Anxious for Bay Scallops

I have programmed my schedule to ensure that I get on the water for the first day of bay scallop season
Robert Cugini of Seattle and Ray Sperling of Sag Harbor helped sort through scallops on Monday morning. Jon M. Diat

The alarm was set to wake me up at 5 on Monday morning. But I was up well before dawn. In fact, I hardly slept at all that night. There was just too much anticipation running through my body to allow for a sound, deep sleep. 

“Why?” you may ask. Well, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I have programmed my schedule for the last 30 or so years, whether it be work or pleasure, to ensure that I get on the water for the first day of bay scallop season. It’s pretty basic, actually. For me, it reminds me of Christmas morning of my youth when I could not wait to open my presents laid under the tree. Sleep is just impossible.

At this point of my life, heading out on opening day has become a tradition of sorts. Whether the predictions are for a lousy or good harvest, it does not matter. I will have my boat fully loaded with my five scallop dredges ready to greet the rising sun as it breaks over the densely wooded shoreline of Northwest Harbor the very first morning the season starts (that was Monday in New York State waters). 

And I’m not the only one who feels the lure of this special season. I have a close friend who flies all the way from Seattle every year just to go scalloping with me for the first week. It’s something he looks forward to as much as I do. Another companion, Ray, who retired a few years ago as a longstanding mechanic for the Hampton Jitney, has served as my trusty culling board sorter for nearly 20 years. When he was working, he too juggled his schedule to ensure he did not miss opening day and many subsequent excursions. 

His passion for the pursuit of the beyond-sweet shellfish is intense, and he is adamant that any medical appointments that may have been scheduled need to be put off until December. Ray’s policy is scallops before health. While some may call that dedication, others will say that’s not the smartest thing to do. Needless to say, I’ve had a few arguments with him over the years on this. And I’ve lost every one of them. 

Lines off from the dock at 6 a.m. sharp with a hot black cup of coffee in hand, it was about 20 minutes of travel time into a stiff southwesterly wind to our first spot. With dredges dropped from the stern into the still warm 60-degree water, the boat’s diesel engine was put into a slow, two-knot crawl. A few other boats were around with the same intent.  

After a 10-minute tow along the hard, sandy bottom, it was time to pull up the 36-inch iron dredges to see if we hit pay dirt. The first dredge felt heavy on the pull upward. A good sign. But was it scallops or a mixture of junk like rocks, seaweed, and old broken clam and whelk shells? Once at the surface, we had our answer — a full dredge bag of scallops. State law limits recreational catches to one bushel per person per day (the season ends on March 31). And in that short tow, we had already caught almost a full bushel, probably around 150 of them. A huge welcome surprise. 

After that, it took only 30 minutes to secure our three-bushel basket limit. We were very fortunate. Not every season starts this way. In fact, I still recall some days in the past where it would take four hours to secure a mere three dozen scallops. Not easy to split such a small amount among three people on board. 

Returning to the dock in the following sea, each of us knew that a morning such as we had just experienced might never be repeated. And that could be the case next year, as we witnessed only a smattering of juvenile scallops that would attain legal size for harvest by next November. The script next season could be vastly different. But that’s the way Mother Nature is. And our catch on Monday morning was certainly not something we took for granted.

On the fishing scene, the action for sea bass and cod off Montauk remains strong when conditions allow anglers to head offshore. Bluefish are around in good supply, especially at Shagwong, and striped bass, while smaller in size than a few weeks ago, are still being landed in the rips off the Lighthouse. As for blackfish, catches continue to improve. On Sunday, Capt. Michael Potts of the charter boat Bluefin IV put his fares on a full-limit catch of tautog to six pounds. The action and size of the fish should only continue to improve as the waters chill. 

At the Tackle Shop in Amagansett, the owner, Harvey Bennett, said that the fishing has been a bit up and down, depending on the species being pursued. “One guy got some shad on a fly the other day at Accabonac and there were some nice striped bass in the bay at the Napeague channel with a few fish up to 30 pounds landed.” Bennett said that some big bluefish were patrolling the oceanfront west of Amagansett, while false albacore can still be had in Fort Pond Bay and off Montauk. “Lots of squid have also shown up in the bays, and largemouth bass can be had in Fresh Pond, too.” 

Bennett took a few hours off on Sunday afternoon to try his luck in Fort Pond Bay and was rewarded with three squid and 10 nice blowfish for dinner.  “Best meal I’ve had in a long time, too,” he added. 

A blowfish and scallop dinner are a perfect combination in my book.

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