FishTales 2008: November Blues

In Search of Moby Striper

NOVEMBER 11, 2008

I’ve got the mid-November, can’t-find-no-keepers, where-are-the-big-fish, tell-me-it-ain’t-over, tired-of-eating-pizza, surfcasting blues.

But it is not like I am not used to it.

Late fall lulls like this one have been fairly common in recent seasons. After a good September, and sometimes a better October, the fish seem to disappear. No one has a really good explanation why or where they go. Offshore? Down deep? South? West? Still here but not feeding? Some years, skin-diving spear fisherman give us hope when they find stripers “stacked up like cordwood”, just hanging around the bottom. We may not have been catching them, but it was always good to know they hadn’t left for the winter. Lacking such reports this year, however, we are all without a clue. This post-election day week, virtually every surfcaster in Montauk–local sharpie to Smithtown Ranger alike–was shaking their head, wondering where the quarry went.

Big Brother Frank had a successful start to the surfcasting season in September and now he was back hoping for repeat success during the closing curtain in November

Big Brother Frank had a rousing start to the surfcasting season in September and now he was back hoping for a repeat before the November closing curtain comes down

The month didn’t start this way. Hankering for the Halloween blitz, my brother Frank arrived from California on October 29 for his final foray of the season. Frank had a good visit in September with bluefish and keeper bass. This time, he was on a mission for Moby Striper on the big bait, and a chance to return home with care packages of fresh caught bluefish fillets for the family and friends who stayed behind.

Mecca provided an early touch of winter our first morning out. There was snow in New Jersey and upstate New York, and it was 39 degrees at Montauk Point with northwest winds blowing up to 20 mph. Plenty of sunshine all day warmed things up to 50 degrees. Frank and I fished the incoming tide from about 10am, working all the usual spots.  We tracked a school of fish with birds working over them to the Stepping Stones and when they didn’t come in close, we rode the paved route to Gin Beach and Shagwong were we lunched on eggplant sandwiches and snoozed the afternoon away waiting for a massive school of bass to come within reach. They never did.  The truck was back in the barn by dinnertime at dusk. We ate bluefish ragu over linguine, giving small thanks for the remains of the prior week’s success.

October 31 The Halloween Blitz

More record low temperatures: 26 degrees in Islip and Riverhead. The forecast was for 60’s and sunshine, but the winds still honked from the NNW at 15 to 20 mph. The plan was to fish the morning and then do an abbreviated afternoon session before poker at Jay’s house.

Rookie Surfcaster and punk rock attorney Justin Hoy nailed gorilla bluefish at the North Bar

Rookie Surfcaster and punk rock attorney Justin Hoy nailed gorilla bluefish at the North Bar

We toured the usual haunts on the outgoing tide but no fish were close enough to the beach to even attempt any casts. In the afternoon, Frank’s punk-rock attorney Justin Hoy joined us for a return trip to the Point. That’s when the fishing got interesting. Pods of blitzing stripers dotted the water from the Lighthouse all the way around the north side to Oyster Pond Cove. We watched as one frenzied feeding school slowly made its way into casting range near False Point. Anglers were converging tightly at the spot where the fish became reachable. By the time Frank was suited up and ready to go, there was no longer room to cast. So I moved us over to the North Bar promontory. Frank protested, looking over his shoulder at the fish he feared we had left behind. “They are coming,” I promised. He hesitated. “Fish here,” I commanded. With a skeptical eye to his right, my brother finally waded into the surf. And as he did, the water erupted in front of us. By the time Justin and I took our positions, fish were racing past our boots and the water was alive with bait and predators. Frank hooked and landed a gangster bluefish. I caught and released a short striper. After a while, Justin had his first fish, a hard fighting yellow-eyed monster. Between 3pm and 4pm we caught 9 fish, including a pair for the rookie surfcasting  barrister. Thanks to our position, cast for cast, we had more hook ups than any of the two-dozen anglers who followed us to the North Bar. That night, Justin complemented his success in the surf with a stunning victory at Jay’s poker table. While we all chomped pastrami and turkey sandwiches, Justin picked out pockets clean and made it look easy.


Justin Hoy, Frank and I pulled "gangster blues" from a blitz at the North Bar

The Halloween blitz of schoolie bass and gangster bluefish extended into a sustained bite through the All Saint’s/All Soul’s weekend. On Saturday, Justin skipped town with our money and Doug Levian took his place in the truck. We found nothing in the morning and I was counting on the afternoon pattern to repeat. It did, but in a different location. After tracking fish from the North Bar into Oyster Cove Pond that simply never moved close enough, we drove into a hit-and-run blitz of bass and blues on Gin Beach and Shagwong Point. We put two blues in the cooler, threw back some small bass and busted home for dinner by 7pm. Didn’t want to be late for Uncle Tono’s signature fall dish of  boullibasse made from a stock of fresh caught bluefish and supplemented with scallops, calamari, shrimp and bluefish fillets.

Keep Watching the Oceans

On Sunday, I violated two of my cardinal rules of surfcasting (#2: Always return to the scene of the crime; #10: Never leave them biting.). I took the morning off to enjoy a relaxed fall weekend with my wife Natalie, her parents and Tono. We walked, talked, and prepared a lunch of Long Island BLT’s (bluefish, lettuce and tomato). Frank called in his report in the late afternoon: the fish had moved to the sandy ocean beaches where he and Doug killed them in the town of Montauk.

Doug Levian (left) and big brother Frank work the beach at Shagwong Point

Doug Levian (left) and big brother Frank work the beach at Shagwong Point

After the weekend, the ocean beach fishing got even hotter, culminating on Election Day with stripers and bluefish in the wash from the Coconuts Beach, all the way west to Napeague. Keeper bass and 10-pound plus choppers chased snappers and bunker bait right to the shoreline. Harvey Bennett reported picking a 25-pound bass out of the wash near Koosmeyer’s on Truck Beach. Frank, Doug and the suddenly hooked-on-surfcasting punk-rock attorney Justin Hoy were in on the action and quit when they were tired of fighting big blues.  But by the time Obama won the White House, the fun was over—at least for surfcasters. A textbook nor’easter blew into the area and shut down the bite faster than summer folk turning off their outdoor showers after Labor Day.

When Frank and I did the walk from the Sewer Pipe to Caswell’s Point on Wednesday morning, we saw one small bluefish caught under the Stonehouse.  We lunched at Pizza and Pastabilities, in Montauk, a first time event for either of us. What this place calls pizza, is quite short on possibilities. The crust was passable: thin, well done and not too yeasty. But the sauce was an abomination, polluted, I am sure, with powdered garlic salt.

Skunked in the Sunshine and Shadows

Returning to the beach in the afternoon, we sipped Sol y Sombre (equal parts Anisette and Fundador Spanish brandy) on the North Bar with Pepe the Spaniard. But we didn’t sniff a fish. Beef chili from my freezer for dinner that night.

In the rocks in front of the Montauk Point refreshment stand bluff, we fished at first light on Thursday and Friday through fierce wind and pelting rain.  All for the ignominy of tossing back a half dozen 20-inch stripers in diapers. Meanwhile we slipped and slid in the pounding waves and sweeping current, donating our fair share of buck tails and other lures that snagged on rocks and weeds more times than we hooked into fish. On Friday, we lunched on yet another bad pizza, this one from Felice’s Astro Pizza in Amagansett. A definite improvement on the sauce, but the crust was spongy, undercooked and flavorless.

Blues Brothers: These cocktail blues went a long way at our dinner table in lieu of the elusive  keeper stripers

Blues Brothers: These tasty cocktail blues went a long way at our dinner table in lieu of the elusive keeper stripers

Friday night dinner was pot luck at Jay’s house and Frank baked the last of his All Soul’s Day bluefish catch. Saturday, joined by Big Bob Wilsusen, his son John Magovern and Doug’s son Vinny Levian, we squinted through pea soup fog but didn’t see a single bent rod from dawn to 8am when we surrendered to breakfast at Anthony’s Pancake house. By noon, Frank and I were in the car dodging broken-field-running deer on the road as we traveled west to JFK airport for his return home to Montecito. Frank was packing a bag of frozen fillets and we found time for one more pizza before his departure. This one at King Umberto’s on Hempstead Turnpike near Belmont race track. A winner all around.

Tick Tock; The Season Winds Down

By the time Frank’s flight took off, I was oblivious to pizza. Instead, I pondered the $64,000 question: would we have a post Veteran’s Day season? Would the herring bait show, and big bruiser bass along with it? Or, will the fall run simply pass us by, far offshore? Some migrating Brants have been pecking around the water’s edge and a few gannets have been diving around Shagwong, the North bar and even along the ocean beach. Good signs. But we haven’t yet seen the massed flocks of south-heading birds that typically signal a serious bait run.  I left Doug and Vinny at my house with firm instructions to call if any action heated up in my absence. Doug was usually a good luck charm around the time of his Marine Corps’ anniversary. But Thanksgiving was looming. Tick Tock. The season was winding down. And no one wanted to hear the fat lady clearing her pipes. Not just yet. Not while there was still color on the trees and roasted corn at the farm stands. It would be an early and unhappy winter if the season ended on such a down note.

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