Have Zebco, Will Travel: Long Island Sound Sea Robins

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Mark with his first sea robin.

Let me be right up front about this: this story was supposed to have a different title. I did not set out to write about sea robins. When my friend Dave told me he had bought a boat for saltwater fishing, I envisioned different “Have Zebco, Will Travel” storylines: 40 pound stripers and blitzing albies, for example. But fishing plans and storylines often take on a life of their own.

Dave’s boat is a 23-foot Steiger Craft, perfect for safely and comfortably fishing the waters in and around Long Island Sound. When he called to brag about it, I knew I’d get regular invitations to fish with him. I have overheard Dave describe me as follows: “Mark is by far the most reliable fishing buddy I have, mostly because he never says no. He has an uncanny willingness to skip or reschedule just about any commitment to get out on the water.” Plus, Dave enjoys my “Have Zebco, Will Travel” adventures. He relishes his role of predicting failure and detailing all that can go wrong.

To prepare, I bought a Zebco 808sw. The “sw” stands for saltwater and distinguishes the reel from the company’s standard 808. It has a corrosion resistant finish that helps protect it from the harsh saltwater conditions. Otherwise, it is, essentially, a giant version of the spincasting reels I used when I was a kid.

Dave snickered when he saw it. “That is not going to hold up out here. You are not going to be able to land a big striper, and heaven forbid you hook an albie. Albies are like freight trains. They’re famous for tearing up reels specifically designed to deal with their speed, strength and tenacity.”

I wanted to say: “I know. That’s the whole point.” Instead, I said: “Just find the fish.”

We never found the fish. We spent hours last summer searching for stripers and albies. We fished known honey holes. We fished areas recommended by the staff at the bait shop. We motored around, looking for the telltale sign of birds feeding on bait near the surface. All to no avail. The stripers and albies were nonexistent.

To Dave’s credit, he devised a workable back-up plan. “I’ve gotten pretty good at bouncing baits along the bottom for fluke and sea bass. Both are fun to catch and are good eating. When we’re tired of chasing the big boys, we can give it a try.”

“And who knows,” he added with more than the usual sarcasm, “maybe you’ll catch a sea robin.”

“Sea robin?” I liked the sound of it.

“They’re considered a trash fish. Ugly. Slimy. And, they croak when you handle them.”

“Croak you say?”

“Yep. Some say it sounds like they’re trying to talk. Nobody targets them, but there is a guy who started a summer-long tournament called the Sea Robin Showdown. You should look into it.” He was really high on the sarcasm meter now.

As we headed to one of his favorite bottom fishing spots, I did some internet research on the Showdown. It cost 20 dollars to register, but that included a t-shirt bearing a handsome sea robin silhouette. Once registered, you could qualify for prize drawings by submitting a picture showing the length of your catch. There was no limit to the number of entries, and the website maintained a weekly leaderboard.

I said to myself: “Let me get this straight. An under-appreciated, talking fish with the chance to win prizes and achieve leaderboard glory?”

Out loud I said, nonchalantly, “These sea robins sound interesting.”

The 808 is well suited for sea robin fishing. It releases line smoothly, which is essential to getting the bait straight to the bottom. If your bait sinks too slowly, it lags behind the boat and you either never find the bottom, or lose contact with it as the boat drifts through the water. That’s bad. Sea robins are bottom feeders. When the bait is off the bottom, they often don’t see it, and even when they do, they won’t chase it far.

What the 808 lacks in finesse, it makes up for in raw cranking power. The reel was primarily designed to haul big catfish out of heavy river currents, so I was confident it could bring fish up from the depths.

As we began our first drift, Dave instructed me. “When your sinker hits bottom, reel up half a turn. Then slowly jig your rod tip. Proper line tension is key. You want enough to feel the bites, but too much and your bait won’t bounce properly.”

Maintaining proper line tension, especially in deeper water, is harder than it sounds. It took me several hours and dozens of false hook sets to get the hang of it.

Then, suddenly, I hooked my first fish. I wish I had the literary skills to describe the experience as some epic struggle, but frankly, it was just a lot of hard, fast reeling. The fish didn’t so much fight as resist. It was over in less than a minute.

Dave, who had caught a number of fluke, but none big enough to legally harvest, said hopefully: “Maybe that’s our first keeper.” You could cut the air with the disappointment in his voice as I swung the fish aboard. “Ugh. A sea robin.”

“Wow,” I stammered. “That is … AWESOME.”

Lying on the deck was a fish so stunningly weird that it defied imagination. Close your eyes and try to picture it: a shovel-shaped head, topped with frog-like eyes and sheathed in armor plates; a thin body that tapers dramatically from head to tail; giant, fan-shaped pectoral fins extending from its sides like the wings of a bird; and—get this—six fleshy fingers hanging from its chin.

I was instantly smitten.

As I worked to remove the hook from its mouth, the fish emitted a low-pitched sound that was part burp, part squeak. “Dave, the fish is talking to me.”

“What’s he saying?”

“I’m not sure, but it sounded like ‘mess-or-meet’.”

The fish repeated itself: “Bureak, bureak.”

“No, wait,” I nearly shouted. “’Measure me’. He said ‘measure me!’ He wants me to submit his picture to the Showdown!”

And so, naturally, I took his picture on the measuring board.

Later that evening, I made my online submission. I was rewarded the next day with a confirmation email that said, and this is an exact quote: “Mark Fiorentino, You submitted a spectacular Searobin! Thank you for being a part of the World’s Greatest Searobin Fishing Tournament.” The email also invited me to check the website for the latest standings.

And, naturally, I did. My spectacular sea robin finished Week 17 of the Showdown in 18th place (out of 19 entries).

Glory, indeed.