It was August 1987 when I met Jim. He pulled up in a vintage red and white Suburban, fully customized for some serious surf fishing. Jim had just started a job at the machine shop I was working at, and me, being a rabid greenhorn surf fisherman at the time, quickly became friends with him. To make a long story short, the truck was his dads who had passed a few years earlier. Jim told me that his father, James Wilbert Sr., lived for surf fishing – it was his passion. He showed me plugs that his father made and told me stories of the many trips he shared with his dad. Sadly, Jim did not fish much anymore, explaining that he simply lost interest over time.
One day at work I was telling Jim that I had broken my surf rod and had to replace it before the fall run. He told me not to buy one, that he would give me one of his dads that was collecting dust in his garage. I could not believe it, and told him I felt honored. He said it only needed a guide, and that his dad would want it to be used. The gesture left me speechless. It turned out to be an 11-1/2-foot honey colored Lamiglas Supercutter blank. It was in good shape and I was thrilled to have it.
Now this is where it gets interesting. Sure I had been fishing since I was a kid, but the serious surf game was new to me. I had been cutting my teeth at Shinnecock East, and spent some hours at the Sore Thumb in Fire Island Inlet, but with minimal results. Now, with this new found rod, I was excited about fishing with it – feeling that its rich history would help change my luck.
It was the middle of October and I was heading home from work one night, with no intention of fishing. The wind was howling at least 35 mph from the northwest. About halfway home, something in the back of my mind told me “go to Shinnecock East.” I can’t explain it, since I had never fished in those conditions, but something told me I had to go! I arrived home, loaded my tackle and headed east.
Within an hour I was making my way down Halsey Neck Lane. The wind now seemed even stronger, and it was dark and cold. I still did not know why I was doing this, but the urge was especially strong. Upon arriving at the inlet, I aired down the Wrangler and headed to a spot I had fished a couple of weeks prior for just a couple of small blues. It was a cove on the backside with a pile of rocks jutting out into the inlet. When I arrived, there was a truck parked right where I planned to fish. It was dark but I could make out an elderly gentleman just standing there leaning on his vehicle, with his arms folded. He was looking at me and just nodded. I waved to him and got ready to fish, all the while listening to the unmistakable sound of fish busting the surface, despite the howling wind! I could not see the water from this spot because it was lower than the jetty. As I climbed the rocks to get a view of the inlet, the sight of breaking bass, from one end of the inlet to the other and across to the commercial docks, got my heart pounding. There were fish everywhere – there had to be thousands of bass in that inlet! I turned to look over at the gentleman, and he was gone, truck and all. I had no idea how, or why he left so quickly, but the sight of all that commotion promptly drew me back to the task at hand. I put a Bomber Long-A on and made a cast. A fish slammed the plug and ran with the incoming current, the mono singing as it drew taut in the wind. It’s a sound I can still hear to this day when I close my eyes and reflect back.
For the next four hours there was non-stop action with bass in the 20 to 25-pound class. It was incredible and there was no one else there! Not a soul in sight, or a boat to be seen. Worn out, I returned to my jeep, looked up at the stars and said out loud, “Thanks Mr. Wilbert,” and at that instant a shooting star shot across the sky. I stood motionless for a while, and thought “No one will believe this.” From that moment on, the rod was known as the “Wilbert Rod.”
After that night, I began to put the pieces together – wind, tide, current, and moon phases, and my success increased dramatically. The pattern repeated at that rockpile several times with a hard northwest wind and incoming tide. I never saw the guy who nodded at me again, and unfortunately that cove is no longer there, having been eliminated when the jetty was rebuilt.
I still don’t know how to explain that night 32 years ago. Somehow I feel I was being coached, but whatever powers may have been in play, it remains a night I will never forget.