A Fish Tale for the Ages

Lurking below are visitors from afar
Jack Gaffney caught a 33-inch striper last week off Montauk Point. Bob Gaffney

Wet a hook in the bay and you might find a porgy or other commonly caught fish at the end of your line. But lurking below are visitors from afar, waiting to turn your ordinary day of fishing into a fish story of a lifetime.

Maybe a decade ago, Capt. Ken Rafferty and clients were angling in about four feet of water northwest of the Devon Yacht Club in Gardiner’s Bay when they saw three large shadows a short distance from the boat. Anticipating that these were large striped bass, Captain Rafferty quickly grabbed a wriggling snapper from his live well and rigged it on waiting rod. He directed his customer to fling the bait several feet in front of the cruising fish and wait for a strike. 

One of the fish quickly broke from the pack, inhaled the snapper, and sped west at an oddly quick speed for a striped bass. With line peeling off the reel at an accelerating rate and no chance of stopping the brute by applying additional reel drag, Captain Rafferty started the outboard and pursued the big fish. Moments later the fish leaped high from the water and revealed its true identity. It was a tarpon, a fish more at home in the Florida Keys than in the South Fork. 

Captain Rafferty continued to follow the tarpon, estimated at 80 pounds, as it headed towards a group of young sailors tacking to and fro in front of the yacht club. The stretched fishing line rubbed against the bottom of a boat and broke, simultaneously freeing the tarpon to resume its wild adventure up north and creating an improbable tale for the unlucky angler.

There is no record of a fisherman landing a tarpon with rod and reel in local bays, though one was allegedly caught off Montauk Point by a surfcaster in the late ’90s. But tarpon have appeared in local pound traps over the years. In 1974, Jimmy Lester found a 64-pound tarpon in his Fort Pond Bay nets. A picture of the fish is included in “On the East End,” a memoir by Clarence Hickey, a marine biologist, about his time with the New York Ocean Science Laboratory in Montauk in the early ’70s.

It’s believed that tarpon and other southern species are carried to our shores by the Gulf Stream, a powerful, swift and warm Atlantic Ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and travels north along the eastern coastline. It’s typically 60 miles wide and moves at about five and a half miles per hour. Some years the Gulf Stream shifts course and comes within a short boat ride of Montauk Point. Some fish riding this magic carpet evidently turn left at the Lighthouse and follow prey into the bay.

Tarpon is not the only unexpected species to swim among us, according to the “Annotated List of Fishes Found in New York Marine Waters,” a document that was maintained by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Bureau of Marine Fisheries up until 2002. In fact, the list is long and interesting. 

In the early 1900s, a sailfish nabbed here was brought into Orient and a swordfish was caught in Gardiner’s Bay. In 1939 and 1940, bonefish were collected at Orient. In 1972, a goliath grouper was plucked from a Gardiner’s Bay pound trap. A net off Fisher’s Island snagged a northern pike in the ’80s. Cobia, pompano, amberjack, red snapper, king mackerel, flying fish, pilot fish, ladyfish, Coho salmon, Atlantic salmon, and brown trout have all been found in local nets. White sharks, thresher sharks, and blacktip sharks have also been captured in bay traps. Ocean sunfish, perhaps one of the oddest-looking creatures with fins, and large sea turtles have been spotted around Gardiner’s Island in recent years.

The next time you feel a tug at the end of your line think about the possibilities. More likely than not it’s a species you’ve caught many times before, but just maybe it’s a story for the ages waiting to be told.

A 730-pound mako caught by the 42-foot Thor, a local boat, won the 31st annual Star Island Yacht Club Shark Tournament in Montauk last weekend. More than 100 boats participated in the event. A 398-pound thresher and 378-pound mako won second and third places, respectively. The club’s annual fluke tournament is scheduled for July 9 with a captain’s meeting the day before. Information is at starislandyc.com.

The two-day Montauk Marine Basin annual shark tournament, the 46th, begins on Saturday with the captain’s meeting tomorrow. Feeling lucky? There’s still time to enter. Details are available at marinebasin.com. The tournament aids shark research efforts by encouraging anglers to tag and release sharks for study. Tournament organizers and participants donate meat from captured sharks to food pantries. 

Harvey Bennett at the Tackle Shop in Amagansett reported that surfcasters hooked bluefish up to 16 pounds at Napeague beaches in the morning and a 40-inch striper was taken on stubby Hopkins in Amagansett. Lots of bait in the bay and a strong moon bodes well for good bass fishing in the bay, he added.

Paul Apostolides at Paulie’s Tackle in Montauk said that surfcasters are finding lots of bluefish throughout the day, but striped bass remain elusive for all but experienced anglers fishing at night. Boats trolling umbrella rigs off the Point are limiting out quickly, but large fish are still the exception. T.J. at Gone Fishing Marina in Montauk reported that fluke fishing is heating up around Montauk with the north rips and the radar tower the most productive areas for keepers. He added that the porgy bite remains hot with many super-jumbos caught. 

Sebastian Gorgone at Mrs. Sam’s Bait and Tackle in East Hampton reported that keeper bass have been caught at the entrance of Three Mile Harbor on sandworms. Lures that work the bottom should get results, too, he added. Bluefish have returned to Accabonac Harbor and fluke fishing is spotty, Gorgone said.

Ken Morse at Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor reported strong weakfish action in Noyac Bay with fish up to 12 pounds landed. Fluke action in the area is spotty but porgies continue to bite at Cedar Point and west.

The freshwater black bass (largemouth and smallmouth bass) season opened on Saturday. Anglers are now allowed to keep five bass with a minimum size of 12 inches on most waters. Up-to-date New York State fishing regulations are now available on the N.Y. Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife app for smartphones and tablets.

Follow our fishing columnist on Twitter, @ehstarfishing. Photos of prize catches can be emailed to David Kuperschmid at fishreport@ehstar.com.