How many times have you heard the word “epic” used to describe a fishing trip? A thousand times? More? Its frequent use does nothing but enhance the stereotype that those of us who spend ungodly amounts of time chasing fish routinely exaggerate and spin tall tales. Not entirely untrue.
At the risk of adding another log to the fire of overwritten hook and bullet adventures, this is the story of a truly epic day that photographer Tom Lynch and I spent fishing for striped bass with Chuck Many on lower Chesapeake Bay. I have chased stripers for more than 50 years and know plenty of stories from the so-called good old days. This outing was reminiscent of the catches you might read about in dusty tales from yesteryear, minus the “heroic” anglers and “smart, savvy” stripers.
We had 11 bites on a Tuesday in mid-December 2021 and landed nine fish. Their weights, in pounds, as registered on an IGFA-certified BogaGrip scale are as follows: 55, 54, 53 47, 44, 44, 41, 37. That’s a good day in any era. All hooked in the lip on circle hooks and released. A ninth fish, which Lynch brought to Many’s 28-footer, was easily in the 40s, but we didn’t bother to weigh it. “I remember us laughing and not even weighing my last fish because it wasn’t a 50,” recalls Lynch, who is 58 and runs a photography gallery in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, and whose photos frequently appear in this magazine. “We were pooh-poohing 40-pounders.”
Two inveterate striper guys like Tom and me should know better than to make light of 40-pound stripers. I’m certain we will pay a price for insulting the fish gods come November, when the beach is cold and windy and all the stripers are 20 inches long. But for now, we look back on the day with marvel.
What makes Chuck Many different from nearly every other striper guy from Maine to Maryland is that he trolls or drifts a spread consisting of as many as 14 lines, each baited with a live eel or bunker depending on the season. Ten baits typically run off planer boards, five per side, with two more baits set 80 to 100 yards down the center behind large bobbers. He sets one or two more right off the transom on a weight. On rare occasions, he finds a spot for a 15th rod. When it comes to large stripers, Many’s catches show that eels outfish live or dead bunker by a good margin. About 75 percent of his fish hit eels.
Many, who is 56, fishes from a 28-foot True World Marine walkaround named Tyman powered by a single inboard diesel with a trolling value and stern and bow thrusters to help better position the boat when all lines are out or a fish is on. We caught each fish on a light, conventional saltwater outfit with a top shot of about 20 yards of 30-pound fluorocarbon and the rest of the reel spooled with high-visibility 30-pound mono. We fished 30-pound fluorocarbon leaders with a single inline Gamakatsu 8/0 circle hook baited with an eel. We carefully released each fish.
Many’s technique, which he continually tweaks, is extremely effective on large bass. He is a meticulous record-keeper. Over the course of 30 years, Many has caught and released 83 striped bass weighing more than 50 pounds. To his surprise, not one has fallen for an artificial, which he also fishes. “I do fish artificials enough and in the right timeframe that you’d think I would get one, but I have not, which is kind of amazing,” he says.
His goal is to catch a striper weighing 60 pounds or more and one that measures more than 124 centimeters to the fork of the tail, which is the current IGFA release world record. Many would need a fish 2 centimeters longer (49.6 inches to the fork) to break the record. I’m betting he succeeds in the next several years.
“The hours that went into perfecting the techniques he uses today are incalculable,” says Gary Caputi, who has fished with Many and often writes for this magazine. “He is the most dedicated angler I’ve ever met, with a single-minded pursuit of one species, the striped bass.”
Caputi fished Chesapeake Bay with Many in 2020. “We only had one bite,” Caputi recalls. And? “The fish weighed 54 pounds.”
Many trolls between 0.75 and 1.5 knots, depending on wind and current, and the baits generally behave and stay in their lanes as they await their fates. He once had 11 fish hit 12 baits while fishing alone off New Jersey. That was a fire drill. He landed six of the bass, and their weights ranged from 25 to 40 pounds. “I was so proud of myself,” says Many, who lives in Annandale, New Jersey, with his wife and two children. “Then I went home. I was done.”
The fish we caught came out of 48-degree water along a 30- to 50-foot edge north of Cape Charles, Virginia. Many has found that this area holds jumbo bass from December through February. The day we fished was cold — there was ice on the docks and the cabin top at daybreak — but looked fishy as hell, with plenty of gannets and gulls diving on bait and sitting on the water. We ran up the Chesapeake for several miles, and Many quickly marked bait on his Garmin. “Everything about it says we should catch,” he said. “I like our chances.”
A tight-knit group of six or eight skippers fish these waters in winter for jumbo stripers. They share information dockside and over the VHF on this winter fishery, which helps everyone, given the size of the area where the fish could be. “Up here, it’s about as dead as my marriage,” one skipper reported, probably not the first time he used that line. If I was prescient, I would have told him to hang on, his fishing love life was about to get torrid.
The first striper hit around 9:30 in the morning, and according to my notes, the last was in the boat by 3:56 p.m. By then, the sunlight was disappearing fast as we approached the shortest day of the year. Lynch and I were happily dazed, and Many was excited for us. As you’d expect for their size, each fish fought strongly, ripping off line and dogging it all the way to the boat. “The fish fight really well here,” Many said. “There is a lot of oxygen in the water, and they don’t run out of steam.” I enjoyed handling big stripers once again, and my hands were scraped raw, a good sign in this fishery.
Many is a lifelong angler who caught his first striped bass off a jetty in New Jersey on a Hopkins jig when he was about 8 years old. As of this March, he has seen 83 stripers weighing 50 pounds or more come over the rail of his boats. The day we fished with him marked only the second time three fish in the 50s came aboard in one day.
“Chuck has to be one of the greatest big-striper fishermen I’ve ever known,” says Jim Hutchinson, a friend and the managing editor of the New Jersey-Delaware edition of The Fisherman magazine. “The number of 50-pound stripers he’s put aboard Tyman is amazing.”
Many fishes for fun, not for money. He’s not a charter skipper. He attended the University of Miami with the intention of majoring in marine science and physics and becoming, as he remembers it, the next Jacques Cousteau. “Then my dad kept telling me, ‘You need to get a job someday,’ ” Many recalls, which prompted him to change majors to business and marketing. Good move.
Many became a telecommunications entrepreneur. He created and sold a wireless business based on cell tower leases at large ski resorts back when most people couldn’t foresee folks wanting to use their phones on vacation. He retired at age 40 and has tried to fish every day since.
His early fondness for the ocean is still evident in his passion for fishing and his strong conservation ethic. Except for a handful of fish that were badly hooked, Many has released every striper for 25 years. “I feel the big ones are too precious to kill,” he says. “It’s a cruel ocean, and they’ve made it a long time. I think that’s pretty neat.” Stripers can live for 30 or more years.
“It’s not just his ability to catch those giant bass; it’s obvious he really cares about those fish from the way he releases them,” Lynch says. “He handles them with care and respect. Just the time he spends reviving them. I was really impressed.”
Many is smart, focused and enthusiastic about putting others onto the large stripers of their dreams. “Every time out he’s like a little kid out there,” says Hutchinson, who has become friends with Many over their mutual interest in tagging stripers. “He’s hooting and hollering. You’d think he’d get bored, but he doesn’t.”
Many works with Gray FishTag Research and The Fisherman to put satellite tags into big stripers, which track their coastal movements and migrations. He hopes to tag seven or eight fish this year. “Chuck is a true conservationist,” Hutchinson says. The data from these tags show that large stripers appear to spend significantly more time offshore than previously thought, traveling to the edge of the canyons and Nantucket shoals, according to Hutchinson.
Many has the system down for catching, quickly weighing and releasing these big fish so that they’re not out of the water for very long, Hutchinson says. You typically hold a large striper by its lower jaw while reviving it, and when it’s ready to leave, it sends a clear signal. “The great thing is to have a 45-pounder along the side of the boat when it clamps down hard on your hand a second time, and you know it’s ready to go,” he says.
Many constantly tweaks and fiddles to make his fishing technique as effective as possible. For instance, he has added Flashabou to the planer boards, an idea that came from fly-fishing. “You just keep trying things,” he says. “I started putting stuff on the boards as basically an attractant, and all of a sudden the boards got hit between 10 and 20 percent more than the boards” with nothing on them.
“It’s the little things that get you another fish here and there,” he says “I always tell people, what I try to do is improve my percentages of catching a fish. That day it may not matter at all, but it’s going to matter. Just keep fishing and adding things over the years, and it’s going to add up to a lot more fish.” In that way, Many plays a long game in his quest for big fish.
He shares the traits of other top skippers — closely watching and monitoring everything, looking for the smallest signs or changes. He borrows techniques he learned chartering boats outside his home waters. Sometimes he places a tiny waterproof Spydro fishing camera on his leaders to watch the stripers strike the eels and to see what they do next. About 70 percent of the time, they head for the bottom, where they rub the side of their heads and flanks against the bottom.
It’s as if he has eyes in the back of his head, but unlike some old-school captains, Many runs a relaxed boat. You never hear him raise his voice. “The overall vibe on the boat is good and just really laid back,” Lynch says. “He derives so much joy just from putting people on those big fish. It’s very mellow on the boat, but also very purposeful.”
Many’s difficulty in finding a 60-pounder is more a commentary on the state of the fishery than anything else. For too many years, it’s been open season on large striped bass, whose great fecundity make them a crucial component for maintaining and rebuilding healthy bass stocks. The Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission last year enacted its first slot limit on the coastal striper fishery, allowing recreational anglers to keep one fish a day between 28 and 35 inches. This means all the large breeders must be released.
Many has been more open about discussing his techniques since the slot limit was enacted.
“I didn’t talk about it because I didn’t want the big fish to be killed,” he says. He refers to his drive to catch a 60-pounder as a “quest” — one within his reach, despite so far remaining elusive. “It isn’t a dream. It’s a realistic goal. It’s not that far away.”
The winter of 2020-21 was particularly good for him on Chesapeake Bay. He and his friends made 22 trips and landed 17 bass larger than 50 pounds. One fish pinned his BogaGrip, which maxes out at 60 pounds. He thought for a moment that he had the one. “I was like, ‘Oh man, it’s a 60.’ ” But then he pulled out a digital catfish scale that tops out at 110 pounds. “I was dumb enough to not just say, ‘Oh, that’s a 60.’ I put it on the damn scale.” The big striper registered 59.43 pounds. “That hurt,” Many says. The quest continues.
Many enjoys watching others fight big bass from his boat as much as he likes reeling them in himself. “To me, it’s more about finding them and getting them to bite,” he says. “I would rather somebody else reeled it in … seeing the excitement. Just love that.”
Last June, Many put longtime New Jersey outdoor writer Al Ristori onto a 50-pounder on his 85th birthday. “I wanted to do that so badly,” he says. “So awesome.”
The day after our “epic” outing we were back on the Bay, ready for another exciting chapter in our December odyssey. We dragged 14 to 15 eels for six or seven hours and couldn’t get a striper to so much as sniff one. The satellite tag we put in a fish the previous day came off about 20 days later and showed that our fish had moved west a couple of miles the following day, presumedly with the rest of her cohorts. Far enough to keep us from finding them.
That’s fishing, thank goodness. And feast to famine is a story all of us know too well.