Old Dogs and New Tricks

A blackfish jig with a green crab proved the right tool for the job.

There is an adage that says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I’m not clear where or how that saying came about, and I’m not sure how true it is for canines, but I do recognize that the more I advance in years, the more stubborn I am in my day to-day tasks and routines. 

This theory also relates to the way I fish for species like striped bass, fluke, cod, sea bass, or blackfish. I’ve never been an early adopter of the latest fishing techniques, baits, and tackle. Instead, I’ve tended to stick to the tried and true ways I learned. Stubbornness is not a good trait.

As per fluke, I always believed that the only way to catch one was to bait up with the classic combination of a strip of squid adorned with a sand eel or spearing fished on a three-foot monofilament leader. It’s old school, and it is still a popular and successful method for landing summer flounder. 

Sure, I mixed it up a bit by using a live killifish or a strip of sea robin or bluefish, but the basic rig remained the same. It was pretty reliable and worked for the most part. Why rock the boat?

However, about 10 years ago after a few fishless trips, I finally saw the light and broke my fluke fishing habit. Inspired by other people’s success stories, I tied on a bucktail jig and my catch rate improved almost immediately. 

Today, I probably fish a jig for fluke adorned with a piece of bait, or more likely an artificial specimen from one of the extensive line of Gulp! products about 95 percent of the time, unless the drift is too fast to hold bottom. It took a long time, but I finally learned.

It was the same deal when I went for blackfish. For as long as I can remember, I used a basic, two-hook rig adorned with a piece of green crab. This rig is of the simplest kind and always worked for me. Much like my fluke rig of many decades, I saw no reason to alter my approach.

Last week, when we had one of those rare calm-weather days, I took a ride in my boat to the north side of Plum Island to try my luck. I had a bushel of green crabs and anchored up on one of my favorite pieces of bottom in about 40 feet of water. The outgoing tide was not strong, and I was able to hold near the rocky bottom, where blackfish reside, with five ounces of lead.

But while the conditions were perfect, the fishing was not. After an hour, with just one short blackfish to show for my effort, I debated whether to try another spot. Then I remembered I had purchased a different rig and decided to change my game plan and, hopefully, my luck.

As it happened, a few days before my trip, I had caught up with Ken Morse of Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor. While picking up my burlap sack of crabs that morning, he urged me to try a blackfish jig on my next outing.

“Try one of these and I bet you will never go back to your basic rig,” he said from behind his counter, the two-ounce orange and green-hued lead head secured with a stout 3/0 hook held in the palm of his hand. “They are fun to use. Just bait up with either a whole or half crab and occasionally bounce it off the bottom.”

Re-rigging took only a minute and I secured half of a green crab to my new lure. Dropping to the bottom, I engaged my reel to its locked position and immediately hooked into a nice-size fish. A minute later, I netted a nice four-pound black. 

Thinking I had picked up a dose of beginner’s luck, I re-baited my jig. And again, as soon as it hit bottom, it was inhaled by another fish of similar size. The scene on my back deck was repeated over and over for more than two hours. It was as if a light switch were turned on and the fishing was suddenly intense. 

Never before had I witnessed such a change in the action over such a short period of time. I was using the same bait — green crabs — but the presentation was different. And the change I made was all that was required to enjoy a great morning I will not forget for a long time.

The next day, I returned to Morse’s establishment to extend my appreciation for his advice. He smiled.

“Sometimes you have to try some new tricks and techniques,” he said. “It’s never too late to learn.”

I just wish I had been more open to change earlier in my fishing exploits. Alas, better late than never.

Speaking of bucktails, the popular lure continues to produce well from the local ocean beaches, where small striped bass are in residence.

“The fishing has been good, but most of the fish are rats,” said Morse. “But a few keepers are around.” Morse was also enthused about the blackfish bite happening off Plum and Fishers Island. “When the winds are down, which has been pretty rare this fall, the fishing has been excellent.” Hint: Try a blackfish jig.

“Bass fishing has been good on the beaches, but lots of smallies though,” said Harvey Bennett of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett. “There are keepers around, but they have been taken mostly at night. As soon as the sun comes up, the small bass are on the scene.”

Bennett confirmed that the sea bass bite off Block Island remains good, and that a few codfish are also in the mix. “Blackfish action has also been good when the wind allows.” 

It’s not too late to sign up for Bennett’s fishing contest and raffle to support underprivileged youth in the Dominican Republic. “You have to be in it, to win it,” he said. 

We welcome your fishing tips,  observations, and photographs at  fish@ehstar.com.

You can find the  “On the Water” column on Twitter at  @ehstarfishing.

The Star’s “On the Water” columnist picked up a six-inch-long seahorse in one of his scallop dredges last week. “Never caught one before,” he wrote. Jon M. Diat Photos