Sometimes it’s the ones that get away that you remember best. That’s certainly the case with Gary Caputi, a lifelong angler, writer and photographer from Brick, New Jersey.
As a kid, Caputi was an avid freshwater fisherman who chased largemouth with a passion. As he got older, he started fishing the Hudson River in a small boat, where he caught school-sized stripers weighing into the teens.
Once or twice a year, Caputi and friends would charter a boat out of Highlands, New Jersey, for striped bass. The trip in question occurred in late October 1971, when Caputi was a senior in college. He and his buddies were trolling homemade bunker spoons on wire line with Capt. Al Hilliard aboard Prowler. They were fishing in about 40 feet of water a mile or so off Sandy Hook, working a spot that used to be called the “golf ball,” so named for the shape of the structure covering an old radar platform on shore.
“We hooked a fish, and I was on the rod,” recalls Caputi, one of the founders of the Recreational Fishing Alliance. “The rod was in the holder — and I mean it pinned the rod back in the holder. The mate took it out of the holder because I was a newbie and handed me the rod. It was a big fish.”
Even on a wire-line outfit, the fish took a lot of line.
“And I fought this fish and fought this fish and fought this fish,” says Caputi. “We got it up relatively close to the boat, and it rolled on the surface, and it was the biggest damn fish I’d ever seen in salt water. Al said it was over 50 pounds. And it rolled on the surface, and it turned, and the wire parted where the mono leader joined.”
For a moment or two, the big striper lay stretched out, probably 10 feet from the boat. “It lay there on the surface long enough that they almost got a gaff into it,” Caputi recalls. “And then it just rolled over and went away. It lay on the surface long enough to torment me for years to come,” he says, laughing. “I got a real good look at it. It was a real big fish, you know, coming from a freshwater-bass-fishing background.”
From that day forward, he has been fascinated with striped bass. “How long did it take to get over losing that fish?” asks Caputi, a skilled angler who has caught both a giant bluefin and a black marlin weighing more than 1,000 pounds. “I don’t know. I don’t think I ever got over it.”
It would take almost 30 years before Caputi got his first 50-pound striper. He finally closed the loop on the one that got away while fishing with a friend out of a 23-foot Contender in Robinson’s Hole, the current-swept cut between Naushon and Pasque islands off Massachusetts.
“There was a cranking tide coming from Narragansett Bay into Vineyard Sound racing through that cut. It was dark, late at night, and a storm was coming from the west, so the wind was blowing with it,” Caputi remembers. “We were pitching live eels. We came right up to the mouth of the cut. There’s a big rock on the north side, and I flipped that live eel right behind the rock, and it was hit instantly.”
Caputi was using 30-pound braid on a Penn 965 International bait-casting reel. “I fought that thing for a good 45 minutes, between the boat being blown all over the place, the heavy current, her running up into the rock fields on the north side of the hole. There were times when I could feel the leader going over the rocks.”
When he finally got the fish to the boat, she rolled over, belly up. The fishermen took some photos, and Caputi worked to release the fish. “I tried to revive her for a good half-hour, and every time I let her go, she’d just roll over,” he says. “I didn’t want to kill her. By then I’d got a fair number of 40s.”
The fish weighed 52 pounds — and there have been even bigger stripers in the 13 years since he caught that trophy (see photo at the top of this story).
Now in his 60s, Caputi says it was probably a good thing that he lost his first big striper when he was but a 21-year-old saltwater pilgrim.
“It really lit a fire under me to become a saltwater fisherman and start chasing these things,” he says. “If you catch a big fish like that the first time, it makes it seem too easy. It’s kind of like the blush comes off the rose way too fast when you catch a big fish like that early.”