  At the Turning of the Tide

  Born to Fish

  Married to the Mob

  Trapper Greg

  A Big Fish

  Gridiron Glory

  El Cid

  Mob Justice


  Herb’s Illness

  The Phantom

  The Rattler

  Wild Man

  Rasta Mon

  Into the West

  The Deerslayer

  After the Storm

  Wounded Tiger

  Rock Bottom

  It’s Over


  Tournament Angler

  One More Drift

  Anatomy of a World-Record Catch


  The Striped Bass Dilemma


  So You Want to Be a TV Star?

  Into the Shark Tank

  The Pendulum Swings



  About the Author

  Connect with HMH

  Copyright © 2018 by Tim Gallagher and Greg Myerson

  All rights reserved

  For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to [email protected] or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Gallagher, Tim, author. | Myerson, Greg, author.

  Title: Born to fish : how an obsessed angler became the world’s greatest striped bass fisherman / Tim Gallagher and Greg Myerson.

  Description: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2018005335 (print) | LCCN 2017045339 (ebook) | ISBN 9780544787452 (ebook) | ISBN 9780544787247 (hardcover : alk. paper)

  Subjects: LCSH: Myerson, Greg. | Fishers—Connecticut—Biography. | Bass fishing.

  Classification: LCC SH20.M94 (print) | LCC SH20.M94 G35 2018 (ebook) | DDC 799.17/73092 [B]—dc23

  LC record available at

  The names of some of the people portrayed in this book have been changed.

  Cover design by Martha Kennedy

  Cover photograph © Sam Dole

  Photograph of Tim Gallagher © Gwen Gallagher

  Photograph of Greg Myerson © Sue Pranulis

  RattleSinker® is a registered trademark of the World Record Striper Company.


  For Jack O’Bannon Gallagher


  My son and my best fishing friend,

  who left us far too early.

  —Tim Gallagher

  To my fourth-grade teacher, Karen Bernardo, who made it fun to learn and inspired us all to be our best.

  —Greg Myerson


  This is the story of a fish—the one most sought after by American anglers for centuries—and a man who has dedicated his life to figuring out what makes this fish tick and how to catch it. And it’s the story of the man’s great sorrow when he finally landed the largest fish of this species ever caught by a sport fisherman.

  The fish is the striped bass, a species that evolved on the eastern coast of North America, breeding in the great bays and estuaries—Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, Long Island Sound, and many huge eastern rivers—and migrating along the Atlantic Coast from northern Maine to the Carolinas. It is a beautiful fish, its streamlined silvery body marked with longitudinal dark stripes from just behind its gills all the way to the base of its tail. Its flesh is tender and succulent, with a slightly sweet taste, making it a popular commercial fish, served in many fine restaurants. It is the state saltwater fish of Maryland, Rhode Island, South Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and New Hampshire—and if Congress passes the recently introduced Striped Bass American Heritage Act, it will become the national fish of the United States.

  The striped bass has earned its status as the “Great American Fish” across the centuries. It was well known to the settlers of the thirteen original colonies, as well as to the Native Americans who preceded them. It was arguably the food source that made it possible for Europeans to gain a foothold in the New World. For the Pilgrims at Plymouth Bay, the striped bass they caught and preserved in salt during the summer got them through the bitterly cold months of their harrowing first winters and allowed their community to survive. The fish were astonishingly numerous then. In his 1637 book, The New English Canaan, colonist Thomas Morton wrote, “I my selfe, at the turning of the tyde, have seen such multitudes [of striped bass] passe out . . . that it seemed to mee that one might goe over their backs drishod”—an exaggeration, of course, but a graphic image nonetheless of how common they were. Profits from the sale of striped bass financed the first public school in America in the early 1600s. And America’s first conservation law, passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639, made it illegal to waste this splendid fish to fertilize crops.

  But despite that early conservation effort, striped bass numbers have plummeted, and now millions fewer exist than in colonial times due to overfishing, pollution in the areas they breed, and the decimation of the small fish on which they prey.

  The striped bass is easily the most popular saltwater sport fish in the United States—and also hugely popular in the many freshwater lakes and rivers where it has been transplanted. (Like salmon and trout, striped bass can live well in both saltwater and freshwater environments.) It is everyone’s fish, attracting the ardor of anglers from the loftiest patricians (United States presidents from George Washington, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt to George H. W. and George W. Bush have avidly pursued this fish) to the lowest-paid working-class Americans. Many of them dream of setting a new world rec­ord, landing the biggest striped bass ever caught by a sport fisherman. These records don’t fall often. A 73-pound striped bass caught in 1913 held the world record until 1982.

  Catching a world-record striped bass is vastly more important to most anglers than any other fish record. Hardly anyone blinks an eye if someone catches a world-record tuna or marlin, because they can’t relate to it. For most people, it is just far too expensive to pursue these big-game fish more than once or twice a year, because it requires special equipment and boats capable of going well away from shore, out to the deep ocean. But you don’t even need a boat to fish for stripers. They are available to anyone who lives near the fish’s habitat—which includes both coasts of the contiguous United States and many places in between. (The species was successfully introduced to the West Coast in the nineteenth century and later to many lakes and rivers in the interior of the country.) Anyone can buy an inexpensive rod and reel, fish right from the water’s edge, and have a chance of landing the biggest striped bass ever caught by a sport fisherman. (The former world-record striped bass, a 78.5-pounder landed by Albert McReynolds in 1982, was caught from a stone jetty on the New Jersey coast.) And people can realistically fish for them every single day if they are so inclined, going out for a couple of hours before or after work. That’s why it matters to so many people. It is the people’s fish.

  This is where the fisherman I mentioned earlier comes in. His name is Greg Myerson, and on August 4, 2011, he caught an 81-pound, 14-ounce female striped bass off the Connecticut coast, shattering a world record that had stood for twenty-nine years.

  When world records fall in fishing, some people will say, “Oh, he was just lucky. He happened to be fishing in the right place at the right time.” Although
that might be true for some records, it certainly isn’t for Greg’s. He has spent a lifetime figuring out striped bass—observing them closely, studying their behavior, designing revolutionary new lures and fishing techniques—and he knew exactly what he was doing when he caught that fish. Without any training in biological research, he studied the striped bass like a scientist—examining how it hunts, the food it eats, how its behavior is affected by moon phases and the cycles of the tides—at first so he could become a better fisherman but later because the beauty and magnificence of the fish he was pursuing took over his life. Ironically, after he achieved his crowning glory as a striped bass fisherman, breaking the world record, Greg had a staggering epiphany and regretted killing the fish. He had no idea at the time that it might be a world-record fish, and that didn’t matter to him. She was a beautiful bass, larger than any he had seen, the kind of fish whose genes should have been passed along to the next generation—and he had killed her just to win a tournament.

  Greg has a remarkable backstory, full of challenges he’s had to overcome—learning disabilities, substance abuse, extreme violence (done to him and by him), a father who was in the mob. And he has done more than just overcome: he has triumphed.

  At forty-nine years old, Greg is a big man, with close-cropped, ginger-colored hair and a goatee, who perpetually wears a cap, indoors and out. Standing six feet, four inches tall and weighing more than 275 pounds, he towers over most people. In college, at the University of Rhode Island, he was a Division I linebacker, and he looks the part. He went there on a full athletic scholarship, but he could easily have gotten a free ride at any of the top football colleges in America, several of which aggressively attempted to recruit him. He chose URI because of its immediate proximity to great striped bass fishing.

  Looking at Greg, you know he would have no qualms about taking on anyone in a fight—and indeed, when he was younger he would get into huge brawls, sometimes clearing out bars single-handedly. He never started the fights, but it didn’t take much to set him off. He carried a rage inside that could explode at any moment, and men who made the mistake of crossing him in those days often ended up unconscious outside the bar. That’s hard to imagine now, since he seems so good-natured and easygoing. And yet you know it’s there, like a volcano waiting to erupt, and you don’t want to be there when it happens.

  Greg’s fishing is the only thing that’s allowed him to cope with all the pressures and frustrations of his life through the years. Whenever things have gotten unbearably bad, he has hit the water to escape whatever problems he faced on land. It has always been like a tonic and a pressure-release valve for him, and he could not have survived without it.

  * * *

  At the Turning of the Tide

  It is already well past sundown as we leave the shelter of Westbrook Harbor, but the rising moon, golden orange on this warm August evening, casts an eerie glow over Long Island Sound, giving the water the sheen of burnished copper. Out in the open now, Greg pushes the boat’s throttle forward, and we slice easily through the flat-calm sea. It is so peaceful here, so different from the pulsing grind of the city whose lights twinkle just a few miles away. Except for a handful of small sport-fishing boats scattered over this vast expanse of water, we are alone.

  It was on a night like this in 2011 that Greg caught the largest striped bass ever landed by a sport fisherman, smashing a world record that had stood for nearly three decades. He knew it was a huge fish the instant he jerked up on the rod to set the hook deep in her mouth, before she took off, swimming powerfully against the current and towing the boat behind her. But we don’t talk about any of that tonight. This is my first fishing trip with Greg, and I’m eager to see him in action and learn from him.

  Greg knows right where he’s going—a submerged outcropping of rocky crags, some thirty feet below the surface, where sea life thrives: crabs, lobsters, bluefish, but above all, striped bass. He has made this trip well over a thousand times since he first came here as a ten-year-old, unbeknownst to his parents, powering his tiny skiff well beyond all bounds of safety and common sense, braving the most dangerous and treacherous tides. He has always been unstoppable when he sets his mind to something.

  Greg has spent a lifetime figuring the striped bass out, like a scientist puzzling over a problem, trying to develop a working hypothesis: What do these fish want? How can I catch more of them? How can I entice the biggest of them to take the bait?

  As we near the submerged rocks, he backs the throttle down to an idle, and we drift freely with the tidal surge. It’s time to pull the fishing rods from the rack and rig up. Greg grabs a rag from the deck and uses it to hold on to a slippery live eel he has pulled from the bait tank. Raising the squirming eel above him, he brings it down sharply, striking its head against the gunwale with a resounding thwack, knocking it senseless. He then carefully forces a fishhook through its tough hide, just behind its head. Dangling about a foot below the fishhook is one of Greg’s RattleSinkers, designed to mimic the sound of a lobster’s carapace as it scuttles along the rocks. Greg spent many years figuring out that big striped bass love to eat lobsters and how to exploit that fact. It’s a classic bait-and-switch scheme: the bass hears the sound from perhaps fifty feet away and swims over, expecting to find a lobster. Then it smells the eel and takes that instead. It is especially effective on a night like this, in late summer, under a glowing quarter-moon, at the turning of the tide. It has certainly worked for Greg, who has caught more large striped bass than any sport fisherman in history.

  All set now, with rods and bait ready, Greg throttles up again, pushing the boat against the current, moving well upstream of the submerged rocks, then kills the motor. The silence is startling: the only sound is the whisper of a gentle breeze as we drift with the flow. Greg is a picture of concentration, almost like a conductor, controlling every action in the orchestra. He tells me exactly what to do: hold the rod pointing at a downward angle; grip it loosely with my left hand while the fingers of my other hand rest lightly on the butt of the rod, sensitive to the slightest movement in the water below. I let out line until the sinker hits the rocks, then reel up about a foot so the eel dangles slightly above them as we drift.

  The rocks are invisible below us, but Greg knows right where we are. “About twenty seconds,” he says. The depth of his concentration is palpable. “The fish is going to hit . . . right . . . now!” And simultaneously with his last word a striped bass slams into my eel. (This scenario is repeated again and again throughout the evening.) I lift up firmly on the rod tip, setting the hook, and the fight is on, the rod bending wildly as the fish strips out line, trying to escape. But the hook and line hold, and I soon bring the fish alongside. Greg scoops a big landing net under it and pulls it out of the water briefly. The fish is about a yard long and probably weighs close to twenty pounds—not a huge bass, and certainly nothing like the fish Greg routinely hauls in, but it’s nice to start the evening with some action. I quickly remove the hook, and Greg lowers the bass into the water again, where it revives instantly and goes shooting away from us, no doubt glad to be back in its watery domain.

  In the course of the evening, I catch a couple more decent fish, but I miss others, striking an instant too soon or too late when the bass hit my eel. But Greg never misses. He seems to haul in striped bass at will, and they are all larger than any I catch.

  I’ve been an avid fisherman for most of my life, and I’ve known many people I would rank as experts in the art and craft of angling, but Greg is something else entirely. I knew on this first fishing trip with him that I was in the presence of a master, or even more than that. Greg is the Mozart of fishermen—and perhaps I am like Antonio Salieri, able to recognize his genius, the seemingly effortless brilliance and creativity of his pursuit for fish, but unable to accomplish anything meaningful as a fisherman myself. In his presence, I feel like a complete novice. It is both inspiring and depressing.

  But this is not just a story about Greg Myerson. It
s about a fish, a way of life, and the fate of our oceans. What is it about the striped bass? Why do so many people pursue this fish with such unbridled ardor, forsaking sleep for days on end during the fish’s migration, driving the beaches endlessly, searching for the telltale signs of bass chasing small fish to the surface and attacking them ferociously in the gleaming light of a harvest moon? It is a fascination almost primordial in its intensity: the hunter staring longingly to sea, hoping to do battle with mythical leviathans. And striped bass are rugged battlers. In the violent rip currents between ocean and shore they emerge, slashing and diving in the churning cauldron of bubbling water, where the sea pounds hard against the rocky shore.

  Greg has been there thousands of times. For him and other avid striped bass anglers, this is more a lifestyle than a sport. They live to catch this fish. It occupies their minds round the clock, especially when the fish are migrating along the coast. More than a few East Coast anglers wake in the night when the fish are moving through and hit the beaches, standing in waist-deep water at the edge of the rolling surf with rods more than ten feet long, pitching bait or flies, or lures with names like Ballistic Missile and Atom Striper Swiper, hoping to hook into a striped bass. Or they trudge to the end of a long, slippery rock jetty, or head out in boats, large and small, oblivious to the time as the rest of the world sleeps. They become experts on the tides and the phases of the moon. They are nothing if not passionate.

  And that is exactly the dilemma: too many people want to catch striped bass—the larger the better—and all too many of the fish end up dead, including a lot of the large females (called cows by anglers), which are just the kind of fish whose genes should be passed on to the next generation to ensure the quality of the breeding stock.

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