INTERVIEW: John Papciak, Montauk Wetsuiter

From Surfcaster's Journal

Even a boat guy like me realizes that if you fish in the Northeast, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read Surfcaster’s J0urnal.

John Papciak is the magazine’s fly guru, and a proponent of one of the most hardcore ways there is to fish for striped bass: Swimming out to the rocks. He gives a great account of it in the most recent issue called “Confessions of a Wetsuiter.”

Intrigued, I decided to email him a few questions, just because it’s so intense and maybe, well, borderline insane?

Here’s the interview:

Swimming out to the far rocks at night seems like an extreme way to fly fish. What made you decide to try it?

There is whole contingent in Montauk (surfcasters) who fish in wetsuits, at night. Let’s be clear, I am not the only one. Some prefer to fish in waist deep water, some push further out. I’ve been surfing and SCUBA diving since my teens, so the idea of swimming out to a rock never seemed like such a big deal. It just so happens I like to fish these locations with a fly rod (when conditions permit). You put the fly rod in your teeth, and off you go.

What are some of the real risks involved?

Much to say here-

I detailed a number of risks for an article I recently wrote for Surfcaster’s Journal. There’s been plenty of writing about wetsuiting “triumphs” in various magazines over the years, but few are willing to write about the risks.

Earlier this summer I got word of a well-known wetsuiter whose body was found on the beach at Cuttyhunk – it was a guy who was very close with a mutual friend. I can’t say that wetsuiting per se resulted in the fatality, but it got me thinking about my own experiences. This was partly the motivation for that article.

What are the risks? (1) I have to assume that boaters are not likely to see me, (2) I’d better have a firm grasp of how the tide is running, I don’t want to find myself swimming against current, and (3) I have to be very sure of my swimming abilities.

Physical and mental conditioning is critical.

As I get older, I really really try to keep in shape, case in point I competed in a two-mile Ocean Swim Race in Montauk earlier this year. Aside from general health benefits, this training makes the thought of swimming a couple hundred yards to a rock seem like a nice way to relax. And so then it is!

So are you swimming out there in fins and swapping out with Korkers?

There is some specialization in terms of technique and gear, all based on trial and error. Over the years, guys have worked up all types of gadgets. I’ve tried Korker studs that were embedded into fins; I’ve seen fins that were modified to be more easily removed once you got to a rock. I’ve seen guys try to use rock-climbing gear. The things I’ve seen, wow quite comical! My own experience is that it is too cumbersome to try to swap out of fins once you are out there. Once you are near the rock, you have to get upright as quickly as possible before being washed around by the waves. For this reason I just swim with my Korkers on.

Equipment is as follows:

I wear a diving or surfing wetsuit usually 5 or 6 mil, I have my Korkers that are double tied to my feet and ankles, I wear a belt with pliers attached with phone chord, I have a stripping basket made from an old shopping basket so the water flushes quickly. I always have two dive lights with fresh batteries. The flies are in a wallet, along with some leaders, maybe an extra shooting head; the wallet is shoved in the wetsuit. Everything needs to stay in place while I swim. With my rod is in my mouth, my arms and legs are free.

Obviously, you wouldn’t do it if there weren’t potential for incredible payout?

Yes, you are into productive water, and I would argue the chances of hooking a quality bass are seldom better. On any night, a fish of 20 lbs or more on fly is a very realistic goal. I’ve had some very big bluefish and weakfish on fly, and even some nice false albacore when fishing into daylight.

Do you ever go skishing with a fly rod?

Yes, but I don’t see this as something that works particularly well. Very hard to get off a good haul, if you can picture it. Also a bit hard to land a fish. Due to the angle of the fly rod during the last stages of the fight. Yes, I’ve done it, but it’s awkward. Standing over the water on a rock is much better.

I’m a boat guy. Many shore guys I know prefer the challenges and risks associated with fishing on foot. Are you in that camp? Why?

For me, surfcasting is a connection with the ocean, in the most pure and simple fashion, without the engine noise and smell, and without the excess baggage of electronics and other boating paraphernalia. This gear and mobility handicap is supplanted with the accumulated knowledge of structure, wind, tide and migration. Fly-fishing just takes it a step further, where a decorated hook is the only lure. The attraction for me is in the simplicity of it all.

So how does fly fishing in the surf zone differ from surfcasting? Ironically, it is usually the case that these flies, when tied even remotely correctly, are a better imitation of bait species than most popular surfcasting plugs. So this all makes sense, fly fishing from shore, or swimming to get to a better rock.

I do own a boat – but if you can believe it – I generally use it to get to locations and then jump out to wade the back bays.

Can you tell me a little about the Bring Back Big Bass movement and your role in it?

Lots to say here as well – In 2001 I was trying to organize saltwater anglers via an educational/awareness campaign leading up to Amendment 6 of the Striped Bass Management Plan. By 2001, Striped Bass regulations were being relaxed up and down the coast, and Amendment Six was an opportunity to put more meaningful goals in place to make sure the striped bass population would continue to thrive. At the time, there were certainly more fish around than in the 1980s, but not so many large fish. Plenty of congratulatory PR was being circulated, and various interests were practically licking their chops to see regulations further relaxed.

“The Job’s Not Done Until We Bring Back the Big Bass” became the campaign slogan. We instructed anglers up and down the coast to attend the public hearings. We even took out full-page ads in certain fishing magazines. (I still see the bumper stickers from time to time, on trucks or in various tackle stores)

The campaign worked! – Well, sort of.

Anglers did show up for the hearings in good numbers! Everyone got the message, and an overwhelming majority went on record in those hearings and requested striped bass mortality targets be lowered – meaning fewer fish should be killed.

But if it were only that easy-

Some Striped Bass Commissioners (representing various states as part of the ASMFC body that manages the striped bass plan) ultimately dismissed this public opinion, and casted their swing votes for higher mortality targets anyway as Amendment Six was finalized.

This was a learning experience. I failed to realize just how brazen some Commissioners would be. There was (and still is) zero accountability. To the best of my knowledge, Commissioners are not required to explain why they voted against public opinion, as expressed at hearings etc. This is politics!

Clearly, there were influential bodies working behind the scenes here. And ever since, that pro-kill voice has more or less prevailed.

The striped bass population is now clearly on the decline again. The only hope is we can somehow get tighter regs in place before it gets much worse.

To read Papciak’s article, “Confessions of a Wetsuiter” in Surfcaster’s Journal, go here:

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