A Time to Reflect

It was interesting to review the ups and downs
Pat Wallace of Shelter Island caught this green bonito on Nov. 19 aboard the Sea Wife out of Montauk.

The jarring blast of chilling arctic winds that we experienced last week also abruptly created a thin glaze of ice on many freshwater ponds, and even a few saltwater coves and creeks. Most important, it served as a stern warning to me that having the very last boat still in the water at the marina may not be the smartest thing.

I have been in deep denial of the change in the weather. It’s hard to ignore, but it is real. It is getting colder day by day.

While I still plan to make a final trip or two for a late-season haul of bay scallops this week, I have reluctantly succumbed to the fact that my boat needs to be removed from the drink for a few much-needed months of sleep. By this weekend, it will be high and dry, ready for its winter-long slumber. 

Over all, my boat served me well this year. It was a good season on many fronts. According to my logbook, I used my 30-foot, Novi-built craft more than I have in the past 10 years. It was great to be on the water as much as I was. My entry into retirement, also known as the golden years, does indeed come with certain privileges. And yes, I do carry my AARP card with me at all times. At some point, I’m sure it will come in handy.

Looking back at the year on the water, it was interesting to review the ups and downs. There were many positives. But, like life itself, there were some lows as well.

On the bright side, while I had serious doubts about the prospects for the bay scallop season, which started a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised at how good it has been. As recently as Monday, I was still easily dredging up my daily bushel basket of the tasty bivalves, and best of all, there seems to be a plethora of little bugs that should make for a bountiful harvest next November, providing that Mother Nature cooperates. Only time will tell.

Trapping lobsters was also a success this year. Having not set my pots in nine years, I did not hold out much hope, as the lobster population, according to many accounts, has been on the decline for the past two decades in our local waters. But, as with scallops, the catch was steady and consistent from March until the season came to an end in early September. It was also nice to witness a good number of egg-bearing females as well as many undersize lobsters mixed in with the keepers. Lobsters exhibiting shell rot were also at a minimum. 

I can’t say with certainty that my catch will improve going forward, but it was a pleasure to see that the tasty crustaceans are around if you know where to go. In addition, I rediscovered that it doesn’t get much better than consuming a steady diet of fresh steamed lobster or enjoying a satisfyingly buttery lobster roll every week. Life is good, and tasty.

On the fishing side of things, it was a bit of a mixed bag. Fluke fishing was up and down, but over all, it was not as productive when compared to other seasons. Fluke are a rather unpredictable group. When you expect a good season, you are most likely to be let down, as I was. It will be interesting to see what 2019 will bring.

Porgies remained plentiful over all during the season, but the early May run of super-size fish on the spawn has steadily declined from its heydays as recently as five years ago. Laden with eggs, the spring porgy fishery in the bays has taken a pounding from anglers and has seemingly thinned out the group of fish that frequently weighed up to four or even five pounds. The catches of the past few years have paled in comparison to what was witnessed. And I don’t see any signs that it will rebound anytime soon.

As for black sea bass, the population continues to explode. If the fish had legs, they could easily overtake town hall. They were everywhere.

On many days, it was hard to escape them when pursuing other quarry. Sadly, New York anglers have also been needlessly restricted to a short season and lower bag limits for sea bass when compared to neighboring states. I’m beginning to wonder if New York will ever receive an equitable share of its quota for this popular fish. While it’s nice to see such a rebound in sea bass stocks, proper marine fisheries management is sorely needed to help balance the imbalance.

If you are a lover of bluefish, you were most likely disappointed in what you caught this year. For whatever reason, bluefish were scarce in 2018 for just about all of Long Island. Commercial fishermen, who would sometimes not even bother to sell or ship the oily-fleshed fish due to extreme low prices, saw the price paid to their wallets near $2 per pound at certain times.

Striped bass aficionados were in their glory during most of the summer months out in Montauk. Many large fish, some weighing up to 60 pounds, were landed on a consistent basis. However, by the time mid-October rolled around, disappointment was the rule, as the fish, once again, bypassed the famous port on their annual migration to south.

“Thanksgiving weekend used to be one of our busiest days for fishing and some of best days for striped bass,” recalled Capt. Michael Vegessi of the open boat Lazybones on Sunday. For nearly 40 years, the Bones has focused on bass and blues once the run of fluke ended in September. 

“But ever since Superstorm Sandy happened over five years ago, the bass have bypassed Montauk on their migration,” he said. “For so many years, we were catching bass up until Christmas. Not anymore.” 

Vegessi sailed his final trip on Nov. 19. “I did not mark any bait or fish at all,” he said of what he witnessed that day. “It’s frustrating that the pattern has changed. I can’t explain it.”

The Bones will re-enter the water next May in the pursuit of fluke once again.

We can speculate all we want about next year, but we can be assured that there will be a surprise or two. 

On the current fishing scene, a few bright spots could be found.

The action for sea bass, along with a sprinkling of cod, has been consistent south and east of Block Island. Blackfish too, many of them reaching 10 pounds, can now be had on the Cartwright grounds, located due south of Montauk. Mixed in with them have been a few cod and red hake.

“Tons of bass are around on the ocean beaches,” said Harvey Bennett, the owner of the Tackle Shop on Montauk Highway in Amagansett. “Most are rat-sized, but I did weigh in a striper of 39 inches on Saturday. A few keepers are around, and the action has been great. The season is not over by any means.”

Bennett wanted to remind anglers that he will once again hold his year-end striped bass contest for the largest fish landed on the last day of the season (Dec. 15). “We had a great turnout last year,” he said. “You don’t even have to weigh in the fish. Just take a picture and I will consider it.”

The $20 entry fee also gains entry to a raffle to win a 10-foot surf rod, as well as membership in the Amagansett Sportfishing Association. 

However, the real winners of the contest and raffle are underprivileged children in the Dominican Republic, to whom Bennett has boxed and shipped off countless containers of clothes, shoes, school supplies, and baseball equipment. Donations are still being accepted.

“The contest is for fun and supports some very deserving kids,” he said. “I’ve spent so many hours doing this every week. But I love it. It’s great to see the pictures of the kids wearing or playing in the clothes and equipment that was sent to them.” 

Pointing to a recent photograph of a dozen or so children on a baseball diamond wearing some of the donated wares brought a broad grin to Bennett’s face. “Look at the smiles on their faces,” he beamed. “They are wearing everything that we sent to them. That is so cool.”

’Tis the season to be thankful.

We welcome your fishing tips, observations, and photographs at fish@ehstar.com. You can find the “On the Water” column on Twitter at @ehstarfishing.