Rolling caplin and the guff line

Published on July 26, 2014

Caplin, that tiny skinny and silver-sided baitfish, have been tangled and woven into my life’s web since I was a wee kid.

I can recall the joy of running out in the ocean with Dad and attempting to scoop them up in my hands. That particular technique never really produced much in the way of protein on the flake. My father’s seemingly complex, maybe even magical, cast net was so much more productive in filling our tall white beef bucket.

Isn’t it interesting how little kids with their experience slates totally clean, will always make the effort to catch a fish with their hands or, for that matter, attempt other impossible tasks? They have no idea how fruitless the folly actually is, compared to even the most rudimentary of dip nets. I watched a couple of little kids, just last week, doing the same thing that I attempted about 50 years ago. No matter their ineffectual pursuit, they were having tons of fun while their grandfather made hay.

A tiny yellow-haired girl in a pink summer dress ran out into the icy cold water wearing only a pair of matching pink flip-flops on her feet. She shrieked from the cold but persevered and jabbed a quick left hand into the water, her right followed with the supple quickness and finesse of a trained boxer. But hitting Muhammad Ali would be easier than catching those caplin in your hands.

Like the greatest of the boxing art, but collectively and in perfect synchronicity, a school of caplin sees shadows and can duck and weave to avoid capture. Lesser fighters block punches in brutish defence, the great ones like Ali, or maybe Ali deserves a class of his own — move left, right or backwards with lightning speed to render their opponent’s blows harmless, piercing nothing but thin air.

Watch the old videos and see how Ali faced opponents with his hands hanging by his side. Don’t ever try this or you will certainly get your world rocked in short order. Ali avoided punches like Lefty Kreh casts a fly rod, with an innate sixth sense, honed through dedicated focused experience and a heaping shovel full of God-given talent. Not everyone can or ever possibly could pass a puck like Wayne Gretzky. We lesser mortals can only do our best.   

The girl with the pink dress had no notion of any limitations on her hand-eye co-ordination.  After several attempts, leaving her with only icy cold water between her stubby little fingers, she got wise to the caplin’s weaving defensive inclinations. Like Smokin Joe, she managed to find a way. Not a devastating sweeping left hook, but patience saved the day.

Standing perfectly still, she let an incoming school of tiny fishes mill about her ankles. The little girl was learning a valuable lesson, essential to survival in the hunting and gathering world. It’s far better to wait, watch and listen. Stealth and skill mediate the need for far-shooting rifles. With the caplin now only a few inches from her hands she made another grab, simultaneously with both hands.

Success, sort of, Ali would not fall from one landed hook. Close on a dozen caplin left their watery world between the child’s cupped hands, but the game was not at an end. The slippery wiggling creatures shot through her fingers and went flying off in all directions, chromed sides flashing kaleidoscopically in the brilliant mid morning summer sunlight.

She managed to hang on to one fish long enough for her eager legs to take her to her grandfather’s bucket. One caplin is all it took to make for one happy little girl. She grinned from ear to ear.

I can go on and on about caplin.

As young boys growing up in Spaniard’s Bay, how we looked forward to the caplin rolling in Mint Cove and Back Cove. The first order of business was to fill my mother’s request for one heaping five-gallon bucket for drying. By now, I had a dip net.

With much attention to detail and a lifetime of practice, she made the best dried caplin in the world. Her secret was an exact amount of time in salt solution, plus correct concentration, proper sun, and a measure of dark molasses. Nothing will ever equal my Mom’s caplin roasted in a campfire. I never went rabbit catching without them in my bag.

I don’t think we should be harvesting caplin for sale as food to other countries. They are the foundation of our marine ecosystem, food for salmon, seatrout, cod and God knows what else. Actually, us lads growing up in Spaniard’s Bay knew very well some of the “what else.” Caplin on the beaches meant all sorts of angling opportunity.  Bigger fish would follow the caplin to the beaches, taking the opportunity to gorge themselves when those tasty protein rich little critters were most vulnerable.  We’d catch sea cats, sculpins, guffs (or guffies we called them), flatfish, and occasionally a fine northern cod. I’d be so proud to bring home a cod to Mom for supper. That was the holy grail of caplin scull beach fishing.


Finest gear

I have to tell you about the assortment of fishing gear we used in those days.

Some of us had spinning rods and used them with either big baited trawl hooks or Red Devil lures. But they were certainly not the modern corrosion resistant sort of reels and quickly would succumb and seize up with a prolonged degree of saltwater use. So, many of us used more primitive means, preserving our precious spinning gear for the trout ponds. Bamboo and baited hook worked extremely well, perfect if not for the bubba factor.

The occasional larger fish, sea puss most often, would invariably bust all but the stoutest bamboo. We’d never consider pointing at the fish and busting the line. It just wasn’t in our nature.

Perfection in design and function came in the so-called guff line. I’m not sure if this technology existed all over Newfoundland and Labrador, so please email and let me know. Here’s the secret direct from a Spaniard’s Bay native.

First you’d fashion a spool, either a round stick of about five inches or a fancy plywood card sort of affair, like a holder for a kite string. Then go buy 50 feet of cotton trawl or hand line. Cotton is the best, supple and easy on the hands. Now for the end tackle: take three trawl hooks and secure them together with some sort of wire.

Soldering was even better if one had access and skill, or a co-operative parent. Tie it on and you’re ready for beach action. It worked just as well on the government wharf to wile away lazy August evenings.

At the beach, you secure a caplin to the treble hook and then hold the line a couple of feet back with the bait payload dangling by your side. Now swing the line in a vertical circle and release after three swings. A talented and stout youngster could easily throw 50 feet.

You had no worry about a sea cat or robust guff busting this outfit. It was highly packable and 100 per cent corrosion resistant. What more might one ask for?

As a kid, I learned a lot about beach fishing. Forty years later, I caught a prized rooster fish from a beach in Mexico, same sort of deal only with a bit better technology. I’ll tell that story later.


Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at, or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock.