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On the Water: Futile Search for Scallops

Mon, 11/04/2019 - 17:32
The Star’s “On the Water” columnist did some preseason exploration for bay scallops on Saturday morning but only found three.
Jon Diat

There were plenty of rumors and whispers along the waterfront. Since September, the early morning coffee talk among baymen and others in the know, or who think they are, was that the bay scallop season, which opened at daybreak on Monday in state waters, was going to be a bust.

Name a body of water or a location, and the news from there was not positive. Puzzling to many was the fact that while last season's scallop catch was mediocre at best by most accounts, this season initially looked promising as the adult scallops spawned a large crop of juveniles that should have been ready for harvest on Monday. It had the makings of a rather bountiful harvest.

To top it off, this past summer there were no brown, rust, or red tides, which in the past, have usually resulted in a significant die-off of the tasty bivalves. The waters, for the most part, remained pretty clear and clean for a majority of the year.

But were these rumors of a bad season really true? Or were they pure fiction as a means to dissuade people from even trying for scallops? Spreading false information, or throwing people off the scent, so to speak, can at times be beneficial for some.

One thing I've learned over the years is not to trust every bit of gossip I come across while pursuing fish, lobsters, clams, and scallops. Fishermen are particularly prone to telling fish stories. A four-pound fluke can be easily manipulated by its capturer into an eight-pound doormat when the story is retold to the next door neighbor. A 15-pound striper caught in the late afternoon adds 10 pounds overnight when the news of it reaches the local tackle shop the next morning. The list of offenses fishermen are guilty of is rather long. It also proves my theory that Pinocchio must have been a fisherman.

On Saturday morning, it was time to find out for myself what all the talk was about. While I would be unable to retain any scallops for consumption, it was still legal to explore where the scallops may be hiding to ensure I knew exactly where to go at daybreak on Monday morning. Some early season reconnaissance is always a good move so that time is not wasted on opening day.

Saturday itself dawned brisk and clear, with a dockside temperature of 41 degrees. The early morning sun felt good against the body, but I did not hesitate to turn on the heater inside my main cabin as I untied the dock lines.

No other boats where in sight as I cleared the breakwater that protects Sag Harbor. A few minutes later, it was time to drop my two iron dredges into the crystal clear water where I have done very well the past few seasons. Slowing down to about 1.7 knots, I could make out the brown cloud of sand the dredges were kicking up from behind the stern of my boat in the 12-foot depths. About five minutes later, I cut the engine to neutral, as it was time to haul the dredges to the culling board on the midsection of my aft deck.

After pulling arm-over-arm on my 40 feet of yellow nylon rope, the first dredge was directly below my wet exhaust pipe. Lifting it off the transom was not an easy task, as its end bag was full of rocks, seaweed, broken shells, and hopefully some adult-size scallops. Flipping over the dredge onto the culling board was a challenge.

"Doesn't look good," said Ray Sperling, my reliable deckhand and expert scallop culler, as his orange rubber gloves combed through the debris and I reached over to the starboard side to pull up the other dredge. These were words I did not want to hear.

"A few hermit crabs, but no scallops," he added, as he cleaned off the board for my next dumping of underwater refuse. The second dredge fared no better, but there were a few under-sized scallops that were likely hatched back in June. Whether they would survive the next 12 months to reach keeper size by next November would now be in the hands of Mother Nature.

The next tow a few hundred yards down the beach produced our first official scallop of legal size, along with an additional sprinkling of undersized scallops and some hermit and spider crabs. Moving farther into Northwest Harbor did not improve our results. I steered to the west to cover ground near Shelter Island leading into various parts of Noyac Bay, an area that has been a reliable producer for many years.

Alas, the results were the same. Despite the plentiful sunshine and calm conditions, it was clear that the rumors of a lousy season were proving to be true. Two other friends of mine also went out on Saturday and fared no better, with a total of eight scallops taken between the two boats.

Given my results, I did not even go out on Monday for opening day. It was clear to me that it was not worth the time, effort, and fuel for a yield that would amount to no more than an appetizer-size portion. I can't recall the last time I missed an opener. It felt sad.

Perhaps some baymen will find some pockets of scallops, but considering how much ground I covered on Saturday, I'm not overly optimistic. While it was nice to see some juvenile scallops in the bags of our dredges -- some hope for the future -- we saw the same thing last fall too.

On the fishing scene, those focused on blackfish have been rewarded with excellent catches. Fish up to 10 pounds have been landed with regularity. Plum Island and Fisher's Island are the hot spots, but the action has been gaining strength in and around Block Island.

On Saturday, Capt. Ken Hejducek of the charter boat My Joyce out of Montauk reported good fishing with a full limit of sea bass up to four pounds, along with a bushel of blackfish up to nine pounds taken by his fares. The veteran skipper said that a few cod were also landed. He had a similar catch on Sunday.

"Blackfish action remains strong," said Harvey Bennett from the Tackle Shop in Amagansett. "And along the ocean beaches, striped bass remain in the wash. Only a few are keepers, but the action has been pretty consistent. Small diamond jigs and bucktails have been working best."

"Blackfish is the big name in town," remarked Ken Morse from behind his counter at Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor. "The fish are getting larger and the action has been really good this fall."

Morse also confirmed that stripers remain in residence along the various ocean beaches. "The cut at Georgica was opened a few days ago and the action was great right off the bat. Some keepers were taken as well. I hope it lasts."


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