FishTales 2008: Song of the Fat Lady

Thanksgiving Weekend Finale

Nov. 29-30, 2008: I’m finished. Packed up the fishing rods, reels and lures. Swept the sand from the truck, aired up the tires and tied a Christmas wreath to the grill where the cooler rack and rod holder used to be. I will fish no more this year. On this final weekend of November, the traditional end of my Labor Day to Thanksgiving surfcasting season, my attention turned to turkey vegetable soup on the stovetop and the football Giants and Jets on the tube.

Gannets dive bombing at frigid Hither Hills as the 2009 surfcasting season winds down to an end

Gannets dive bombing at frigid Hither Hills as the 2009 surfcasting season winds down to an end

A few miles offshore from Montauk Point, plunge-diving gannets are feeding on migrating herring bait that have attracted the season’s last keeper bass. Sea-going anglers, willing to brave the elements until the season legally closes in mid-December, are getting well. From the surf, however, it is a different story. Nary a cow has been caught since Election Day. At Paulie’s Tackle Shop in Montauk, the surfcasting tournament leader board has hardly changed since October. The Fat Lady has been clearing her throat since Veteran’s Day weekend and she is now ready for her close up.

This is not mere hearsay—the vicarious ramblings of an armchair angler regurgitating moribund Internet posts (though I must add, it has been weeks since Noreast.com had a Montauk fish report of any consequence). No, I bring you an eyewitness denouement. I have been on the beach every weekend this month and more than a few weekdays (in case you hadn’t noticed, the real estate business is r-e-a-l slow). I haven’t caught, or seen or heard of a fish caught from the surf in two and a half weeks. The few bass I did get since Election Day have all been the kind of stay-behind schoolies—some call them Christmas bass—that typify the season’s finale. Trust me. We’re done.

Autumn’s End

Cathy Callahan and Joe the Plumber of Montauk fished for micro bass and cocktail blues in the placid beach waters of Amagansett

Cathy Callahan and Joe the Plumber of Montauk fished for micro bass and cocktail blues in the placid beach waters of Amagansett

I was pretty much willing to surrender to the frigid cold snap that swept into the area on November 17, the anniversary, by the way, of my daughter Diane’s first keeper bass in 2001 (see “Four Fish Diane and Her First Striper”, November, 2001). But I did my best to keep the east end beaches honest with a Monday through Wednesday Amagansett getaway while my wife Natalie was off gallivanting in Pierre SD and Dallas TX on behalf of Citigroup as the U.S. economy slid precariously close to financial oblivion.

The colors of Autumn were here one day.....

The colors of Autumn were there one day.....

....and then gone the next day

....and with a gust of wind, gone the next day

What a difference a week made, weather- and fish-wise (alas, not so much for the economy). On Wednesday, 11/13, I fished congenially with about a dozen Montauk sharpies on the sandy Amagansett beaches catching cocktail blues and micro-stripers.

It would be the last productive and colorful day of the year. Splendid red and yellow maple and oak leaves blazed in the late autumn sun which warmed the harvest roses of my sister-in-law Toni (St. Toni of the Blitz). All these became memories, however, when a weekend wind and rainstorm ushered in wintry temperatures in the low 20s. The week before Thanksgiving, Amagansett streets were choking on piles of brown leaves and rutting deer more visible than ever in the naked bramble.

One new adornment on the scene which I hadn’t expected was Jeff O’Brien’s patriotic addition to Treasure Island Drive: a 12 foot flagpole at the top of the street waving Old Glory in the breeze. I immediately saw its potential for flying a “stripers-on-the-beach” signal pennant and other vital messages: beach party, cocktails, etc.

However, I learned that not all my neighbors shared my enthusiasm for this new edifice. I expect it will put a little bit of starch back into the Treasure Island Drive Association annual meeting come next May.

The Late Awakening of John Papa

By the time my wife returned from the heartland, we decided to brave the cold holed at the beach while Citibank negotiated its government bailout and kept Natalie’s Blackberry lit up the weekend long. I had no fantasies of serious fishing considering the weather and lack of a single optimistic report. But along came John Papa, who was determined to not let the season end without at least one fall foray.

Northwest winds blew cold over the ocean beach at Napeague in late November

Northwest winds blew cold over the ocean beach at Napeague in late November

John deserves respect for his determination and the fact that he caught the first fish from the surf this year—even BEFORE the unofficial Labor Day “season opener”. On a warm and sunny Friday afternoon in mid August, as the usual Manhasset-at-the-beach crew relaxed on sand chairs, John Papa methodically threw cast after cast– “equipment testing” I call it at that time of year—at the ocean’s edge. There were a few fly-by birds near in, and a flock of gulls dancing on the water out deep. The water was clean and brisk with a gentle swell and a tight curl at the shoreline. Not a sign of fish. Suddenly, John’s pole bent. He checked his tip and then his reel. He thought he had a snag. But the rod tip quivered otherwise. He cranked in a few times and again checked for an equipment malfunction. By then I was on my feet, knowing he was on a fish. A few cranks more and John saw the 20-inch striper in the curl of the last wave. He beached it and no one was more surprised than John. A crowd gathered. Applause broke out. Photos were snapped. Beachers brought their children. With this catch-and-release, John took an early lead in the race for 2008 Surf Rookie of the Year. And then he disappeared.

John’s September was dedicated to setting up his daughter Katie for freshman year at the University of Cincinnati where she is a voice music student. His October was dominated by a wedding anniversary trip to Amalfi with Laura, his beautiful bride of 25 years. Finally, ready to fish on November 22, one of his Montauk buddies quipped: “John: Don’t you think you missed the season by about a month or two?”

I found more deer in the brush than fish on the beach on November's last weekend

I found more deer in the brush than fish on the beach on November's last weekend

Unfortunately, he sure did. Nonetheless, early Saturday morning, I found John on my doorstep in Amagansett, ready to bundle up in all the fleece and Neoprene a man could possibly wear and still breathe. We dialed the truck’s heater to blast furnace setting and made the usual rounds of Montauk and Amagansett beaches while Natalie began her holiday baking.

With not a sign of life in the usual haunts, John and I ventured west to the beach behind the Maidstone Country Club. There we spied a small flock of gannets and gulls picking away with more than casual interest at something in the wash just beyond the sandbar that was starting to show at low tide. We cast for a while but the birds disappeared and all we produced was numb fingers. We packed it in for chicken cutlet sandwiches and beers at Karen and Bob Wilsusen’s house on Kings Point Road where Bob was dutifully wrapping a winter tarp around his dry-docked boat, the Reel Attitude. Later, Laura Papa joined us and it was dinner for six at the 1770 House in East Hampton. All thoughts and conversation turned to Thanksgiving and the holidays ahead. In the background, the Fat Lady sang softly.

Epilogue: December Bass?

It is not like a post-Thanksgiving surge never happened before. Two years ago, I was at on Cupsoque Beach in Westhampton, grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat as I caught keeper after keeper on a mild and mellow 5th of December afternoon.

She'd been warming up since Veteran's Day, and by Thanksgiving the Fat Lady was in full voice

She'd been warming up since Veteran's Day, and by Thanksgiving the Fat Lady was in full voice

At least one experienced Montauk guide is betting long odds that there could be one last hurrah before the official end of striped bass season in New York State on December 15.  Bill Wetzel thinks that a stretch of warmer weather and a south wind for a couple of days or three could push the herring close to shore—and the migrating cow bass will surely follow. But with water temperatures now plunging to the mid 40 degrees, Bill’s vision would be a Christmas miracle, indeed. And I, for one, ain’t holding my breath. See you on the beach next September. –Fred

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