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Billy’s Bass Among The Blues

Thursday, 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

Tuesday, 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.


Alaskan Silver Salmon: The Bellies of the Feast

Friday, May 8th, 2020

A repurposed pandemic repast (say that three times fast).

SALMON QUEST: The Florette C. out of Seward Harbor, Alaska.

These days of home quarantine, I suspect I’m not alone in my new favorite pastime: freezer diving. I’m digging down deep past all BW’s frozen pastry crusts in search of protein goodies to thaw for dinner. The time for home cooking is now.

Last week, I found some special treats I nearly forgot were in there. In fact, the two packages of flash-frozen silver-salmon bellies that I re-discovered, were originally earmarked for my smoker. Bucktailin’ Billy Black brought them to me from his fishing trip last summer out of Seward Harbor, on the Kenai Penninsula of Alaska. Fish bellies of all sorts usually get relegated to the compost heap in deference to the choice filet or loin parts we mostly favor. But smoking these salmon bellies was a tip Billy picked up at J-Dock Seafood Company, the processor that packaged the fish for his return trip.  And so he thought of me.

SILVER SALMON: A haul from the deep cold waters of Resurrection Bay.

Billy and his wife caught a mess of these 10 to 15 pound beauties trolling for them in deep water. The fishing technique aboard the Florette C. that he described is plainly counterintuitive compared to the type of surfcasting or boat trolling we typically do here in the Northeast. But it’s typical for deep water salmon fishing in Alaska’s Resurrection Bay, and apparently works like a charm.  

Lines went out from the boat weighted down with cannon size lead balls.  The lines had flasher plates attached to attract the fish, “and the lures resembled spiders,” recalled Billy.  The “downrigged” rod stays bent constantly from the weight. When the fish strikes, the rod straightens as the main line pulls free from the clip holding it to the weighted line.  Once that happens “you reel like hell,” says Billy. “These fish fight very well.”

DOWNRIGGER: Counterintuitive trolling.

The crew of the Florette C., is all female, but the fishing party Billy was part of comprised three men and three women who rotated on the rods at predetermined times.  Billy’s wife caught the first fish and they had action for nearly the entire charter.  

Since I haven’t been spending a lot of time with my smoker of late—the bluefish haven’t shown up as yet—the salmon bellies needed to be repurposed.  I found an Asian inspired, pan-roasting recipe that turned out to be easy and delicious. Once thawed, rinsed and dried, I dusted the bellies with some seasoned almond flour, and cooked them skin side down for about 8 minutes in a stainless skillet coated with sesame oil. When the filets got a golden brown crust on the skin side, I flipped them to cook for just one or two minutes more, depending upon the size. 

FLASH FROZEN: When the processors at J-Dock tipped Billy salmon bellies were as worthwhile as filets, he had a bunch packed up and brought them home to me.
FIRST FISH: Mrs. Billy gets things going in Alaska.

I served up the salmon bellies over steamed brown rice, accompanied by a spicy soy-based dipping sauce, with char-roasted broccoli on the side. The sauce had fresh ginger, minced garlic and onion, rice vinegar and dried hot red pepper flakes. Once the fish was plated, I hit it with a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkle of Thai basil, and called it dinner. Yum. Can striped bass bellies be far behind?

Thanks, Billy (and Mrs. Billy).  Now; how about catching up some of those springtime bluefish so the smoker can come out of storage?  My freezer is just about empty.

HOW TO COOK SALMON BELLIES

Wash, rinse and pat the fish dry. Trim off any remaining fins. Dust the fish with corn, almond or any other flour you choose. I seasoned mine with salt, pepper and some five spice powder. Shake off the excess.

In a hot pan or skillet primed with oil — I used sesame oil, but any vegetable, coconut or olive oil will do nicely–sear the fish on the skin side to attain a golden brown crust. Takes about 8 minutes, depending upon the size. Don’t overcook. Flip the fish and cook another two minutes, then remove from the pan.

For the Asian-style dipping sauce, I minced up garlic, onion, ginger and crumbled a hot red pepper. Mix these with soy sauce with a teaspoon or so of rice wine vinegar. You can use any type of vinegar or even lemon or lime instead.

Voila! Dinner is served, garnished with basil, lemon, steamed rice and charred broccoli on the side. And don’t forget the ceramic salmon chopstick rests as well as a favorite cocktail.


OPENING DAY: Spring Stripers Arrive in New York

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

The double-edged sword of April 15.

TEASERS ARE PLEASERS: Fish rose on Easter Sunday to Billy Black’s white flies.

APRIL 15, 2020: This used to be a double-edged calendar date.  It always reminded me of how my good friend Deb L. used to tease her dog Wooty.  Wooty loved taking rides in Deb’s car.  Wooty absolutely hated being washed in the bathtub.  For fun, Deb would say to Wooty: “ Wanna go for a ride….in the bathtub?”

Wooty howled and pranced in clrcles, as flummoxed as a dog could get.

As the traditional IRS tax deadline, as well as the opening date of New York’s marine waters striped bass season, April 15 has sent many a local angler into similar convulsions.  But not this year.  The tax deadline has been pushed well into the future.  And small but hungry bass have arrived in Long Island waters. Grasping desperately for any good news, I hearby declare today is a good April 15.

Last week, a handful of socially distanced surfcasters (they were born that way) waited out high winds and muddy, choppy surf for a crack at the fish which have been making their way up the Atlantic coastline. In a brief window of decent weather on Easter Sunday, just before the Northeast got whacked hard by a Category 1 tropical blow gusting to 75 mph, a pair of the faithful got well.  

FAMILY FISH: Avery (left) reeled in a bunch of bass before the family LeeBob quit for lunch.

Broadway bass man LeeBob had a particularly good day: 9 fish in two sessions. On a south facing ocean beach somewhere west of Montauk, he scored 3 fish in less than an hour at the top of the early tide. Using a 1-ounce buck tail with white otter tail, he had several more morning hits but no hook ups.  His daughter Avery reeled them all in before they quit for lunch at noon.

“Winds were still pretty calm then, SE at only 10mph; 1 to 2 feet of surf, not much white water,  fish in the lip,”  said the man who traded his musical axe for a 10-foot surf stick until the lights come back on Broadway. Later that afternoon, on the outgoing, under blue skies and high wispy cirrus clouds, LeeBob nailed another half dozen hungry juvies.  

AFTERNOON DELIGHT: More hungry juvies before the afternoon turned snotty.

Bucktailin’ Billy Black got a much earlier start, fishing in a light choppy wind starting at daybreak.  The tide was low and so were the air temps, around 32 degrees. But the fish bit hard.  He scored two fish east of Montauk village on teasers; a 17-inch shortie took his white fly trailing a 3/4 ounce buck tail lure.  Then a 24-incher took the fly when he threw a 1 ounce Hogy Paddle Tail soft bait.

As the sun rose, Billy moved west of Montauk and scored a 24-inch fattie with a Mag Darter. “Really hit hard,” he said economically.   Later Sunday afternoon, Billy nailed two more around 22 inches on a 1 ounce buck tail. “The weather got real snotty.” Moving to the north side beaches that evening didn’t produce a bump.

So what of today, the official opener, when every New York angler has a chance to be a legal beagle should a 28-inch keeper fall for his offering? Not to be denied on such an auspicious occasion, LeeBob worked hard, yet for naught. “Been fishing all day but still waiting on my opening day fish. The blow really screwed everything up,” he said as the light faded.

“I fished this AM, reported Verizon Charlie from Up Island. “Zip.”

And you wonder why I don’t wet a line until fall. April 15 is a good day to get my taxes done.

SOCIALLY DISTANCED SURFCASTER: “I got zip,” reported Verizon Charlie.

THE HOLDOVERS: Striped Bass Sheltering In Place

Friday, March 20th, 2020

For some, it’s never too soon to fish.  For us all, it’s later than it’s ever been.

March 20, 2020: The first full day of spring came early. So did the bass. Here on Long Island, pursuit of stripers doesn’t get going until around Mother’s Day, ordinarily. But these are not ordinary times.

And these weren’t ordinary fish. I can’t reveal where it happened, but it wasn’t on the east end, though there have been a few reports of small fish in the back bays near Sag Harbor and even along the ocean surf near Jones Beach.  

And I cannot tell you who is our hero, but it certainly wasn’t me. What I can report is this morning, under warm overcast skies, just about the time the New York City commuter rush should’ve provided bumper-to-bumper background noise, three healthy striped bass tooted the horn of a Broadway trumpeter who’s been off the boards since the Great White Way went dark a week ago.

The largest fish was a 26-incher, two fingers short of a legit keeper. It hit the treble hook on his first cast with a Redfin swimming plug. Rubber shads, false minnows, even shiny metal lures glinting in the unseasonably warm morning sunshine failed to get the job done. But two more bass, a 22- and a 24-incher came up for the Redfin, before the rising-tide shut down the bite. Nearby, two kayakers and a fly fishing boat were on hand to witness the surfside action.

These fish are the holdovers. Striped bass sheltering in place, if you will. They’re 4 to five year old young adults that did not seek winter refuge offshore. They simply stuck around since last year.

Morone Saxatilis are anadromous, meaning they live in salt water but spawn in freshwater river estuaries, like those of the Chesapeake and the Hudson. Older stripers like those caught and released today, have an elaborate migration path–something we grounded humans have good reason to envy these days. They swim away from their cozy upstream spawning grounds in late spring, and travel to summer feeding locations all along the northeast Atlantic coast.  I usually encounter them in the waters near Montauk in the fall, when they start to bulk up for their return trip south to deepwater winter grounds around Cape Hatteras. Then, each spring, they start all over again. Beginning to long for that kind of mobility, are you? 

But some, like these holdover schoolies, simply never leave our local sheltered waters, especially with the recent milder winters.

Officially, striped bass season south of the George Washington Bridge doesn’t open until April 15.  But for some, like our angling horn player, it’s never too soon to fish. And in these strange and troubled times, who knows what will be what three weeks from now.

Merry Fishmas 2019

Monday, December 16th, 2019

December 15 was the last day of the official striped bass season in New York State. From here on, it’s officially the Fishmas Season. And what does any redoubtable surfcaster wish for and dream of during Fishmas?

Keepers, of course!

Herewith—offering suitable apologies to Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys—Big Brother Frank, cara sorella Chaweenee Cecchini, photog St. Toni of The Blitz, and a variety of additional beach accomplices, submit to you our annual Fishmas Card.

Jingle, jingle and tight lines, y’all!

The Keeper Striped Bass

(to the tune of The Little St. Nick)

Well way-out east near the Montauk Light

There’s a tale about some fish

That have eight long stripes

They’re long and they’re broad with a hefty weight

And their size in inches must be 28.

It’s the keeper striped bass (keeper striped bass)!

It’s the keeper striped bass (keeper striped bass)!

Flick a pencil popper out to hook a trophy bass

You’ll find them in the wash near the house of glass

They’re crashing on the bait right at Maidstone Beach

And when we catch ’em up we keep just one each.

Run run striper

Run run bluefish, whoa-oh-oh-oh

Run run albie

Run run striper….we don’t keep schoolies!

We’re castin’ to a blitz in a nor’east blow

With half a dozen sharpies in the undertow

We’re cinching our waders ’cause the surf’s real high

Then we land them on the shore in the blink of any eye.

Oooooooo….

Merry Fishmas, the fall run comes this time each year!

Oooooooo…..

Merry Fishmas, the fall run comes this time each year!

Westward Ho to the Finale

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

Cue the Fat Lady. It’s Over!

The pilgrims did it on the Mayflower.  American pioneers did it in covered wagons. Now Long Island surfcasters are doing it in their Patagonia waders. 

Moving west.

No one comes east to fish the Montauk fall striper run anymore.  Or at least, not by comparison to past years. The days of sustained weeks- or even months-long runs of migrating bass, slashing and attacking bait in the east-end surf, fattening up for their journey south, seem like a dream from the past. For most of this decade, bass blitzes of that sort have been more memory than reality.

This November, weary of reeling in dinks in the south fork surf, more and more, the Faithful plied the south shore beaches “up island.”  Robert Moses State Park, Fire Island National Seashore. Gilgo, Tobay and Jones beaches.

MISTER NOVEMBER: Verizon Charlie hooking up in the surf, “up island.”

One late November Monday—a mild, unseasonably temperate morning—Billy Black, Verizon Charlie and local sharpie, Big Babylon Bob converged for a surfcasting session at Robert Moses. It proved to be a fish-filled day. The tide was just beginning to ebb as the sun peeked above the horizon. The trio was into fish almost immediately. As the sun climbed higher, they  moved further west along the beach on a tip: Bigger fish and more fish in the waters closer to the Democrat Point inlet, which are more turbulent.  Better to stir up the sand eels that were breakfast to the schoolie bass they found.  

BIG MEN, LITTLE FISH: Babylon Bob and Billy Black nailing runts two at a time at Robert Moses State Park.

At first, the fish were in the 22 to 24 inch range.  With the move, they became more plentiful—Big Babylon Bob had three on successive casts initially—and larger.  They scored many doubles. The fish approached LeeBob size. Then VC nailed the holy grail, the fish we sought but was mostly absent this entire season. A 28-inch striper swallowed his homemade feather fly teaser.  An elusive keeper bass was his to savor.

KEEPER MEISTER: Said Verizon Charlie: “If keepers blitz in the surf, I will be there…” And he was.

VC doesn’t keep fish for the table. So you might think that to him, a keeper is no different than any other of the dozens—literally— of fish he had that day,  or the hundreds—yes, he counts them—he’s had all season.  But a keen observer knows the secret behind the smile on his usually stoic Teutonic face. As the fat lady warmed up her pipes, VC was perhaps the most entertained person on the beach.

Hats off to VC. Somebody had to catch one. Couldn’t have happened to a better fisherman.  They left them biting at 1030am.  Cue the fat lady…………..

A Keeper, a Keeper, My Season for a Keeper

Thursday, November 21st, 2019

They were everywhere: East Hampton ocean beaches, Fort Pond Bay, Shagwong Point, Oyster Pond Cove, White Sands. From Montauk in the east to Jones Beach in the west. And everyone — newbie googans to veteran sharpies — was inundated with them. Verizon Charlie had 157 of them in about 6 sessions over two early November weekends. In Sandy Hook, NJ, UPS Richie had 26 of them on a recent Wednesday, then another 49 the following day.

We’re talking about shorts, schoolies, throw-backs; stripers in diapers. Less politely rats or dinks*. These are small, young striped bass you cannot keep; you can only catch and release them (full disclosure: most of the folks I fish with do that anyway, regardless of size. But neither do they cook). If this season was a movie it could easily be a horror flick titled “Attack of the Micro-Bass!”

When the Georgica Cut in Wainscott was cleaved open in early November, it seemed like the recess bell rang at a striped bass nursery school. Juvie fish were in the wash, literally swimming between our legs at times. They took swimming lures, bottom lures, teaser flies, you name it. We caught them on the incoming, the outgoing, the bottom and the top of the tides. Daytime, night time. No relief. But no keepers.

A keeper is a striped bass 28 inches or longer. The size rule is designed to make sure the young survive to propagate for the future. From the surf or from a boat, you only get to take home one keeper bass per day, if you’re fortunate enough to land one. But short bass all have to go back to swim another day.

So this a good thing, sustaining the fishery for the future, right? Sure; “if you like small fish,” quipped one of The Faithful. I have nothing against catching little fish, except for one very important matter. If not a legal keeper, I can’t bring a striper home to put a meal on the table. Thus far this season, I’ve had exactly zero keepers. And in the absence of any bluefish run (that’s a whole other mystery), there’s been a lot of roast chicken and clam chowder gracing my table this fall. My fish smoker is rusting from lack of use.

A lot of my friends and readers are beginning to weary of my whining this fall season. Hey, so am I! Fact is, no one really knows why boaters from Maryland to Cape Cod are slamming 20 and 30 pound fish with regularity since the summer, while keeper bass have clearly turned into an endangered species for surfcasters. There’s no shortage of theories: water too warm, weather too mild, too many storms, Hurricane Sandy altered the shoreline structure. There’s too much bait, there’s not enough bait. And on and on.

Pick your poison, but one thing is for sure: short bass is a trend. And I can’t merely attribute it up to how badly I suck as a fisherman, because I am not alone. Among my closest fishing companions, perhaps a couple of handful of keepers were caught the entire season. Nine that Billy Black nailed one early September evening accounted for the bulk of these. Beyond that happy anomaly, folks who could rightly be called experienced sharpies have been stymied as badly or nearly as much as me.

It wasn’t always thus (Okay, boomer. Here comes the part about the good old days). In 2011, the world’s record striped bass was caught:  81.8 pounds of trophy fish, boated in the Long Island Sound waters off of Connecticut. That fish surpassed the previous record holder, a 78.8 pound striper caught by a surfcaster from an Atlantic City NJ beach jetty on a stormy September night in 1982.

The keeper count on Striperonline is an ideal example. For the 2018 season (this season is technically not yet over), out of 59 striped bass caught, only one was a keeper. In 2017, it was one out of 21. In 2016, a very prolific year, 65 of 136 bass were keepers. And in 2011, while the total catch was smaller, the keeper yield was huge: 57 out of 67. For the record, Striperonline releases ALL fish.

In my case, the trend line has been equally dismal, though my fishing time and record keeping is not nearly as frequent or accurate. I had about a dozen keepers in 2016, a handful in 2017, 3 in 2018, and, as previously noted, a goose egg thus far in 2019.

But, I guess it remains to be said that it ain’t over until it is over. The striped bass season in New York officially ends on Dec. 15. Although the fat lady typically sings for me the weekend of Thanksgiving, I have indeed caught keeper bass in early December. So there’s hope, perhaps? Yeah, like a pink pony under my Christmas tree.

if you have no better way to spend your Christmas holiday, it’s still legal to catch and release fish that may hang around even into the early days of winter. And since the fish then will likely not be any larger than the ones we’re seeing now, you’ll hardly notice the difference so long as your fingers don’t freeze.

*Here’s my litany for the many names of different sized striped bass.

  SIZE MATTERS

RATS or DINKS: Fish that are 12 inches or smaller. More lovingly called micro-bass, juvies or, laughingly, stripers-in-diapers. These fish are only a year old.

SHORTS: The entire class of fish smaller than 28 inches, but generally reserved for those 18 inches or better. Two to 4 year old fish.

SCHOOLIES: In halcyon days of yore, school bass meant fish of legal size, at or slightly below 10 pounds. Today, it is a term used for short bass that are in the 22 to 26 inch range, and 4 or 5 years old.

LEEBOBS: A term that only this year came into the lexicon. It refers to those fish that are just a smidge shy of legal: a 27 incher or maybe one that’s 26-and-a fraction. Coined because our good surfcasting buddy LeeBob has a special talent for finding and hooking these. Estimated age of these fish is 6 years.

KEEPER: A legal striped bass at minimum 28-inches, perhap slightly larger, usually weighing 8 to 12 pounds and 7 to 9 years of age.

TEEN BASS: Indisputable keeper stripers that are usually well over 30 inches, weigh in at around 15 pounds give or take and are believed to be around 10 years old..

QUALITY FISH: A striper of noteworthy size and weight. Usually in the 20 pound range. These fish will be 36 inches or longer, 11 or 12 years old.

COW BASS: A large and heavy fish of 25 pounds or more. Usually fish of this size are 40-inch long females that are 13 to 15 years old.

TROPHY BASS: From the surf these days, a rarely in a lifetime fish 40 to 50 pounds or larger, which can be nearly five feet long, and be old enough to vote, drink and buy cigarettes.

DIDN’T MAKE THE CUT: Amazing Randy with an early November micro-bass at the Georgica cut.
FINGER FISH: Billy Black delicately catches and releases a dink near “the pocket.”
SHRINKING TRENDLINE: Billy Black seemingly catching the same tiny fish this year and last.
DON’T SWEAT THE LITTLE STUFF: LeeBob on an unseasonably temperate morning at Robert Moses State Park.
SNOW BASS: A flurry of shorts during a short flurry of snowflakes for Verizon Charlie.
HANDLE WITH CARE: Short bass in the wash, released to swim another day.
WHY WE FISH: Large fish or small, sunsets in the surf make the day worthwhile.

Whither October?

Friday, November 1st, 2019

September’s promise fizzled badly as we reached the shank of the surfcasting season. Is this to be the fall run that wasn’t?

OCTOBER BLOWS: Three vicious storms took their toll on East End beaches and the fishing prospects during surfcasting’s signature month (click here for video).

They came from afar.  Jeff from North Carolina, Big Brother Frank from California, Ken and Lisa, Steve and Dina from Delaware.  

Even the widely-scattered Red Hill Gang made the pilgrimage —Felix from Florida, Doc from Virginia, Bob from South Carolina. Representatives from Gotham were on hand too: Don Dolce from the upper east side, Broadway LeeBob from the UWS.  They came to this Mecca of surfcasting, Montauk, for the fall run of striped bass and bluefish.

But it never happened.

A small bass here, a rare bluefish there. Some one-and-done schoolie striper blitzes. Essentially, not a run of keepers or Albies to be found all through October, which should have been the shank of the season. Even the professional gill-netting crews working the beaches were flummoxed. With so few bass in their haul, they discarded dogfish and skate along the Napeague stretch in disgust.

NAPEAGUE BEACH MASSACRE: Sand sharks (dogfish) and skate abandoned by gillnet crews dismayed by a lack of more lucrative stripers for their efforts.

Things were so bad even “The Faithful” sought alternatives.  Verizon Charlie fished the North Shore from Port Jefferson to Orient Point. He struggled even there to catch stripers-in-diapers, though he reported sightings of an occasional keeper.  LeeBob hit Robert Moses State Park mid-Island where he had fun-filled sunny mornings catching micro-bass before going on stage. Billy Black fished his secret bay locations and scored some double digit evenings. Amazing Randy and I got well with some small bass early on.  Robo-arm Big Brother Frank returned to the east end with high hopes and his casting wing healed.  It was a good thing he caught fish in the summer, because this fall he only got clams.

PLAN B: Chicken mushrooms in the woods for North Carolina Jeff……..
……GIANT QUAHOGS in the mud for Big Brother Frank and me.

The Delaware crews came and then left town in record time this year. Scarce fish drove North Carolina Jeff to Plan B: ‘shrooming (mushroom hunting) in the East Hampton woods and Montauk dunes. Last I heard, he’s alive and well, but lacking any trophy fish. However, he did go home with a cooler filled with 4 pounds of bluefish filets and 10 pounds of chicken mushrooms.

All this was most puzzling because the ocean was alive with humpback whales, harbor seals, frolicking dolphins and sharks of a dozen varieties. All feasted on acres of bunker bait that had gulls and gannets hunting and diving furiously, and should have attracted the predatory migratory species that we surfcasters await the whole year long. However, the crescendo we all expected after a hopeful September simply did not materialize. The season to date has been an overture without the symphony.

TEEMING OCEAN: Bunker bait that should have attracted game species offered much to diving gulls and gannets, but little to fishermen on the beach (click here for video).

CAPOS GO SURFCASTING 2019

For a few days at least, as summer turned to fall, history happily attempted to repeat itself. The Red Hill Gang of Brooklyn came fishing earlier than usual this year. Good timing; we ran into a few days of small bass blitzing on the north and south side of Montauk.  Doc Charlie the Cat paid the price of a treble hook through his index finger for the short bass he connected wth at the Sewer Pipe, just hours off the plane from JFK. He winced at his wound, but smiled broadly at his catch and kept on casting. He notched one more milestone on his determined quest to be a local sharpie.

RED HILL REDUX: For one morning only, the glory days of the Brooklyn Capos’ annual fishing trip returned.
FISH AT ANY COST: Doc Charlie paid the price of a treble hook through his finger for this shortie bass. But he never lost his smile.

The next day, with a nearly full complement of the Red Hill googans aboard my truck, we chased a splashing school of stripers far into rock-strewn Oyster Pond Cove.  When we couldn’t travel any farther than the beach boulders allowed, we waiting hopefully for the fish to double back in our direction. And they did.  I knew if they came within reach of the water’s edge where we stood, we’d get only a single cast or two at them. So I demanded that everyone hold their cast.  Amazingly, my usually undisciplined buddies complied.  All was quiet. Without warning then, the fish boiled up in the shallow water among the rocks less than 50 yards out from where we stood.  “NOW!” I shouted.  In seconds, everyone of us was fast on a fish.  No keepers, but the nearly decade-long skunk was off for Felix, and Don Dolce.  Bob wouldn’t arrive until the next day. He had to settle for a tailgate lunch on the North Bar as we watched the fish bust water well out of reach.  They never came within range again for the rest of the weekend.

TAILGATE PARTY AT THE NORTHBAR: BBQ wings and cold beers on Montauk’s North Bar took the sting out of a fishless afternoon.

THE FISH TEXT ALWAYS RINGS TWICE

September’s promise carried over to the first Saturday in October. It was early evening, and I was deep into dinner prep with guests expected around 7pm. Suddenly, my phone came alive with a text alert from Verizon Charlie: “Fish blitzing here at Shagwong Point.” I answered with a non-commital, boilerplate message: “Good luck. Catch ‘em up, big guy,” then went back to my chopping and dicing. Five minutes later VC followed up: “Get here NOW!” his text demanded. When the fish text rings twice, woe to those who flout its call. I left instructions for the BW to keep an eye on the eggplant roasting on the grill, suited up in my waders, and took off to the east . “On my way,” I alerted VC.

For the next two hours, the fishing was epic. Thick schools of bass roved in the wash an easy cast off Gin Beach, Shagwong Point, and into Oyster Pond Cove. VC and I tossed bucktail lures at them—the fish eschewed any others—and caught schoolie after schoolie for nearly two hours. VC had 30 fish or more. I had about a baker’s dozen. Nothing large enough for the table, but an old time blitz of fat, feisty fish here, there, everywhere. We left them biting in the wash at dark.  When I returned home, the eggplant was a burnt mass of charcoal. Small price to pay.

“JUST LIKE THE GOOD OLD DAYS:” Perhaps an exaggeration, but two hours of non-stop schoolies at Shagwong was as good as it got this October (Click here for video).

OCTOBER’S BIG BLOWS

Before the 2nd week of October was gone, two massive nor’easters tore up the east end beaches.  And a third blow, a stormy, somber sou’wester on Halloween, shut down the fishing hard for two days or more each time. Times like these are why God invented clamming, I tell myself. 

As the month waned and new moon tides surged, there was no sign of a recovery.  October was for all practical purposes a bust on the east end. Interestingly, water temperatures remained above normal, leading some pundits to theorize that we’re still in a summer bite.  The big fish are simply not sufficiently incentivized to furiously feed for their winter journey south. That’s fishologist-speak for break out the golf clubs.

So, is November the new October? Is the fall run moving to December?  Or are the good old days gone for good? I guess anything is possible in these times of climate chaos. Even the forecast for the coming scallop season is morose. . Let me get another look at that clam rake.

WHO’S THAT GUY WITH THE SCHOOLIE? “Hey, mister, leave that fish alone!”
SECRET BEACH: In secluded bays, Billy Black has been known to have double-digit catches in the dark of night.
BEHOLD THE RARE BLUEFISH: A gorilla the likes of which we seldom saw this October. The fish, I mean; not the fisherman.
BROADWAY BASS MAN: LeeBob and company have more fun per fish-pound than anyone else on the beach.
WHO SAYS THERE’S NO KEEPERS IN MONTAUK? A couple of 30-plus pounders kept hopes alive for stalwart surfrats.
JUNE SWOON: Before he left the beach for the injured reserved list, BBF was a cocktail bluefish’s worst nightmare.


FishTales 2019: So It Begins

Monday, September 16th, 2019
The Fall Surfcasting season ticks towards its onset as a Good News/Bad News story.
SEASON’S GREETINGS: Amazing Randy and I got well in an “old time religion” blitz of schoolie bass under the Montauk Lighthouse.

GOOD NEWS: The weather is fair, mild and dry. Perfect for wading in the surf in a bathing suit or light waders.

BAD NEWS: The weather is fair, mild and dry; Stripers like it tumultuous.  We need a snotty storm to perk up the bite.

GOOD NEWS: Plenty of bait in the waters, bayside and in the ocean.

BAD NEWS: So far, not much on that bait except big ass seals, dolphins, sharks and blue whales.

GOOD NEWS:  Hurricane Dorian didn’t cause much beach erosion.

BAD NEWS: Hurricane Dorian didn’t lower the water temperature much, delaying the bite.

GOOD NEWS: Getting lots and lots of “fish reports” to chase.

BAD NEWS: Most of those chases turn out to be fools’ errands.

GOOD NEWS: At least we haven’t missed the bite yet.

BAD NEWS: The bite hasn’t started yet.

GOOD NEWS: Montauk is not that crowded with fishermen so far.

BAD NEWS: There’s a season opener Surfcasting Tournament this weekend, which means combat fishing conditions if the bite breaks loose.

GOOD NEWS: Amazing Randy and I got into an “old time religion” bass blitz under the bluffs at Montauk Point at dusk this evening. 

BAD NEWS:  There ain’t no bad news in this case.

VC and Billy the Priest searched mostly in vain for the fish—including elusive albes—all weekend long.  Big Brother Frank is out of the game this year, nursing a busted wing back to health on the West Coast by charting LA Dodgers pitch counts. He’ll be missed.

GOOD NEWS FOR BBF: Big Brother Frank teaching bluefish the meaning of life in the surf at Shagwong, before his busted wing took him out for the season.

Amazing Randy, who sat out most of the weekend follies dining on porterhouse medium rare, responded early on Monday to the fish reports touting hard hitting bass at Turtle Cove.  The morning was a disappointment, but the afternoon shined.  Randy got a head start on me arriving at the Sewer Pipe around 430pm. He scored about a half dozen blues and bass there, reporting: “All the fish you want at Camp Hero.” He had one striper to 30 inches. Meanwhile, I was en route, fielding and retweeting fish reports from LeeBob, who was first at home on the UWS, but continued to relay and receive reports while onstage on Broadway.  Talk about multitasking. 

I arrived at Turtle Cove—the gates are finally open to the approach road—at 530pm, only to watch the blitzing bass pass me by. Around the Lighthouse Jetty they went.  So did we. Randy and I intercepted the blitz under the bluff near Scott’s Hole

It was old time religion: fish busting in the rolling waves, finning in the rocks as the tide began to build. We each brought in a half dozen schoolies and had many many more strikes and drops. A rock jockey swam out to a boulder right in front of us. We had to cast left and right of him, so the fish we nailed played us into and around the rock piles, which didn’t do our braid line much good. Randy had one quality fish. My biggest was only about 25 inches. All our fish were over 22 inches. I had some on a green teaser fly—and one “duble!!!” All the rest, to my visual delight, exploded on top, hitting a blue Super Strike. We left them biting at dusk.

The Red Hill Capos are due here in a few days and they will appreciate the Good News about the weather. Most are not here for the fishing, anyway. But for those who are, hopefully, the Good News about the bite will continue to improve.

Bad News? LeeBob! Where are you?

LET IT BE WRITTEN: Move over Alabama. Time for the Montauk “sharpie” fishing forecast.