Red Hill Capos Go Surfcasting ’08

Sultans in the Surf

OCTOBER 24&25, 2008

Prologue

And a crowd off young boys they’re fooling around in the corner. Drunk and dressed in their best brown baggies and their platform soles.

They don’t give a damn about any trumpet playing band.  It ain’t what they call Rock And Roll!

—Dire Straits, Sultans of Swing


Never again.

I will never, ever again invite my childhood and high school buddies from Brooklyn—The Red Hill Gang, also known as the Capos Club of New York (CCNY)—surfcasting in Montauk. I did it in 2007, and we were skunked. I did it this year (2008), and it was a fishing weekend to end all fishing weekends.

So, what’s wrong with success? First, we simply cannot repeat perfection. What we experienced simply doesn’t happen all the time. Or, most of the time. Not even some of the time.

Second, I won’t invite them back because I won’t have to. After this weekend, they will show up on their own. Hell, if I’d have sex with them, they would probably propose.

CCNY--The Red Hill Capos Club of New York (l to r) Felix "Bag of Lures" Fanti, "Bubba" Bobby Avitabile, Freddie "the fish" Abatemarco, Dr. Charlie Boyz "Catfish" C

CCNY--The Red Hill Capos Club of New York (l to r) Felix "Bag of Lures" Fanti, "Bubba" Bobby Avitabile, Freddie "the fish" Abatemarco, Dr. Charlie Boyz "Catfish" Catalano, Tony "Bootsie" Dolce; Missing in Action: Vinny "the Taxman" DeNave

But they certainly shouldn’t ever return. Can you imagine winning $50K at the tables on your virgin trip to Vegas? Such luck is once in a lifetime. You’d be smart to hop a plane out and never look back. This was my advice to the Capos as they departed Sunday morning: Take your doggie bags of fresh-caught fish, your memories of keeper stripers and gorilla bluefish slashing and thrashing at your feet on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, the sidesplitting laughs, great meals, perfect fall weather, nostalgic story telling, and relish these. Because idyllic weekends like this don’t exist in the real world. They are the stuff of books and movies and our imaginations. Right?

It was surprise enough that the reunion finally happened. No one in this group of 60-something geezers is retired so we are all torn between professions, family—four grandfathers in the bunch—and geography. The crew is spread over Florida, California, Virginia, New Jersey, Staten Island and, of course, Long Island. We all favor warm weather so a quorum typically comes together once a year, at most, in Las Vegas, Miami or Puerto Rico for a bit of golf, gambling, and what most people call charter fishing. But, as I have tried to educate my friends for years, what they think is fishing is really yachting. Fishing is what we do in Mecca—Montauk Long Island, the surfcasting capital of the world.

This year, a happy conflux of a business trip for Felix and a family wedding for Dr. “Charlie Boyz” in New York aided my long standing entreaty that we meet at my beach house in Amagansett, Long Island for an October surf fishing extravaganza. Vinny The Taxman was off not playing golf in Myrtle Beach, still skeptical after his no fish weekend in October, 2007. But Bobby was back for his second try, a faithful if still fishless believer. And Tony figured there were worse things he could do with his weekend. So we had a full complement of five out of six, enough to fill the truck and round out the card table.

"Fish On" for Catfish Catalano who took Surfcasting Rookie of the Year honors for 2008

"Fish On" inside the North Bar for Catfish Catalano who took Surfcasting Rookie of the Year honors for 2008

This plan was not without its risks. I was setting myself up for severe ball-busting should the Capos get skunked with no fish as happened with Vinny and Bobby in 2007. What was I thinking, begging this merciless group to join me for sport fishing that has a success rate lower than 50 percent? Double those odds considering that none have any experience with the gear, terrain or techniques that are virtually unique to Montauk. True, we are all long-time, close and loving friends. But despite their adult respectability, these streetwise veterans of a hangout we called “The Red Hill” in Gravesend, Brooklyn, are true to their roots: they give no quarter, track their wounded and eat their young. The pain potential for me if I produced a skunkathon was very high indeed.

My advance strategy was to prepare—and pray. My recently acquired PBV (Permanent Beach Vehicle), a 10-year-old Toyota 4Runner, was off-road tested and performing admirably. My rods and reels were serviced at Captain Harvey Bennett’s Tackle Shop. I had a full complement of foul weather gear at the ready. I arrived in Amagansett on Thursday afternoon to scout the fishing grounds, stock the liquor cabinet and cook. If well fed and plied with adult beverages, they might partially forgive me if we didn’t catch fish.

Unfortunately, the south side sandy ocean beaches–where I hoped the action might be–were quiet, despite encouraging reports of bluefish and schoolie stripers in the surf to the west in Shinnecock, Robert Moses, Fire Island and Long beach. I spent most of the late afternoon on Gin Beach—a north-side spot ideal for my boys if the fish came close and ran along the shore—dazzling at a small school of bluefish that stayed mostly out of reach.  A couple of score of surfcasters salivated for these few fish like dogs awaiting their master’s release in a bird field. Pickings seemed slim indeed. However, at Montauk Point, there was a prescient sign: a couple of good-sized schools of bass formed up off the Lighthouse jetty and the North Bar. These are probably the most difficult beaches to fish because of the slippery rocks, the lure-eating boulders and the tendency for the fish to come close only where the fearless dare to wade. It is also considered private territory of the local “sharpies” who disdain novice anglers such as the “googans” I was hosting. Still, if it turned out to be our only shot, we’d have to make the best of it. With the right wind—but not too much of it–we might come up sevens.

Friday, October 24

Fish were here, fish are gone, fish will come again.

Montauk is The End.

Amen.

a Surfcaster’s Prayer

Pre-dawn temperatures hit a record low of 31 degrees at Islip airport. It was 27 degrees in Riverhead as the sun rose. Still, the forecast called for sunny skies and air temperature in the 60s with calm winds. Nearly perfect conditions for the day ahead. However, a snotty wind and rainstorm creeping up from the southwest would arrive by late Saturday afternoon. There wouldn’t be too many chances at whatever fish we were lucky enough to find and reach.

I muttered solemnities to myself returning from a scouting run to Montauk Point at first light. Stripers in small but dense pods were blitzing the waters just beyond Scott’s Hole near the Lighthouse. I could only hope these fish would find their way to a beach within our reach when the Capos arrived in a few hours. By 12 noon, all hands were present and the boys were anxious to get started. We’d have an incoming tide and sunny skies all afternoon. All I needed was some fish! I went straight to Montauk and showed the boys the view of Block Island Sound from the Money Pond Trail overlook. Here, I explained our quest:

“Ideally, we want to find birds that are circling, hovering or diving low to the water,” I said. To which Tony Dolce answered:  “Like those?”

“Yes,” I responded. “But they really need to be close in to the shore.”

“Oh,” said Tony pointing to Clark’s Cove, “you mean like those birds.”

Patiently, I instructed him further: “But to know there are fish under them, we need to see splashing in the water.”

And sure enough, that is what we saw. Tony had spotted a bona fide, close in, bird-diving, fishtail-splashing bass blitz within easy reach of the shoreline right below our vantage point. Best of all, it was just developing and no one else was onto it!

Tony's keeper was among the many fish the Red Hill Capos scored in two days of "stupid good" surf fishing in Montauk

Tony's keeper was among the many fish the Red Hill Capos scored in two days of "stupid good" surf fishing in Montauk

Felix said he never saw me move so fast, and he was right. As quickly as I could hustle their butts back in the truck, I whipped the Capos down to the beach in the 4Runner. Determined to get something in the cooler, I grabbed my rod and left my buddies behind. Charlie Boyz said that I went deaf to his pleas of “what about us?” He too was correct. Most of the rods and reels weren’t even rigged yet. I was figuring on casting lessons and some general instruction while we waited for fish that I wasn’t even sure would come. Forget that. It was heave and haul time and in moments I was fast into a striper. My second fish was a keeper and by this time, Charlie had picked up a rod and was casting on his own. It was ugly, but effective. On his second try, he hooked up and landed a keeper bass of 28 inches. Soon I had all rods ready to go and Bobby, Tony and Felix joined the fray. Bobby nailed a short bass. To this day I still don’t know how Felix missed. As for Tony, he kept donating lures to the sea. “Defective equipment,” he protested. Indeed, by the time he was done with the gear, there were defects aplenty. The close in bass moved off after about 30 minutes. Some bluefish moved in and then the action died by about 2pm.

We repaired to a diner in Montauk for lunch. I was still shaking my head in disbelief that we scored fish on our first foray. The guys didn’t know enough to be amazed. They worked their cell phones and Blackberries getting in the last of the week’s communications with the office. I was wondering what we could do for an encore.

Gangster bluefish like this one for Felix came home and graced our dinner table along with keeper stripers

Gangster bluefish like this one for Felix came home and graced our dinner table along with keeper stripers

Shortly past 3pm, we returned to “our spot” and watched a very slow pick of bass on the extreme promontory of North Bar. That was not a helpful sign for my guys, but then came the perfect tell: Cathy Callahan, a local who out fishes 90 percent of the Montauk sharpies, whizzed past us on the beach heading west toward Oyster Pond Cove. I watched through the field glasses as her truck disappeared around the point near the Stepping Stones. Joe the Plumber soon followed her; This was our Joe the Plumber, a Montauk sharpie famous in these circles for his shorty white boots, scruffy beard and scratchy cigarette voice. That was enough evidence for me—circumstantial, as it was—that a fish call was out and there was close-in action at the bowl near Oyster Pond.

It is a dicey beach route to the bowl and I’ve never done it with a full truck. I calculated that the boys would appreciate the extreme off-road adventure of this run. At worst, I would have four companions to help dig out if we hit any quicksand. A punctured oil pan, however, wouldn’t be so easy to deal with. But the fish weren’t coming to us.

We arrived at the Stepping Stones and there was clearly no need to chase Cathy or Joe any further. The fish were right in front of us and the boys started casting again. I was able to spread them out enough so that when the armada of sharpies who were surely on our tail arrived, my guys wouldn’t have any nasty encounters. The only lures they would tangle would be their own. I stood back, admired my protégés, and barked instructions like an E6 on the firing range. “Keep that tip up; take the slack out of that line; crank, crank, crank.” For all the good it did.

Dr. Charles simply ignored me and Tony didn’t even bother to listen with his good ear. Bobby and Felix were starting to get the hang of it. The good Doctor and I nailed two more bluefish and we had a few more short bass. Felix and Tony were still fishless when we got the high sign from Lenny the Fish that the tide was rising and it was time to boogie back to safety. I was happy enough to leave with four fish in the cooler, and five believers in the truck. Myself being the most astonished of all.

Dinner was a mixed grill of marinated striper and bluefish with sautéed broccoli rabe washed down with a velvety Valpolicella provided by Bobby. The poker decks came out around 9pm and Felix swallowed up most of our money by midnight. Though fishless, he wasn’t complaining.

Saturday, October 25

Always return to the scene of the crime

Fred’s Cardinal Rules of Surfcasting #2

At Anthony’s insistence, we pulled out at first light, even though it was odds on that the fish would show up again in the same place on same tide—which means about one hour later—the next day. You can fairly depend on fish to repeat their pattern from one tide to the next–until they don’t. A change in weather, beach structure or bait movement will cause a change. I have seen patterns of fish or no fish last for days or sometimes weeks.

Nonetheless, we were on the bluff above Montauk town beach as the sun peaked above the horizon only to sneak behind some low and leaden clouds. After due homage to the ocean at the Surfside overlook, we cruised the Lighthouse, surveyed the North Bar and cast for a while at Clark’s Cove. I had a PBR as a breakfast beer. We made a coffee and donuts run into town and paid a visit to Paulie’s tackle shop to kill more time. The boys met Jack Yee, local paparazzo of the Montauk surf fishing scene. Felix spent his card table winnings buying up fishing lures to replace those he and Tony kept heaving into the ocean. Back to the fishing grounds where I attempted to fill the time with colorful tales of the locals and their silly names—Gary the Toad, Florida Bob, George of the Jungle, the Mad Hatter, My Cousin Vinny, etc.

My crew was starting to get antsy. After the prior day’s action, they were itching for fish. I tried to explain that what they had yesterday was a rare and wonderful thing. They would have no excuses. Like Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo they wanted…”more”.

To keep their focus, I went out on a limb and predicted, “today will make yesterday look like a bad fishing day.” They would need patience, however. I’m not sure how convincing I sounded. I wasn’t sure I believed it myself. Many a day my patience was paid off with chicken for dinner.

But based on Friday’s results, a dropping barometer and a storm chasing us up from the southwest, my hunch had a chance. In a few hours we would know. I just had to make sure I had the audience—and all the equipment still working and the lures not all lost at sea–if and when the fish finally appeared.

More time to kill. I suggested a lunch break. Options: return to Amagansett for beef chili and eggplant sandwiches on my deck, pick up heroes from the local deli, or split a couple of pies at Village Pizza in Montauk. Pizza was the consensus. We sat down at 1pm and were back in the truck at 155p. I looked at my phone and saw that I missed a fish call from Jack Yee at 145pm. The game was afoot.

All day action at the North Bar produced these keeper for surfcasting rookie Dr. Charlie Boyz and MVP Bobbie "Bubba" Avitabile.

All day action at the North Bar produced these keeper for surfcasting rookie Dr. Charlie Boyz and MVP Bobbie "Bubba" Avitabile.

By the time we returned to the North Bar, the action had already come and gone. We saw fish being walked off the beach. We took up our usual position near Clark’s Cove and watched a slow pick of fish continue off the promontory. Now my crew was in full regalia: Anthony was shod in my green rubber “Wellies”, Bobby and Felix were the Neoprene twins, and Dr. Charlie Boyz suited up in my waders with cleated Korkers taped to the soles. With men this well dressed, we had to catch fish. The problem was where to find them.

We’d loose the weather soon and I didn’t think this crowd was up to fishing through a blow. So Into the truck we piled and gingerly made our way again toward Oyster Pond Cove. As we reached the Stepping Stones I could see some birds working at the edge of the cove. Truth is most were kicked up by a beachcomber on foot. But I could also see the water was stirring with fish. A monster blitz was forming up. To my astonishment, no one was there. We beat everyone to the fish: the sharpies with their radios and cell phones, the mosquito fleet of flyboats. For a few fleeting minutes, the Capos had acres of fish all to themselves!

I parked the vehicle before we hit the narrow gully wash, which I refused to cross with five men aboard. We traversed the next quarter mile to the fish by foot. I had everyone grab as many rods and lures as we could carry—a surfcasting take on “leave the gun, take the cannolis”. Felix and Bobby were first in the water and hooked up virtually immediately. Stripers were inhaling baitfish at our feet and I had to shout my instructions over the racket of their tales slapping in the wash. A rare and wondrous scene mesmerized the guys. Anglers can go a whole season—maybe many—without witnessing such a blitz. I know I have.

Fresh caught keeper bass and gorilla bluefish graced our dinner table as the Red Hill capos celebrated two successful days of surfcasting in Montauk

Fresh caught keeper bass and gorilla bluefish graced our dinner table as the Red Hill capos celebrated two successful days of surfcasting in Montauk

For the next two hours, I released fish, tied on lures, and wet a line myself.  Using my lightest spinning tackle. I nailed a leaping bluefish with one flick of a wrist cast. My feet were soaked, my hands were cut, my shirttails were bloody and I was having the time of my life. Putting these guys into fish was about the only thing better than catching them myself.

Soon, the convoy of sharpies moved past us and on into the cove. We kept our position and the bite continued. We continued throwing popping plugs and started to nail gorilla bluefish. The bass still lurked in to rocks but it was too risky to the gear to fish them up with bucktails. Tony, using the soft Storm Shad lures, landed three stripers. Felix had two or three throwbacks and a 30-inch bluefish that may have weighed in double figures. The good Doctor took home one more keeper bass and threw back many more. Bobby caught the fish of the weekend—a chubby bass, bloated with whole bunker bait—that measured up at 31 inches and weighed somewhere in the low teens. This pool fish earned him the weekend MVP award.

At 430pm, we walked our fish back to the truck and left them biting. It was time to clean up, drink up and eat up. On the dinner menu was striped bass mare chiaro surrounded by a couple of dozen little neck clams in a fresh marinara sauce served over linguine. As the wind howled and the rain swirled outside, we lit a fire, drank Pino Grigio, and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, sipped espresso with Natalie’s homemade pumpkin pie, and then the cards reappeared.

Dr. Charlie Boyz took what little money I had left and then left me with all the quarters. But I fixed him real good. As revenge, I packed up a bag of cleaned and trimmed bluefish and striper fillets, and two eggplant parmigiana sandwiches for his drive back home to Virginia with his wife Marci. That will teach him not to catch a keeper bass on his first ever surfcasting trip to Montauk and win 2008 Surf Fishing Rookie of the Year without a struggle.

At least not until the second annual Capos Go Surfcasting Weekend in 2009.

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