The Alex Chronicles: Farewell To A Friend

May 14th, 2021

I’m accustomed to loosing fish. Loosing friends is something new.

2018 REUNION: The Red Hill Gang in Brooklyn.

On the same day we heard the sad news of Amazing Randy’s passing, word came down that Alex G., my longtime friend from high school, succumbed to Covid. I knew Alex since 1963. But his history with some of my other buddies from the self-styled “Red Hill Gang” went back even further. Felix F., and Tony D., were Brooklyn elementary-school mates of Alex, beginning in sixth grade. Felix remembers that Alex was the perennial winner of Our Lady of Grace School’s Math Medal. “Every year, the nun would announce: ‘For excellence in math, Alex G.’,” Felix recalls. “Peter C. and I would give each other a look of disappointment.”

FELIX F. The purloined math medal.

Alex was indeed a brainiac. But he was by no means a goody-two-shoes. Quite the opposite. “When Alex moved from South Brooklyn, and was introduced by Sister Esther Maria on his first day,” Tony D., recollects, “he stood in front of the class with a scowl on his face, slapping a ruler on the palm of his hand.”

Alex always carried a heavy gauge stainless-steel rattail comb in the rear pocket of his black jeans. Ostensibly for his long slick-backed hair, it was also his security weapon for the subway rides we took from Gravesend to Brooklyn Technical High School in Ft. Greene.

Alex played the tough guy, but in fact he was remarkably generous. If not for him, I wouldn’t have made it through my first year at Tech. Admitted as a sophomore, I was required to make up freehand- and mechanical-drawing courses, which I missed while in junior high. Alex tutored me at the kitchen table of his parents apartment every day that summer, before we got on the Avenue X bus to Manhattan Beach. During the Vietnam War, Alex got Bobby A. into the National Guard, avoiding the draft. “Alex said ‘show up here,’ and that is what I did,” says Bob. “He also told me to become a truck driver in the Guard, and that was great advice too.” In recent years, Alex was my classic-movie maven, sharing tips and videos from his vast collection, which numbered almost ten thousand.

ALEX & BOB: The National Guard’s finest.

Alex was an okay athlete–we played stickball and touch football in the Brooklyn streets–but he really shined with a cue stick in his hands. At Chick’s Pool Room, where we played “money ball” instead of doing our calculus homework, he was known as “Assy Alex” for his talent to make unusual and difficult shots look easy. He’d bend over deeply, flick back the lock of hair that habitually flopped in front of his face, use his middle finger to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and smoothly stroke the cue ball across the felt-lined table. If he sank his shot, he’d lick his thumb, press it to his derrière, and say: “Hiss-s-s! I’m hot!”

Alex was a regular at our penny-ante basement and backyard poker games. And he was always game for our cut-out-of-school sojourns to Aqueduct Raceway to bet the horses during those mid-60s years. Decades later, he introduced us to a highly unorthodox “don’t pass bar” betting strategy at the craps tables during one of the Red Hill Gang’s Las Vegas road trips. For the record, we did not make money with his scheme.

Alex was the first of the Red Hill Gang to have a car–a yellow 1953 Plymouth. First time out, he hit a police car in Staten Island. We treated that Plymouth like the taxi cab it resembled. Alex chauffeured us to the Beach House disco in Long Beach, Bay Au Go-Go in Sheepshead Bay, The Gallery in Bay Ridge–pretty much everywhere we wanted to go. He had strict rules about acceptable behavior in his car, which we always ignored. Many times, he’d throw us out of the car for our teasing, but then double back to pick us up. One night, returning to Brooklyn from Long Beach, he kicked out me and Bobby on a dark and deserted thoroughfare near the Atlantic Beach Bridge–and didn’t come back. Miraculously, we hitched another ride and actually beat him back to the pool room.

Alex’s way with women when we were young could be as weird as him. There was a gal name Shiban who most of us had made out with one time or another at the Beach House on Long Island. One Sunday evening, Alex showed up with Shiban at The Gallery in Brooklyn. We never thought we’d see Shiban in Bay Ridge. It was the first time she realized that we were all friends.

BRAINIAC: “What HAPPENED?”

The last time the Red Hill Gang all saw Alex was during a full blown Brooklyn reunion in 2018. We revisited Brooklyn Tech, toured our stomping grounds in Gravesend, walked the Steeplechase Pier in Coney Island and, of course, made a pilgrimage to the Red Hill on East Fifth Street, where we all hung out together as teenagers. One of the guys who hadn’t seen Alex in at least 40 years exclaimed, “What happened to you?” A question which most of the Red Hill Gang also wondered. Alex had been estranged from us for quite a while. And there were no clear answers why.

We know now, however, that Alex has gone to his final rest. And the hope is that it will be a peaceful one. Alex was troubled, hurt and angry most of his adult life. He caught some bad breaks personally and professionally. And it was yet another touch of cruel fate that sealed his demise. Alex’s death is a cautionary tale. Always a fuck-you kind of guy who’d rather follow his own path than the rules, he eventually paid the ultimate price.

Alex is the first person in my sphere to die of Covid. And I hope the only one. The Red Hill Gang will miss Alex, and we will never forget him. Spiritually, he’ll be at our poker table when the Red Hill Gang reunites for its annual fall surfcasting weekend this year. And we’ll toast him every time hence, for as long as we are fortunate enough to gather. Farewell old friend. It was a real trip knowing you.

RETURN TO BROOKLYN TECH: The last time we all saw Alex.

FISHING SEASON DEDICATED TO AMAZING RANDY

May 13th, 2021

There is a particular backwater promontory that the Fishing Faithful refer to as Randy Point.  In Randy’s absence, it will be a bittersweet experience every time we encounter a striper blitz there in the future.

RANDY THOMAS RIP: 1948-2021

Mother’s Day Surprises: For Better Or Worse

May 9th, 2021

Two out of three were very very good. But the one that was bad, was very very bad.

Chopper on a popper.

They snuck up on us. Alligators, gorillas and monsters. Big bad bluefish in the back bays.  Typically, in early May, around Mother’s Day, the Fishing Faithful begin picking small stripers in the ocean surf.  And since mid-April, there have been a handful of bountiful days of that sort.  But as soon as the calendar page turned, gangster blues startled us on the beaches of Napeague Bay.

A Monster for VC….

Verizon Charlie caught a tackle-busting 17-pounder.  In two “equipment testing” sessions, I took a pair of 7-pounders on a 3/4-ounce Hopkins thrown with a snapper rig, and–on a top-water plug–a 15-pound plus chopper that measured 32-inches to the split tail.  LeeBob and his five-year old sidekick Ryder put on a clinic for all on the beach to see, landing literally hundreds of fish in a week’s time.  Billy Black, recovering from knee surgery, also contributed a gorilla chopper to my smoker grill. 

It was the kind of fishing this week that would have prompted Amazing Randy to clip on his hookless Yo-Zuri popping lure, just to watch these hungry blues blow up in one showy splash after another, striking in vain behind his methodical retrieve.

…..An Alligator for Billy….

However, another surprise we got this week was tragically sad. Randy died at home of a sudden heart attack on May 5.  It’s nearly impossible to imagine the fishing season ahead without him. 

I met Randy on the beach more than a decade ago.  We shared a background as city kids, Vietnam veterans and east-end surfcasters.  Randy didn’t eat fish but he caught and released them with gusto.  He’d keep a legal striper every now and then to barter with a Montauk neighbor for a bushel of clams or a case of flounder—which he would also give away. 

Despite his elemental chicken, steak and Budweiser style, there was no better fisherman on the east end than Randy, and I learned a lot casting and catching by his side over many seasons. We fished together on the gravelly beaches of Shagwong, through the swift-running tides of Lazy Point, amid the crashing waves of Montauk Point and in the serene waters of Napeague Harbor. One windy October day not long ago, my truck was laid up so I hitched a ride on the tailgate of Randy’s Tacoma. As we bounced along the undulating shoreline near White Sands, chasing a mixed school of bass and blues, with Pavarotti playing loudly on his stereo, Randy shouted back to me above the blaring music, “You doin’ okay back there, Fred?” I was holding on for dear life, and we both had a laugh!

.….A slob for LeeBob and Ryder.

There was another surprise this Mother’s Day weekend. This one pleasant and highly orchestrated.  My brood showed up unannounced at our beach house to spend the weekend with their mother, the BW. Can’t Miss Daniel was on hand to enjoy some afternoon delight fishing.  Diane will take her turn in the surf next—with either an eight-foot rod, a six foot board—or both! It was the first time in more than a year that the BW and I have been together with our son and daughter and their significant others.  It was better than the blues showing up early.  And I really enjoy the blues.

Mother’s Day Mishpucha

THIS FISHING SEASON IS DEDICATED TO AMAZING RANDY

There is a particular backwater promontory that the Fishing Faithful refer to as Randy Point.  In Randy’s absence, it will be a bittersweet experience every time we encounter a striper blitz there in the future.

RANDY THOMAS RIP: 1948-2021

Season Opener: Fish Are Here Now

April 22nd, 2021

The first week of the 2021 New York striped bass season—opening day was April 15—arrived with good news in the chilly East End waters.  Fish are among us.

FIRST FISH: From the frigid frothy waters of Port Jefferson.

Considering our April-pretending-to-be-March weather, it seemed unlikely we’d see bass here in any reliable way this month.  And based on past performance, that would be enough to keep the Fishing Faithful tight to their indoor hearths until about Mother’s Day in any ordinary year.  But as you have heard ad naseum, it hasn’t been an ordinary year—for at least the last 14 months.

ON THE MOVE: Excitement loomed when bass were reported in New York waters.

Each week the migration maps, which track striped bass movement north from their winter resting grounds off the Carolina coast, whetted the fishing appetites of the cabin fevered Faithful. Tantalizing reports of slot fish in Raritan Bay off New Jersey’s highlands, eight-pound weakfish near Sag Harbor, and tons of bait everywhere—bunker in particular, and also spearing—finally took their toll.

To the beaches the surfcasters did rush. First, they went up island to Little Neck Bay where there was a decent schoolie bite of hold-over fish last spring to accompany the Covid-19 pandemic.  Surfcasting rule Number Two: Always return to the scene of the crime.

Billy Black, who took the 15 minute ride to LNB from his Manhasset home base, explained without a hint of irony, “Somebody has to catch the first fish.” And that honor went to Verizon Charlie. But VC didn’t score up island, or even out east. Sir Charles pulled his inaugural 22-inch striper from the frothy frigid waters of his Port Jefferson hometown on April 18.

LNB is the default fishing grounds of Manhattanite LeeBob. And it is literally on the weekday commuting route of Queens dweller Amazing Randy, who filed regular reports from his mobile Cross Island Parkway crows nest.  But when Verizon Charlie showed up, making a trip to the Nassau-Queens border from his deep seat in Suffolk, the pent up demand was as plain as a new moon tide at the perigee. 

BUNKER BUNKER: Bait is everywhere.

Which, of course, kicked fishaholic LeeBob into fish-finding high gear on the East End. He combed all his usual haunts on both the ocean and bay beaches from Amagansett to Montauk Point.  By Monday, LeeBob had zeroed in on a well structured patch of beach on the Napeague stretch. “On. The. Board,” he gloated to the Faithful.

Micro-bass fell to LeeBob’s, 4-inch paddle tail lure wiggling through the whitewater, attached to a 1/2-ounce jig head. Baby bass were feeding thick in the trough formed by the close-in sandbar, and LeeBob caught them by the dozen. Though not much bigger than the bunker bait that has inundated the East End beaches since winter, they proved to be good sport on light tackle and an impetus to do better.  

ON THE BOARD: LeeBob nails a LeeBob.

Which, after a couple of dozen stripers in diapers over two days, LeeBob managed to do. By midweek, switching to a chartreuse “Chuck’s Buck” bucktail lure, LeeBob began attracting 24- to 26-inch fish. Genuine LeeBobs for LeeBob.

From far far away Montecito, CA, Fishing Faithful Big Brother Frank issued his typical early season clarion call, albeit in absentia:  “Fish are coming now.”

Fact is, they are here.

Merry Fishmas 2020

December 25th, 2020

Are you ready for a happy New Year? Any kind of New Year will be an improvement, right? Surfcasting for striped bass was one of the few joys leading up to this crisis-tinged Christmas. And though the pandemic kept us apart, Big Brother Frank and I did our best to cast out our Christmas spirit and reel in this seasonal tradition. So with appropriate apologies to author Benjamin Hanby and singers Gene Autry and Kimberley Locke, we happily present the Fishmas Card of 2020. Wishing you all a safe and healthy and fishy new year. –Fred & Frank

OUT ON A SANDBAR

(To the tune of Up On The Housetop)

Out on a sandbar, cast, cast, cast

Old Saint Nick is after bass.

Fishin’ with LeeBob and wearin’ a mask

Plugging for keepers is Santa’s task.

Ho ho ho, Fred wants to go

Ho ho ho, Frank wants to go.

Out to Camp Hero with a 10-foot stick

Fishing Turtle Cove with Good Saint Nick.

First comes the lure bag of Billy Black

Santa fills it up when the tide goes slack.

Give him a lure that swims at night

One that’ll make the lunkers bite.

Ho ho ho, Randy wants to go

Ho ho ho, Charlie wants to go.

Up on the jetty with a Deadly Dick

Hooking up Alibes with good Saint Nick!

Lyrics by Fred & Frank Abatemarco; graphics by Chaweenie, Photos by St. Toni of the Blitz and The BW.

December Fishing–Present & Past

December 23rd, 2020

Visions of blitzes and Christmas Bass dance in my head

The striped bass season here officially ended last week. But I had hung up my rod and reel well before–about the same time I cooked down our Thanksgiving turkey carcass for a hearty winter stock. I did not invoke any of the “C Clause” options in my surfcasting ‘arrangement” with the BW. Those include the baking of Christmas Cookies and the existence of the Coronavirus, either of which is an excuse to fish on the beach without limitations.

However, by the end of November the weather turned frigid, even micro-bass were scarce in the surf, and I needed to move on with an overdue kitchen renovation. That added up to no December fishing for me. I’m off the East End for the rest of this calendar year.  

It was a great fall fishing season with more time in the surf than in any past year I can remember (thank you COVID-19). Still, I am nostalgic for some of the special moments that December surf fishing can bring.  I think especially of the famous 2006 fish call from Jack Yee that led to a keeper blitz on the beach at Cupsoque County Park as a full moon rose over Great South Bay in the east, and the sun set over the ocean to the west, late on an early December afternoon.

DECEMBER FISHING: I’ll also miss some off-the-beach extra-curricular activates like this bygone episode of the Captain Harvey Bennett Mobile Tackle Report, which we’re fortunate to have in the archives. (click photo for video)
BEACH RYDER: Gleaning and cleaning for treasures and trash.

I’ll regret not being on the beach for a chance to witness the legendary but rarely seen “Christmas Bass” experience. As the story goes, many young striped bass winter over in sheltered northern waters rather than migrate south to deeper, warmer ocean grounds off the Carolina coast. Some of these stay behinds are blind and you can identify them by their totally clouded eyes. I saw only one Christmas Bass landed on the beach–more than a decade ago–by the late “Lenny the Fish” of Amagansett. If any of these Christmas Bass are to be caught and released this year, I’m certain that LeeBob will hunt them down along the back bays beaches he’ll prowl throughout the hibernate months ahead. Neither wintry weather nor the dearth of fish keeps LeeBob and his trusty protégée–4-year-old son Ryder–from their appointed rounds: treasure hunting for stray lures, and cleaning up the beaches of assorted other flotsam in the process. Always, of course, with a rod and reel within their reach. 

What I surely won’t miss are finger-numbing moments trying to catch every last fish with a notion to swim along the beach during a snowstorm. I last did that in 2017. Brrrr; never again. Instead, with profound, miserly economy, I’ll be sneaking out of my freezer, filets of smoked bluefish or mackerel every few weeks, while dreaming of the the arrival of the 2021 spring run.  Until then, the Fat Lady will continue to croon her 2020 version of “It’s Over!”  And I’ll be putting finishing touches on this year’s soon to come Fishmas Card with Big Brother Frank.

November morning……
…… December song.

Size Matters: A Keeper Slot Fish in the Surf

November 26th, 2020

I was certain I was battling my best fish of the season. The fear at this point was this fish might be too big. 

For a large fish, it took my lure very softly. I was casting to an outgoing tide on a Napeague beach west of Montauk on a pleasant late November afternoon. I reeled ever so slowly. When my lure drifted through the trough where the waves rise before they curl and crash down on the inner sandbar, I felt the telltale chatter on my rod tip.  It was the slightest quivering vibration. I stopped cranking my line. It went taut. But there was barely any pull.  I flicked the rod tip up and got a serious response. I’m into a respectable schoolie, I thought. But that idea instantly evaporated the moment I saw it break water.

The tail of this fish came up and out of the white foam where a wave broke seconds earlier and slapped down with a showy splash.  This was no schoolie bass.  This fish had the makings of a keeper striped bass, which for me would prove a rarity this fall. Hurling towards the endgame of a surfcasting season dominated by fish mostly too small to take home for dinner, I was hankering for what my friend LeeBob’s son–Broadway Baby Ryder— calls ”an eater.” This, I was starting to think, could be one.

I leaned back in earnest, pitting my rod against a fish that was hell bent to escape. The single hook of my lure had penetrated the translucent mouth flesh behind the fish’s lower lip. Shaking its head wildly, the fish did all in its power to spit the hook.  Any bit of slack in my line would give this fish a chance to swim free. The tidal current swept left to right in the shallow water on the sandbar. This hard running fish used its milieu to every advantage. It was desperate.  But I was hungry.

It was also smart. The age difference between a 24-inch schoolie and a 30-inch keeper is only about two years. But in that short time span, stripers seem to get more more clever and wily.  My fish was going to use all its weight and power to try and avoid my table.  

When the fish peeled line from my reel despite my efforts to keep it coming shoreward, I was certain I was battling my best fish of the season. The fear at this point was this fish might be too big.  Keepers used to mean a minimum length.  Way back in the dark days of striped bass decline, a 36-inch fish was the minimum take home size.  I remember catching one 33-inch fish after another on an October afternoon in the Montauk surf, each one released back to the sea.  I ate chicken that night. A few years later, when the rules were relaxed to a 33-inch minimum, I had a September evening with successive catches of 30-inch fish before finally getting one over the limit.

For the last few years, we’ve only been concerned about keepers being 28 inches. And, as nature would have it, we’ve had weeks and months of catching mostly 26- and 27-inch LeeBobs. As this season has worn on and the fish have gotten smaller—juvies, dinks, and micros from 12- to 20-inches—hope was diminishing for a late season keeper. I had only two this year, so the prospect of a quality fish was drool worthy. But for 2020 there was also a new wrinkle: a top limit to the keeper size: 35 inches. As the fish I was battling peeled line from my reel despite my efforts to keep it coming shoreward, I began to fear it could exceed the slot limit. And as much as I would have appreciated a trophy fish, I was not looking forward to another chicken dinner.

SLOT FISH: A genuine eater.

When I finally dragged it up on the beach, with a last flap of its broad and magnificent tail, I saw the fish had a head equal to that of a small dog. It was a wide and fat fish. I lifted it for a photo, put a tape measure to it, and dropped it in my cooler. 32.5 inches. A keeper right in the sweet spot of the slot. An eater for sure. 

Surprisingly, the fish autopsy revealed a fish equally hungry as me.  Instead of a belly stuffed with a whole bunker bait fish–or two or three–as its generous girth suggested, this fish’s stomach contained a single six-inch long sand eel, nearly pristine and undigested. Clearly it was inhaled intact just before the fish fell for my lure. I discarded the sand eel, trimmed up two sizable filets, and put the chicken dinner on hold for another day.

NOVEMBER SURF: LeeBob, Verizon Charlie and Billy Black keeping it honest in the whitewater.
A GOOD MORNING: And a better afternoon.

Breaking the Rules on Election Day

November 5th, 2020

Surfcasting rule number one says “never leave fish to find fish.” On Election Day, I recklessly violated this most sacrosanct axiom, but it paid off. It remains to be seen if our country emerges as fortunate.

ELECTION DAY KARMA: Virtually a fish on every cast.

On Election Day, typically the beginning of the end of my fall surfcasting season, I sat out the morning tide, fishing instead for votes in Georgia as a phone-bank volunteer. By noon, ready to do what I do best, I hit the beach at Two Mile Hollow Road, where I found a sand bar that was beginning to emerge from the afternoon’s descending tide. With fortune’s beneficent smile, the fish would be just on the other side of that bar. Indeed, I got a fish on my first cast. A respectable schoolie–nothing big–but it used the moving tide, the northwest-wind driven current, and the breaking waves beyond the bar to put up a worthy fight. I released it and another half dozen that followed.

LEGENDARY LEE-BOB: A keeper that went back to swim another day.

Surfcasting alone on such a beautiful afternoon was anathema in so many ways, not the least of which was too much time and space for thoughts about the day’s politics. So It was time to put a “fish-call” text out to Legendary LeeBob who I knew would be heading for White Sands Beach to the east.

He too was into fish.  We decided to meet at Indian Wells Beach.  We both left fish to find other fish. And we got well.   More respectable schoolies and quite a few dinks. LeeBob got one 28-inch bass–a keeper–but sent it back. After an hour of fun with these fish, talking about tides and tackle as we cast–anything but politics–we moved again; this time further east to the beach in front of Treasure island Drive, the street where I live.  More fish.  LeeBob was hooking up two fish for every one of mine.  He was throwing a green-tube tailed diamond jig with a pink teaser.  I was using my squiggly sand eel lure, also with a pink teaser.  Our teasers were feather clad hooks positioned about 8 inches ahead of the shiny metal lures at the end of our lines. They often produced doubles–two fish on one retrieve, one on the terminal lure and one on the teaser. Fun experience, but often it creates the illusion of a really big fish, when in fact it is two small fish: dinks on the teasers.

When we found the sweet spot–casting beyond the bar and making a slow retrieve into the whitewater trough–it was practically a fish on every cast.  LeeBob made a quick temporary exit to pick up his son from school.  When he returned, I was still catching. We moved again, to a sand bar that had good potential a quarter mile east. We caught fish there too. LeeBob and I began to question reality. 

LeeBob had a honey-do list to complete, so around 4pm, we both figured our day was a wrap.  We simultaneously hooked up to doubles and that seemed to be an appropriate end for an epic afternoon. But there’s another cardinal rule that says “never leave them biting.” So, alone, I moved further east to Napeague Lane just to see if anyone there was into bigger fish.  I found four surfcasters all doing what we’d been doing: having a ball catching and releasing small stripers. Nearby, however, was a cut in another sand bar where I had caught big fish in the past. I paid my respects by casting into the cresting waves, now turned golden by the magic light of the setting sun. At this point, it was virtually impossible not to catch fish.  No bait showing, no breaking fish blitzing, no birds diving. Hits, if not hook ups, on every cast.  Awesome.

By this time, I had racked my 11 foot rod and went to my smaller 8-foot rig. It was lighter, more flexible and sensitive, and I didn’t need to cast quite as far with the tide bottoming out. That’s when I got the best hit of the day. Or maybe it was the second best. Earlier, I hooked into a fish that pulled so hard I immediately knew it was a quality striper above and beyond the schoolies we had been catching. The problem was getting it up and over the sandbar which only had a few inches of water on it. The fish got some leverage on the wet sand, and was able to spit the hook. I was grateful for the hook up, but really pissed that I dropped that fish, figuring it was my best chance of the day to put a keeper in the cooler.

But now my drag was again screaming, line was peeling off my reel, and I imagined how to not make the same mistake as earlier. This time, I kept the fish in deeper water, approaching it without giving any slack. Eventually I saw I had another double, which was a disappointment–at first. When I approached the pair, however, it was clear they were both keepers!  One was 28, the other –the one on the teaser–was 28.5 inches!  They each weighed 10 to 11 pounds.

I jimmy-fucked with them for a while, releasing one, photographing the other, caught my breath, sent LeeBob a voice mail, got ready to leave the beach. Fifty six inch of fish at more than 20 pounds told me I was done for the day.  But then, I thought: what the hell, let’s see what happens with a few more casts.  Bang!  Fish on! The bite continued. Another half dozen hook ups!  Then, with the outgoing tide hitting bottom, and the sun disappeared, the action stopped as sudden as a heart attack. 

Election Day Epilogue: LeeBob and I probably had 80 fish combined, an epic afternoon in the surf. All that remained was for an equally epic turnout and turn of events in the election. And all we could do about that—as with our surfcasting—was remain ever optimistic and hopeful.

BIDEN BASS; KAMELA KEEPER: I don’t ordinarily name my fish, but this was no ordinary day.

Billy’s Bass Among The Blues

June 4th, 2020

Beneath a springtime evening rainbow, a striper for the ages emerged from a bonanza of bluefish.

GYOTAKU: The Japanese art of fish rub printing.

There’s a section of Billy’s wall at home that has been officially unadorned for years. It’s at the far end of his dining room where there’s a lovely painting hanging now. But that’s a mere stand-in. In truth, Billy’s longtime vision has been a Japanese style Gyotaku — an inked rubbing of a large striped bass — in that space. Original artwork based on a fish that Billy would catch himself. A keeper about 40 inches long would suit the location handsomely.

This week, Billy may have caught the fish that could fill that void.

MOCK COVER: Real keeper.

Now Billy is no stranger to catching striped bass—large and small, day or night, spring, summer and fall. He didn’t get the reputation of Bucktailin’ Billy Black for nuthin. Billy took up surfcasting about 10 years ago with aplomb. In 2010, he was acclaimed on a mock cover of a national fishing magazine. His young son, shopping a local tackle shop for his dad’s Christmas gift, sought a suggestion for something suitable. “Who’s your Dad?” asked the tackle shop owner. Said the boy: “He’s Billy. You know. The Saltwater Sportsman Surfcasting Rookie of the Year. Don’t you know him?”

If there were real awards for surfcasters, Billy would deserve many. If only for his latest achievement. This year’s late spring bluefish run was in full glory on Montauk’s north side on a recent June evening. Billy was in the picket fence-line of surfcasters horsing in large-headed hungry racer blues from a rip on the outgoing tide. The pick was so steady, you could simply cast out your lure and a bluefish would pummel it in a split second. “The plug was like a fish-magnet,” said Billy. “It got silly after a while.”

The bite began as if someone threw a switch at 645pm. For an hour, poles bent in chorus line synchrony to hungry blues in the 5 to 12 pound range. The setting sun cast a golden sheen upon some two dozen anglers. A rainbow appeared to the east. Rain clouds moved in from the west. And the banzai bluefish bonanza played on. Everyone got well.

Just before sundown, Billy’s bass hit hard. After about a score of bluefish caught and released, Billy hooked into a fish unlike the others. It took the same lure he had been throwing all evening: a white 2 3/8 ounce Super Strike popping plug. The fish attacked about half way through Billy’s retrieve. “I didn’t do anything much different,” he confessed. I worked the lure slowly, and added a slight roll when I popped the plug.” At the strike, Billy knew immediately he was into something different. Something good. Something long-awaited.

THE RAINBOW BASS: A fish for the ages plucked from among a bluefish bonanza; released to swim another day. (pc: Verizon Charlie)

“I felt a thud and the fish took my plug straight down,” Billy recalled. His rod went parallel to the cold Montauk water as the fish used the current to fight hard against Billy’s retrieve. Billy struggled to keep the fish in front of him. Eventually, he saw the its dorsal fin and knew this was no monster bluefish. This was the holy grail. A springtime keeper bass.

The fish was landed, photographed and released. It was neither weighed or measured. But it was certainly 36 inches or more, and well above 20 pounds, likely 25 or more. “It was fat, with girth and a big head,” Billy said. He thinks it was the biggest fish he ever caught.

Legally, that fish had to go back in the drink. New slot rules make it mandatory this year to release any striper more than 35 inches. Billy ordinarily released all his catch, waiting only for that one fish whose imprint would look so good up on his dining room wall. The bad news is that catch will never come thanks to the new law. But the good news is that trophy rainbow bass swims another day to procreate, so that Billy and others can catch and release even more stripers in the seasons ahead. 

PICKET FENCE FISHERMEN: On an early June evening, everyone got well.
IN THE GLOAMING: Neither Montauk’s chilly waters, nor threatening storm clouds stayed these surfcasters from their appointed casts.
SPRINGTIME SUNSET: The fish bite began like someone threw a switch.  (pc: Verizon Charlie)

The Gershwin Breakout Quarantine Blues

May 26th, 2020

“I loves you Porgy.” If bluefish could sing, those would be their lyrics.

After a suffocatingly tedious shelter in place springtime, a month long invasion of tiny trashy sea-bream—baby porgies, in the vernacular— finally attracted big, marauding bluefish into the calm and pastoral tidal marshlands of Eastern Long Island. For surfcasters, May suddenly became a melodramma di mare.

Things got going right on time—Mother’s Day weekend—albeit slowly. Success came to The Faithful in the form of rat-size bass in the rolling surf at Montauk’s Ditch Plains, and 5 to 8 pounds chopper blues plucked out of the swift-moving tidal channel feeding Accabonac Harbor.

SMOKER CHOKER: LeeBob and Broadway Baby Ryder with the erstwhile pool fish of the month.

Then came a rogue snow squall. The action shut down for a few days, leaving the boys with plenty of nuthin.  But by mid-month, they were back in the high cotton. The blues fed relentlessly on those bony little bottom fish. They hit on all tides, and all times of the day and night.  “We could see them finning and if you didn’t get a blow up on your plug on every cast, it was operator error,” said Shubert Alley exile, LeeBob. LeeBob fished different sessions with his Broadway Babies Ryder and Avery. He laid claim to the pool fish of the month—an 11 pounder that nearly choked my smoker box—until Verizon Charlie horsed in a 12 pounder in Montauk on Memorial Day weekend.

VERIZON CHARLIE GETS THE BLUES: Sometimes within 10 fit of shore.

The fish were keen to just about anything thrown at them. But large, loud surface plugs scored the alligators size blues with the most fanfare. It was easy to get their attention with a fast moving pencil popper, which they’d swipe with their tail and then turn a 180 to bite down hard on the lure. You didn’t even need to set the hook; the fish did it all themselves. The blues erupted on the water surface sometimes as close as within 10 feet, according to Verizon Charile.

On a few days Bucktailing Billy Black fished the pre-dawn tide, through brunch, and returned for a late afternoon to sunset session.  Fish-on the whole day through.  “It was classic,” he said with a touch of disbelief.  “You could catch more fish with a metal lure, but I wanted the thrill of the top-water hit.”

BUCKTAILIN’ BILLY BLACK: Chopper blue to the right, extraction pliers to the left.

On—and sometimes off—throughout the month’s schizo weather of summer-like days interspersed with stormy, windy, cold ones, the porgy-gorging blues provided much appreciated quarantine relief on the beach. I even joined in one evening for a bit of “equipment testing (this not being my official fishing season).”  I brought enough treats to trade The Faithful for donations to my fish smoker.  Blueberry cake by the BW, and a few eggplant sandwiches fulfilled my side of the bargain. The season’s first batch of smoked bluefish filets turned out smokey-dokey, if I say so myself. Thank you, gentlemen.

Late May and early June is not exactly summertime, so the fishing is not easy.  And we all know that bluefish and bass are a sometimes thing.  So for the rest of this springtime, I am keeping my distance from the surf as usual, but remain always on the alert for a fish call from the beach. And when it comes, I will respond with no hesitation: “Oh, Lawd, I’m on my way.”

SMOKEY DOKEY: First fresh batch of the season.
FISH ON! Broadway Baby Avery lands an Accabonac bluefish. Click here for video.
SPRINGTIME SURPRISE: Surfcasters, paddle boarders and chopper blues turned pastoral waters into a melodramma di mare.