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Size Matters: A Keeper Slot Fish in the Surf

Thursday, 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

Thursday, 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

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.