Tom Hilgert is a surfcaster. Wait, let me rethink that. Calling Tom Hilgert a surfcaster is like calling me Ryan Reynolds, and much to my wife’s dismay, I am NOT Ryan Reynolds. You see, while that opening statement is true, it barely hints at the level Hilgert and his friends have taken surfcasting to. Trust me when I tell you, this isn’t “next level” surfcasting—it’s above and beyond the next level!
Equal parts Jacques Cousteau and Indiana Jones (Hilgert holds degrees in both marine biology and paleontology), when Tom isn’t prowling the mountains, canyons and valleys of Southern Calfornia hunting for fossils (with roughly five tons of self-discovered fossils in his garage, he could open his own paleontology museum), you’ll likely find him on some remote San Diego beach, engaging in his high octane brand of fishing. Just look for a rod that’s as tall as a radio station antenna (Hilgert and company refer to them as “idiot beacons” on account of the un-brainiac questions they tend to illicit from gawking onlookers) chucking bait-and-sinker rigs that weigh as much as small bowling balls, and chances are you’ve found Tom or a member of his surfcasting-on-steroids posse.
When it comes to fishing, most reelers subscribe to the simple philosophy that size matters. Big fish = bragging rights. But Tom and his pals aren’t just after big fish—they’re after the biggest fish. Heck, these guys would gladly take on ballistic missile submarines if only they could cast out far enough.
Speaking of casting, imagine throwing your bait the length of a football field. For most reelers, casts that long trespass on the ridiculous, if not the impossible. But for Hilgert it’s a necessity. “The fish we’re seeking aren’t swimming in the breakwater,” he explains. “We need to get bait out to them.” And when you consider the size and weight of the rod, reel, and bait rig, each and every cast embodies the exertion of a hardcore MMA workout. And that’s just for one cast. Oftentimes, getting bit requires the Herculean effort of numerous casts to saturate the water with a chomp-worthy taste and smell that draws in the finned monsters.
Now before you start envisioning a length of chain, a tire, and a gaff-sized hook baited with a pot roast-esque chunk of raw meat, this isn’t Jaws and Peter Benchley (may he rest in peace) was not among Tom’s fishing buddies. In actuality, Tom’s favorite baits are rather normal, with big chunks of mackerel and bonita topping the list. “The oilier and stinkier, the better,” Hilgert states with a knowing grin. In essence, these baits will create a chum slick, attracting fish from far and wide.
Born in the Bronx and raised in New Jersey, Tom’s earliest rod-and-reel memories are of fishing for sunnies with his mom in a local lake. Those simple worm-and-bobber outings that many reelers the world over would cite as their own introduction to fishing opened the floodgates, and were soon followed by the pursuit of larger species; smallmouth bass in Upstate New York’s Wallkill River, menhaden (aka bunkers) in Montauk, and three-foot stripers from the Jersey shore long before names like Snooki, Paulie, JWoww and Mike The Situation were part of our cultural landscape. To date, Tom has fished and caught in a whopping thirty-six states, leaving just fourteen to complete his American angling odyssey—a patriotic quest that came about in a rather unusual way.
“Some friends were visiting from Ireland and we started talking about travel,” Tom recalls. “I expressed an interest in seeing some far-off destinations and this guy instantly wheeled on me. ‘Why the hell do you wanna see the rest of the world when you don’t even know your own country?!’ That got me to thinking, and my fifty state fishing adventure was born.
“Of all the places I’ve been, Florida was the easiest place to catch fish. Ladyfish, gag grouper… Almost every cast produced a bite. But the hardest place to catch fish? That’s easy. Without question, California is the most difficult. Especially when you’re fishing from shore.”
It’s his penchant for shore fishing that has made Tom somewhat of a legend in Southern California and, courtesy of his website, www.PrehistoricSoul.com, that fame is rapidly spreading. People are flocking to his site in droves, anxious to read about big game shore fishing adventures, share their own experiences, and exchange tips on what to do (and what not to do!) to catch more and bigger fish from the beach.
“The Internet has made fishing of any kind much, much easier, but that being said, surf fishing is still infuriating. However, that’s also the fun of it. And the challenge of hooking and landing really big fish from shore is incredibly addictive.”
Unlike fishing from a boat—a moving platform that you can use to your advantage to overpower or gain position over your aquatic quarry—fishing from shore instantly puts you at a disadvantage, especially in terms of mobility. Plus, if you’re on a boat and not getting any action, you can simply hoist anchor and try another spot. Surfcasters don’t have that luxury, at least not the kind of relocation that will amount to much of a difference.
Another difficulty surfcasters routinely face is the surf, itself. Swift current and tidal surges can play havoc with not only your bait, but with a fish you’re attempting to land. And if that fish happens to have sharp spines or teeth, even a small wave can instantly alter the position of a fish you’re trying to subdue, putting you in a world of hurt—or the back of an ambulance!
As for Tom’s quarry, as previously mentioned, he’s not after rock fish or surf perch. If the fish in question weighs less than a sofa, he’d prefer it avoid his bait altogether.
Bat rays—one of the prime targets of big game surfcasters—can grow to 200 pounds with a near-six-foot wingspan, allowing them to generate helicopter-like downforce, making it seem like you’re reeling in a coral reef.
Black sea bass, a type of gargantuan grouper that resemble Volkswagen Beetles with fins, pull like open ocean barges, and considering their air bladders typically don’t inflate when hooked by surfcasters, reelers don’t have the benefits of science to assist their efforts.
And then there are sharks.
Southern California reelers have a wide variety of shark species to try and engage in rod ’n reel action. Leopards, soupfins, threshers, sevengills, makos—and now even great whites are routinely swimming within casting distance. Unchanged for eons and perfectly designed for speed and power, when you’ve got a shark on the end of your line, even a small one can quickly put you on the wrong end of the predator vs prey equation. To win that battle you’ll need strength aplenty, an intelligent game plan, and sturdy equipment.
When it comes to gear, Tom and his friends aren’t messing around. Sure, you can try your luck with bargain basement tackle, but chances are you won’t be showing off any impressive “Look what I caught!” photos at your next BBQ. But that doesn’t mean you need to break the bank, either.
“A Penn Fathom 40 or a Shimano Torium 30 will definitely get you in the game. Mate it to a 13- to 15-foot rod capable of handling a heavy lure (at least 8 oz.) and you’ve got the makings of a good rig. As for line, 40# or 50# mono is what I use [some stretch is a good thing], along with a backing of braid (100 to 200 yards) and twenty-five feet of 80# shock leader. But that’s just one approach. If you use gear appropriate to what you’re targeting, you can’t go wrong. Now that doesn’t mean you’ll be successful, but at least you’ll give yourself a chance to be successful.”
Tom’s personal equipment aside, there are many great rods and reels at a wide variety of price points that can be used in your surfcasting-for-monsters pursuits. Conventional reels are a better choice than spinning reels, largely because further casts are possible. Of course, that statement will leave some dedicated spin-fishers fuming, so if you feel more comfortable with a spinning reel on your pole, go for it. As for rods, this is one area you definitely don’t want to skimp. Go after big fish with a rod that can’t handle the load and sounds like snap!, crackle! and pop! won’t just be coming from your breakfast cereal. Use the longest rod you can handle comfortably—typically, the taller the pole, the further you can cast. And then there’s the age old braid vs mono debate. Mono provides more stretch, and a little extra give will come in handy when a big fish blasts off on a run, especially if your drag is too tight. But once again, use whatever you’re most comfortable with. Confidence in your gear is just as important as confidence in your ability.
If you’ve visited Tom’s site, you’ll know the advice he dispells comes from actual trial and error. Ain’t no posers on www.PrehistoricSoul.com. There’s a ton of excellent advice represented on those pages—a constantly growing tutorial of shared knowledge and angling camaraderie that can take anyone from curious onlooker to obsessed surfcaster in just one night of reading.
So should you find yourself browsing the exploits of Tom Hilgert and his pals in the near future, it’s not a question of if you’ll be joining in on the insanity of big game surfcasting action—it’s a question of when!
For more information on Tom Hilgert and his crazy surfcasting friends, check out www.PrehistoricSoul.com.