Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Among the Bunker and the Breakers

Sunday, October 9th, 2022
PERSONAL BEST: 25-plus pounds; A hair under 40-inches. Released to swim and thrive and breed another season. Bring on the fall run!

Stripers for Santiago in the Big Blow

Wednesday, October 5th, 2022

Once a year, Doc Catalano ventures to Montauk, conjuring up a surfcasting fantasy based on Hemingway’s hapless hero, the age-weary fisherman, Santiago. This time, Doc’s dream came true.

“First fish, biggest fish, most fish.” That’s the friendly betting pool we concoct each time the Red Hill Gang, my Brooklyn buddies of yore, gather on the East End of Long Island for our annual Montauk surfcasting weekend. 

We don’t take the wager too seriously. Most of these guys are googans–surfcasting neophytes–who come more for the meals cook at my Amagansett hideaway, and the poker games that follow.  But a little skin the game spurs on those who like to reel in more than merely a fish; particularly, Doc Catalano.

The Red Hill fall gathering has been an annual event for the last fifteen years, with one unfortunate interruption during the height of COVID in 2020.  This year, however, we had a bare minimum of participants. Illness and injuries of various sorts, prevented the attendance of Bobbie A. of the Carolinas, Vinny D. of California, and Felix F. of Florida. It was a sober reminder of our inevitable aging —the ugly underbelly of those sixty-year-old halcyon remembrances of Brooklyn Tech, Abraham Lincoln HS, Chick’s Pool Room, Our Lady of Grace Church, and the eponymous Red Hill hangout on East Fifth Street.

FARM FRESH: A lightning round of veggie picking at Quail Hill Co-Op.

But neither age, the threat of Hurricane Ian, nor a 500-plus mile drive north from Virginia with his wife Marci Pants, put the slightest crimp in Cat’s exuberance for this year’s event. He made an obligatory family call at his sister’s house in Staten Island, then scooped up “Don Signori” Dolce–The DreamKiller–in Manhattan for a traffic-maddened final trek east to my beach house in Amagansett. 

When this abbreviated duo of Red Hill Gangsters arrived, I shanghaied them for a lightning round of vegetable picking at the cooperative Quail Hill community farm. Their reward was a seaside picnic lunch at Fort Pond Bay —choice of home-smoked bluefish or farm-fresh caponata sandwiches. Then it was time to fish.

Or at least, it was time to find the fish. Surfcasting is as much about hunting as it is about casting and catching.  More so, it is about timing.  It is a very low percentage sport, which makes the rare successes that much more satisfying. Would there be fish to be caught on the beach this weekend? The fish would have to come to us, and we’d have to be where they showed up and be ready if and when they did. After all, we are not boaters. Only once—in 2008—had the Red Hill Gang walked into a full-throated, all-out weekend-long blitz of non-stop surf fishing. Keepers in the cooler for all hands that year. It was enough of a bonanza to keep The Red Hill Gang coming back year after year.  But not always triumphantly. 

For 2022, the September trend lines were moving in the right direction. There had been a steady increase of bass and bluefish catches here and there. But the fall run had hardly developed.  I was hopeful we were on the verge of a favorable change with a hurricane-spawned nor’easter barreling up the Eastern Seaboard.  A hard blow, accompanied by a reduction in water temperatures, could cue this season’s first act. Even the absentee Red Hill Gang members were optimistic. Betting the First Fish, Most Fish, Biggest Fish pool remotely, they made Cat the morning line favorite.

CALM BEFORE THE STORM: A blazing sunset over placid waters.

I smiled smugly at their sentimental choice.  Though he fishes con brio on these trips, at home, Cat spends far too much time on the golf course to be healthy for any normal person, let alone a wanna be surf fishing sharpie. Plus, I had a pretty good sense of Cat’s fishing prowess since I introduced him to the sport in the mid 1960s. Back then, we rode the Ave. U. bus to Sheepshead Bay, bought a bag of hard shelled clam bait from Mike’s Tackle Shop on Emmons Ave., then schlepped on foot to Plumb Beach to cast for eels on a sandy inlet beneath a Belt Parkway overpass.  Considering his lack of success then, I was certain he’d be happy return my surf stick and get reacquainted with his pitching wedge by the end of the weekend.

For the moment, however, properly fed and suitably outfitted, casting on placid Montauk waters in a blazing September sunset, Cat was swathed in his alter ego state as Hemingway’s Santiago.  Bait fish were popping up so frequently, that even Don Dolce got out of the truck to cast a line.  Hook ups were not to be, however, and we retired for early cocktails, a dinner of rigatoni with red sauce and eggplant parm, and vows to hit the surf hard, fresh, and early in the morning.

On Friday, we were joined by some of the other Fishing Faithful—Billy Black, Big Brother Frank (BBF), Verizon Charlie, and the irrepressible Broadway Bassman, LeeBob.  The weather was mild. The water was placid. The fish were cooperative. With little fanfare, Cat scored “First Fish” with a schoolie striper of under five pounds.  The pressure was off. No skunk on the Cat.  With that, another traditional reward was in order: coffee and crumb cake at the Montauk Bakery.

TRADITIONAL MONTAUK BREAKFAST: Crumb cake for the Fishing Faithful.

The weather began to deteriorate as the remnants of Hurricane Ian marauded north bringing rain, wind and white water surf to Long Island. We searched and fished all the usual hot spots throughout the rest of the day and a few small fish were caught, but not by the Red Hill Gang. Don Dolce and I quit early to prep a chicken for roasting before the rain got too serious.  But at sunset, we shifted to dinner-plan B. LeeBob donated a 12-pound keeper bass for our evening meal.  I chopped up a fresh salsa dressing of parsley, peppers, garlic and tomatoes picked at the farm, fired up the grill and roasted the fillets along side some Quail Hill new potatoes. I don’t know the last time I cooked and served a fish as fresh—barely two hours from the sea to my table.

BASS MAN LEEBOB DELIVERS: A donation for our table.

Saturday morning dawned snotty and mean.  Winds were 20-mph plus; gusts half that much again, and the rain pelted sideways. There was flooding, beach erosion, boats run aground. The East End of Long Island was firmly in the grip of a classic fall nor’easter.   I had already received notice from my visiting “googs” they would be sleeping in. BBF also took a pass on the morning. So I was solo. It wasn’t a hard choice to simply return to the scene where LeeBob had scored his keeper the night before.  It was sort of a default spot which had consistently produced fish for us in previous weeks, on both incoming and outgoing tides; at daybreak and after sunset. 

Mostly, I wanted a sense of just how horrible the conditions would be later in the day for my googs. I found out in a hurry that this would be no typical day at the beach.  But I got lucky in less than thirty minutes, hooking into a 10-pound fish which I fought to submission through the rain and fast running tide. It measured up at a whisker over 29 inches–a keeper. I plunked it into the cooler and called in the cavalry.  By the time Verizon Charlie and Billy Black showed up, I was climbing in my truck, soaked, happy, and heading for home to whip up breakfast for my guests.  The day seemed to be shaping up as an indoor poker fest. And if we had to batten down for the storm, at least I had checked the second box: “Biggest Fish.”

BIGGEST FISH: For a heartbeat, this Saturday morning keeper was tops.

Late to rise, but fueled with fresh coffee and a homemade western omelette, Cat was un perturbed by the wind and the rain he saw outside my dining-room window.  With an escape clause—“You’ll bring me back if I want to quit, right?”— we suited up in waders and waterproof tops, then headed for another beach which had been producing fish now and then, expecting to find a whitewater paradise in the blow.

Seeing the wind whipped waves of Block Island Sound, DreamKiller Dolce pronounced, “If I was a fish, I’d be as far out in the deep blue sea as possible.” But, in fact, the opposite is mostly true.  Striped bass fishing from the surf is typically inversely proportional to the niceties of the weather. The nastier, the sloppier, the wilder, the wetter—the better.  

If you have the heart and stamina for it, a nor’easter can result in fishing days of miracle and wonder. And so this day turned out to be. Cat and I fought our way out of the truck to the water’s edge.  It had to be blowing 25-mph directly at us, with gusts over 30-mph. In surf barely knee high, the waves and the wind kicked Cat’s ass.  His lure was kiting high up in the air, barely getting out twenty yards.  But he was completely enlivened by the elements, howling expletives at the stinging rain, which got swallowed up by the deafening wind. Despite air pummeling, I was stunned we didn’t catch a fish on that beach.  I successfully punched through the wind enough times to effect a decent retrieve. The clean, foamy surf should have produced strikes.  Where were the fish? It was time to move with the tide to find them. 

Shagwong Point when we go there was a literal sandstorm. Don Dolce never suited up and remained in the warm dry confines of my truck which was rocking in the gale.  But Cat was again into the surf without hesitation, his morning ambivalence replaced by afternoon gusto.  I didn’t share his confidence.  The storm, if it continued, could shut us down by churning up the water too much. And the beaches we drive on were fast washing away. This could be last chance for fame and glory.   

But on my first cast I raised a fish; a hit and a miss.  My hope was renewed. As I started to get the cast and retrieve right, I saw bait sprays pursued by predators. “We could get well here,” I thought. 

SANDSTORM AT SHAGWONG: My truck was rocking in the wind.

Then a strike.  I nailed a cocktail bluefish of about three pounds.  Then another. After a while, a third.  Bluefish for the smoker; or perhaps a piquant marinara sauce. At the very least, another box checked for me:  “Most Fish.”

Meanwhile, the wind was besting Cat.  A change in tactics was in order.  I switched up his lure to a bone white Super Strike “heavy” for more oomph.  I moved him a ten yards closer to the rip off Shag’s promontory.  And I did my best to explain the key to keeping his lure from foundering on the breaking waves. 

Weary-eyed, rain dripping from his unshaven cheeks and chin, his head sheathed in a tightly drawn hood worthy of a schoolchild in a snowstorm, he nodded his understanding and went back to cast some more.  I felt like Angelo Dundee sending out Muhammad Ali for the 15th round against Joe Frazier. This could end badly.

But Cat began snapping off casts sharply into the teeth of the wind.  They didn’t all go very far, but they didn’t have to.  The bait was in the washing machine churn close to shore. With perserverence–and luck–we’d find quality fish there too.  

ENLIVENED BY THE ELEMENTS: Casting to a fish for the ages.

Cat’s retrieve was tight and showy in the whitewater. With one, Cat adroitly kept his lure popping as it slid down the backside of a cresting wave. Suddenly, a fish crashed lure’s tail hook with a mighty splash. Down went Cat’s rod tip. Up went his eyebrows. He held fast and bellowed above the gusty gale:  “Fish On-n-n-n-n!”

“Good for him,” I sighed silently. And then I caught a look at his rod: seriously bent.  This was no cocktail bluefish. He was into something big; likely a proper fish of at least 28-inches.  This would be his first keeper bass in many many years if he brought it in. But the fish didn’t budge. Foul hooked, I feared. Sometimes, if a fish swipes at a lure but doesn’t bite it, the fish gets snagged midsection.  Dragging a fish of any size that way through the surf is akin to hauling an engine block with a bungee cord. Often, it’s a broken line and a dropped fish waiting to happen.

Then the fish flapped its broom-like fantail in the wash and we saw it; ginormous.  Its head came up next—the size of a large dog.  “Oh my, oh my. Cat may have a fish for the ages!” I thought. The fish was properly hooked, but kept taking line.  Cat was forced to walk towards the fish as it swam with the current, struggling to break free. He was losing the battle.

ABOVE THE SLOT LIMIT: Head like a large dog and a broad broom-size fantail.

Another fisherman, 30 yards down the beach, watched the breaching fish grapple his way. He gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.  We knew then Cat had a trophy fish, if it didn’t get away. If Cat’s line tangled with that other angler, no one would be happy—not even the fish.

It was time to take drastic action.  I tightened the drag on Cat’s reel.  The fish would no longer have leeway to pull line off the spool. Cat would have to stand firm against the fish using skill and brute force. He’d have to “horse it” as we sometimes say. “Pull back on your legs, lift up your shoulders,” I coached. “Keep your rod tip up, then reel like mad on the way down. Don’t give the fish any slack at all.” Fingers crossed the line would hold. Rinse and repeat.

Cat was going to stay with that fish until one of them was dead.  It was my job to make sure neither happened. After some heroic cranks by Cat, I was able to grab hold of his leader and drag the fish above the water line.  Cat was spent. So was the fish.  Lying still on the beach, it was immediately obvious, this bass was a slob beyond keeper size.  It was well above the slot limit of 35 inches.  It would not be anyone’s dinner, nor the subject of an artistic Japanese fish print, which was another part of Cat’s dream. This Moby striper would be released. 

There was just enough time to photograph it, and return it to the sea. The fish had been hooked clean through the fleshy part of the jaw, so it did not bleed. We never touched it with bare hands. Freed, it swam away strong. It would thrive and breeding again.

And just like that, in real-time Hemingwayesque, fish-of-a-lifetime style, Cat checked the final box: Biggest Fish! Santiago lives!

GINORMOUS: Santiago lives and his 25 pound catch was epic!

Epilogue:  There was a bona fide surfcasting tournament going on in Montauk during this year’s Red Hill Gang weekend, one of many which occur throughout the fall fishing season.  Neither I nor my Fishing Faithful coterie fish competitively. Cheers to those who do, but it’s not our thing.  However, if Cat had been part of the tournament–in which some of the most hard core sharpies fish through the most fearsome conditions, on the most precarious jetties and boulders, in the highest and roughest surf–he would have fared quite well.  Second place, in fact, with his 39.5 inch, 25-pound striper.  An epic catch indeed.

TOURNAMENT FISHING IN MONTAUK: Days of miracle and wonder for surfcasters. PC: North Bar Media

MERRY FISHMAS 2021

Friday, December 24th, 2021

December 24, 2021: It’s snowing out today, Christmas Eve. A White Christmas is upon us here in the Northeast. A touch of hope and cheer for this Holiday Season, which otherwise would be troubled and wearisome.

At least the surf fishing season had moments that were merry and bright. We’ve had better years in the catching department, but nothing topped 2021 on the people chart. Daughter and son Diane and Daniel fished with me in the spring. The Red Hill Gang returned to fish in the fall. And the all-season-long highlight was Brother Frank’s return to the East End surf from California. Happily, BBF and I once again present our annual Fishmas Card, appropriate for these stormy times. Stay happy, stay healthy, stay safe. Jingle jingle, ya’ll.

-Fred & Frank

OH THE STRIPERS IN THE SURF ARE BLITZING,

BUT THE WEATHER OUTSIDE IS SPRITZING

SINCE WE’VE NO PLACE TO GO

LET IT BLOW, LET IT BLOW, LET IT BLOW

IT DOESN’T SHOW SIGNS OF STOPPING

AND OUR LURES ARE RIGHT FOR POPPING

BASS ARE HITTING US HIGH AND LOW

LET IT BLOW, LET IT BLOW, LET IT BLOW

IF WE FINALLY LOSE THE BITE

THE BIGG’UNS ARE SURE TO BE GONE

BUT IF WE READ THE TIDE JUST RIGHT

ALL SEASON LONG WE’LL BE ON!

THE SUN IS SLOWLY RISING

AND AT LAZY, THE WEAKS SURPRISING

INTO THE WIND WE WILL THROW

LET IT BLOW, LET IT BLOW, LET IT BLOW!

FRIENDS AND FAMILY FROM AFAR: Red Hill Gang goes surfcasting

Fishing The Nor’easter—Or Not

Wednesday, October 27th, 2021

Sometimes I do it just to remember why I don’t do it

To ordinary people—sane people—storms like the one that battered the northeast coast this week mean cancelled airline flights, flash flooding, water in the basement, animated deck furniture and all sorts of other inconvenience, mayhem, even danger.

But surfcasters on Long Island’s East End rarely fit the description of ordinary people. And certainly never during a classic fall nor’easter. To surf fishermen, a big mid-season October blow is like a snow day to a school child: perfectly marvelous conditions to go out and play.

Big wind and driving rain conventionally mean fish close to shore.  It’s often not possible to cast far when the beach faces into the teeth of double-digit wind speeds. But in a nor’easter, on the right beach, it may not be necessary. Striped bass—big stripers—will be chasing bait into the white frothy wash.

Personally, fishing a nor’easter is like how I feel about fast food. When I eat it, I don’t really like it. But when I don’t have it for a while, I think I miss it. So, as if giving in to a misguided yen for a McDonald’s hamburger, I found myself trekking out to Montauk in the mid-week blow, just to remember why I don’t do it anymore.

Mind you, I used to.  Frequently.  When I was much younger. Stronger and more agile? Most likely. Less wise and more reckless? Without doubt.  Like the time I fished on the jetty directly beneath the Montauk Point lighthouse with wind-driven waves crashing the rocks below during an incoming night tide.  There was a handful of surfcasters scattered fifty feet apart, casting in the dark from treacherously slippery boulders. We caught fish on virtually every cast.

All seemed well until a rogue wave slammed the granite groin, splashed up, and about a ton of water whacked me full frontal. I got knocked back from my perch and wound up flat on my back, soaked, in pain, and unable to move.  As I struggled to catch my breath, imagining permanent paralysis, a distant voice from an unseen caster to my right called out in the night, “Are you okay?”

I summoned the strength to answer weakly, “Not really,” hoping he’d come to my aid. Maybe he didn’t hear me. Or maybe hearing me was good enough.  He didn’t come. He just kept casting and catching. After some very long minutes, I was able to slowly drag myself off the rocks, climb into my truck and drive home.  I made sure to take my fish with me, despite two cracked ribs.  My certain death would not be from lack of protein.

Another time–same location, similar storm conditions–I repeated this folly.  I had a friend along who had much better sense and did not leave the vehicle. Rather, Ron watched me hurl cast after cast fruitlessly into the deep dark Montauk tidal rip. I got skunked, but not hurt.  The next day, in a local tackle shop, my friend and I overheard two local sharpies deriding “some damned fool who was throwing lures in forty mph winds under the light.” We slinked out of the shop, remaining anonymous. But I also thought it noteworthy that Ron and I were not alone out there in the honking wind. Those witnesses were kindred spirits to this storm fishing madness.

BEACH CLOSED: NYS Parks Department shut down vehicle access to its beaches when the wind drove water up to the dune grass.

This week, my strategy was much more, ahem, reasonable. I rose at oh-dark-hundred, as I had every morning this season—the bite being best in the dark, before dawn, or after sunset. A quick read of the wind –already at twenty mph, due east–helped me determine there was only one place to go: Montauk Point, aka Mecca.

Rain was beginning to fall—sideways—and the forecast was for conditions to go downhill throughout the day. I justified my sojourn with the false promise that I’d just take a look. The wind would be horrible, the rain would be pelting, and no one in their right mind would be fishing. I’d be back in my truck and home to boil some farm eggs for breakfast before the BW was out from under the duvet.

However, when I arrived at False Bar, there was one caster already in the water, Justin from Ridge. The last time Justin and I fished together, earlier in the month, slot-size stripers blitzed Gin Beach, coming literally within spitting distance. I was casting that bright, windless Indian summer day barefoot and in shorts. But this morning, Justin was geared up in waterproof waders, knobby-soled boots, and a hooded Gore-Tex anorak. This would be no day at the beach.

The end of the outgoing tide left little water on the bar, but the wind pushed some in, which made up for the lack of distance on Justin’s casts. It was still dark and I watched the every which way waves beat him up in only calf-deep water. Justin was getting his ass kicked, but something else was happening: his rod was bent–over and over again. Justin nailed a fish on every cast!  “Fuck!” I said audibly in my empty and wind-rocked truck.  I knew then I’d have to get out and try.

WIND ON THE WATER: Gusts in Montauk hit hurricane levels during the recent nor’easter.

I too was clad in waders and boots, but my waterproof top was anything but.  It was more like the kind of windbreaker one might wear walking the dog in a shower on the Upper West Side. City slicker?

The minute I stepped out of my vehicle, I knew I was in for a very wet whupping. I held onto my door as I opened it, struggled to get my nine foot rod down from the roof rack, and cautiously made my way to the water’s edge. I dared not go more than ten feet into the waves—every slimy coconut-size rock on the False Bar is a broken ankle waiting to happen.

I threw a 1.5 ounce white bucktail lure as hard and as straight as I could. I was thirty yards to the right of Justin and the east to west sweep was so vicious that I had to reel like mad after each cast to pick up the wind slack, and keep my bowing line from crossing his.  On my sixth cast, a striper fifteen yards out broke water, slashed left to right—against the wind and current—and inhaled my lure. The braided line went taut. I was on.

MONTAUK NORTHSIDE: Mecca for surfcasters, especially in an autumn nor’easter storm.

Though the fish didn’t strike far out, it used the wind-blown current to fight hard for freedom.  I eventually prevailed and this schoolie bass was released.  By this time, dawn had broken, revealing a wild white-capped seascape beneath thick gray rain clouds.  The wind had intensified. Gusts were near hurricane strength, driving rain down my collar, soaking my upper body to the skin. 

The fish bite stopped.  It may have been the light, maybe the end of the tide, or perhaps the fish were scared off the bar by the seal which popped up in the surf giving Justin and I a sideways look that seemed to say are you guys for real?  Whatever the reason, the fishing was over; temporarily for Justin, for the rest of the week for me. I had my taste of the Montauk fall nor’easter. I expect it will be a while before I want to experience it again.  Maybe next season. 

Or, next month?

BAREFOOT BIRTHDAY KEEPER: Surfcasting the way we want it to be.

9/11: Disbelief on a Beautiful September Day

Thursday, September 9th, 2021
I recall that 9/11/2001 was one of those happy September conspiracies of late summer warmth and a radiantly crisp blue sky. I grooved on the weather, how good it looked and felt, wishing I was fishing at the beach, even as I headed downtown to a business meeting.  It’s that gorgeous sky, marred so horribly by the smoke, flames, death and destruction, which I remember most. And ever since, I’ve not been able to savor a tender September morning without sad longing for the way beautiful days existed before 9/11.  What follows is a memoir I published that fateful day.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: The digital clock above the entrance to Penn Station read 9:08 a.m. I was uncharacteristically early for a meeting near Battery Park in lower Manhattan. Biding my time at the Long Island Railroad station, I went street side to a bank, and then attempted a cell phone call or two. The calls did not go through. 

I thought little of it. Two emergency vehicles zoomed south on Seventh Avenue.  That didn’t seem unusual, either. Then one police cruiser sped past furiously weaving and dodging traffic with tires squealing on the turns.

I typically rode the IRT subway downtown from Penn to Rector Street, emerging literally in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers.  But at the Fourteenth Street station, service was terminated because of an “explosion downtown.” I switched to a local train across the track and, as it left the station, the conductor announced all passengers would have to exit at Chambers Street because of a “police action.” I contemplated how far I’d have to walk and congratulated myself for being ahead of schedule. But in the back of my mind, the image of that police cruiser and the sounds of sirens wailing at street level awakened an ominous fear.  

A horrible reality revealed itself as I emerged at Chambers and West Broadway. I was five blocks north of what was rapidly devolving into hell on earth. Dead ahead, the Twin Towers reached imperiously into a remarkably clear and brilliant September sky. I heard myself whisper: “My God!” With utter disbelief, I stared at thick black smoke billowing forth from a gaping multi-story wound high up on the north tower.

I could see the second tower also ablaze. Fire was visible within the building’s torn facade. At times, the flames emerged, licking three or four stories of the exterior. My eyes kept returning to the north face of tower number one. About eighty-five stories up, there was a huge triangular wound, perhaps 10 stories tall. It easily measured half the building’s width. Whatever ripped through that wall had definitely done so by entering it–not by exploding from within. I thought missile; a very large missile.

On the street, the stream of emergency vehicles was unrelenting. In ten minutes I counted no less than 30 ambulances, fire engines, police vans and cruisers as well as unmarked cars, speeding downtown toward this disaster unfolding a few blocks south. The streets were crowded with pedestrians who stood, as I did: awestruck, motionless, necks craned upward in silent, hypnotic horror. We were numb with the knowledge that we were witnessing a real life version of Towering Inferno.

My cell phone was useless and customers lined up a dozen deep for pay phones. Police officers began running north on the avenue, shouting for everyone to “get back, get back.” A cry went up from the crowd as we hastily retreated north without really knowing what we were running from. It was  9:45 a.m. 

I stepped into a corner deli and viewed a television news account explaining that two hijacked airliners had crashed into the twin towers and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth was crashed on the ground in rural Pennsylvania. On the screen was the same otherworldly view that held my eye-witness gaze on the street. Smoke and flames poured from the World Trade Center buildings in an eerie silence. On TV it seemed like a science fiction movie. Outside in the street, it most obviously was not.

I could only conjure questions as I returned to stare at the horror, which had no resolution. Were there passengers on those airliners? Certainly. Was there any warning before the crashes? Probably not. Was this the work of suicide terrorists? Without doubt. How could such an enormous and murderous plot be orchestrated? Whoever did this aimed to achieve major destruction and a multitude of death using the greatest of willful hate, uncommon malice, and elaborate planning. They didn’t come to bunt.

Pieces of the buildings steadily peeled away into the cobalt blue sky. Some plummeted to the ground. Other debris gently floated downward, almost poetically.  I learned later that some of what fell to earth was human beings. The viciously hot fire that continued to grow and consume the skyscrapers made a death leap preferable to roasting alive.  

The oily odor of the smoky fire filled my nose.  The chalky white dust that descended to the ground stuck to my sweaty forehead. Emergency vehicle sirens of every type screeched a loathsome soundtrack. The crowd remained mostly calm and quiet, transfixed by the unholy image of these majestic buildings slowly incinerating. Like me, I was sure, they were consumed by private thoughts of dismay, confusion and fear. How many people were in the buildings? How many were able to escape? What was the evacuation like? What had become of my colleagues? Were they okay?  Were they in harm’s way? Our meeting was to have begun just then. It was 10 a.m.

That’s when the unimaginable happened. As if in slow motion, the upper part of the south tower began to collapse. A deep rumble sounded as twenty or more of the uppermost floors compressed with only the slightest tilt. It seemed as if the steel framework simply melted. My mind raced with hope that the top would simply fall away. But with a quickening pace, the building literally compressed beneath the weight of its upper third. In seconds, smoke and dust plumed upward and the tower disappeared. The roar of its destruction increased in volume and pitch and the crowd gasped. Cries and wails quickly followed. 

In great haste, the crowd retreated uptown on the avenue. We were followed by a wall of dirty white smoke and dust some 10 to 15 stories high that filled the street canyons north of the tower. I stopped two blocks north, close to Franklin Street, and looked back. The North tower stood alone. Debris filled the air. Smoke and dust swirled where there was once a skyscraper. Surely nothing remained but rubble and carnage below. How many firefighters and policemen speeding to the scene in the last hour, were caught in the collapse? Nausea overcame me and I gulped for breath that I could not find. Tears welled in my eyes. This could not be happening.

I remained numbly in place as the crowd streamed by, crying openly or shouting invectives. “Lord help us. Lord help us,” said one weak and wobbly woman who would have collapsed but for the support of two companions. “Now we’ll see; now we’ll get them; now we’ll see,” one man repeated as he marched in a brisk, long-stepped pace, a tense grimace on his face. As if stumbling late to a sporting event, a middle-aged man asked me in halting English: “The small tower, it fell down?” 

“Yes,” I answered, not bothering to explain the optical illusion that led him to believe the towers were of different height. It was no longer relevant. But mostly, the crowd was silent as they trooped uptown; somber, like war-ravaged refugees deserting a bombed-out village. Weren’t they?

I continued to redial my cell phone, hoping to get through to my family, my office, and my colleagues who were somewhere near ground zero. Nothing. Fighter jets occasionally passed overhead. A helicopter danced dangerously close to the flaming tower. My eyes stayed glued to the remaining tower and I wondered if it too was doomed. The smoke thickened and poured more heavily from the top of the building. I guessed that the roof was breached.

Like blood from a mortal wound, a huge cloud of black smoke suddenly belched from the gash in the north building. It was clear that the second tower was going down. The gleaming communications antenna above the 110th floor had remained visible all morning; a brave, war-torn standard. Now, it tilted and sank into the smoke as a ship’s mast might surrender to the sea. A sickeningly familiar whoosh and rumble, the signal of a skyscraper consuming itself, repeated. The semi-solid smoke and dust rose in a fountain-like spray, arcing like leaves of a hideous giant houseplant. The blinding cloud reached ever higher as the building’s mass simply evaporated below. One long steel pillar remained staggering. I rooted for it as a symbol of survival, a sign that all was not lost, that the incomprehensible destruction I had witnessed in little more than an hour was not total. Then the beam wavered, collapsed, and was gone.

I looked on. But where the sky once had been backdrop to two glorious landmarks of New York’s grandeur, there was only air. Dirty, tomblike air. Emptiness filled my view. I bowed my head and turned to walk north, joining the throng in sad silence.

It was 10:28 a.m.

The Alex Chronicles: Farewell To A Friend

Friday, 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

Thursday, 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

Sunday, 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

Thursday, 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

Friday, 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.