John Skinner is the author of Fishing the Bucktail and A Season on the Edge. He’s the creator of the fishing log software FishersLog. He’s a consistent producer of trophy striped bass and holds the current New York State false albacore record.
On Saturday (7/26) my son and I made our first Long Island Sound dive in two years. It was only about 5 years ago when we would dive more than 20 times per year. His going off to college certainly shortened the season, but the real reasons we stopped going had more to do with visibility and the available of our primary target – lobsters. I've dove for lobsters in the sound since the mid 1970s. Until the early 1990s it was always easy to get a 6 lobster recreational limit from shore with snorkel gear. Then came the big lobster die-off in the mid-1990s, and that all changed. I stopped diving for awhile, until my son was 12 and old enough to scuba dive with me. We started back up again in 2006, and did pretty well by hitting good structure with the scuba gear. It was nowhere near as easy as it was in the days of snorkeling from shore, but we averaged 4 to 8 keepers per dive between the two of us, and we were still within 1000 feet of the beach most of the time. In 2011 we made only two dives because the visibility was so poor all season. We hit our two best spots, and saw only one lobster. It was a keeper, and was in a tire that was about as close to a sure thing as we had. We made several dives in 2012, and saw no signs whatsoever of lobsters. Usually you'll see their little caves dug out under rocks or see an occasional lost claw on the bottom. Again, visibility was poor all through the summer of 2013, and we had little incentive to strain our eyes through the silt looking for lobsters that weren't there. Having not even tried in two years, we decided to give it a shot on Saturday. The changes went beyond the lobster observations. We dove our best spot. It has 17 to 23 feet of water at dead low tide and five major boulders, including a couple that reach 15 feet off the bottom. Smaller rock piles fill out most of the space between the boulders. We saw nothing that suggested that lobsters ever inhabited the area. They're just gone. We saw many more mussels than we ever had. The bottom was covered with them in some areas. The big blackfish were on the same rocks they are always on. We saw no bass, but they're smart enough to hang back a little from scuba gear, so they may have been out of visibility range. We saw one large fluke. Because terns were working overhead we expected to see sandeels, but instead found schools of tiny bait that were either anchovies or peanut bunker. They were too small to tell. We saw more quality seabass on the dive than we might have seen in an entire season years ago. Surprisingly we didn't see any porgies. I thought there were more dead spider crabs than there should have been, but there were a fair number of live ones too. Many areas had an unfamiliar reddish weed covering the bottom. I looked back on some 5-year-old video and it definitely wasn't there then. There were lots of sea urchins. They were so rare back in the 1980s that the first time I ever saw one I kept it and dried it out for a decoration. We did not find any surf clams. Those clams used to be there for the taking. I guess there are always changes in the marine environment. When I was a kid you could go out to buoy 11 off Port Jefferson at the end of April and load up on Boston Mackerel. I used to catch them off the beach on tins as a kid. It wasn't unusual for them to blitz the shoreline on massive schools of big sandeels. On the other hand we didn't have fluke in the numbers we have today. As mentioned, we saw more large seabass than ever on this dive. They were a novelty to catch in this area when I was a kid. Back then I don't think there were enough false albacore around that they could be targeted successfully from shore. A couple things I'm sure of, there were a lot more bass years ago in this area of the sound, and there were lobsters. I'm not so pessimistic that I think I'll be talking about stripers some day in the same past tense that I do lobsters now. Then again I never could have imagined as a young angler that our bay and harbor bottoms wouldn't always be paved with winter flounder. Here's a video from a night dive in 2010 shot where we dove on Saturday. The blackfish are still there, big and in good numbers. Hopefully the lobsters will come back someday.
I don't know any surfcasters who think shore fishing for stripers is better than it's been in past years. The general consensus is that it's getting worse, and a fair number believe the fishery is in trouble. I have to admit that there are times when I share that view, but then I talk to the boat anglers catching large numbers of big stripers while fishing the bunker pods in the ocean. Over the past few weeks these fish have been stretched from at least Fire Island Inlet to east of Shinnecock. That's over 50 miles, and that's only what I know about. That's not to say that there was a 50-mile-long school of big bass out there, but the adult bunker were easily found anywhere in this stretch and there were days when I had excellent bass reports spread throughout that range. These were mostly 30 to 43-pound fish, with numerous fish over 50 pounds sprinkled into the catches. With the exception of using rigged and live eels, I don't bait fish for stripers, but given the outrageous reports and a calm ocean, I decided to paddle out to the pods and check out the action for myself. It took me less than 30 minutes to put a 40-pound plus bass in my kayak. Keep in mind that I was pretty clueless and this was my first attempt at "snag and drop" for bass in the ocean. At the rate this season's surf action is going, there's a chance I might not see a fish bigger than that from the beach this year despite many hours of effort in the best surf spots and under the fishiest of conditions. Yes, there were some good surf opportunities in June. There always are in the top-notch places. The problem was that if you weren't fishing one of the small number of hotspots, you probably wondered what happened to all of the stripers. Two years ago I wondered where all of the bluefish were. They were somewhere, because there's no lack of the big ones this year. They inundated the south shore bays and inlet areas this spring and are on the bunker schools with the bass. I even found them hammering adult bunker in the Sound when I was fluking just prior to the bad weather associated with Hurricane Arthur. Sometimes I have difficulty deciding whether what appears to be a low fish stock is really a distribution issue. For the record, my opinion is that the bass stocks are off, because there have been years of declining catches and too many good areas are nearly fishless. It is a slight relief though to know that there are such large numbers of big fish not far off the ocean beaches. Here's a video of my first bunker pod fishery attempt with the kayak. It was fun for sure. Hopefully we'll get to see some of these big fish in respectable numbers on the beach in the coming months, or at least this fall.
I fish Long Island Sound between Shoreham and Northville, and until last Sunday (6/8), things were looking pretty bleak on the fluke front, for me anyway. On 6/7 I saw a glimmer of hope with a small patch, like maybe 100 yards square, of sandeels with some small fluke underneath. They were way in near the beach as opposed to the buoy line ledge that I normally fish. The following morning the sandeel school looked to be about a mile long judging by the terns and bluefish. I caught fluke, but they were small. I had been out for a couple of hours with only one keeper to show for it when my daughter called to let me know I could pick her up on a local beach so she could get in a little fishing between graduating Princeton and going off to Grad School in Michigan next month. "I have one keeper. If we can get just one more we'll have enough for fish tacos, but it's easier said than done," was my report. I headed for a different patch of birds and we put down on the mother lode - of searobins. I noted we were high on the shoal at only 11 feet of water and immediately picked up and cruised north waiting for the inevitable dropoff. I was in an area devoid of GPS marks on my fishfinder because I was not used to fishing there. When we stopped the boat in 17 feet of water and put down, my daughter immediately pulled a "big short". Given how things were going, it was good enough to mark it on the GPS. 90 minutes later we had our full limit of 10 fluke, including a 6-pounder. We're always jigging with Gulp, and this time they seemed to show a preference for the Gulp shrimp. The boat ended up caked with regurgitated sandeels - a beautiful sight. I took off from work the next day, ran back to the spot, and found almost nothing. Glassing to the east I spotted the birds and found nonstop fluke action underneath. When that fizzled I looked west to see some birds back where my daughter and I had them the previous day, maybe a quarter-mile away. Now it was lock and load. With all I needed in the cooler, I recorded the catch and release drift in the video below. The action couldn't be much faster paced. As good as that fishing was, there was nothing at all in that spot this weekend (6/14,15), but we did find them elsewhere. These fish are moving. Look for the birds, or head to your favorite structure and look for the bait on the fishfinder if the birds aren't around. Fishing is often like the weather. If you don't like it, just wait a while. It will change.
In reading this keep in mind that I'm referring to waters east of William Floyd Parkway, which runs from Shoreham on Long Island's North Shore to Smith's Point on the South Shore. If you're fishing well west of that, your observations may be quite different. With the exception of my years in school upstate in the 80's, I've lived on and fished Long Island's East End all of my life. This season is by far the slowest bass start I've seen with respect to anything larger than schoolie stripers, and judging by my opening day effort for fluke in Long Island Sound off Wading River, that fishery isn't much better. Yes, there are all of the bluefish you could want along much of the South Shore, particularly the inlet areas and bays, but quality stripers have been another story. In looking at my previous blog entry I notice the title was "Cold Water". While running my boat about a mile off the beach near Wading River on May 17th my temperature gauge read 49 degrees, as it had several times during my three-hour effort that produced a single short fluke. The highest I read was 52 degrees, but that was in calm water with a bright sun on the stern so it's likely I was getting a slightly inflated surface reading. The one lethargic fluke I pulled off the bottom was so cold it felt like it came out of my cooler. I saw no bait, and the occasional terns I saw swooped down to the water but never dove in. Given that it was opening day, there were a fair number of boats fishing the same area that I was, and they didn't seem to be doing any better. Most years the fluke are very plentiful by mid-May in this part of the sound. In checking my electronic log for fluke trips between May 14th and 18th over the last five seasons in this area it shows my boat averaged 36 fluke per trip. The bulk of those were over our now 18-inch minimum. I usually had two people in the boat - typically me and one of my kids. The fishing was often nearly "lock and load", and the water temperature was in the mid-50s. I heard from two sources that local draggers have done well recently. It was also interesting to see better fluke reports from charter boats in the western sound this weekend, where the water was almost certainly warmer. A look at the past few weeks of Nor'east posted reports shows impressive bass catches west of Jones Inlet, but not too much to the east. The sound bass reports were still concentrated to the extreme western end. I'm used to having teen weight bass by late April and I'm usually into the 20-pound class in the first week of May. That was not the case this year. It will be interesting to see if the fishing in the eastern waters shifts further into the calendar. We often lose the bass bite by around the beginning of July. Maybe it will last a little later this year before the summer doldrums set in. I guess a lot will depend on the weather. I don't find the slow start all that discouraging because I'm confident that it's only a matter of time before the good South Shore and Peconic fluke fishing spreads into the Sound, and the big stripers gorging on adult bunker in Jamaica and Raritan Bays work their way east. Given that we're right at the start of the fluke season, I'll leave you with a short fluke video that I posted last year, but has been very popular and quickly summarizes the rigging and fishing technique for the light tackle fluking that I do. Many people who formerly were dragging baits off heavy boat rods have told me that this and my other fluke jigging videos have converted them to this style of fishing because it's a lot of fun and their catches have improved significantly.
This is one of those times of the year when I keep a close eye on water temperature. As we're all aware, we had a mighty cold and snowy winter. I never think of this as necessarily affecting when substantial fishing will get underway, because unusually warm weather in early April can quickly erase the memory and impact of the winter months. As the preceding weeks have played out, we're left with a cold snowy winter followed by a cold early spring. There was a coating of sleet on the ground only a few days ago, and it's only been a couple of weeks since measurable snow. The result of all of this is unseasonable cold water right now. The water temperature as I wrote this on April 20 was 42 degrees at both the Central Sound and Montauk weather buoys. I don't need to look at archived data to say with confidence that those readings are very cold for this time of year. My experience is that I usually don't do well on stripers until the water hits about 50 degrees. I've done very little at all with them below 46 degrees. This all plays into how I proceed in these cold early goings. The relatively shallow bay waters warm faster than the ocean or sound waters feeding them and are usually a good place to start. The Smith's Point Bridge water temperature readings provided by LIShore illustrate very nicely how timing your trip can make the difference between catching a few bass and going hitless this time of year. Saturday's coldest water measured by the bridge instruments was 46 degrees at 11:24 a.m. This was on the upper half of incoming current as cold ocean water had been pumping into the bay for a few hours. On the lower half of the ebb the water temperature peaked at 51 degrees at 6:36 p.m. Those 5 degrees can make a huge difference in striper activity. The water was 5 degrees warmer in the evening because water that had covered shallow dark-bottomed muddy areas of the back bay responded quickly to the afternoon sunshine. As the tide receded, this warmer water was drawn from these back reaches and drained into the bay's main channels. Minnow style swimmers are one of my favorite lure classes to use in shallow areas early in the season. Many of my season "icebreaker" fish have been caught on these plugs retrieved slowly on or just beneath the water's surface. One of my favorites is the 6-inch Bomber. Fishing these on a bay trip in the evening into early night on an outgoing current is a good strategy for catching early spring stripers. Here's some Bomber video recorded last fall.
The video I've posted below of fishing with a Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow is a reminder to me to keep an open mind and not get too set in my ways. I can tell you the first time I saw one of these plugs I had no interest in it at all because it looked a lot like the other couple of hundred minnow plugs I own from companies such as Bomber, RedFin, Rebel, YoZuri, and others. I'm always interested in what other anglers have to say, and after hearing enough good things about the Salt Pro, I managed to pry a $10 bill out of my wallet to buy one. While doing so I really felt like the last thing I needed was another plug, no less a minnow swimmer. While the plug was still in the air on its first cast I realized it was unique to minnow shaped swimmers in one respect – this thing casts very well. Minnow shaped lures are deadly, but their casting distance often leaves much to be desired, and they can be nearly unusable when cast into a stiff wind. This one really flew. The plug has what Daiwa calls a "weight transfer system", which seems to me like nothing more than a few ball bearings rolling around inside the plug, but this is no gimmick. Those metal balls go to the tail of the plug on the cast so that it flies tail first, level, and without corkscrewing. The result is a surprisingly long cast. But as you probably know, there's a lot more to a good lure than its casting distance. The next area in which this plug stands out is in its ability to handle turbulence. Whereas a lot of minnow-shaped swimmers might have their action upset in churning water, the Salt Pro cuts through it and keeps swimming properly. This is not to say that the Salt Pro is better than other lures in the same class such as a Bomber, it's just different. If I'm fishing calm conditions and want my plug swimming on or near the surface on a slow retrieve, I'll still reach for the Bomber or something similar first. If the water is moderately rough and I don't mind the plug swimming a couple of feet deeper, I'll take the Salt Pro. The Salt Pro is just another tool in the bag, and it takes a place right next to the RedFins and Bombers I've used for many years. This all refers to the original floating Salt Pro. A sinking version came out last fall, although it's just slightly more than 1/8 of an ounce heavier. Still, in keeping an open mind, I guess I'll get a couple for the upcoming season, which will hopefully be just around the corner if this weather ever improves.
Just a little bit of a rant. I've made a few trips to the Florida Keys over the last couple of winters and it strikes me how the powers that be down there seem to actually go out of their way to provide fishing access. It's as if a shore angler drove along the Overseas Highway and looked for places where people could shore fish or launch kayaks and then provided some parking room. You can fish channel after channel at night and park your car without any worries of getting a ticket. There are numerous places where they obviously invested some money to provide access and parking and these are marked clearly with signs encouraging you to park and fish. On most of Long Island's North Shore now, they might as well have big "Go Away" signs. There are fences, barricades, and no parking signs. I'm still amazed how many times I drive by Shoreham Beach during the day and the gates are locked. Other access points in Brookhaven that I fished with my father when I was a kid are all locked down as well. What can be done about it? Honestly, I think nothing can be done. Many have tried. I've tried too. It's just plain sad.
Fortunately there's still OK ocean access. It could be better, but it could be a lot worse too. Here's some beach plugging video from last fall so I can close this out on a positive note. The focus here was on bottle plugs in rough surf. Bottle plugs are a class of lure that includes Gibbs Casting Swimmers and Super Strike Little Neck Swimmers. I use the Super Strikes most of the time. Bottles are mostly nighttime lures but I managed to get some video at sunset and early in the morning. Enjoy.
I'm going to be optimistic and think that I've shoveled snow for the last time this winter. As I'm writing this we're expecting a light snowfall tomorrow (Tuesday), but beyond that it looks like we're finally in for a thaw. Between the cold, snow, and wind, this last month and a half has been brutal. It still doesn't compare to the worst winter of my lifetime - 1977. That was a year in which Great South Bay clammers drove their trucks onto the bay and clammed through holes in the ice that they cut with chainsaws. It's also the only winter that I've ever seen Long Island Sound appear to be frozen all of the way across. The above picture of the Sound was shot from the top of the bluff in Miller Place that winter. The picture below was of my 10-year-old brother standing on a giant pile of ice near the Mattituck Inlet jetty. The ice mountain formed from the pressure of the ice being pushed against the rocks by the tide. The ice just kept buckling skyward. It was hard to imagine it would ever all melt. That's kind of how I feel now about the pile of snow at the end of my driveway. Hang in there. This can't last much longer.
I'll be giving a fluke fishing seminar noon Saturday at the New York Sportfishing Federation Show in Freeport. I'll also share a booth with John Paduano of Premium Bucktails. For those of you who have read Fishing the Bucktail, these are the very high-quality jigs mentioned in Chapter 2. John will be giving a seminar later that day. This show is always a good one, and I think most of us have had just about enough snow and could use a few hours dedicated to fishing. See you there. The show runs Friday-Sunday. You can get more info at nysf.org/forum-auction.
Now that I have lots of fishing video on my computer I find myself watching it when the winter weather is at its worst. It probably has something to do with my desire to be fishing in stormy weather during the fishing season. Maybe I just want to look back at warmer times. I really have no use for this cold and snow. Below is a video of catching a 33-pound bass on a pencil popper under the nicest of conditions. It was a challenge to land this one because of nearby submerged rocks. To make it tougher the fish hit near the end of a long cast so I had a lot of line out even before it went on its initial run. Two minutes after the fish was hooked, it was hung in the rocks. Since braided line came out all those years ago I've had a very good track record pulling big stripers out of rocks. The key to winning this one was realizing that the fish was nearly out of steam when it hung. I made a guess that I might be able to pull it off if I just applied firm and steady pressure. The problem is there's always the chance that the line's been compromised by rubbing against the rock. Amazingly, this is usually not the case as the braid often comes out undamaged if you don't put excessive pressure on it. In this case I was using 30-pound-test Spiderwire Stealth, which I have a lot of confidence in given this type of situation. It's extremely abrasion resistant, and I was pretty sure I could lean on the fish a bit without it getting cut off. One good thing I had going for me was that I was standing on flat bottom and could just walk backward and exert steady pressure without pumping the rod. As I walked back, I felt the rubbing stop and the bend in the rod soften and I knew the fish was out. These fish know where all of the rocks are, so it wasn't long before it hung me again. I knew the fish was weaker the second time, but feared the line might have been too. I walked backwards again to get the fish out of the second hang. If you watch the video you'll see weeds hanging off the barrel swivel and plug from the snags. I was lucky the fish didn't catch the free treble hook on the rock and straighten the one point of the rear treble that was the only thing connecting me to the fish. What you saw in the video was a little different than most of my big fish hangs. Often you'll feel that sickening line rub when the fish is running hard. I've had this numerous times with fish over 40 pounds and the best thing you can do is just back down on the drag pressure and let it run. Braid is hard to cut if it's not under pressure. The fish will stop when it tires, which seems to be helped along by the friction of the line against the rock. Once the fish stops, you need to just keep pumping line onto the spool carefully and hope for the best. The hard part is when you get the fish all the way back to the rock and have to pull it off. Usually the fish is too tired to protest at this point, and because fish are slippery, even the big ones can slide over or around the obstruction. OK. Thinking about all of that was more fun than shoveling, which I guess I better do now.
While spending a couple of hours shoveling snow today I couldn't help but think not too far back to fish and nicer weather. The most significant aspect that I think about concerning the 2013 fishing season is that this was the first season post-Sandy. That was an unprecedented storm for most of us, and the impact to the fishing was a major focus going into the season. In the end, the access situation probably worked out better than most anticipated. When I saw the destruction in the immediate aftermath of the storm, I certainly didn't think I'd be driving my truck from Smith's point to Moriches Inlet anytime soon. As it worked out, the spring had plenty of beach to drive, and it was only the piping plovers that kept anyone from driving there, legally at least. After the birds flew, almost the entire beach reopened to driving. Overall I think it was a tough spring for most anglers. A bright spot was the reappearance of weakfish. It was nothing like the dependable runs of decades past, but it was a step in the right direction. I thought the bassing in the bays and inlets could have been much better, although there were some good opportunities. I was disappointed in the lack of sandeels in the eastern half of Long Island Sound for the second year in a row. The quality fluke in the usual boat spots came and went in a hurry again, and I couldn't find any sandeels on the beach to fuel any kind of a dependable bass bite. If you did well surf fishing during the summer, or even through September, pat yourself on the back. It was a very difficult stretch for a few months in which even boat anglers were having a tough time. The sandeels bailed many of us out in most of October and November. A coastal storm in the second week of October got the fish going for a sizable stretch of Long Island's South Shore, and the sandeels really dug themselves in over the following weeks. Unfortunately, not all of the Long Island shoreline shared in the good fishing. The western South Shore did not have the bait concentrations that the eastern portions did, and Montauk was uncharacteristically slow from about the third week of October on. I was surprised by how the beach structure recovered from Sandy. I found the 6-mile Smith's Point stretch to be even more interesting than in previous years. It was disappointing, though not surprising, that the big concentrations of adult bunker that South Shore boaters found throughout the summer and early fall made little more than cameo appearances on the beaches. It's still a great thing for those bunker to be out there though because that excellent forage base can only work in the favor of striped bass stocks. We're into show time now, and these provide great opportunities to take in some seminars while stocking up for the season ahead. These shows often feature some beautifully crafted custom plugs, and sometimes you can find used plugs at very low prices. Somehow I just never got into the custom plug craze, so you're more likely to find me rummaging through boxes of $5 plugs than you are to see me standing on line for the $30 lures. That said, someone gave me a Beachmaster metal lip swimmer in partial compensation for my first-ever fishing seminar, and I can tell you that I paid $28 for a back-up model a couple years ago because the first plug was terribly beat up and I had only one other newish one. Zeno gave me that second one for no other reason than he's a good guy. So I do fully understand the attraction some anglers have for the lures made by smaller lure building operations. Nonetheless, some of the most productive lures in my bag are yard sale or flea market finds from standards such as Gibbs and Cordell. Below is a video I just posted on fishing Gibbs pencil poppers. The plug in the video was bought from Mr. Cash for $5 at one of the Willy Young Amityville shows. Cash had the booth next to mine and picking through his merchandise occupied quite a bit of my time. My favorite annual show for surfcasting presentations and merchandise is "Surf Day" put on by the Jersey Shore Surfcasters. It's held in Linden NJ, which really isn't very far from NYC, and isn't a terrible drive from LI. I've been to several of these and often see plenty of Long Islanders there. This year's will be held Saturday, February 22nd. Here's the link for the show
Enjoy the pencil popping videos. This is one I just uploaded on wooden Gibbs pencils. It beats looking at snow.
Here's one I posted earlier on plastic Cordel Pencils.
I think what draws me the most to bucktailing is that this one simple lure consisting of little more than a hook, a little lead, and some hair can catch just about anything that swims and in just about all conditions that we face from surf or boat. Even though the open beach bass I was catching in October and November were focused on sandeels, they almost always responded well to bucktails. Given that the fish were around for more than a month, I was able to get video of catching bass on bucktails across pretty much the whole progression of conditions. Starting with calm wind and surf, to a stiff rising wind-driven chop, to a rough and windy blow, to the aftermath of the blow with the residual swells and sweep. Below are those four videos in order. Enjoy. It beats watching or waiting for snow.
I just cleaned out my truck, which is how I formalize the end of a season. I literally had to get the sand out with a small shovel. I'm happy about that. It means I spent a lot of time on the beach. I'll do a season recap at some point, but I guess a lot of us can't complain about the 5 or 6 week stretch when there were fish on a fair portion of Long Island's South Shore. The nice thing about having a relatively long period of time with fish on the beach is that the fish are there through a variety of conditions. This was an extremely calm fall, with no significant effects from named storms and really not too many days with winds over 20 knots. There were some exceptions, and the video below was shot on one of those days where you might step out of the truck, take three casts that fall well short of anything but white water, and then get back in the truck. I'm not sure if that's why no one was fishing this particular trip that started around 4 pm on an early November day. The wind was strong onshore, and much of the beach was whitewater. For whatever reason, I was able to drive for several miles over sand that had been fished heavily for the preceding couple of weeks without seeing a single angler with a line in the water. There were a few trucks, but no one actually fishing. It all looked good to me, and the fish were happily taking my bucktails in the turbulence. The video below is #3 of a 4-part sand bucktailing video series. The other two on my YouTube channel cover bucktailing calm wind and surf, and then calm surf but a strong onshore wind. I've posted them in earlier blog posts. The 4th one will be the day following this trip when the wind was on my back but there were sizable swells.
If you listen to NY Mets games on the radio, you'll get the title of this blog entry. It's how the longtime announcer, Howie Rose, closes out games. Given the almost total domination of our beaches these past couple weeks by bass that could fit in your pocket, coupled with weather more normal for late January, I imagine a lot of Long Island surf anglers are packing it in for the year. It's always a tough decision as to when to call it a season. Some anglers will just keep at it until well into December. Others who have fished very hard over the preceding months come to the realization that it no longer makes sense to lose sleep and burn gas to fish in the cold for the chance at a keeper size fish. Many anglers at this point are just plain tired and welcome the rest. The absence of good sized bass in the Montauk rips at this point of the season is surely not a good sign that there's another body of fish to move down the shore. However, anyone who's been at this long enough can recall a mid to late November lull before quality bass exploded on the beaches on herring. This seems like a long shot at best given the current fishing, brutal cold, and a long-range forecast with almost nothing beyond a 40-degree daytime high. There is something to watch carefully though - that coastal storm forecast for Tuesday night into Wednesday. The forecast wasn't quite firm yet as I wrote this, but a deep low pressure system with a strong onshore wind can work some magic. All of the better bass have not cleared the Long Island coastline yet. It may seem that way from the past week of beach fishing, but there are undoubtedly still some better fish in deeper waters and coming down from the North. The middle of the week could be interesting depending on what the storm does. I'm doing a 4-part video series of fishing bucktails under different conditions. Here's number 2 of 4. The others will follow in the weeks ahead.
The seasonal progression seems to be in overdrive this past week as I've watched 10- to 15-pound average bass shrink to those that average about 18 inches. It's part of what happens in the fall, and the small fish are widely accepted as a sign that things are starting to wind down. Maybe the fat lady is warming up, but I wouldn't be cleaning off gear just yet. In the infrequent years when we've had substantial herring runs, we've gone through the small fish run of mid-November only to have 15- to 30-pound stripers blasting herring schools on the beach in the first week of December. For now, it seems as though the nice body of fish that were on Long Island's East End over the past few weeks has been replaced by smalls. We might as well fish on those anyway because in another month, and then for the next four months after that, there won't be much to do. Even though bucktails don't look much like sandeels, they still produce very well when sandeels are the predominant bait. I've had some excellent sessions bucktailing this current sandeel run. Over the next month or two I'm going to put out a series of videos on bucktailing the ocean sand beaches under different water and wind conditions. Here's the first one on bucktailing calm wind and surf.
Are we having fun yet? If you're a Long Island surf angler, it's pretty hard not to be having fun right now with bass gorging on big sandeels along pretty much the entire South Shore. The quality is decent too for a sandeel run. The only problem is it's never safe to leave the beach because the good action can be happening anytime of day or night. Most anglers are throwing diamond jigs and tubes, and these are producing fine most of the time during daylight hours. As anyone who pays attention on the beach has noticed, there always seems to be a few guys who are doing much better than others. I've been on both sides of this - the guy with the frequently bent rod, and the one scratching his head while watching someone else set the hook every other cast. Depth is important. I've seen instances, especially in rough water, where your offering had to be right on the bottom. Other times they wanted a faster and higher retrieve. There have been other times, much to my delight, where bucktails and other lures could far outproduce the metal. One such day was a calm overcast early afternoon a couple weeks ago when the run had just taken hold. Some cormorants made me curious, and after a tin didn't raise any interest, I started throwing a Tsunami Sandeel. These are simply awesome lures. They have great hooks, hold up very well, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a better sandeel imitator. Enjoy the video.
It's probably safe to say that the predominant baitfish in the eastern Long Island ocean surf is now sandeels. They fueled some good fishing over the past week, with the recent easterly blow producing some localized excellent action. As with most sandeel powered fishing, the action included the night hours. As is always the case with sandeel runs, diamond jigs in the 007 through A47 sizes dominated the daytime lure choices. The A17 and A27 sizes were seeing most of the action. Super Strike needlefish plugs, marketed as "Super N Fish", were my choice in the dark. The Super Strike Needles come in three sizes and six different weights. The red-eyed plugs are the special heavy-weighted versions. In the recent strong easterly winds with a big sweep I favored the heavy weighted 3-ounce needles that cast and cut through the wind like a missile and had enough weight to stay in the strike zone long enough to get hit before being swept away by the sideways winds and seas. Under more moderate conditions I did well on the middle size 1 1/2-ounce plugs. The six different weights of Super Strike needles can cover everything from a quiet back bay to a storm on the oceanfront. Numerous fishing lure manufactures make needlefish plugs. I have a personal preference for the Super Strikes because they work consistently and hold up well. The challenge for anglers who have never caught fish with needlefish plugs is to have any confidence at all that they're going to work. After all, these are little more than straight plastic or wood sticks with hooks hanging off. Drag one through the water to observe its action and you're sure to be underwhelmed. Nonetheless, stripers will pound these plugs, particularly in rough conditions. Over the years, many bass over 50 pounds have fallen to needlefish plugs in the northeast surf. Little more than a straight and steady retrieve is required to make them catch, but you can also add in occasional lifts and twitches. I use a slow retrieve speed at night and maybe a touch faster in the daylight. The most important aspect of the retrieve is to stay in contact with the plug as it's being knocked around by the surf. The following video shows how I work a needle and should give a little confidence to those who have never caught fish on them before. If your area is not seeing sandeels now, they may be yet to come. My logs show that the excellent 2010 sandeel run didn't become widespread until late October.
Eels, bucktails, pencil poppers, minnow plugs (Bombers/RedFins), and various Super Strike lures - I'd bet these make up what I'm casting at least 90% of the time. I see Super Strike plugs in particular as solid tools in the bag. They just plain work, and because they're plastic, there's no difference from one to the next. No "blems" or imperfections. If they're not catching, I can't blame the plug. It's one thing less I have to think about. I also like that, unlike wood, the plastic gets barely more than scratched by teeth and sharp hooks while their wood counterparts eventually get gouged. Mullet began moving out of the bays and along the ocean beaches at least 10 days ago. I have seen very little on them, but there's always potential when they're around. It's hard to beat the blue Super Strike Little Necks when the fish are on mullet. The 1 1/2-ounce is a perfect match for a mullet's size and profile. The 2 3/8-ounce is what I go for when I need to reach the whitewater of a distant bar. That was the situation in the video below. There was nothing showing - no birds or fish breaking, and I didn't actually see any mullet around. I just figured there would be some, and even if I was wrong, blue is a good plug color anyway. There's still mullet in the surf, and plenty of other bait to move. Sandeels are along the beaches to at least Moriches Inlet. What we need are some more bass. Just ask anyone who participated in this past weekend's Montauk Surf Classic. The top three bass were 37, 18, and 18 pounds. Out of all those entrants and talent there was only one fish over 20 pounds caught. Amazing. And not in a good way. Reports are that most anglers would have been happy to bend a rod even on small fish, but they were scarce too. It can only get better. Enjoy the video.
Have you ever been going along and then thought to yourself "I smell fish"? Fish such as bluefish and bunker give off enough oil that it often ends up on the water's surface and you can smell them from quite some distance. If you're a bunker chunker, you've probably seen the small slick that results from your chunk hitting the water. The problem with just smelling fish is that the smell can travel quite some distance, and it may be from nothing more than an angler in the area fishing with bunker. Those shiny spots on the water can also be a sign of fish, but they can also come from many other things, such as a little oil or fuel dripping off someone's boat. A couple weeks ago I was paddling out to troll tube and worm over some deeper rocks when I noticed a fish smell and shiny spot that was maybe 30 feet by 30 feet. The smell had me thinking there were fish feeding nearby, and the slick gave away the exact location. Because this was in a shallow structureless area that had nothing to hold fish, I figured this was a fleeting opportunity and put a bucktail on the upcurrent edge of the slick as fast as I could. I had some fun for a bit. When the slick was gone, so were the fish.
Northeast winds 15 to 20 knots, gusts to 25. Temperatures dropping to about 50 degrees. That was the forecast as I wrote this on September 8. One word should come to the mind of every surfcaster looking at that data – mullet. It's about a week early for a major blast, but I'll be very surprised if I go to the beach in the morning and don't see some making their tell-tale "V" wakes on the surface of the ocean. Ten years ago, probably even five, I'd be quite confident that there would be at least some bass on them. Probably not a total blitz scene yet, but I could expect some action. I'm not expecting much tomorrow. I'll nevertheless have a token line-up of plugs proven on past mullet runs: a blue 1.5-ounce Super Strike popper, a blue 1-ounce Gibbs Danny metal-lipped swimmer, a blue 6-inch Bomber, a blue Gibbs pencil popper. As expected when targeting a mullet run, blue is heavily favored. I'm not going to weigh the bag down with stuff. Should I be pleasantly surprised, these plugs will collectively do plenty of damage. I'll use my 9-footer because it's a little better suited to working plugs close to the shore where mullet-fueled hits often occur. I'm secretly hoping there will be some bluefish around just so I can go through the motions and bend the rod a bit. I'm usually not so pessimistic, but that's because I'm usually doing structure oriented fishing on the night tides, and most of those efforts are fruitful. Still, I know there's no way I'll be able to sleep past first light tomorrow morning with the sound of the leaves rustling and a cool breeze blowing through the bedroom window without my brain telling me I need to be on the beach. So I'll go. When I fail to catch any bass of significance, I'll blame it on the calendar, use the excuse that it's still a week early, and go through the whole thing again on the next cold front. My pessimism comes from a string of years with little or no mullet-induced action. When it happens, it's localized or short in duration. Another thing that has me feeling a little extra pessimism is this summer's lack of good striper boat reports from the eastern inlets. No matter how you feel about people posting reports, it's undeniable that they give some feel for what's going on. Even if no surfcasters are reporting, you can bet that the charters will be quick to advertise their successes in a timely fashion because it's good for business. The only bass being reported out of the inlets the past six weeks ago are a handful of keeperish fish on live baits. Somehow I'm not expecting that bass are suddenly going to materialize on the beaches because there's some mullet swimming around. If you're reading this on Tuesday or later we'll already know if the wind that I can hear accelerating while I'm typing this will ignite some beach action. I'm hoping my pessimism was off-base and I sounded clueless.
I did a casual beach trip a few evenings ago to test out a new Penn Regiment rod and was happy to connect with some bluefish. I didn't see any bait that evening, but there were big sandeels being picked from the western South Fork surf within easy casting range of shore on Saturday (17th). I was there to drift snappers for fluke from my kayak, and I had no trouble getting the bait with a sabiki rig the evening before in Riverhead. Lots of sandeels and snappers - definitely a nice sign for the months ahead. I'm also happy to see the bluefish because they do a nice job of keeping the bait close to shore. Plus I really enjoy catching the big ones from the beach. I had quite a surprise on that evening beach trip when a fox somehow figured out pretty quickly that I had just landed a fish, and the brazen creature wasn't shy about coming right over to see if it could have a taste! I'm so used to fox being skittish and bolting away. This one must have been pretty hungry. As those snappers keep growing and venturing into the ocean more, look for them to fuel some good plugging sessions over the next couple of weeks. I like the 1 1/2-ounce and 2 5/8-ounce Super Strike poppers in white when the fish are on snappers. They're a good match for the snapper profile, and cast like a bullet. Here's some video from the evening beach trip.
The break in the heat put a few bass and blues within reach of surfcasters last week, but the bass were mostly schoolies, and there weren't many anglers to take advantage of them because many surfcasters throttled down their effort when the hot weather set in. I confess to being one of them. I fished very hard in May and June, did well, and switched over to a more relaxing pace of targeting fluke when the last heatwave hit. There is plenty of shore-bound fluke potential available this time of year. As I was kayak fishing yesterday I watched one of the local South Shore partyboats drifting within casting distance of relatively easily accessible shoreline for over an hour. I was at varying distances, but from what I could see, there were only a few anglers on the half-mile stretch of rock and sand. The partyboat is out all day, every day, had access to the ocean and entire bay, and still focused on fish that could be reached from shore. That says a lot about the fluke potential for anglers casting from that stretch of shoreline. When I target fluke from shore I use the same gear that I do when bass fishing in the bays. I use my 7-foot Penn Regiment rod that's rated for 10- to 17-pound-test line and a Penn 360 Slammer spooled with 20-pound-test braid. My terminal fluke rig is exactly the same as what I use in my boat or kayak. It's a 1/2- to 1-ounce bucktail at the end with a 3/0 Gamakatsu Baitholder hook on a dropper loop about one foot above the bucktail. The bucktail and dropper hook are tipped with a 4-inch Berkley Gulp Alive Swimming Mullet. This is all on a leader of 20-pound-test Fluorocarbon. The important detail is to swim this rig close to the bottom. I impart a constant and rapid jigging motion because it works so well for me in the boat and kayak. A steady retrieve with occasional twitches would work just fine too. As for where to fish, it's hard to go wrong with the inlet areas, especially on the incoming current that brings in clean ocean water and often some bait along with it. If the current is very strong in the main inlet, work your way along the inlet's back side. Generally, if you can find areas of current and some edges, bars, or drop-offs, these areas are worth a shot for fluke. It's important to keep in mind that, like stripers, fluke often won't feed heavily through an entire tide. If I had to pick a portion of the tide in the eastern Long Island bays and adjoining shorelines, I'd go with the last two hours of incoming and the first hour of outgoing. Of course this will vary from location to location. Note that the water quality may change drastically depending on the tide stage. The end of the outgoing might be brown and weedy as water is drawn from the back reaches of the bays where there is a lot of algae growth. After the first hour of incoming you might be fishing on gin-clear ocean water. As usual, some experimentation with locations and tide phases will yield the best strategy. Below is a fluke casting video I shot during the last heatwave. I also included a short video of the tying details of the rig I was using. Although the casting video was shot in the bay, the technique is also effective on the ocean beaches in mild surf.
Summer's upon us now for sure, and breaking the 90-degree mark seems like a daily occurrence. The water temperatures were running a bit cool through the spring and the first week of summer, but that's behind us now. There's probably a lot more effort directed at fluke and triggerfish than there is stripers now. Still, there are stripers in our waters, and they need to eat. If you're looking to catch them on artificials, the window for almost all of the good potential has been reduced to dusk through dawn. One of the more effective lures for the summer is a pencil popper. Sure, they're good in the spring and fall too, but they seem to stand out among the others in summer because they have the ability to raise fish when other artificials are ignored. This is likely due to the fact that you can retrieve them slowly while dancing them with a lot of commotion. It's often enough to trigger a bass to smash it. If I'm going to target bass with artificials in this weather, I'll be thrashing the water with pencils at dusk and dawn, and crawling minnow-shaped swimmers, such as Bombers and RedFins, when it's dark. I'll often make the change between lure styles around the time that it's too dark for me to see my plug hit the water. Usually I'll change back and forth more than once in the last or first 20 minutes or so of readable daylight before committing to the lure style change. Sometimes they don't hit the poppers unless there's a fair amount of daylight, but will hit the swimmers. Other times they'll respond to poppers in very low light. You just need to keep testing them. A good strategy for this time of year is to plug both the front and backsides of the inlet areas at first light until just after sunrise, and then spend a little time on fluke or triggerfish. The backsides are usually more productive on the incoming current in this warm weather because of the influx of cooler ocean water. I like trips like this because of the three completely different species, something's bound to be in the mood to hit. A little variety in the cooler is a nice thing too. Anglers fishing the night tides at Montauk have iced the cake many times with big bass on pencils at dawn. On trips when I've eeled Montauk in the predawn hours, I always finished off with pencil poppers. Since they cast easily more than twice as far as eels, they'll allow you to cover a lot more and somewhat deeper water. There are lots of pencil poppers on the market, and you can easily spend $20-$30 each for the custom ones. For bays and Long Island Sound and calm ocean conditions, I'm a fan of the much less expensive Cotton Cordell pencil poppers. They'll set you back around $6 each, and they're very effective. These are a nice match to a medium action 9-foot rod that is comfortable under calm conditions. Here's a video of the plugs in action.
I'm a surfcaster, but I credit bass fishing the East End rips from boats decades ago with teaching me a lot about striped bass fishing that I was able to exploit for surfcasting, especially in areas with significant current. When legendary boat captains such as John DeMaio and Bob Storc wrote books – I bought them and squeezed out any information I could. A new book is now sitting on my desk from another Montauk Captain, Tom Mikoleski. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably because you've read some of the hundreds of articles he's had published in fishing magazines over the years. His new book, Bass Buff – A Striper Fishing Obsession Guide, is a no-brainer must-have for any boat angler, but should also be added to the fishing libraries of surf and kayak anglers as well. Tom has many years of experience as a full-time Montauk charter captain. His book benefits from both his fine writing skills and the immense body of knowledge he has accumulated in his years of days and nights in the rips. The weapons of choice of big bass hunters are all covered in great detail, including fishing with eels, bucktails, bunker, and the strategies used to consistently entice the largest stripers with these offerings in a variety of conditions. He also has the necessary nuts and bolts chapters that cover gear and rigging. The opening chapters of the book that take the reader along on the author's journey to becoming a charter captain are also a very nice read. You can learn more about the book at bassbuff.com. I'm writing this in the midst of the season's first heatwave, but the water temperatures are running cool enough that we shouldn't expect the heat to do significant damage to the bass bite just yet – that's if you're actually on a bass bite. If you're having a good season so far, pat yourself on the back for being smart or consider yourself lucky, because I think the surf season has been a tough one so far for most shorebound anglers. Rich Trox, as he does often, started a great thread on the Noreast Surf Forum addressing surf anglers' impressions of the season so far. You can read that here. Access restrictions have complicated matters, but I think the change in bottom structure caused by Sandy has had an equally adverse impact. There's also an issue with the water quality in Long Island Sound, at least where I live in Riverhead Town. The water has been just plain dingy all season. On Sunday my son and I were fluking in the boat about a mile and a half off the beach, and the water was clear. When we moved in about halfway to the beach, we could barely see our drift sock just a few feet under the surface. I'm hoping the strong "super moon" currents will finally flush things out, but there just seems to be a lot of silt and debris built up from the past years' storms. Bait this year is spotty. I'm seeing just a few sandeels being spit up by the fluke we're catching, but there are none close to shore. I've heard reports of good sandeel concentrations in the western Sound. The ocean from Fire Island Inlet to Shinnecock is loaded with adult bunker, but finding pods with fish on them can be a chore. We should have a couple more weeks before warm water seriously diminishes striper action and pushes what remains to eastern waters. Enjoy it while you can, and just learn to adjust expectations if your catching isn't as good as in years past.
Yes, I really meant "Penn Rods" and not "Penn Reels". Most anglers think of reels when they hear the name "Penn", as they should, due to the fact that Penn reels have been a dominant player in the recreational saltwater fishing industry for many years. Even the URL for Penn's website is "pennreels.com". Earlier this year I had my first experience with a Penn rod. It was a mid-range Legion Inshore 7-footer rated for 15- to 30-pound mono, or 20- to 50-pound braid. I had seen these rods at a winter show, and got one to use on tarpon in Key West. With a Penn 560 Slammer and 50-pound-test Spiderwire Stealth braid, I had it rigged to its limit. I hooked a couple dozen tarpon on it, had significant battles with about eight of them, and landed one that measured and calculated to about 150 pounds, along with a smaller 100-pound class fish. This was from shore, near a bridge, and if I had broken the rod I would have blamed myself for the excessive pressure I put on it. The rod held up just fine. This encouraged me to try another Penn rod. This time their top of the line Regiment Inshore Series. In this case a 7-footer rated for 10- to 17-pound-test line that I would use for light duty striper fishing from the shore and kayak. This rod is built to New Guide Concept (NGC) specifications with Alconite guides. A few years ago I built my own NGC 11-footer and became a believer in this method of using smaller and more numerous low-profile guides. The result is a lighter-weight finished product with casting performance that I found comparable, and sometimes better, than traditional layouts. The handle on the Regiment is a blend of cork and rubber that they call "Hybra-cork". It's very comfortable and wasn't as slippery as cork when my hands were wet and/or slimy. I matched the Regiment with a Penn Slammer 360 spooled with 20-pound-test Spiderwire Stealth braid. It has quickly become my favorite rod for the kayak and bay shoreline casting. I can't wait to catch false albacore on it in the fall. Here's a video of the rod in action.
11 years - that's how long it had been since the New York Islanders had won a playoff game on home ice, until this week. 11 years was also the amount of time passed since I landed a shore-caught weakfish, until this week. Are the weakfish coming back? Judging by the reports coming from the Hampton Lady partyboat fishing the Peconics, and word of semi-dependable shore-based weakfish bites in South Fork waters, there sure is an improvement. Weakfish are notoriously cyclic - going from times when they seem extinct to being almost plentiful a few years later. I watched it happen going from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. Yes, there have been localized runs on Long Island's western South Shore and in New Jersey almost every year, but the traditional spring eastern Long Island weakfish runs have been nearly non-existent. So how can you catch weakfish? Generally with low and slow presentations. I've had three this spring, all on bucktail and porkrind combos fished just off the bottom while mainly targeting bass. The traditional lures include jigheads tipped with red Jellyworms. Among my favorite weakfish lures are 4- and 5-inch Storm swimshads in white. Bass Assasins, Fin-S Fish, and many of the fine soft plastic lures on the market today work well for weaks. These can be a strange fish - stacked up on a fishfinder for hours and not touching a thing, only to have the whole school go on a feeding binge where you need only to get a reasonable presentation in the near-bottom strike zone. Although they're usually near the bottom, my largest weaks in the 13-pound range fell to surface swimming plugs fished in 5 to 8 feet of water, but now we're talking about the early 1980's - or the last time the Islanders won a Stanley Cup. Maybe both the Islanders and the weakfish are on their way back. It never hurts to dream.
Could a new Penn 704Z or 706Z be in your future? Up until very recently, I would have said only if you were willing to drop about $300 on EBAY. That's the average price of the two 706Zs I've sold there in the last year, and other sellers have done much better. I guess Penn took notice. According to Penn Business manager Mike Rice, the 704Z and 706Z are being brought back due to popular demand. These will be exactly the same reels they sold before with the same parts so that the parts can be interchangeable with the reels already in use. This is rather huge for the many current owners of these reels, because parts were beginning to dry up. Rice expects the reels to retail for about $200. There's no firm date yet on when they'll hit the market, but they should be available by the end of the year. Both of my 11-foot workhorse surf rods have Penn 706Zs on them. I'll be experimenting with replacing my inlet reel with a new Spinfisher SSV 8500 this season, but it's going to have to be a mighty fine reel to push aside the bail-less and relatively lightweight 706Z. To have yet another proven surf reel choice on the market is a big win for surfcasters.
Simplicity is one of the strong points of the Penn 704Z and 706Z reels.
I had a five night shot at shore-based tarpon on last week's trip to the lower Florida Keys. Arriving on the heels of a cold front, the fish were a little off, evidenced by the fact that I didn't hear a single splash the first two nights. Still, I was doing OK, landing 3 of 14 hookups, with one of those being a trip-maker in the 80- to 100-pound range. I was real happy. Tuesday night was the last time I saw the temperature drop below 79 degrees, even in the middle of the night. It was in the mid-80s with strong sunshine during the day. By Wednesday night, I knew things were going to be different when I heard the first surface busts as the flood current began to weaken. The next two nights were among the most exciting and frustrating I've had fishing. Big migratory tarpon were moving through and were responding to my swimshads. Over the two nights I had 5 jump-filled battles with tarpon that lasted between 15 and 25 minutes. There was one pulled hook, one cutoff on a piling, one break of brand new 50-pound-test braid when a jumped fish must have come down on the line with its gill plates, and two that chafed through 80-pound-test leader material. Having relatively little experience fishing for tarpon, this was the first time that 80-pound leader material was insufficient. In addition to these extended hookups were 17 fish that threw the hook on the initial jumps. I was now 3 for 36. I've read that the normal landing rate for hooked tarpon is about 1 in 10, but most of that is from boats. My final night I arrived rigged with 100-pound leader material, but it was a slow start and it didn't seem that the great action of the previous nights was going to materialize. I began to think back with satisfaction on my 5 days and nights of fishing. I had actually landed a big tarpon, along with smaller 20 and 40-pound-class specimens. I had some intense jump-filled battles that I'd never forget. Despite the wind, I had managed a couple of enjoyable days fishing for barracuda on the flats in the lee of one of the larger keys. The rare moment of reflection was interrupted by a solid jolt, and I knew from the deep rod pulsations this was another big fish. The first jump was the most spectacular I had seen in the well-lit night setting. The huge chrome fish 4 feet out of the water and flying easily 15 feet through the air laterally in front of me. It crashed to the water and just kept going with the flood current. It made several jumps on the first run and didn't stop until my spool was over two thirds empty. It was in open and obstruction-free water. A tug of war ensued for about the next 15 minutes as I gained a lot of line back as the current weakened, and finally slacked. This was the perfect scenario of fighting the fish with slow to no current. I had done the same the previous night with the first fish that broke the leader. After about 20 minutes the fish crossed in front of me, and then was in the difficult position of being downcurrent in the strengthening ebb. I didn't realize how far away the fish was until it leaped out of the water and grazed the same piling that the fish had frayed my line on the night before. This fish seemed to spook from the piling and move into the current, allowing me to gain some precious line. Throughout all of this were occasional jumps. If they don't throw the hook, jumps are good when fighting a tarpon because they zap some of the fish's energy. After each jump I'd aggressively try to put line on the reel before the fish recovered from crashing on the water. At what I think was about 30 minutes into the fight, I had the fish in front of me and close, but we were in a standoff. The fish finally somewhat weakened, but angling its immense profile against the current. I felt a violent tug and the fish jumped close enough to splash me when it hit the water. I saw my opportunity to exploit the effects of the jump and pulled hard enough to turn its head toward me. With two more sweeps of the rod I grabbed the leader and pulled it into a corner formed by the small cement structure I was standing on and the rocks that lined the shore. I had already surveyed the water beneath me for a possible landing and knew it was only knee-deep with a firm and level bottom. With the rod in one hand and the leader in the other, I jumped in beside the fish, released the leader and grabbed the fish's lower jaw and led it a few feet into the small corner. I feared the fish would give me a nasty thrashing, but figured I could just let go if I couldn't handle it. Instead it just wobbled back and forth a couple of times and came to rest. I knew I had little time. As I've done with stripers many times, and one other time with a tarpon, I grabbed the 10-year-old Pentax Optio from the side pocket of my surf bag and sat it on one of two perfectly positioned rocks at the water's edge. It took three button pushes to commence a series of five photos. I cut the leader, stepped back with the fish, and let the camera do the rest. I needed only to hold the fish in front of the camera as the pictures were fired off at five-second intervals. In one more button push, I was able to confirm that the fish was reasonably framed. I then grabbed my leader spool, made a loop, and hooked it over the lower jaw of the fish while I ran the line straight back to the fork of the tail. I snipped that, stuffed it in my bag, and then ran another length of line around the midsection, just ahead of the dorsal fin. There was only a jig hook where the swim shad used to be, and it popped out of the inside of the fish's mouth pretty easily. Less than two minutes had passed since leading the fish to shallow water. Reviving the fish was facilitated by the flow of the ebb-current, which now had some force behind it. It took little time for the fish to regain its strength and propel its way back into the channel. That would be my last cast of the trip. I measured the length and girth leader segments the next day. The fish was 75 inches long with a 37 inch girth. The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust tarpon weight calculator converted that to 151 pounds. The fish was landed on a 7-foot Penn Legion Inshore 15-30 rod with a Penn 560 Slammer with 50-pound-test braid and 100-pound-test leader. A lifetime memory for sure. Now it's striper time...
Lots of wind in The Keys keeping me out of the kayak today, but the night shore bite worked out for my first night last night. Landed 2 tarpon out of 7 hookups. One was only about 20 pounds, but the one in the picture was a good one. 3-inch Gulp shrimp on a half-ounce jig head. Everything loves Gulp.
Each day on my way to work I drive past a little cafe named "The Grind" across from the pond in Wading River. The cafe brings back memories for me because of its former life as Wading River Bait and Tackle, which occupied the building for about ten years. The tackle shop's owner, Matt Maccaro, gets the credit for getting me into kayak fishing when after I looked over one of his kayaks for about the 20th time he said - "Take it with you already and bring it back when you're done!" My fondest memory of the shop was the morning I finally got to see a scale go past fifty pounds on one of my surf-caught bass. I miss driving by the tackle shop, but it's a mighty tough business nowadays. It's some consolation that the new cafe has excellent food at a reasonable price. Now there's another reason to make me smile when I go into the old familiar building. There are some beautiful pictures on the wall, and one of the scenes is a little more than familiar. Entitled "Wake Reflections", it's a tranquil water scene of a dock and reflections of fall colors blended by a gentle boat wake. It also happens to be the place that made some of my earliest memories, and where my parents still live. A memory that remains vivid involves the first time I hooked a weakfish when I was no more than 8 years old. I was on a small sand point exposed by low tide on the far left hand side of the picture casting a Johnson Sprite spoon in hopes of catching one of these colorful fish that my father and older brother caught with regularity, but had always eluded me. I had been casting straight out, but a boat was coming, so I made a cast to the side to avoid having the boat run over my line. I remember that retrieve stopping like I had hooked bottom, but then the rod was pulled to the water as line peeled off the lightly set drag. That the fish was named "weakfish" because of its weak mouth had been overly impressed upon me to the point that when I got it to the shore, I was afraid I'd rip its mouth if I tried to pull it onto the sand. I screamed so loud for a net that my parents came running because they thought I was drowning. I wasn't, they didn't bring a net, and the fish didn't wait around long enough for my father to tell me that I could have just pulled it onto the beach. My first weakfish was gone, but many were landed in the coming summers as I got a little smarter. Whether it was weakfish, snappers, or small bass, no fish was ever larger than about 16 inches. There was no house on the property back then – just a shed, a dock, and an old wooden flat-bottomed boat. On the rare occasions when adult bunker would swim through, I'd row out into their path and try to snag them, because they pulled harder than anything else. One day while reeling in a snagged bunker, my rod doubled over and I watched almost all of my line go off the reel. Somehow I held it together and managed to get all of the line back. By the time I did, the 11-pound bluefish, a monster for those waters, was so whipped that I was able to grab its tail and slide it over the side. It was the biggest fish I had ever caught at the time, beating out the 8-pound bluefish that I wrote about in A Season on the Edge. There are many other memories as well, often involving crabs, clams, and flounder. Even though I don't think I've ever admitted it, there's also the realization that I probably would have drowned there as a child had my older brother not reached me with an outstretched oar from the old wooden boat. One day last fall, Captain Jerry McGrath, aka "Schoolman" on Noreast, saw something special in the place as he was cruising up Mattituck Inlet and heading for the Sound, so he snapped a picture. It's now one of the most popular in his gallery of prints that he offers on his website, and a reason for me to smile while I'm waiting for a sandwich at The Grind. You can see more of Jerry's work at www.capturedmcgraphics.com or on his Facebook page
I had an eye-opening experience last weekend at the Berkeley Striper Club Flea Market in Toms River New Jersey. This, along with the Asbury Park Fishing Club's Annual Flea Market, are well known among those looking to buy the best in custom fishing plugs. I have heard about these shows for years, and how anglers line up and sleep outside the doors so that they can be among the first to get in and have their choice of plugs. It was something I was having trouble believing without seeing it for myself. Well, I saw it. There were actually people camped out in front of the venue's doors looking like they had been there awhile. As a vendor, I was there early to set up and wander around before the crowd was let in. Among the over 60 vendors were 23 dedicated to custom plugs. My table was next to one of the more popular ones – D-Mag custom Lures. When the doors opened an endless line formed to get to his plugs. As best as I can recall, the needlefish were $20, the small pencil poppers were $25, the large pencils were $30, and his new swimming plugs were $40. There looked to be similar lines at some other tables, especially RM Smith's. I believe there was a limit of three D-Mag's per customer, and what seemed like a substantial supply was cleaned out in about an hour. I was told that the pencil poppers have internal rattles and cast perfectly straight without corkscrewing through the air. The paint jobs were exquisite. I also learned that the plugs were collected and traded as well as fished. After he was cleaned out I had a chat with "D-Mag" himself. In my ignorance I wondered why he brought only enough to get him through the first hour of the show, and he explained the amount of work that goes into making a plug. Turning on the lathe, drilling, rattle or weight placement, through wiring, sealing, painting, etc. After some thought I realized that this was hard-earned money he had just take in. Equally as entertaining was how his customers that were filing by my table had no interest at all in the very low-priced Atoms and Creek Chubs I had on my table. I was there to sell books, and did fine with those, but I figured this was a good opportunity to get rid of stuff I'd probably never use. I had perfectly good plugs for $2.50 each, and more beat up ones for $1.50 each. I joked with D-Mag's customers that they could use my cheap plugs to check for bluefish before throwing the precious D-Mags, but no one was convinced. Before the show was done, I took $25 for the whole box of about 30 of the plugs I had marked at $1.50 each, and I was happy to get that. For a quick laugh, check out this bit I found on YouTube concerning D-Mag lures.
This was the second Jersey show in two weekends for me, having attended the Jersey Shore Surfcaster's Surf Day the previous weekend. Overall I'm starting to feel kind of frugal. I use GSB Lamiglas rods instead of the now very popular Century and CTS rods. I fish with mostly Penn Reels, and I don't mean Torques either. Any pricey wood you'll find in my surf bag was probably given to me. The rest are mostly Super Strikes, Bombers, and bucktails. My 12-year old Jeep Cherokee still shows the un-repaired scars of hitting a deer at over 50 MPH, and the roof is about 10% Bondo from the kayak having dripped salt water on it. My point is that it's great to buy the very best, but you can do OK without damaging the kids' college fund too. The flea market was rather awesome. I saw a couple of nice rods go by my table that were so well priced that I wished I had seen them before the crowds came in. A new-looking 9-foot St. Croix Mojo for $60 and an 8-foot Tica for $30 come to mind. The Asbury Park Flea Market is this Sunday, March 10, 9a.m. to 2p.m. if you'd like to experience one of these shows.
Despite more miserable beach-wrecking weather, I'm excited because I've just received my first two Penn SSV reels. They came out last October, but with the season shortened by Sandy I never got to check out the new reels. My first chance came a couple weeks ago at the Jersey Shore Surfcaster's "Surf Day". This yearly event is a fabulous show, but that's a subject for another time. My table was directly across from the booth of Fisherman's Headquarters from Ship Bottom, NJ. Greg from that shop showed me the SSVs and I knew immediately that I'd be starting the upcoming season with a couple of them. I still fish with a Penn 706Z on my 11-footers. When I took a few cranks on the oversized handle of the 8500SSV, I decided that's what I'd be starting the new season with in the inlets. I've always liked the pancake handle of the 706, but the 8500 felt like a more powerful reel that would be perfect for winching fish through the current. I think the design of the handle had a lot to do with that impression. I was already leaning toward swapping out the 706 for the 8500 for other reasons. A big one is the sealed drag. The entire SSV reel is advertised to be watertight, but it was the drag I was most interested in. Wet drag washers are brutal with big fish in a current, and with waves splashing against the rocks, the drag washers on the 706 often get wet. Also, I've always tolerated the anti-reverse on the 706, but will benefit from the infinite anti-reverse on the 8500. It's easy to find reel specs on Penn's website, but one thing I couldn't get a feel for from the specs was the dimensions of the spool. Line capacity isn't a good guide because that depends a lot on the depth of the spool. The top diameter of the 8500 spool is 3 inches, which is just slightly larger than what I measured on the 706. Where it really stood out was on the height of the part of the spool that holds the line. This measured 30% taller than the 706 spool, and that will make a big difference on the cast. The taller that part of the spool, the less the diameter of the line on the spool decreases on a long cast. There's no doubt that the 8500 will outcast the 706 because of this. I was a little concerned by the extra weight of the 8500 as compared to the exceptionally lightweight 706, but after putting it on the rod, it wasn't that noticeable. One thing I'll have to overcome is having a bail, because I definitely prefer bail-less. I manage with my smaller Penn spinners, often by grabbing the line with my index finger before closing the bail, so I'll figure it out with this reel too. I'll need to adjust to the higher gear ratio. The 8500 pulls 42 inches of line per turn of the handle, whereas the 706 is about 34 inches per turn. I'll welcome that extra speed when burning the jig back through the current after it's been pushed out of the strike zone. The other SSV I'll be trying is the 4500. I'll appreciate the watertight reel in the kayak. This will also be my false albacore reel and again the watertight drag will be very valuable because it's hard to keep consistent drag pressure on those speedsters if the drag washers aren't dry. The high speed 6.2:1 gear ratio will be an improvement over the slower Penn 440SSG for albies because it seems the faster the better with those fish. I'll have to make an adjustment when bass fishing and slow my cranking down a bit. I'll have more to say about these reels after I use them for awhile. I really hope they live up to my expectations because the $140-$180 price range is very reasonable if the reels perform as advertised. You can learn more about the reels at pennreels.com. I'm writing this on day two of a Nor'easter, but keep telling myself that this is winter's last gasp and we'll see steady improvement from here on. It never hurts to be optimistic. Whether I'm right or not, I think we're going to be in for a lot of changes in terms of beach access and structure. Surfcasting is a game of overcoming challenges. There will be plenty to overcome this season.
The new Penn SSV8500 compared to the classic 706Z.
I wrote a recent Blog entry about the new Suffolk County law (law text) that requires all Suffolk County residents boating on Suffolk County waters to take a boating safety course and have the safety certification on-board. You can read that Blog entry here if you missed it. I took the course last weekend in a classroom setting because I was under the impression that online classes without a proctored exam would not satisfy the law. After some communications with the County Executive's office, I think it's safe to say that you can satisfy the course requirement online and absolutely free. The key is the very end of this part of the law:
No resident of Suffolk County shall operate a pleasure vessel upon the waters of Suffolk County unless the operator is the holder of a boating safety certificate issued by the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; by the United States Power Squadrons; by the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary; or by any entity that offers a boating course that meets the standards set by the National Association of Boating Law Administrators.
"Welcome to the new BoatUS Foundation Online Learning Center. Our free, interactive, non-proctored course and exam has been approved by the National Association of Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA)".
So right off this course sounds like it will satisfy the County law. If you follow the link to the BoatUS New York course page, things become a little more iffy. The webpage says:
"The BoatUS Foundation's Online Course is the only free Online Boating Safety Course approved by the New York State Parks & Recreation for boaters 18 years of age and older.
I'm not sure what BoatUS means by this statement, because NYS does not require a safety course for for boaters 18 years or older. You can read the requirements on the New York State Parks site.
The BoatUS website goes on to say:
"This course is NOT approved for New York residents who are 10 through 17 years of age, wishing to operate a motorboat, and residents 14 years of age and older, wishing to operate a PWC. These boaters are required to pass a New York State Parks & recreation approved classroom boating safety course."
Are you confused yet? I was, but it seemed to me that the wording of the County law left open the possibility of the BoatUS online course satisfying the new law. I contacted the Suffolk County Executive's Office to get clarification. This is the summary question I posed to John Marafino, a Community Relations Assistant in the County Executive's office.
My understanding of the NASBLA website is that the listings of classes on there, online or in person, satisfy the requirement of the new law. Since the Boatus.org website is on the NASBLA site, you will fulfill the new law's requirement by taking it.
John Marafino Community Relations Assistant Office of the Suffolk County Executive
So there you have it. If you live and boat in Suffolk and have not yet satisfied the new boater safety law requirement, you apparently can do it free and online. I'm writing this as the blizzard is bearing down, so I'm thinking this might be a good way to be productive while we're snowed in for a few days – assuming we have electricity and Internet access.
It's hard to imagine that I could be boating on my home waters and be given a citation for breaking a law that applies to me only because I live in Suffolk County, and that nearby boats from a different county or state do not have to abide by that law. Such is the case with the "Suffolk's Safer Waterways Act", a product of the Suffolk County Legislature that was signed into law last October. It requires that operators of boats on Suffolk County waterways take a safety course and have the corresponding safety certificate on the vessel. What I find remarkable about the law is that it applies only to Suffolk residents. Here is the exact wording.
"A. No resident of Suffolk County shall operate a pleasure vessel upon the waters of Suffolk County unless the operator is the holder of a boating safety certificate issued by the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; by the United States Power Squadrons; by the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary; or by any entity that offers a boating course that meets the standards set by the National Association of Boating Law Administrators. B. All residents of Suffolk County operating a pleasure vessel upon the waters of Suffolk County shall maintain their boating safety certificate on board their vessel during all periods of operation."
The law will take effect in November of this year. The penalty for a first offense can be as high as $250. You can read the bill in its entirety here. I took the NYS Parks course the day before this writing, so I'll tell you a little about it. It's 8 hours, followed by a 50-question multiple choice test. I took mine in one long session, and the class was a courtesy of the Eastport Fire Department. The only cost for my certification was a $10 fee to New York State. When I was looking for a course, most charged between $50 and $65, in addition to the $10 fee. Most classes are broken into multiple sessions. I have about 35 years of experience operating small boats, and I learned very little in the course. I passed the test with a score of 98%, missing one question on the precise definition of a Personal Water Craft, aka Jet Ski. It's not an option to take the test without taking the course, but had I done so, I would have easily beaten the minimum 75% score required for passing. I'm not saying that the course is worthless. I'd strongly recommend that new boaters take it and I'm sure it would be very helpful to someone with little boating experience. My major gripe is that this law singles out Suffolk County residents and was placed upon us by a minor league law making body, and is written in such a poor fashion that it excludes many of the people on the water. I'd have much more respect for this law if it was enacted at the State or Federal level. Perhaps the Coast Guard would too. The Easthampton Star reported in October that "As a federal agency, the Coast Guard will not be enforcing the law, according to Senior Chief Petty Officer Jason Walter of the Montauk station." The course I took covered all of the subject matter that you would expect, including navigation rules, required safety equipment, and accident prevention. I was also taught something I didn't expect. According to the instructional manual provided by New York State, fishermen are generally among the most irresponsible boaters. I'll quote from page 54 of the manual: "Anglers and hunters often don't consider themselves boaters and often pay little attention to learning and observing boating safety rules." Are these people serious? Apparently so, since this was also part of the final exam. So that's how I spent my Saturday, and if you live in Suffolk and haven't done so already, you'll need to do the same or be subjected to the potential of stiff fines. You might as well get it over with during the offseason. Here's a link to classes being offered by the State: NYS Boating Safety Courses
I couldn't find it on their website yet, but I just got confirmation from Steve Musso of Super Strike Lures that all Super Strike plugs produced from here on out will ship with VMC hooks. If you're a serious surfcaster who pays attention to detail, this is good news because you probably already replace the former stock hooks with VMCs, and now you won't have to go through the extra cost and effort to do that. If you're not already putting VMCs on your plugs, then your good news will come later when you start hooking and landing more fish on those Super Strikes that you buy in the future. The former stock hooks were not substandard by any means, but it's clear that the folks at Super Strike saw a way to improve their already excellent product and took that step. VMCs are very sharp right out of the package, and they do an excellent job of staying sharp with little or no angler intervention. The barb is just about the right size – prominent enough to keep a hook from backing out of a hooked fish, but not so large that it's hard to set. The big gain in the case of the Super Strike move is the elimination of the open eye hooks. Although it was a relatively rare occurrence, these hook eyes would occasionally break with a fish on. Naturally these breaks usually occurred with a quality fish, when the hook was under above average stress. With time and repeated contact with pliers in the course of unhooking fish, the risk of hook failure increased. Anyone who follows my writing knows I'm a Super Strike fan. These plastic plugs just plain work and they don't degrade over time as wood does. Over the years they've continuously upgraded their hardware, now using swivels that test out in the 330- to 370-pound range on most of their lures. If I'm throwing a bottle plug, darter, needle, or popper, chances are it's one of theirs. I wish they would start making pencil poppers too. While on the subject of hooks, I'll restate here that I'm obsessively anal retentive about hook sets and hook sharpness, particularly where big fish are involved. I think most encounters with large stripers are very brief because the hooks simply don't penetrate. Paying attention to these details is a simple and inexpensive way for any angler to make a significant positive impact on his productivity. This was an excellent move on the part of Super Strike.
It's official – 2012 was the warmest year on record for Long Island. Newsday reported in early January that the major weather service installations at Central Park, Islip, and Brookhaven Lab all reported that 2012 was the warmest year since records have been kept, which in the case of Central Park goes all the way back to 1869. The Newsday article went on to quote Brian A. Colle, professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. "It's all thanks to an early-in-the-year jet stream pattern that allowed the area to dodge brutally cold air, setting the stage for above-normal temperatures the rest of the year." Islip measured only 9.2 inches of snow for the year. At this stage of 2013, I can't help but think "Here we go again." It's been snow-less and unseasonably warm so far this winter, and the long-range forecast isn't showing much deviation from that. Of course it's much too early to start wondering what effect our recent warm weather might have on the 2013 fishing season. What's important is the weather in the time period close to when fishing usually commences. The unusually warm weather of March 2012 was likely responsible for putting the stripers on the South Fork ocean beaches in early April, weeks ahead of schedule. The average temperature at Islip last March was an amazing 55.7 degrees. It's interesting to note that while we experienced such warm weather, eastern and central Europe had a brutal winter, balancing things out on a global scale. Some in the angling community like to make fishing predictions based on weather. One that I personally consider an Old Wives Tale is that a cold snowy winter often results in lots of sandeels the following season. I've never made that correlation, and I'd love to see some hard evidence to support it. One personal feeling that I have is that a cooler than normal spring is beneficial to Long Island's striper fishery. This is simply because the cool weather can delay the water temperatures hitting the mid-70 degree mark, when striper fishing typically goes significantly downhill in our waters. The other weather-related thought is that if this warm weather continues this winter, we better have our fishing gear ready to go by April. I typically start fishing East End bays for stripers in mid- to late-April, depending on the weather at the time. When those schoolies hit the South Fork ocean beaches early last April, I was packing my gear for Florida fishing. Bass were far off my radar. This year I'll be ready to go much earlier, especially if this warm weather continues.
A giant fish scale along with some destroyed swimshads and straightened hooks sitting on the back seat of my rental car - these were the products of a successful night of tarpon fishing from the shore of a Florida Keys channel on my recent trip. This blog entry isn't entirely about Florida, but I'll need to start there. I would say that the tarpon fishing was "off", but I didn't have a right to because I simply didn't know enough about it. The first night produced five brief hookups, three of which threw the lure in the air, and two others lost thrashing on the surface. For a day that started before 5 a.m. and included a 3-hour flight and a 190-mile drive, this was a great start for the 2-hour effort of prime tide. Given that this was December, and I was dealing with the resident Florida Keys tarpon rather than the big schools migrating through in the spring, I wasn't sure what to expect. The next night yielded zero hits, then only a couple hits each night over the next two nights. I lost them all, usually on jumps, but that was tarpon fishing. I've heard that the average is about one tarpon landed for every ten hooked, and most of that is on boats. I believed it. I was something like 3 for 34 from shore on my April trip. The slow tarpon fishing didn't bother me a bit because my daytime kayak barracuda trips on the flats exceeded expectations, and I figured any tarpon hookups at all were only icing on the cake. The first few days were very warm. The car's thermometer never went below 77, even pre-dawn, but the highs were a manageable 85. The fourth day of the trip was different. A cold front, if you can call 70 degrees "cold", came through on a 20-knot northeasterly. I stayed off the flats that day and bucktailed jacks and mangrove snappers at one of the bridges instead. My first clue that the tarpon situation was about to change should have been that afternoon when I went to the channel where I had been tarpon fishing at night. I was still focused on mangrove snappers and jacks when I felt a "nice fish" on the end of the rod I use casting for fluke at home. All sorts of expletives flew from my mouth as I watched an easily 100-pound plus tarpon launch into the air as if it were on one of those Saturday morning fishing shows. I knew I didn't stand a chance with the light rod, and sure enough the fish went through the 25-pound test leader on the next breath-taking jump. It was a shock considering I was unable to produce a single hit standing in that same spot the two previous nights. That night was the first that I wore a long-sleeve shirt. After several days of warm weather, the windy 70-degree night felt downright chilly. I had my timing down and arrived at the very first sign of the ebb current, which was a little hard to detect in the choppy, yet gin-clear water. As I slid the swimshad toward some structure I buried the hook on a hard jolt. In a split-second I had a respectable winter tarpon in the 40-pound class in the air, and then in the water, and in the air again. The third time was the charm for the fish, which left me with only the internals of my swimshad after the last jump. I tied another one on quickly and repeated the delivery. This hit was harder than the first, and again I was dealing with an airborne fish. After the fourth jump I realized that this one was likely hooked well and I focused on getting down the rocks to a pre-determined landing point much like I would when striper fishing a jetty. This was a small one, lucky to break 20 pounds, but I was happy to grab the leader while it was still hooked. I was in again on the next cast, and then again and again as mostly 30- to 40-pound tarpon beat on the swimshads. The highlight of the night was landing one of the larger tarpon after a nearly 10-minute jump-filled battle. Not wanting to stress that fish further, I passed on trying to get a picture, but it left me a scale on the rocks as a souvenir. The relative chill in the air, stiff wind, and intense bite reminded me of so many nights of striper fishing when the wind, tide, and water conditions combined to turn on previously uncooperative fish. In striper fishing, I think I understand the feeding triggers and can anticipate them to some extent. It's what allows me to do pretty well on a consistent basis. In tarpon fishing, I'm clueless. I can guess only that the cold-front triggered a bite. I don't see why it would have been temperature related, since the water temperature was already on the lower end of the tarpon's preferred range. The water was definitely rougher than previous nights, so could it have been an oxygenation issue? Each night roughly 5 boats would pass through the channel within casting difference. Likely due to the wind, there were none this night. Did the lack of disturbance put the fish in a better feeding mood? Was there something bait-related about the bite? Maybe the weather pushed some baitfish through that were a good match for my swimshads. Or did the weather rid the water of a smaller bait that distracted the tarpon and interfered with my previous efforts? It's possible. On the nights the fish weren't hitting, I saw an occasional flash in the lights as a tarpon turned to hit something that I could never see. At the end of the last slow night, I got curious enough to try something different on a few visible tarpon. I put a 3-inch Gulp shrimp on a 1/2-ounce fluke jig and flipped it into the current. It lasted less than 5 seconds before it disappeared into a brown shadow that turned into a bright silver flash as my line tightened. On the last nights of my trip, when the tarpon fishing slowed again, I got smart enough to target the tarpon with the Gulp shrimp on some high-quality jig hooks. Even on the 80-pound leader material, a few tarpon still hit these jigs while they ignored the swimshads. The point of all of this is the need to keep at it through the slow times and be a keen observer. With time, you'll acquire an understanding of fish triggers and be able to anticipate bites. I hit the good tarpon bite because I was simply going to fish every night I was in Florida no matter the conditions. It was a brief brute force approach of trying to be in the right place at the right time. Outside of vacations, few of us can fish every night, so the understanding and anticipation part becomes that much more important. The second point is to be careful not to lock yourself in to a particular offering. This would be a no-brainer for me when striper fishing. In this different setting of being inexperienced with the tarpon, I clutched on too firmly to what worked so well for me on previous efforts, and likely missed some opportunities because of that. I know better now, but I should have known better then. There sure is always room for improvement.
The smallest tarpon that I hooked. A "baby" at probably less than 20 pounds, but still plenty of fun on a December night.
A pair of kayak barracuda videos. A pencil popper from my surf bag was my hot cuda lure.
Having a blast with the flats barracudas. Hit this extra large one this morning. It bit through the plug! It's not a floater anymore. They're really awesome gamefish in the shallows. My night tarpon efforts are not so good though. There are some around, but not in the hitting mood.
I've been wanting to catch some big barracuda on the flats since I made my first Keys trip last April. Spent hours yesterday before I even saw one, then the few I found just wouldn't hit what I was throwing, including the green cuda tubes that are a standard down here. This morning I dug into my surf bag and pulled out a green Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper. That was the ticket. Landed six. Some of the jumps and hits were awesome. Lost 5 tarpon last night. Will try another tarpon spot tonight.
16 bluefish – that's how many I caught in 2012. It's worth noting that I target bluefish only when they're big and on the beaches, but that means I almost never target them, because with the exception of October 2010, I don't recall seeing big blues on the beach in the last five or more years. Even though I don't fish for them, I'm fishing the ocean, bays, and Long Island Sound at least 120 times per year and I do enter the by-catch blues into my fishing log software. When I pushed the "Plot All Fish" button against the 2012 season, that's when I realized my bluefish catch was so low. Then I had to look further to realize that all but two of those blues were caught in May. Running the queries against 2011 and 2010 showed 53 and 115 bluefish respectively. So are bluefish in steep decline? Not according to the stock assessments. I wrote a similar blog entry a year ago and posted the abundance graphs for blues and stripers at the bottom. You can find that blog entry here. I just re-read what I wrote a year ago, and found the tone to be a lot more optimistic and faster to explain away the decrease in bass and bluefish action on our beaches. But over and over again I'm having the same conversations with very well respected anglers. When I commented to one of them recently that the inlets have "more guys and less bass". He stopped me firmly and said "No! There are more guys, but A LOT fewer bass." He could have added that those fish are smaller on average, and have been correct on that too. His comment that he was thinking of "selling off plugs while they're still worth something", may have been a joke, but I'm not so sure. I was in my basement looking for lures to take to The Keys next week and I came across about 30 brand new assorted bottles, darters, needles, and poppers still in their original packaging. They're unlikely to get wet anytime soon since the ones hanging from the ceiling have seen so little action the past couple of years. Now I'm not saying there are no opportunities for good fishing. I'm not even going to complain about my striper catches the past few seasons because they're fairly respectable and there's no question that 2012 was short-circuited by Sandy. But my catches are almost entirely on methodically worked structure, at night, on eels and bucktails. What I miss are the runs of fish all along the Long Island Sound and ocean beaches. I frequently look at the Sound off the top of the bluff in Wading River and can say honestly that I do not recall seeing a single school of feeding fish anytime this past year. Just ten years ago fish used to grind down those beaches every fall, and it was not uncommon to look at the water in May or June and have to run home to grab a rod. If you went to those beaches in the spring after dark you could find the fish with your ears. I still hit the beaches after dark because it's convenient, and it's been a long time since I've heard a "pop". Many trips are just downright sterile. Something I found very depressing in 2012 was the Long Island Sound fluke run in the area that I fish between Shoreham and Mattituck. It started off just fine with quick limits of quality fish, but I was alarmed from the beginning that the boat was coming home so clean instead of being caked with sandeels as is usually the case. By the second week of June the keepers were gone, despite the legal limit being dropped to 19.5 inches. In nine fluking trips with my boat I saw a grand total of 4 sandeels. What scares me is that these things typically run in patterns, and from my observations sandeels are in decline. I salvaged the fluke season by fishing the South Shore Bays, which were loaded with fluke. So I'm left confused. With few exceptions, the beach fishing for blues and bass is way off, yet the stock assessments are fine. Maybe it's the stock assessments that are way off. There's no way for anyone to know that. I just hope 2013 is better than 2012. Let's try this reasoning. 2010 was not that long ago, and we had very good fishing on the ocean beaches in October and November. Tropical Storm Irene dumped a huge amount of freshwater into the surrounding waters in 2011 and messed up that year's fall run for Long Island, although New Jersey anglers did fine. Sandy was a storm of historic proportions that caused everything to head for deep water and migrate out of the area, so that gives us an excuse for the fall of 2012. We'll catch a well-deserved break from freak storms in 2013, and everything will be fine and I'll be reaching for those brand new plugs that have sat for years in the packaging. It never hurts to think optimistically, I just wish I felt more optimistic.
My most memorable hit of the year came late Sunday morning. It was one of those hits where for the first fraction of a second you think you've hung bottom, but as I looked skyward at the rod, the moment was burned into my memory when I saw the tip bouncing. The bass would go all of 26 inches, but was special because it was my first since Sandy. Twelve more, all smaller, would follow in the next ninety minutes. With each fish I thought less about Sandy and more about the actual fishing, and the resilience that some fishing patterns have. The first time I fished this place was in 1977. It was a new stretch of beach for the then 16-year-old surfcaster, and after a fairly lengthy walk I stopped to cast there when I saw some boulder boils. I caught fish that evening, and many times after when the right combination of tide, wind, and calendar windows aligned. To me, this was fishing. No birds, bait, splashes, Internet reports, emails, or cell phone calls to draw me to the fish. Just the right combination of conditions that brought me and the fish together. A day short of one year earlier, I stood in the same spot on the same tide and caught the same number of fish, and it was this reproducibility despite all of the storm's destruction that felt comforting. The superficial structure was changed completely, as I stood about fifty feet further out than ever before on sand that had been ripped from the bluffs and now covered what was once life-filled bottom growth. The boulders, however, were immovable. The current deflected in the same way that it had probably flowed for centuries. The stripers, right where they should have been, when they should have been there, and leaving the spot right on schedule as the current weakened. This was a taste of normalcy on a stretch of beach that was nearly unrecognizable compared to a couple weeks prior. More importantly, this was confirmation that this battered part of Long Island's shoreline was beginning to heal. With the passage of time, I could only hope that those most affected by the storm could do the same.
A video shot in the above location one day short of a year before Sunday's trip.
Just before the storm hit, my 87-year-old father bucktailed this 46-pound bass in Long Island Sound a little east of Mattituck. He was fishing with his 80-something year-old neighbor on his neighbor's boat. Somehow they managed to get the big cow over the side. I hope I'm doing that well when I'm his age. They were using the "3-way rig" method, with a bucktail that my brother made. Here's a 3-way bucktailing how-to video that I shot last fall. My father can be seen landing a nice fish at the end.
It's pretty hard to think about fishing now. I feel almost guilty that I'm in good enough shape to make this blog entry from a warm and lit house. Then there's the luck of having filled up my Jeep's gas tank yesterday morning before word got out about a gasoline shortage. Still, this is a fishing blog so I'll say a few words. Most of the South Shore is impossible to get to. As many have seen in pictures and videos, the barrier islands have been damaged heavily and are breached in multiple locations. I hear the eastern North Fork beaches fared well, but a friend described the fishing out there as "sterile" as of Tuesday. The North Shore beaches further west are a mess. The beaches are stripped of sand, bluffs are collapsed, the water where I live in Wading River was muddy as of Thursday. The next few days of northwest winds should help clean it out. Below is a video I shot at high tide on Monday afternoon in Wading River. One of the problems in this area of the North Shore is that so much of the bluff is bulkheaded. This starves the beach for sand, and makes it very difficult on any parts that are not bulkheaded. My thoughts go out to those who had serious losses. We can be thankful that the insurance company hurricane deductibles did not apply to this storm, so that will hopefully ease the recovery for many from a financial standpoint. Unfortunately, in looking at all of the devastation, this storm's damage goes far beyond what can be recovered by just writing a check.
Sunday, October 28, 2p.m. - My last blog entry mentioned the good fishing that often coincides with rapidly falling barometric pressure as is found with the onset of a storm. Little did I know at the time that a week later we'd be facing a storm of historic proportions. Little common sense is required to realize that this is not the kind of storm you should be heading out into to try and catch a few fish. Make no mistake, I was out last night and this morning in places that have potential to produce well in deteriorating weather. As of this morning the water was already rough, high, weedy, and starting to get dirty, and that's still 36 hours before the storm is predicted to make landfall. From a fishing standpoint the problem with this storm is that it is so big that it is nearly impossible to fish anywhere near it from a time standpoint. At 11:30 this morning I looked at the jetty at Shinnecock East. Even with a strong ebb and only one hour before low tide the waves were scraping the top of the jetty at the relatively protected mid-section. Despite the rough weather of the last 24 hours, it still isn't raining, and we're not experiencing the kind of conditions that often ignite a good bite. At Moriches this morning, there were no birds working the walls of whitewater. The few fish that I've caught and seen caught in the last 24 hours have been on the small side. If you managed to find a big fish bite somewhere, good for you. Pat yourself on the back. Even if you wanted to fish the 24 hours leading up to this storm's landfall, good luck getting there. Roads are flooding. I turned back from one spot this morning and drove through a lot of water to get to another. If your destination is a Suffolk County Park, it will be closed as of 6p.m. this evening. Nassau County parks will close 6 hours later. Evacuations of low lying areas are widespread. High winds and waves are difficult to fish in many locations, but you can often find lee and protected areas to get around this. What you can't get around is the high water level that results from strong and prolonged onshore winds. This is often referred to as "storm surge", and the surge associated with this storm is forecasted to be record-breaking. When the water gets high, the waves tear at higher and often more soil-laden ground along with vegetation and beach debris and the result is a weed-choked brown mess. There's an excellent website that you can use to monitor water levels: http://tidesonline.noaa.gov/geographic.html. I've posted a plot of the water level at Montauk at the end of this column. The blue line is the predicted water height above Mean Low Water, the red line is the observed height, the green is the difference between the two. Under normal tranquil conditions the blue and red lines would be nearly on top of each other and the green line nearly flat on '0'. At a day and a half away from landfall, we're already running more than 1.6 feet above the predicted height, and the predicted height is unfortunately high astronomically because of the full moon. I'm afraid to think of what will be left of our beaches in the wake of this storm. The marine and storm surge forecasts are the worst I can ever recall, and the storm is so big there's just no escaping it. Be safe.
This is the time of year when I come across the highest percentage of novice to intermediate skill level anglers in the surf. I have a few pieces of advice that I think can help them put more fish on the beach. First off – go fishing on crashing barometric pressure. I'm talking the onsets of storms, pouring rain, building winds. There are anglers on both sides of the question as to whether barometric pressure has a significant impact on putting fish in a feeding move. If I think about it from a scientific standpoint, it should make absolutely no difference because the effect of changing air pressure on a fish is miniscule compared to the change in pressure on that fish when it makes even the slightest change in depth. This is one time where I'll push my analytical mind aside and go purely on observation. As I look over my fishing logs I can't help but notice how many excellent striper trips happened in pouring rain. It's not that I'll avoid fishing in other circumstances, but I keep an eye on forecasts, and particularly real-time weather feeds, and make sure I get a line in the water when I see the barometric pressure plots going off a cliff. Some might say it's the accompanying easterly winds that push fish to the shore that accounts for the good fishing. Those winds may help in some areas, but I've also had banner trips in Long Island Sound with the water as calm as a pond because I was sheltered by the high bluffs behind me. This is one of those times I won't worry too much about why something works the way it does. I'm simply going to do my best to fish hard-falling barometric pressure. At the end of this column I'll post a live eeling video that many of you may have seen already. I've had a lot of comments on the video. Most were on the mechanics of the technique, which was what I intended. More than a few comments were related to the location. No one commented on how crappy the weather was. Yes, I was in a location that I know has the potential to produce some nice fish, but it was the weather that triggered the bite and enabled me to do some nice fish with enough daylight to take video – albeit with the sound of rain banging against the camera after the first couple minutes. The wind was ESE gusting over 30 knots, but was directly on my back resulting in the kind of flat water usually not associated with catching big stripers. There are a lot of different kind of lures out there. It must be overwhelming to a relatively new surf angler to sort through what to use when and how. Whether you're throwing a tin, bucktail, needlefish, darter, or whatever, concentrating on one small detail when you're fishing the surf will make a big difference – stay in contact with the lure. Of course this is almost unavoidable under calm conditions or in current, but toss a plug into a bouncing surf, and it requires a little effort. The mistake I've seen with novice anglers is that they'll just cast their lure out and then reel it back in at a steady speed irrespective of the effects that waves are having on the action of the lure. Maintaining steady contact is a simple task – increase your retrieve speed when your lure is being pushed toward you by a following wave, decrease your retrieve speed when pulling your lure into a retreating wave. This suggestion is an obvious one but goes overlooked too often. Make sure your hooks are dangerously sharp. Some lures do come out of the package this way, many don't. Even if you start fishing with sharp hooks, they can be dulled easily by rocks or being pounded into or dragged through the sand. I use Luhr Jensen hook files at home, but they'll rust if exposed to salt water so I keep a sharpening stone in my surf bag. I'll throw in one last one. I doubt there are many people reading this on a dial-up modem. It's old technology. I feel the same way about monofilament fishing line. Braided lines have almost no stretch, a much higher strength to diameter ratio, and are much more abrasion resistant than the equivalent pound test monofilament line. If you have trouble using braid because of "wind knots", try FireLine original fused line. It's carefree line and is only slightly thicker than braid.
I'm a big fan of Berkley Gulp. It's all I use for fluke anymore, and that's after many years of using everything else. One of Gulp's big advantages is that it stays on the hook better than real bait. When fluke jigging, this means you don't have to worry that you lost your bait when you miss a hit. Just keep bouncing the jig. The time when you've just missed a hit is the worst time to be pulling your line from the water to check your bait. I use their 6-inch worms for trolling tube and worm in my kayak for bass. It's deadly, and I've had stripers to 40 pounds on the tube and Gulp combination. Because Gulp worms are harder to pull off the hook than real ones, they stand up better to the small interference fish such as porgies and small seabass. As with the fluke, the ability to ignore a couple small taps and leave the rig in the water results in fish being caught at times when I would have been reeling in to check my bait if I was using the real stuff. The other big advantage of Gulp is the convenience that its long shelf life affords. My first jar sat in my boat for over a year before I tried it, and the fish were all over it when I finally did. There's no need to keep it cold, and I can't tell that it ever goes bad. This means there's no waste, and it's easy to keep a supply of bait around. I wouldn't even bother tube and worm trolling if I had to drive to a bait and tackle shop every time I needed worms, and then had to deal with trying to keep the leftover worms alive. It also takes the guesswork out of how much real bait to buy. Buy too little and a trip is cut short. Buying too much is wasteful in both money and resources. I saw an online post recently where someone questioned the safety of Gulp. The logic went something like "It says not for human consumption on the label, so why are we feeding it to fish?" I've actually intentionally fed it to fish. I was so fascinated by how well it worked that I wanted to see if fish would just eat it like food. I did it in the fish's environment using scuba gear. I've embedded the video at the end of this for anyone who hasn't already seen it. So was I feeding those fish a toxic substance? I highly doubted that possibility because it wouldn't make sense for a fishing tackle company to be poisoning the fish that their business depends on. Not to mention the scrutiny new products undergo before they're released to the public. Nonetheless, the question as to the possible toxicity of Gulp was an interesting one, so I followed up on it with Hunter Cole, the Senior Marketing Manager for Pure Fishing, the parent company of Berkley, which makes Gulp. He confirmed my assumption that the appropriate studies were done, and that Gulp is completely safe. Cole passed on the following from John Prochnow, the Senior Director of Product Innovation for Pure Fishing. "During the course of Gulp!'s development we purposely "fed" Gulp! to a variety of gamefish (largemouth bass, bluegills, carp, trout) to verify the product's safety. The fish were fed both whole baits and baits cut into small pieces. We also varied the feedings from a single instance to multiple feedings spread over time. In short, the fish received far more Gulp! than they were ever likely to get in the field from anglers. Since these fish were kept in aquariums, we could easily monitor their individual health during the course of the studies. At no time did any of the fish ever exhibit any abnormal behaviors or symptoms indicative of stress (cessation of eating, loss of equilibrium, intestinal blockage, swollen abdomens, etc). To date, we have never lost a single fish due to Gulp! ingestion. The baits are not digestible, but we have monitored how long it takes for fish to rid themselves of ingested baits. As you know, fish can rid themselves of unwanted gastric items by either regurgitation or, following passage through the digestive tract, anal expulsion. In our tests, the fish practiced both. Small pieces of bait are almost always sent through the digestive tract to be expelled in a few days. Larger pieces may go either way. Normally, if the bait is too large to pass through the digestive tract then it is regurgitated within a few hours to several days. The longest I have seen a fish take to regurgitate a softbait is three weeks, but the bait was attached to a whole bass jig (with the hook bent over). Larger pieces still capable of passing through the digestive tract will do so at a rate inversely related to their size. The larger the bait, the longer it takes for the bait to pass through the digestive tract and be expelled. Usually, however, it occurs within a week or so." Cole went on to say that the reason that they put "Not for Human Consumption" on the label is that the raw materials that are used to manufacture Gulp are not FDA inspected or approved for humans to ingest. Just like cattle feed and dog food is not meant for humans.
Anyone who owns a boat hopefully has a plan to put in place in the event that their engine dies. Even though my boat is only a 16-foot tin, I still carry a spare engine in case my main engine gives out. I've been boating for about 35 years now, and have only pressed that engine into service twice that I can recall. Remarkably, I've had the same spare kicker with me all of those years – a 1965 5hp Evinrude. Many larger boats have twin engines, so they're pretty well covered. But what about single-engine craft? What's the plan should the one and only engine stop working? The best option is probably commercial tow insurance. For prices that are in the $125-$170 per year range, you can be towed back to your home port free of charge if you have a problem. I've often heard stories that if you need a tow from one of these services, and you don't have the insurance, you'll be out easily $500. I always assumed that if you needed a very short tow, the price would be significantly lower. I recently got to test that theory. "Hi Dad. We're just outside Jamesport creek, near the channel markers, and our motor won't run. What should we do?" It was my daughter, on her last day before going back to college, out with a couple of friends on someone else's boat. "Drop the anchor," was my first advice. "We did that," was her surprising response. Apparently the motor had overheated while tubing. They managed to get it started after letting it cool, but it overheated again before reaching the creek, and now "Nothing happens when we turn the key." At this point I already had real-time wind readings up on my computer, and was relieved to see it was only blowing about 10 to 15 knots. I was more concerned when I saw the line of thunderstorms crossing into Nassau County. After confirming with her that it wasn't rough, they had life jackets, and they weren't in any immediate danger, I told her to try to flag down a passing boat. I'm familiar with where they were, and it's relatively busy with boats going in and out of the creek. I then made it clear that they didn't have all day to get out of there because of the line of storms. "If you don't flag down a tow pretty soon, you'll need to call Sea Tow, but it will be expensive," I warned her. "We're only two hundred yards from the creek – I'm looking at the dock," she said in a "How expensive could it be?" tone. While trying to flag boats without any success, she called Sea Tow for an estimate. It came in at $530, with the dispatcher explaining that they would be charged an hourly rate from the time the tow boat left the facility until the time it returned. After 30 minutes passed without any progress, the three kids decided to split the tow charge and get out of there. Just as they were making the call, they caught the eye of a good Samaritan and managed to avoid the commercial tow. In addition to Sea Tow, BoatUS offers commercial tow service in our area. On their website they cite a hypothetical example of what it might cost an uninsured boater to have a 24-foot boat pulled off a sandbar. Their example worked out to $1267.50. After hearing of my daughter's $530 estimate for a 200-yard bay tow, I don't doubt the sandbar quote at all. If I didn't have a spare motor – I'd be getting tow insurance.
There are some good sales out there right now on popular Penn SSg/SSm and Slammer spinning reels that are soon to be discontinued to make way for the highly anticipated Penn Spinfisher V series. The immediate question that comes to my mind is "Will I be able to get parts for the discontinued reels?" I posed that question to Penn Business Manager, Mike Rice, and his answer should be reassuring to anyone looking to take advantage of the sales. "10 years is the number we have agreed to internally. It's possible that some could run out in year 9, while others are in stock for 15 years." Ten years is a long time, but keep in mind that there's a good chance parts will be available for even longer by looking to local tackle shop stocks and online sources such as Ebay. Something that was nice about the current SSg and SSm reels is that you could use spools from as far back as the original SS lines. For example, 550SS, 5500SS, and 550SSg spools are all interchangeable, which means that spools purchased on Spinfishers over 15 years ago work on today's Spinfishers. Given that the new Spinfisher V reels will have much larger drag washers and sealed drag systems, you'll be unable to interchange them with the older spools. I asked Mike about the projected price for extra spools, specifically about the price of an SSV5500 spool. I was pleasantly surprised at the very reasonable $37 quote. The 3500-8500SSV reels are expected to become available in October, with the 9500, 10500, and Liveliner models due out in January. The 9500 and 10500 models are very large reels in the 38-ounce range that will probably see much more use as offshore reels rather than in the surf. A bailess model of the 6500 will be offered in 2013. Mike said they may offer other bailess models in the future depending on the demand for the bailess 6500.
I'm not an environmentalist. Sure, I care about the environment, but when environmentalists come knocking on my door, they're politely asked to leave before they can push the latest petition in my face. My reaction to these groups comes from an aspect of my life unrelated to fishing that has allowed me to observe an "ends justifies the means" attitude that promotes misinformation and opposition to just about everything. I'm sure there are some good and honest environmental groups, but those aren't the ones I'm familiar with. Now that you know where I stand with them, you'll know I'm not pushing an environmentalist agenda here when I wonder aloud if our municipalities are killing Long Island Sound lobsters by spraying for mosquitoes. This concept has been theorized for years, and I was always a bit skeptical because one word kept popping into my mind - "dilution". How could some spray on land get to a lobster 40 to 100 feet below the surface of Long Island Sound in any detectable quantities? In late July when I saw the Newsday headline "Mosquito pesticide turning up in lobsters", and read further, my skepticism was erased. Newsday reported that, in what was believed to be the first such finding involving local lobsters, Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection found trace amounts of resmethrin, also known as Scourge, in at least three out of 10 lobsters tested, and methoprene in at least one. The lobsters were collected in September 2011 from the mid-Sound after Connecticut lobstermen reported hauling up more dead and weak lobsters than usual. The study was released in early July. "We frankly didn't expect to find pesticides," Dave Simpson, the agency's director of marine fisheries, said. Scourge has been sprayed over Long Island to kill adult mosquitoes, which can carry West Nile virus. Methoprene briquettes have been placed in North Shore marshes and limited areas of Connecticut to stop larvae from growing. I dive for lobsters. Up until the mid 90's, I could easily get my six-lobster limit with free-diving gear diving from the beaches between Miller Place and Riverhead. You could get your limit, go back to the same little rock caves about five days later, and get another limit. I ran out of ways to eat them and my freezer filled with them. The fishery crashed in the late-90's, and I stopped diving until my son became old enough to scuba dive in 2006. Those first few years diving with my son were nothing like the "old days", but we did OK using scuba equipment to hit very good structure. We usually grabbed between 5 and 8 keepers between us, and saw plenty of shorts. By 2010, we were happy to bring 3 home on a trip despite learning new spots, but we were still seeing shorts. 2011 was downright poor. We've made only two dives this summer, to our best spots, and have not even seen a short lobster. These dives were made before the heat waves and when the water temperature was still in the 60s. Is the overall lobster stock in trouble? Not even close. If you Google "lobster war US Canada" you can read about the surplus of lobsters up North. This glut has driven down prices and caused tensions between Maine and Canadian lobster trappers. So might this be something else to blame on "global warming". Given that New York is on the southern end of the lobster's range, this sounds like a reasonable theory. Our waters are running warmer than they used to, and this has pushed the lobsters North. But let's forget about lobsters for a bit and consider another less desirable bottom inhabitant common to our area – the spider crab. We usually see so many spider crabs on our dives that we don't even notice them anymore. They're not gone by any means, but these last two seasons we've seen a lot less of them. More disturbing is that we're seeing an unusually high number of dead ones. At one point in a June dive at Northville we found 4 dead ones in an area of about a 5 foot radius. Could this be warm water related? This is doubtful because the spider crab range extends all the way down to Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. Given that crabs and lobsters are closely related, it seems reasonable that something that kills spider crabs would also kill lobsters. While it's reassuring that the lobster population is healthy to our North, it's troubling that the Long Island Sound stock is in such bad shape. Now that pesticides have turned up in Long Island Sound lobsters, the possibility that pesticides are at least contributing to the downturn needs to be considered aggressively. One way to find out is to stop spraying and see what happens to the lobster population, but this will take years and is unlikely to happen out of concern of the spread of West Nile Virus. There's no easy answer to this one.
2006 - My son's first season diving. We had no trouble getting lobsters on beach dives.
Here's some video shot on a 2010 night dive in Long Island Sound. You'll see some lobster action here, but we can't even find shorts on this structure two years later.
I was at a South Shore inlet recently catching triggerfish when several familiar SUVs rolled up with kayaks on the roofs headed for the ocean. These were hardcore striper surf anglers, but like me, they were in summer mode, preferring to catch bottom species in bathing suits and sunshine rather than to grind out mostly uneventful and labor-intensive stripers during the humid and buggy nights. Fluke, porgies, sea bass, and triggers are providing plenty of fun action and good eating for those willing to give the stripers a break. If you have a kayak, the possibilities are endless. Even without one, there are plenty of shore-based opportunities. An angler that I took fluke fishing in my boat emailed me recently to tell me he was using the bucktail and Gulp rig I showed him to have good fluke action from the open ocean beach. His modification to my rig was to substitute a Gulp Jerk Shad for the Gulp Swimming Mullet on the teaser hook in order to better match the profile of the sandeels he was seeing. "I can't keep them off it!" was how he described the action. The rig is a 1-ounce bucktail tipped with a 4-inch Gulp Swimming Mullet and a 3/0 Gamakatsu Baitholder hook on a dropper loop 12 inches above the jig. This hook is tipped with the Gulp or strip bait of your choice. After bucktailing a couple of jumbo 18-inch porgies in my kayak while targeting bass in Long Island Sound, I dropped down to a jig with a smaller hook and targeted the porgies with bucktails. It's something I began doing a couple years ago after noticing how I often caught porgies on bucktails meant for stripers. You can catch the porgies on jigs tipped with Gulp worm pieces or small strips of porkrind, making this perfect for a shore-bound angler looking to catch a few scup without carrying extra bottom fishing gear and bait. The Gulp and porkrind usually work, but tipping the jig with small squid strips means almost guaranteed action if the porgies are around. A fun aspect of the jig fishing is that it seems to cull out the larger porgies while reducing a lot of the interference of the smaller "pin" porgies. It's important to keep the jig within a couple feet of the bottom as much as possible to stay in the porgy strike zone. I use a slow retrieve with lots of twitches to get their attention, and free-spool the line to get back to the bottom when I think my jig has climbed too high in the water column. Here's a video I made on how I do it.
"Global warming is great!" is how I felt while looking into my cooler of shore-caught triggerfish. While I'm quite sure their presence has nothing to do with long-term weather trends, I do have to wonder how it is that ten years ago these fish were a relatively uncommon southern visitor, but now you can target them with a high chance of success. There's no doubt that this summer's above average temperatures and warm waters are helping the trigger fishery. They'll readily take squid or clam strips fished on porgy hooks. Be sure to bring extra hooks. If you hook one deep, it's nearly impossible to get the hook back. They also have a set of hard chomping teeth that can bite through hooks. Look for the triggers around any ocean jetties or other hard structure. Bring lots of bait as this same structure holds plenty of tiny sea bass and bergals, and don't forget to read Rich Trox's trigger how-to on stripers247. If you're still bent on fishing stripers, your best bet will be to stick to the dusk through dawn period. Worms fished from North Shore beaches produce bass through the summer. Eels fished in and near the inlets and at Montauk give a good chance at action on the South Shore. With snappers getting larger by the day and becoming striper candy, fishing pencil poppers on the open beaches at dusk and dawn should provide a decent shot at bass.
Judging by the information coming from Penn Reels concerning their new Spinfisher V series, buying a dependable reel for all but the most extreme surf fishing applications at a modest price is about to get easier. Later this year, Penn is expected to release the new line of reels. Of interest to surfcasters and kayak anglers is that these will be marketed as watertight reels that will keep your gears and drag washers dry even when the reel is dunked underwater. This is a full line of reels from light tackle to offshore sizes, and will replace the SSg, SSm, and Slammer lines. Something to take note of on these newer reels is the higher speeds. Surf reels are typically slow as compared to reels made for anglers casting to tuna from a boat. This is worth noting because if you've fished a lot with reels of a certain speed, you've probably become very in tune with how fast to crank in order to produce hits. As an example, let's consider my North Shore plugging reel. It's a Penn 550SSg, previously a Penn 5500SS, previously a Penn 550SS, which replaced a Penn 710 that I used since I was a kid (and still have). On the Penn website, the line retrieved per crank on the 550SSg that I use now is listed as 29 inches. This reel has a gear ratio of 5.1:1. This means that every full turn of the reel handle spins the rotor 5 times and retrieves 29 inches of line. The equivalent reel in the Spinfisher V line, the SSV5500, has a gear ratio of 5.6:1, and pulls in 35 inches of line. Another way of looking at this is that the new reel is 20% faster, and if you're to present your lures to the fish at the same speed with the new reel as opposed to the current one, you'll need to crank about 20% slower. When I'm plugging Long Island Sound at night, I'm crawling plugs such as Bombers and RedFins at very slow speeds, and barely turning the handle. With the new reel, I'm going to have to discipline myself to turn that handle even a little bit slower. With time, this "new slow" will eventually become the norm, which will be a good thing because many new spinning reels have high gear ratios. I've pretty much gone through life with water getting in the gear case of my Penn 706Z. It's packed with grease, and no damage or significant loss of performance comes from this. Still, I'd appreciate the water staying out. The very attractive improvement for me on the new reels is the watertight drag. I'm constantly popping out and drying my drag washers on my 706 because wet drag washers can be a disaster with a big fish on. When they're wet, there's no middle-ground. You have to crank down very hard on the drag, and when the water-induced slippage stops, it sometimes stops completely. This might be more of a problem for me personally because, in big fish situations, I fish with a nearly locked drag to maximize the hookset. I back down immediately on the drag after the hookup if I need to. Many people say you should never touch the drag while fighting a fish. Frankly I can't understand why anyone would think that the drag setting should be the same at the very end of the fight as it is when you're trying to bury the hook. In any case – dry drag washers are huge. Even if you don't dunk your reel, rain works just fine at soaking drag washers on many reels, especially when the reels are transported outside the vehicle. The new reels are expected to retail in the $140-$200 range. I'm not going to go through all of the other features of the new reels. Penn does a fine enough job on this link. An even better look can be had on the following two videos. I especially recommend the second one - "Upclose Look at Upgrades".
Are they watching us? In this case "they" means the fish, and "us" means whatever offerings we have on the end of our lines. I focus extremely hard on being where the fish are, and I'm confident that I'm rarely fishing barren waters. The height of my confidence concerning stripers within casting range is when I fish ocean inlets. Anytime during the fishing season, the bass have to be there. Deep moving water, bait flushing in and out between the bays and ocean, gamefish passing through, life-filled jetties – they must be there. I'm convinced of that, and there's no harm if I'm wrong. I fish those places with an almost foolish intensity thinking that the next turn of the reel handle will result in a hit. I'm making constant adjustments to cast placement, jig weight, retrieve, and where I'm standing if I have room to move. After all, the fish are there, I just need to make them hit. I think it's a productive attitude. I was talking with John Paduano one day about bucktail retrieves and he takes the fish presence confidence a step further – he fishes with the belief that there is always a fish following his lure. That's a great fishing attitude, but having near constant fish follows is unlikely – or is it? This column is meant to be geared towards surf fishing, but I know that a lot of what has helped me succeed from the shore has come from observations made while boat and kayak fishing, and occasional scuba and free diving. I do a lot of light tackle fluke bucktailing, and I've always wondered what exactly is going on under the boat when we're fishing. With some effort, a lot of trial and error, and plenty of worthless video, I managed to get an eye into the fish's world. What I saw was pretty surprising. Even at times when there were no signs of life, fish would be very close to the bucktail and dropper combination and looking at it every which way. At one point I had the same fish on video for over three minutes as it nosed up to the rig but never ate it. There was one fish that just kept circling around the jig so that it could come up from behind it as it drifted backwards downcurrent due to difficult drift conditions. Another looked interested, but swam away when I stopped jigging for a moment, probably to do something in the boat. When the rig was in view of the camera, there was almost always something looking at it. The video is now on numerous fishing message boards, so there's a good chance that you've seen it. It's embedded at the end of this column if you haven't seen it. Between the message boards and my YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/jskinner5278) , there have been hundreds of comments. One of the more common ones is - "If you had <insert bait of choice>, those fish would have hit. "Bait of choice" was everything from fluke strip, to killie, spearing, – you name it. With the immediate assumption that something other than the Berkley Gulp that I was using was going to make a difference. I have a lot of experience fishing fluke in my area and that experience and many side-by-side comparisons with these other baits has me sold on Gulp. So that's my personal preference. The reality was that the video was shot over two trips, with six hours total video. 99 fish were landed over those two trips, of which I fished solo about half the time. Because of shortfalls in my video system, most of the time when I had the rig in the frame of video was on very slow drifts, and those are always challenging when fluke fishing no matter what you're fishing with. I don't think it's a good idea to draw conclusions from the 4 or 5 fish on the 20 minutes of usable video that didn't commit. What I found interesting was that those fish were following the whole time, and the fishing was generally good when the drift improved. I will make one fishing adjustment from viewing the video. I'll take an occasional high, maybe 5 foot, lift of the rig because I saw so many instances in viewing the entire 6 hours of video where fish spotted the lure falling from a distance. The higher the jig, the wider the area of the bottom that the jig is visible. High lifts of the jig did nothing to deter fish that were following, so there seems to be no harm. There are few times from the surf when I can or want to let my lure sink to the bottom. One circumstance in which I'll occasionally fish this way is when fishing tins on the ocean beaches during a sandeel run. In these cases I'll let the jig fall to the bottom a little more often in the future, and as I always do, focus carefully on starting the retrieve at the very instance the jig makes contact with the sand. A couple nights before writing this, a friend of mine nearly got shut out on a night boat trip to the Fisher's Island Race. Bucktails and live eels accounted for one fish for 3 guys. "It was like there was nothing there," was how he described it, but then added, "After seeing your video, maybe there were fish looking at our rigs the whole time." Maybe. I doubt those waters were fishless on a June night. Boat anglers have probably all experienced times when there were fish on the fishfinder, but nothing could make them hit. In the years when we had large schools of weakfish around they were notorious for filling up the fishfinder screen and ignoring everything, until they turned on like a light and hit just about any reasonable offering. On the beach I've seen gill nets and DEC survey seines loaded with bass when the fishing from the beach was totally dead. My point is that it's easy to blame an absence of fish when we're not catching. The reality might be that the fish are there, but not in an eating mood. What can an angler do? Periodic lure and retrieve changes are a good idea. I usually rely heavily on a very proven lure, but will alternate between that lure and others if I'm not catching. The best approach is probably to fish long enough that the conditions change. Current is the thing to focus on here, because it's predictable. Recently I was plugging a beach after dark and noted a lot of "fire" in the water. This is the light given off by small bio-luminescent jellyfish. The tide was high incoming, and when the current changed to outgoing, the jellyfish disappeared. Because these creatures are mostly dependent on current for travel, this meant that the water I was fishing was different on the ebb than on the flood. Maybe the temperature was different, given that the jellyfish are normally associated with water warmer. While it was jellyfish that tipped me off to the water change that corresponded with the tide change, there have been numerous times when fishing in and and near inlets when there was a noticeable clarity change corresponding with a change in current direction. The current speed is often a key factor in determining whether the fish will hit. If the current is fast, the fish may not wish to expend energy to feed. They might wait for the current to slow as it approaches slack. If you're in an area with mild currents – like most of our ocean and Sound beaches, the fish might feed best on the periods of stronger current because it will give them an advantage over their weaker prey. Are we being followed frequently when we're bass fishing? Maybe. There's really no way to know for sure. It does make me appreciate Paduano's statement about fishing like something is following you. After watching the fluke video, I'm starting to believe that the fish may be following and watching our lures more frequently than we think.
Between striper fishing from the surf and kayak, and fluking from my 16-foot tin boat, I realize I've been fishing 13 times in the last 12 days. I did take a day off (weather), but made up for it by making two trips on two other days. I manage this by keeping my trips relatively short. I'll rarely fish more than four hours on a trip, with two hour or three hours being about average. This lets me stay in touch with the areas I'm interested in. I have very little contact with other anglers, and am always off doing my own thing. This keeps the distractions down and lets me focus on the fish without worrying about who caught what where and when. All of this suits me just fine as I rely on my own observations and years of logs. One observation I have so far this season is a lack of sandeels in the Sound, at least in the Riverhead Town area where I've been fluking on the shoals about 1.5 miles off the beach. The boat is usually caked with them after a fluke trip. So far after 5 trips and a lot of fluke, I've seen one sandeel. I thought I found a large school of them getting beat up by bluefish, but when I motored over, they turned out to be anchovies. The fluke are spitting up almost nothing, which makes me wonder how they can stay in the area. I'm not sure if there's a connection, but the same waters are unusually clear. If I could clone myself, one of me would be diving. I wonder if the clarity is related to a lack of plankton that the sandeels would normally be drawn to. The striper plugging on those area beaches has been very slow for me, which isn't surprising given the lack of bait. I just heard there are plenty of sandeels east of my area, so maybe they're on their way. Another observation is an unusually large number of adult bunker schools heading west in the Sound. There appears to be nothing on them, and they've been screaming west as if they're on a mission. I guess western Sound anglers will benefit from this bait influx at some point. I had an interesting encounter with the DEC a couple days ago. I was one of about five boats fluking one of the shoals. I saw the familiar DEC center console pull up and start checking boats. I was busy lock and load bucktailing on mostly shorts, but knew my turn was coming. My back was to them as I was boating a fish, but I could hear them motoring up behind me. As I went to release the fish a female voice yelled "Do not throw that fish back!" I chuckled, kind of confused, and over the side it went. As I turned around I was greeted by a very angry officer who yelled at me that "It's illegal to be dumping fish over the side when we're approaching!" To which I responded, now completely confused, "I caught a short, and I threw it back." Her response was "I just watched you throw two fish over the side." Now my demeanor changed from confused to angry. "Dumping fish" is the violation you get when you see them coming and throw illegal fish overboard. The fine is much worse than being caught with the actual fish. I had done no such thing, and let her know it in no uncertain terms. Like a baseball catcher pointing to the first base umpire to dispute a checked swing, I pointed to the stern of a boat less than 100 feet from me and asked those anglers to tell her what they observed. "He's catching one after another, and throwing every one right back." She then asked me for my Marine Fishing Registry and driver's license. I handed them to her, and she asked about the cooler. I showed her the clearly legal fish in one cooler, and explained the other smaller coolers had gear and tackle. At that point she boarded my boat. Not wanting to waste a good bite, I sent my bucktail back to the bottom and landed two more shorts while she performed a professional and extremely thorough search through all of my stuff. "Where's your bait?" I was surprised by that question because the deck of my boat looked like a Gulp commercial, so I explained to her that I don't use any real bait, just the Gulp in the jars. I assumed she was looking for fluke belly strips that many anglers use for fluke bait. If you do that, you need to keep the (legal-sized) fish that you cut the strips from. After the search she took my driver's license and registry to her boat and was on the radio long enough for me to catch another fish. There were two other officers on the boat, and one of them commented on how great the Gulp works. Finally they were done with me. I'm always happy to see the DEC on the water enforcing the fisheries laws, and even though her perplexing accusation angered me at the time, I know the officer was just doing her job. These officers have a challenging job with many educational requirements because they enforce not only fisheries laws, but hunting and environmental laws as well. In thinking hard about what might have caused the misunderstanding, I recall that the fish I released while they approached kicked and slipped from my grasp when I went to release it. It landed on the deck of my boat, and I had to pick it up a second time to actually release it. Because my back was to them, she might have seen me go through the release motions twice and thought I threw two fish back. It's just a guess. The only thing that bothered me about this encounter was that I had the feeling she left thinking I was really tossing fish overboard as they approached. The moral of the story is to make sure you've done your Marine Fishing Registry obligation before hitting the water. I think I might have had some trouble if I didn't have mine. I'm also appreciative of the guys in the nearby boat who helped me plead my case, otherwise it would have been my word against hers. This next four weeks or so is cow bass time. I'd bet more trophy class stripers are beached in June than during the much heralded fall run. The fishing is much easier now. The big ones are hitting almost exclusively in the dark, and there's only about 8 hours of darkness each day. The weather is much more stable than in the fall, so if you get on a good bite, it's likely to continue for at least a few nights. Good luck on hunting down that fish of a lifetime.
The weather leading up to this writing makes me wonder if March was a warmer month than April. The season certainly started early, but persistent damp and cool conditions seem to have normalized things out quite a bit from my observations. I had the camera rolling on my first trip of the season, and it was a fun one. Here's the video of the kayak-based trip. My last two blog entries were related to a week-long trip I took to the Florida Keys in mid-April. I'll ask you to bear with me as I write about Florida one more time related to a subject that angered me on my return to New York – shore access. Jimmy Buffet sings famously about "changes in latitudes and changes in attitudes", and nowhere is that more applicable than when comparing Florida Keys shore access to that on Long Island. The Florida Keys are about 125 miles long, coincidentally about the same length as Long Island. The difference there is that the state of Florida goes out of its way to make as much of it freely available to the public as possible. If there were any "No Parking" signs, I couldn't find them. What I saw were signs with fish symbols that said "Parking" on them. These signs were usually in places where the state provided well-marked parking spaces, but what was more impressive was that at just about every corner of every one of the 46 bridges of The Keys there were wide and long areas to pull off and park. No hourly restrictions, no permits required, and no tickets left on your vehicle when you returned from fishing. This was just the start. As I drove down the back roads of the larger islands such as Big Pine, Big Torch, Big Coppitt, and others, places that intersected water often had room to park, and those roads often dead-ended on places where it was easy to park several vehicles and then do some wading or launch a kayak. There were numerous strategically located free ramps for launching boats. Keep in mind that the Florida Keys are a major tourist destination world-renowned for its fishing. Yet none of these spots was crowded because there were simply so many of them. My brother said to me that this is what Florida's high income tax buys you, with the joke being that Florida does not even have an income tax. Let's contrast this with New York. I spent about $275 last month on resident beach access permits. This will cover parking access at the town, state, and county levels. In the fall, I'll spend some more for a federal permit. Even after all of this expense, I'll have only scratched the surface of accessing Long Island's shorelines. I've always thought of beach access as a privilege, because that's what life on Long Island has ingrained in me. I can remember being harassed by a County Park Ranger when I had a permit and had done nothing wrong. When challenged, he backed off. Another time I had a similar experience with a State Park Officer. After the ticket was issued and I took his badge number and began taking pictures, he tore up the ticket. I was once given a $500 summons for illegal beach access despite my permit being displayed exactly where it was supposed to be – again, the ticket was nullified. I'm buying the damn permits, trying not to break laws and still taking crap like this from people who are paid with my tax dollars while I'm simply trying to go fishing. I'm buying my access "privileges" all while watching them dwindle slowly year after year. I recall a meeting with a local politician who snapped that "those beaches are private" when it was suggested that a piece of publicly owned land adjoining the shore be opened for a few parking spaces. Of course this is the root of the problem – the politicians who believe that our shores should be accessible to only those who can afford to live along them. The state of Florida has a different attitude indeed, recognizing shore access as a right for everyone and facilitating that access at every turn. After experiencing that freedom, I'll never view Long Island's shore access in the same way. It leaves me totally disgusted. Florida does have a saltwater license, but there is no fee for shore fishing for its residents. It cost me $30 for a 1-week non-resident license, but I got much more than my money's worth.
I'm writing this a few days after returning from a week of shore and kayak fishing in the Lower Florida Keys. This was my first trip to the area, and I was excited about being at the novice level again and having to deal with new challenges while targeting some species of fish that I had never even seen before. I was on my own, without any intentions of hiring a guide, but I did months of research ahead of the trip. While some of the fishing was brand new to me, it was interesting to see how knowledge gained from the types of fishing we do here in the Northeast paid off in the southern environment. The entire time I was there I felt that if I wasn't fishing, I was missing out on something. I fished tarpon in channels at night, and this went so well from the start that I forced myself to ignore tarpon during the day and focus on the flats in hopes of encountering bonefish. Flats wading in a foot or two of water was a totally new experience for me in which it rarely made sense to make a cast until a fish was sighted. Unfortunately, there were no bonefish in the area while I was there, but I got to practice on a few bonnethead sharks. They look like small versions of hammerhead sharks, and put up a nice fight in the shallows if you can make a good enough cast to one before scaring it away. I landed two of those. After my third session of flats wading, a local tackle shop owner informed me that I didn't "stand a snowball's chance in hell of even seeing a bonefish" and that these skinny water speedsters were "way back along the Gulf". This was consistent with the fact that I had not seen a single flats boat fishing. I decided to back off a bit on the flats wading and shifted some daytime fishing to casting poppers to barracuda that were mostly in the 15- to 25-inch range. It was a little like casting poppers for bluefish, but these fish were much faster. I caught dozens from my rented kayak, and they were a blast. I saw just a handful of big cudas, and while I tempted a couple, I was never good enough to get one to commit. The combination of the gin-clear water and their excellent eyesight make them a challenge. There were two types of fishing that had strong parallels to what we do up North, and I was able to take some advantage of my northern fishing skills. The first was bucktailing rocky structure in deeper channels that had plenty of current. There was no doubt that my feel for how to keep a bucktail in the strike zone with a minimum amount of weight paid off, but mostly I relied on the advice and precision tied bucktails from John Paduano. Among the bucktails on his premiumbucktails.com website are strikingly realistic jigs that imitate southern baitfish. Given all of the other fishing, I didn't try this type of fishing until the end of the last day of my trip. His suggestion was to throw the jigs to the structure and interrupt the retrieves with fast snapping motions. His lures and advice were right on the money. Within a couple minutes of trying I had a large mangrove snapper in the 3- to 4-pound class. This was soon followed by a blue runner, and then a fish that took me under a ledge after a tough fight and never came out. The next fish fought the same, and this time I pulled it out of the clutter to find it was a sizable grouper. These fish were in extremely clear water, and I never even attempted to throw my plain white bucktails that work so well for me on stripers. I finished that session with a strong jack that engulfed a Calcutta swimshad. The night fishing was where my northern skills helped the most. With advice from John Paduano and Jim Faulkner, I was targeting tarpon with swimshads in deep fast moving channels. It felt a lot like night inlet fishing for stripers. On my first night I went to where they both suggested, and had a tarpon in the air on my second cast. As most tarpon do, it threw the hook on the first jump. The next tarpon lasted 4 jumps before throwing the lure. I managed only a few other hits that night as I fought a 25-knot wind in my face. The next day, my non-fishing brother who lives in the Lower Keys mentioned a spot with water flow "like the Shinnecock Canal". I told him I needed to see it, and when I did, I knew where I'd be starting the second night. I put 7 tarpon in the air that night, landing one of the "small" ones of maybe 20 pounds. The best part of the night was when I noticed a rip line well up-current of where I was fishing. "Great striper rip," I thought to myself, and guessed tarpon might also appreciate the distorted water flow. On my third cast there I had my first big TV tarpon on the line and in the air on multiple jumps. The fight lasted only about 20 seconds, but featured breathtaking jumps that were fortunately visible with the help of some nearby street lights. It hit 30 feet in front of me but was soon 200 feet away and going for structure at full speed when it snapped the line in mid air with one of its charging leaps. I remembered Paduano's words about big tarpon "There's no pressure. You don't have to worry about losing them, because you know you're going to lose them". The weightlessness on the end of my line was the most likely outcome, as there is only so much you can do with a 100-pound plus fish while standing on the shore with a 7-foot spinning rod. I've heard that only about one in ten hooked tarpon are landed, and this includes fishing from boats. By the third night I was thinking the odds of a landing tarpon from shore might be even lower. My hot lure had been a 7-inch Tsunami swimshad. I had one left out of the four I packed in my suitcase, and I was saving it for the "striper rip" that was to form early in the ebb tide. When the time was right, I positioned myself on the rip, planted my feet firmly, and began retrieving casts with my rod angled low and toward the lure in anticipation of burying the hook hard on a strike. On my second cast I yanked back hard on a hit and instantly had another of the big tarpon at eye-level as it exploded into a run. With less current than the previous night, and a few lessons learned, I managed to break it from the main current. After about 20 minutes, more than 10 jumps, and several close calls with structure, I had the leader in reach in a predetermined landing spot on a small patch of beach made up of broken coral pieces. The fish lunged when I grabbed the leader, and I had to let go. After regaining the line, I waded into the water and got behind the fish. At the last moment I tossed my rod onto the shore and used both arms and legs to corral the fish into shallow water where a quick picture was taken before I revived it in the current and sent it on its way. I have no idea what the big tarpon weighed, but my largest stripers seemed like toys in comparison. However, it was the experience of fishing for those stripers that drew me to the piece of water that produced that tarpon, as well as another about half its size, and several other memorable hookups. My most productive tarpon lures were the swimshads that I had already owned for striper fishing. It was nice to see that what we learn fishing here can go a long way elsewhere.
The start of the striped bass season is upon us, but stripers are pretty far from my mind right now. It's for a good reason though. I'm just a few days away from a week-long trip to the Florida Keys. I have a free place to sleep in Key West, and beyond that, I'm on my own. It will be a week of as much fishing as I can pack in without any obligations. My plan is to focus on the roughly 40-mile stretch between Bahia Honda and Key West. Before the plans for the trip came together a couple months ago, I would have been as likely to believe that "Bahia Honda" was a car instead of an island in the Florida Keys chain. Bonefish, permit, barracuda – I've seen them only on TV and in fishing magazines. I have experience with tarpon though – about two days worth. For the first time in a long time, from a fishing perspective at least, I'm starting off clueless. Maybe that's what excites me most. It's the same excitement I see in the eyes of an angler who catches his first keeper bass and appreciates it more than some experienced anglers appreciate a 30-pounder. I know how I'm supposed to go about this – hire a guide. In the best case scenario the guide will put me on some bonefish, I'll execute a relatively easy cast, and I'll catch one. 4 hours and $450 later, I'll be able to say I caught a bonefish. Deep down, I'll know it was the guide who really caught it, having done the hard part of providing the opportunity to cast a shrimp in the path of one. The real value of such a trip wouldn't be catching the fish as much as what could be learned from the guide. I could then use that knowledge the rest of the week to help my solo efforts. Given that the guide would likely be fishing areas that I wouldn't have subsequent access to, and the above best-case scenario would be very weather-dependent, I've decided to take half of that guiding fee and use it to rent a good fishing kayak for the week. Shore-based fishing opportunities abound in The Keys, but those opportunities will be vastly increased with a kayak. How do I even know this much? Online research, and it's the same approach that's valuable for Northeast anglers trying to learn or improve on their striper fishing. I started with simple Google searches on terms like "Florida keys bonefish wading". After filtering through the many guide ads, I had several articles that covered everything from how to catch them to the mile marker numbers of places to park along the Overseas Highway connecting the islands. These were read while viewing the areas with Google Maps. If you're not already using aerial imagery to assist your fishing efforts, you're really missing out. Even given the relatively turbid waters of the Northeast, I've been able to find productive striper structure using these tools. The photos aren't always taken at times when the water is clear enough to see near-shore bottom detail, but you can usually find something useful by going back in time with the historical photos in Google Earth. Of course this was not at all necessary with the clear and shallow Keys waters. What has been remarkably useful and reassuring for me is to use Google Maps street level views to check out parking and launching access. You access these views by zooming all the way in past the aerial photo resolution limits. These views aren't available everywhere, but in the case of The Keys, the coverage is superb. You can basically drive around through The Keys without ever leaving your computer. Doing this has been very eye-opening. Signs like "No Parking" and "Permit Required" that are so familiar to Northern anglers are absent there. Instead the access appears to be widespread, unrestricted, and free. Contrast this with the $300+ I'll spend on my yearly beach access permits this month. I'll say more about this when I get back from my trip and have spent a week using the access points, but my visual impressions are confirmed from a couple of guide books I've purchased that map out and give directions to fishing access and boat launches. This brings me to my next level of research – books. The experience of lacking experience reminds me why books that I've written sell pretty well. It really is useful to have someone with a lot of experience exhaustively cover a subject in a compact package such as a book. In my early stages of research, kayaks weren't on my radar. Afters coming across some articles on kayak fishing the Lower Keys and realizing all of the access that could be afforded by paddling, I felt like I had a whole new knowledge gap to overcome. When I saw 5-knot currents mentioned in some areas, it was off to Amazon to find some books on the area. Now armed with "The Florida Paddling Guide" and "The Florida Keys Paddling Atlas", I have a list of dozens of launch sites as well as descriptions of places to paddle and the currents that can be expected. The books include the bottom structure composition and the fish that can be expected to be encountered in the different areas. This seems like a well-spent $40. All of this is only one aspect of the trip. I'll be fishing for tarpon from shore near the bridges at night. John Paduano, a superb angler who has made many trips to The Keys has advised me on how to approach this fishing, so I feel pretty good in that area. Tarpon will also be a primary target in the daylight hours as well, and it's one of my goals to deal with a couple of these from the kayak. If I absolutely have to, I'll consider using live bait for this. I have a killie cart in my suitcase along with a few Sabiki rigs to catch pinfish for bait. I would much rather tempt them with artificials, which brings me to the next online learning tool – YouTube. Here's one for you – Google "Hogy Tarpon Video". Wow! They sold me. I don't expect to encounter as many hungry tarpon as they did in the video, but you can bet I'm packing some Hogys. Part of my reason for writing this now is that I haven't made the trip yet, and you'll be able to compare my pre- and post-trip impressions. I feel pretty confident going in that I have a decent knowledge foundation. I'm an OK fisherman to start, I do a fair amount of kayak fishing, and I think I have the access and tides worked out. Because of the many channels, flats, and islands, you can have a 4-hour tide difference just by moving a couple miles in The Keys. I'm not naive – I understand that I'm going to have to deal with a significant amount of wind while I'm there, and that it will usually be blowing from an easterly quarter. This was determined by looking at past online weather data for the month of April. Taking this into consideration, I have several flats in mind that should be accessible and fishable on a moderate easterly. That's it for now. I'm going to finish packing. I'll let you know how it goes when I get back and we can compare expectations vs. experience. I'm leaving on Sunday April 15th. Between now and then feel free to send any appropriate advice my way!
Last fall, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they will begin an extensive review for the American Eel to determine if adding the species to the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife is warranted. Normally I would report on something like this pretty fast, but the first time I saw something about it I wrote it off as old news. That's because the Fish and Wildlife Service went down this same road five years ago, and concluded after a two-year study that listing was not warranted. I wrote an in-depth article for Nor'east Saltwater at that time, which I have reproduced below because it is once again very relevant. So why is this happening again? In 2010, a group of environmentalists based in California petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect eels under the Endangered Species Act. At the time the petition was submitted they called themselves "The Council for Endangered Species Act Reliability". They have since changed their name to "The Center for Environmental Science, Advocacy and Reliability". I found it entertaining that they managed that substantial name change while preserving its acronym (CESAR). After somehow resisting the multiple donation links on their website, www.bestscience.org, I learned a little about who these people are. Their Executive Director, Craig Manson, was President George W. Bush's Assistant Interior Secretary. So it would seem they are lead by a heavy hitter who is likely well connected in Washington. When the new petition was reviewed, the F&WS decided to initiate another full review. Their justification was that "New information indicates that changes in ocean conditions may be negatively impacting the eel's reproduction rates." They said they are particularly interested in the following types of new information not known at the time of the 2007 status review: species' population structure, range-wide analysis of impacts from the parasitic nematode Anguillicola crassus, statistically significant long-term glass eel recruitment declines, and the correlation of climate change and glass eel recruitment. The potential impact on anglers goes beyond losing the ability to use eels for bass bait. If the eels end up on the Endangered Species List, we could see habitat protection of the type we see associated with protection of the Piping Plover. In the case of this shorebird, it means beach access restrictions. What might it mean to our waterways if eels are given a similar level of protection? It's a scary thought. Considering that I can go to any number of local tackle shops during the season and buy as many eels as I want for about $20/dozen, I have a very difficult time rationalizing the possibility that their species is threatened by extinction. But it's not up to me. We'll have to leave that to the government scientists who will once again launch a full-blown evaluation of the species. We can only hope that it will be unbiased and accurate.
Consideration of the American Eel for Endangered Species Act Protection (Original publication February 2007)
By John Skinner
On January 30, 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced the completion of an extensive status review of the American eel, and concluded that protecting the eel as an endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is not warranted. The review examined all available information about the American Eel population from Greenland south along the North American coast to Brazil in South America and as far inland as the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The Service initiated the review in September of 2004 at the request of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). In November of 2004, Douglas and Timothy Watts petitioned that Endangered Species Act protection be extended to the eel. In July of 2005 the USFWS issued a 90-day finding that found that the petition presented substantial information indicating that listing the American eel may be warranted. The USFWS hosted two workshops to discuss threats with eel experts from federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, private industry, Native American tribes, academia, the ASMFC, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, Canada, England, and Japan. The following is a summary of the USFWS evaluation and finding. A link to the full 31-page report in the Federal Register as well as other relevant information can be found at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/ameel.
American eels have a fascinating life history. All eels are born in the Atlantic Ocean's Sargasso Sea near Bermuda where their eggs hatch into a larval stage known as "leptocephali". These larvae are transported by ocean currents to the Atlantic coasts of North America and the upper portions of South America. Unpigmented juvenile eels arriving along the coast are known as "glass eels", while the newly arrived pigmented eels are referred to as "elvers". Eels that survive this juvenile stage mature into fully pigmented "yellow eels". This is the stage that most anglers are familiar with. Some eels grow to adulthood in the marine environment, some go into freshwater/saltwater estuaries, some migrate up rivers and streams, and others move from one habitat to another as they grow as juveniles and mature. Beginning at 3 years old and up to 24 years, yellow eels change into "silver eels", which is a key physiological event preparing these future spawners for oceanic migration and reproduction. During this metamorphosis the eels take on a silvery color, develop enlarged eyes and nostrils, and a more visible lateral line. Upon nearing sexual maturity, silver eels stop feeding, and begin migration toward the Sargasso Sea. Spawning occurs there, after which the adults die. Each female will produce between a half million and 30 million eggs. The American eel is said to have the broadest diversity of habitats of any fish species, and this enhances the species' ability to survive despite threats in one or more environments.
The USFWS looked at the best available scientific and commercial information to assess the population status. They concluded that, despite a population reduction over the past century, eels remain very abundant and occupy diverse habitats over an exceptionally broad geographic range. In the words of Dr. David Perkins, senior fisheries biologist with the USFWS, "Although the current status of American eels cannot be described in absolute terms because rangewide estimates of abundance do not exist, the number of yellow phase and silver phase eels is probably in the many millions, perhaps billions." The USFWS also noted that trends in abundance over recent decades vary among locations and life stages, showing decreases in some areas, and increases or no trends in others. They took special note of the fact that records of glass eel recruitment do not show declines that would signal recent declines in annual reproductive success or the effect of new or increased threats. Although variable from year to year, glass eel recruitment appears stable over the past 15 years. Taken as a whole, investigators felt that a clear trend could not be detected in species-wide abundance during recent decades, and determined that the species currently appears stable.
Factors Affecting the Species
Five factors are weighed in determining the need for ESA protection of any species. Factor A: The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of the species' habitat or range. Factor B: Over-utilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes. Factor C: Disease or predation. Factor D: Inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms. Factor E: Other natural or manmade factors affecting the species' continued existence.
Factor A : The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of the Species' Habitat or Range.
Spawning and ocean migration habitats are essential to the persistence of the American eel, and the USFWS concluded that there are no apparent human-caused or significant threats to these habitats, and they remain available and occupied by eels. Estuarine, marine, and freshwater habitats provide maturation habitat, and it was verified that some portion of the eel population completes its lifecycle without ever entering freshwater. Although some dams appear to form a complete barrier to upstream migration and likely caused regional removal of eels from 25 percent of their historic freshwater habitat, American eels are able to negotiate many barriers. This has allowed them to remain well distributed throughout roughly 75 percent of their historic freshwater range. The USFWS noted that males and highly productive females continue to be present in extensive areas of fresh water, estuarine, and marine environments, and there appeared to be no evidence of reduction in glass eel recruitment. For these reasons, they concluded that available freshwater, estuarine, and marine habitats are sufficient to sustain the American eel population.
Factor B: Over-utilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or Educational Purposes
Investigators found no evidence that subsistence harvest (people catching their own eels for food), bycatch, or recreational fishing was having an impact on eels regionally or rangewide. They found that commercial harvest, which included the bait eel fishery, had a strong influence on eel densities in some local and regional areas, but there was no evidence that it was a threat at a population level. A population level threat is one that threatens the species with extinction. Such a threat would be seen in declines in juvenile recruitment rangewide, but this hasn't been found. Researchers think that the random dispersal of the larval stage enables the species to successfully recruit to other areas, including extensively unfished areas, resulting in a buffering effect against harvest. Eels demonstrated another compensatory mechanism related to commercial fishing. One study of the glass eel fishery suggested an exploitation rate of 30 to 50 percent on arriving glass eels and elvers, but that high rate did not translate to a similar level of reproduction loss. The explanation was that the glass eels and elvers that weren't harvested had a greater potential for survival because of the decreased density of the eels. One can probably observe something similar with a home aquarium. Pack the aquarium to its maximum fish density and odds are that some will die due to stress. If there are only a few fish in the tank, they stand a higher chance at long-term survival. The USFWS concluded that density-dependent mechanisms such as these combined with fishing regulations were sufficient to maintain the species as a whole even under foreseeable fishing pressure.
Factor C: Disease or Predation
The main concern in this category was a parasite, Anguillicolla crassus, which matures in the swim bladder of the eel. Studies have suggested that this parasite may impair the capacity of the eels to migrate to the Sargasso Sea for spawning. Researchers acknowledged a high degree of uncertainty with regards to the impact of this parasite on individual silver eels, but they found no evidence of a population-level effect. Given that there are extensive areas of the American eel's range that have not been invaded by A. crassus, the USFWS felt that it does not pose a threat at the population level. They also found no evidence of a significant threat to the eel population from other diseases or predation.
Factor D: Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms
The regulatory mechanisms considered here dealt with seaweed harvest, habitat degradation, harvest and trade, contaminants, and fish passage. Much of this is addressed in the sections A, B, C, and E, and found not to present population threats. Given those findings, the USFWS felt that it was reasonable to conclude that the current regulatory mechanisms that are in place are sufficient to protect the eel from extinction.
Factor E: Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting the Species' Continued Existence
The factors considered here included hydropower turbines, contaminants, and oceanic conditions. Turbines were recognized as a source of ongoing mortality that affects regional presence and abundance of eels. However, the current information did not identify turbines as a significant threat to the eels at a population level. There was substantial uncertainty on the effects of contaminants on the American eel, but there was nothing to support a population level impact. Oceanic conditions are highly variable and cyclical. They determine recruitment to the continent, and therefore have a substantial influence on the presence and abundance of eels on the continent, especially in freshwater habitats. Oceanic conditions are a naturally occurring influence on the American eel during its early life history, but are not considered a threat to the eel.
The Endangered Species Act defines the term "threatened species" as any species that is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The term "endangered species" is defined as any species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The USFWS found that American eels remain widely distributed over their vast range including most of their historic freshwater habitat. They are not solely dependent on freshwater habitat to complete their lifecycle, and utilize estuarine and marine habitats as well. Their number remains in the millions, with recruitment trends variable but stable. Threats acting individually or in combination do not threaten the species at a population level. Taking these factors and the best available scientific and commercial information into consideration, the USFWS determined that listing the American eel as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act is not warranted.
The USFWS decision is good news for anglers who use eels for bait. Had they decided to list the species, eels would have become protected in the same fashion as the piping plover shorebirds. Eel possession certainly would have become illegal. It's also reasonable to assume that there would have been new restrictions applied to activities in important eel habitats, in the same way that we face beach access restrictions to protect the piping plover. This marks the passage of one threat to the future availability of eels for bait or food. The ASMFC manages the commercial and recreational fisheries, and it's possible we'll see some tightening of those regulations somewhere in the future if they feel it's necessary to protect the stocks.
If you're a surfcaster, piping plover shorebirds have probably cost you some lost beach access and inconvenience. If you were a fox at Robert Moses State Park early this year, the plovers may have cost you your life. The trapping and killing of nine foxes by wildlife officials at the park has been widely reported and discussed. The justification was that circumstantial evidence suggested that foxes were killing piping plovers, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). As was reported in Newsday, there was no hardcore proof that foxes were killing plovers, but plover carcasses had been found near fox tracks, and foxes were seen near plover nests 21 miles away at Jones Beach. Ronald Foley, the Long Island Regional Director of the State Parks Department said the number of nesting pairs of piping plovers at Robert Moses has dropped significantly. There were 24 pairs in 2009, 11 pairs in 2010, and 12 pairs in 2011. Foley said the fox population surged during this period, although there had been no official count. In the Newsday article, Foley further justified the killing of foxes noting that "They're common on Long Island," unlike the plovers that are protected under state and federal law. The action drew loud complaints by many who felt that nature was just taking its course and the killing of the foxes was unjustified. Foley stated, "We're expected to maintain balance, but when the very existence of a species is at stake, the balance has to be in favor of that species." Seriously? We (humans) are supposed to referee interactions between native species in predator-prey relationships? I guess we can leave that open for debate. Foley's statement left me wondering just how much the "very existence" of piping plovers is in jeopardy at this time. Rather than look at the population over a very small area – Robert Moses Park, let's do the right thing and look at the big picture. According to the 2010 Update of the Atlantic Coast Piping Plover Population released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Atlantic Coast piping plover estimate was 1,782 nesting pairs, well more than double the 1986 estimate. Even discounting apparent increases due to increased census effort early on, the population has posted an 86% increase between 1989 and 2010. There have been periodic decreases observed during this time of overall increase, but no matter how you crunch the numbers, the birds are much more plentiful than when they were put under ESA protection in 1985. Are they getting close to the point that they can be delisted? It doesn't look like it. One of the main criteria for removing the Atlantic Coast plovers from the endangered species list is that they maintain for five years a total of 2000 breeding pairs coastwide. The coast is broken into "Recovery Units". The New England Recovery Unit goal is 625 pairs, and they've exceeded that since 1998. The New York-New Jersey goal is 575 pairs, and this number was passed in 2007 with 586 pairs, but it dropped to 554 pairs the following year. The Southern Unit (DE, MD, VA, NC) goal is 400 pairs. Although their best surveys have found approximately only 330 pairs (2007,2008), the population increase seen since 2003 is encouraging. With a peak of 274 pairs in 2002 and 253 pairs counted in 2008, the Atlantic Canada Unit goal of 400 pairs is being reconsidered. Taking into account that the birds still haven't broken through the 2000-pair coastwide goal, and they're going to need to do that for 5 consecutive years, it's safe to say we won't see plovers delisted from the ESA anytime soon. That means continued beach access restrictions for surfcasters and other beachgoers. Given current management strategies and attitudes, the impact on foxes appears much more severe.
"You're picking again." said my fishing expo neighbor, Mr. Cash, at a recent show in Amityville. "I know. It's difficult to stop." I confessed, as I rummaged through one of several large bins of used plugs. I've accumulated so much gear over the years that I should be the seller instead of the buyer, but there are little finds at these shows at prices that are often difficult to pass up. I was kicking myself when I realized I was picking at leftovers after I recalled seeing anglers walk away earlier with bags of Mr. Cash's stuff. What was there that I couldn't resist? First was a 6-inch yellow Bomber for $2. Nothing special, right? Well to me it was, because this was an old Bomber from the days when the tail hook was attached to the plug with a heavy-duty screw eye. Today's Bombers are thru-wired, which is a structural improvement, but the old ones swim higher. Look in my North Shore bag some night and you'll find several 6-inch Bombers – and they're all old ones. It's a deadly plug that swims just below the surface. This particular plug was the yellow "chicken scratch" pattern, my favorite, so it was the icebreaker into my wallet. With hundreds of plugs in my basement, I was stopping there. A half-hour later I was back, out of curiosity I told myself. What's this? A yellow 2 ¾-ounce Gibbs pencil popper in excellent condition for $7? Digging deeper I found a blue one for $6. They joined the Bomber back in my booth. Driving home I wondered why I held out on the 2-ounce Gibbs Danny swimmer for $8. It's a good thing I still own seven Penn 706Z reels, because Mr. Cash had several beauties at reasonable prices, along with just about any other old Penn you could want. I disciplined myself to not even look at the rods he had. This was just one booth. Steve Petri's booth had new Al Gag's pencil poppers for something like 2 for $20. The booth across the aisle from me had loads of marked down Gulp baits. The table next to me was moving a lot of very realistic sandeel imitator tins. I saw bucktails for less than it would cost to tie them yourself if you had to buy the deer hair. Then there were the soft plastics… The wide range of gear, new and used, all in one place and for sale at often-excellent prices was just one part of the show. The other part was the seminars. Bill Wetzel, Bill Muller, Paul Melnyk, Tom Mikoleski, myself, and others, all willing to share expertise and have their brains picked. The nice part about picking the brain of someone standing in front of a room full of people is that they may say something or give you some detail that they would normally withhold when writing. It's easy to be careful when writing. It's not so easy when giving a seminar. The show I'm referring to here was the early January 2012 Long Island Recreational Fishing Expo held by the New York Coalition for Recreational Fishing (NYCRF). In all honesty, and I hope the organizers don't get mad at me, this was the smallest and least attended show of this type I had ever been to. Nonetheless, the show still gave you a heck of a lot for an $8 admission fee, especially if you needed gear. It's also a good feeling knowing that the profits from the show are used to support fishing access, and this group has fought and won some major battles for anglers. The low attendance at Amityville was likely due to the new location, as these NYCRF Expos are usually very well attended and have many vendors. The next one is at the Islandia Marriott February 3-5, and this will definitely be a larger show judging by how well it went last year at this location. By the way, Mr. Cash told me he'll also have a booth in Islandia so you can get to check out his plug bins and other stuff. I managed to make it out of the show with just the three plugs and a couple of replacement guides that I bought at a good price from Steve Petri's booth. The wallet came home fatter though, because I sold a 9-foot custom Lamiglas rod for $150. I can only use so many 9-footers. Considering this rod had $70 worth of Silicone Carbide guides, this was yet another steal that somebody left the show with. Another good show in February is the 30th Annual New York Sportfishing Federation Forum and Auction at the Freeport Recreation Center February 17-19. There's also "Surf Day", an excellent show for surfcasters held by the Jersey Shore Surfcasters in Lincroft New Jersey on February 25th. This is a pretty short ride from Staten Island. If you know of any other shows you'd like to mention, add them to the comments. These are a nice way to break up the winter!
Wow, some fall run, huh? For many, it might as well have ended on the October 29th Nor'easter that brought snow to western Long Island and stinging sleet to the East End. To make matters worse, the fishing wasn't exactly red hot prior to the storm either.