During the mid-1800s, surf casting for striped bass at selected New York and New England locations using pieces of menhaden for bait was considered, together with Atlantic salmon fishing, to be the pinnacle of game-fishing experiences. In fact, in Fishing in American Waters (1869), Genio Scott writes that “casting menhaden bait for striped bass from the rocky shores of the bays, estuaries, and islands along the Atlantic coast constitutes the highest branch of American angling.” To facilitate this approach in the rugged environment of breakers and boulders, gentlemen anglers built metal bass stands from which to cast at prime locations, including Montauk, New York; along the Connecticut and Rhode Island coasts; and on Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.
The highest refinement of this form of fishing may have been at the private striped-bass fishing clubs located near Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. The West Island Club was founded about 1862, and the Cuttyhunk Club in 1865. The clubs were exclusive, made up mainly of wealthy businessmen and politicians from the big cities. Each had the requisite clubhouse and the trappings of the leisure class.
But an essential element was the bass stand, a rickety affair mounted in the most severe of environments. To make a bass stand, the club selected a fishy spot, then drilled a string of boulders or bedrock humps trailing off to the breakers, fitted iron pipes into them as the foundation for a catwalk, built a wooden walk atop the frame, and sometimes placed a chair at the end of the stand.
The “sports” that is, the gentlemen members – would draw for the best stands the night before fishing. Then, near dawn, they would cast from the stand and wait while a chummer employed by the club fed cut menhaden, clams, crabs, and even lobsters into the surf. If a sport hooked a fish, the chummer did the gaffing.
The bass stands allowed large catches of striped bass in challenging conditions, despite the crude tackle of the time. For instance, in three months’ fishing off a stand at Newport, two men landed 124 striped bass weighing 2,921 pounds, an average of more than 23 pounds each, the largest weighing 60 pounds.
In the late 1800’s, striped bass went into a coastwide decline, the bass clubs were disbanded, and the platforms began to rust and fall apart from the force of the sea. But even today sharp-eyed surf casters with a historical bent can see remnants of these structures at the still superb striper-fishing locations.