The lure of the catch
The Outer Cape fishing community holds tight to its time-honored tradition of surfcasting
“Some go to church and think about fishing, others go fishing and think about God.” –Tony Blake
Growing up on the Outer Cape, with the backside beaches as our backyard, our mother was routinely acknowledged as the most avid “fisherwoman” on the beach. We would wake in the morning to find her casting out against another sparkling summer sunrise. One story in our family lore recounts her pulling in a 40-pound bass one day, with only my two-year-old brother in tow. With the fish still running, she couldn’t help but cast out again, this time pulling in a 32-pounder. Now the dilemma became apparent about how to get the fish and the young child up the mountainous sand dune. After thinking things through, she decided to ascend with the larger fish first and leave the toddler tied to the 32-pound anchor until she could quickly return for both.
That kind of single-minded passion is common among anglers, but perhaps never more than in the surfcasting community. Tony Cataldo has been fishing the waters of Cape Cod for almost 60 years. His reputation for success and knowledge of how to fish this region has become legendary among both friends and strangers. The outer beach of Race Point has become his favorite destination, not only to indulge his fishing addiction, but also to unplug and reconnect with the unique community that convenes for a weekend of serene solitude. Cataldo, a recently retired Yarmouth resident, talks about the restorative power of the quiet beach, the close-knit community and the thrill of catching fish.
“Just like the television commercials that ask you if you want to get away, that’s how I feel when I come here. It is the ultimate getaway, and I consider it my piece of heaven,” he says. “The people that I share the beach with at Race Point, they have become my close friends; those are the people I turn to when I need something.”
Over the years, Cataldo, and his entire family—his wife, son and daughter—would make the trek to the outer beach every weekend for more than half the year. For years, Cataldo recalls, the National Park Service restricted the number of self-contained vehicles to a maximum of 100 at any one time. And permits were only good for 21 nights, thus avoiding a monopolization of space by long-term campers. The highest number of permits sold in one season topped out just over 300. In addition to the popularity of the beach as a destination was the pursuit of fish—record-breaking fish—particularly at the beginning of the millennium as fish like striped bass and cod came back after a downturn in the last two decades of the 20th century. Cataldo says he and his buddies would pull in fish, night and day, all the while feeding their passion to pursue the next catch. Those who truly know Cataldo know that his fish stories are the real deal.
On a recent trip to the outer beach, Cataldo spoke about the understanding of “structure” under the water. “You are constantly looking for some kind of structure. Structure can mean a dip in a sand bar as little as a foot in depth, and the fish can be attracted to that change.” These holes, bowls and bars attract bigger fish looking for baitfish or sand eels that emerge from the surrounding waters and currents. “You drop a metal lure down off of one of those structures and it should work out pretty well for you,” Cataldo says, with a twinkle in his eye.
The iconic activity of surf fishing on the outer beach has undergone an astounding change in recent years. In part due to protection efforts of two wildlife species—the piping plovers and the seals—the memorable years of surfcasting appear to be behind us. Access to the beach is controlled and limited when the plovers are nesting and hatching. When the beach is closed, that means no Over Sand Vehicles, or “buggies” as the locals call them. The explosion of the seal population has resulted in thousands of seals along our local coasts. Instead of running the seal gauntlet, the baitfish and the chasing stripers, blues and other desirable catch have apparently chosen to stay farther off the shoreline. Most seasoned fishermen can recount stories of fish being taken right off a hook by a pugnacious seal.
The changing social fabric of families has had an effect as well. The suggestion of spending a weekend together as a family with little-to-no cellular service, no electricity and limited conveniences surely meets some discussion that was not part of the conversation years ago. Recent closings of many Cape Cod bait and tackle shops, other than in the vicinity of the Cape Cod Canal, has been the most ominous and confirming sign of the decline of surf fishing.
Another Tony, Tony Stetzko, fished the outer beach of Nauset, a similar stretch of coastline just down the forearm from Race Point. Locally known for his fishing acumen, Stetzko landed a 73-pound striped bass in 1981 that sealed the world record for him—an accomplishment that some feel has even greater impact since it was caught from the beach. Stetzko passed away in 2015, seven months shy of his 65th birthday. In spite of the immeasurable loss of this Outer Cape legend, the impact of his knowledge and time he shared with anyone that asked and his contribution to the world of surf fishing should live on for generations to come. One of those beneficiaries of Stetzko’s singular wisdom is Danya Mahota. Mahota, a Brewster resident, recalls meeting Stetzko in an online forum several years ago. “I was on StriperTalk! and someone mentioned they couldn’t upload photos of a fish they had just caught due to computer problems,” Mahota recalls. “I contacted him and said, ‘Mr. Stetzko, I’m an IT professional and I have a fishing problem!’ From then on, we became close friends.”
Mahota says the knowledge Stetzko shared with him is the foundation of how and why he tries to get out to the beach virtually every night. “I am Tony’s protégé, that’s for sure,” Mahota says. “Tony was really well known to be able to find the structure, to see through the water and identify where the fish would be holding. The fishing that we do is very different than the standard set-up shop, put your bait on the hook, and sit on your bucket. This is nonstop moving. If we are walking, we are walking 6 or 7 miles a night; you have to keep moving until you find the fish—that’s what Tony taught me.”
Mahota says that his style of surf fishing is really a mix of hunting and fishing. “You use whatever clues you can to find the fish. It might be fox or coyote tracks down to the water that illustrate bait from the last tide. Or go out on a bar a little bit farther than you might comfortably do to fish, and rake up the edge of the bar and see sand eels, that might be a good place to fish.”
The deliberate repetition of casting and retrieving a plug in the surf can result in a Zen-like moment, where it seems fish and fisherman are the only two beings on the planet. Mahota talks about the almost imperceptible moment when the fish considers taking a bite—the miss. “Tony taught me it is more about the miss than the hit. That’s where the magic is.”
After recently rehabilitating from cardiac trauma, Cataldo reflects on the conclusion that the good days are over: “I hear people say all the time, ‘Those were the good days, and it will never be that good again.’” With a small catch in his throat, he says, “I have to disagree. I think the good days are right now.” He may not see as many tight lines and bent rods as he did in the old days, but he is still catching fish, often with his grown son, and still enjoying every moment on the water.