A Block Island Tale:
Thumper and the Big Bass
By Dennis Zambrotta
Bobby Andrade and I had met one day while he was repairing a copy machine in an office where I worked. He overheard me talking about surf fishing which was also a passion of his. Once we got to talking an instant bond of friendship was made.
It wasn't long before Bob would join me in fishing the Newport Rhode Island surf and I in turn fished with him at his favorite locations in Jamestown and Narragansett. From our many conversations I learned that Bob's father was a great surf fisherman and had taught Bobby the finer aspects of the sport. I also found out that Bob had been surf fishing for many years and the one thing that still eluded him was landing a striper over 40 pounds. He had hooked his share but all had escaped, either through their sheer strength or his mistakes.
Bobby is a very knowledgeable surf fisherman who has all the very best gear. He is a master rod builder who signs his works of art as "ANDROD". Many of the surf sharpies in Rhode Island have had their favorite sticks built by Bob. As I got to know Bob better I began to figure out why he had never landed his big bass. The one thing that gets the best of Bob when he hooks up to a good bass is his nerves. Bob literally becomes a bundle of nerves as he tackles large fish. He has a nickname for his right leg, which he calls "Thumper", because it shakes uncontrollably when he is hooked up. Bob also starts reciting his thoughts aloud while hooked up to these bass. He has often been heard mumbling the following thoughts; "This fish is too big, I know I'm going to lose it"; "When will it stop taking line?" "I just know there is a lobster pot buoy out there"; "Please don't let me lose this fish". Invariably Bob would lose all the big bass he managed to hook up.
In the mid 1980's Bobby, two other friends and myself wound up expanding our surf fishing horizons to the shores of Block Island. Block Island at that time was arguably the best big bass surf fishing location in the Northeast. On any given night during the late fall 20-40 pound bass were plugged up with regularity and 40-60 pound cows were distinct possibilities. If there ever was a place where Bob could break his big bass jinx it was the Block. Plans and preparations were made in advance and after an uneventful ferry ride we found ourselves on the Block for the Veterans Day weekend.
I was the only one in the group who had actually fished Block before. Between my stories of large cows in the surf and the glowing reports from "The Fisherman Magazine" the guys were primed for an unforgettable trip.
On our first evening on the Block we took a drive to the Southwest corner of the island and there we met an island native who looked more like an "old salt" then you ever saw. He was an older gentleman with white hair, gray beard, and a few missing front teeth. His surf rod was an old lamiglas with all the guides taped on with electrical tape. He drove an old Jeep with no top, even in the rain! We talked to him for a while after he had waded in from the rocky bar. He told us that he had picked up some small blues and that there were a lot of sandeels in the area. He also told us " the bass will be here when the tide drops". We took his advice, geared up and started fishing. Within thirty minutes all four of us had taken some small bluefish. Bobby was fishing a popper and caught the first bass, a nice 25 pounder, just big enough to get him nervous. We were all excited at the prospects and it wasn't even dark yet! As darkness set in more casters arrived and just like the old gent predicted, the bass moved onto the bar. A picket line of casters including us started hooking up periodically with bass in the 25-45 pound range. Bobby was standing to my right and had not had a strike since his fish on the popper. You could tell he was discouraged as casters on both sides of him were scoring. After an hour Bob finally hooked up. He yelled "It's a good fish, a screamer". I eased over to him to make sure he didn't stumble as "Thumper" was doing its thing and Bob was essentially standing on only one leg on this wave washed rock bar. After 30 seconds or so Bob muttered "fish off". He had dropped it. He looked at me and said "See, I told you I lose the big ones". He was clearly very dejected. I didn't notice anything he might have done wrong. I told him this was all part of the game and he was just "paying his dues". "I've been paying my dues for a very long time" was his reply.
After a while fishing went to a slow pick. During a break in the action we sat on some logs on the shore and discussed what had transpired. Two of us had managed a pair of 40 pound class bass along with a few in the low thirties. Bobby lost his only good hookup. He was very dejected. I told him to keep his spirits high as we still had another tide tonight and another day on the island. They all agreed that they liked this place.
After a short break for coffee we decided to stay here for the flood tide. We fished for 4 more hours and managed a very slow pick of "small" 15-20 pound bass, we called them Block Island schoolies. We decided to quit for the night and piled into my trooper for the ride back to the room. Bobby was still reliving the big fish he dropped earlier that night. He couldn't figure out why with all the cow bass being landed around him he couldn't land one? We told him that he should be patient and that his time would come tomorrow night.
Next evening back on the bar, more casters, fewer fish. A very slow pick of "smalls". At around 9pm a light southerly wind started to shift southeast just as the tide changed to flood. An impending gale was due tomorrow. Half way into the flood we decided to switch locations because of a lack of action. We headed to the East Side of the island near the chute. Four of us hiked down the path. Once on the beach I headed to the north while Bob, Glen, and Zeke decided to fish the area around the jetty. I found a nice flat rock to perch on about 75 yards North of the jetty. There was some nice looking structure in front of me. My first cast with a needlefish brought an immediate strike which I missed. I continued the retrieve and hung up in some rockweed in close and lost my plug. Quickly retying on another plug I cast again into the same location telling myself to be careful when the plug got in close, I didn't have to worry because I was on to a bass after two turns of the handle. I landed the bass and weighed it on my hand scale at 35 lbs and released her. Next cast, two turns, on again, this time 37 pounds. As I released her I began blinking my necklight in my friends direction to get their attention. Back on the rock, next cast another fish on almost immediately. Bobby came walking up as I landed this one asking me what seemed like a thousand questions at the same time. I released this fish and told Bob it was the third thirty-pound class fish in as many casts. At that point I felt I needed to retie and told Bobby to stand on the same rock and cast as far as he could. I mentioned that the bass were hitting the plugs very lightly, almost as if they were inhaling them, and that if he felt any kind of hesitation to set the hook. He did as I directed and started his retrieve. After 5 turns of the handle he said he was hung up, that was until his 11-foot graphite rod bent double and line began screaming off of his Penn 705. Like I said before Bob gets extremely nervous when hooked up and his right leg "thumper" was now going 90 miles per hour. Bob was clearly a wreck at this point and he had every reason to be. This location was very rocky and full of potential snags, definitely cutoff city. Every time his fish took a burst of line Bob would pray aloud to the fish gods. Bobby could now feel his line rubbing bottom and after a few close calls the bass finally slowed down and Bob got it turned. After the bass made a few more short runs Bob managed to direct the fish through the maze of rockweed hang-ups which were in tight to the beach. I then waded out and grabbed her by the gill cover and eased her in for Bob to see. When on the beach I put a light on her. Bob was ecstatic, he practically melted from emotional exhaustion. We quickly weighed her in at 47 pounds then tried to revive her for release but the fifteen-minute battle had taken its toll so Bobby had to keep her. I shook Bob's hand and congratulated him. He had finally hooked and landed his large bass.
Later that morning we all sailed home aboard the ferry during a howling Nor'easter. A trip that we all remember as the worst boat ride any of us had ever been on.
Three of us still go to the island each year in a tradition that started on this trip. Although the action is not what it once was Bob still manages to hook and occasionally land a few nice bass and yes, "Thumper" still shakes when Bob is hooked up.
Dennis Zambrotta, a.k.a. "DZ"
**Note from TimS: Dennis...thank you for this excellent story! I think we all sometimes take our turn being "Bob"...losing only the big fish for periods of time...when you see Bob again, tell him he's not alone! :)