Suffice to say this about the duck hunting season this year: I hope the cod fishing gets better soon.
As I contemplated how fast the 4-footer I was standing over on the fifth green at Montauk Downs Golf Course on Saturday would be—a drip of sweat rolling down my brow, wishing I’d worn a short-sleeved shirt—the thought of whether I would need to mow my lawn slipped through my conscience. I missed the putt—and the one coming back. This is why we sit in duck blinds in January.
No, the latter half of the hunting season is not looking very promising. There are plenty of geese around, and the cold snap last week did seem to bring a few more ducks to town, but with the full moon and bluebird days there is not much incentive for them to work a decoy spread glistening in the morning sun on glass-calm waters.
If you were hoping that at least the warm weather would mean a possible shot at catching a blackfish when the season re-opened on January 17, you’ve got another think coming. The State Department of Environmental Conservation eviscerated the state’s blackfish limits this week, so you can set free those green crabs and hermits you’ve been hanging on to. Gone is the winter/spring season, as well as more than two weeks of December fishing.
In order to comply with a more than 50-percent reduction in the coastwide take, the state pushed the minimum size limit for blackfish up by 2 inches, to 16 inches, and cut 70 days off the season. Blackfishing in New York will now be allowed only between October 8 and December 4. The bag limit remains four fish per man, per trip.
After what most aficionados on the South Fork thought was one of the best blackfish seasons ever, this slashing of opportunity will leave a particularly bitter taste in the mouths of a small but enthusiastic enclave of the fishing community. But while you blackfish fans and charter boat captains scream obscenities at the paper or computer screen in front of you, allow me to put a spotlight on the otherwise dim bright side to these changes.
For us East End residents, the better part of the heart of our prime blackfish season is untouched, and the higher size limit will mean almost nothing. I’ve only been on one trip in the last five years where we even contemplated keeping a fish under 16 inches, and I think we ended up culling that fish out anyway. Those few anglers who hunt blackfish from shore might have a harder time filling their limit, which is too bad, but that’s small consolation, I guess.
This year’s unusual warmth might have made a January blackfish trip viable for a few Montauk or Shinnecock boats, but the loss of the January-to-May fishery would normally go unnoticed out here, as togs are long gone and long from returning to our waters. That change mostly will burn the britches of New York Bight boats that run down to the waters off southern Jersey this time of year to catch some of their huge togs.
Late October and November is typically the prime time for Montauk-based blackfish hunters. By December, the bulk of the fleet has thrown in the towel or shifted to looking for sea bass and cod. A few charter captains will not have the additional species to entice customers into a mixed-bag trip—the Blue Fin IV, Elizabeth II and Capt. Mark made a career out of cod/sea bass/blackfish/striped bass trips this fall—but the loss, hopefully, will not be crippling.
In Shinnecock, on the other hand, the blackfish bite usually gets a later start, and the loss of 16 days of open season in December will sting. For charter captains like John Capuano of the Hampton Bays-based Shinnecock Star, whose bread and butter in December is blackfishing, the early December shutdown will be yanking money that will not be easy to replace straight from his pocket. If he were a millionaire soybean farmer in North Dakota or a billionaire oil man in Texas, he’d get a hefty subsidy to offset the loss of a regulation change.
The most frustrating part of the closure for all blackfish anglers, at least locally, will probably be that blackfish populations seem to be higher than ever. Limits are easy to come by, and the fish get bigger and bigger every year. A state record 23-pounder was caught in Rhode Island waters this year, and the little throw-backs that are the future of the fishery seem abundant. Also worth noting: The commercial fishery will not be affected by the changes, other than a 1-inch increase in minimum size, to 15 inches. For those fishermen who think that fish traps are the main culprit of blackfish reductions, that will smart.
Hopefully, there will be a silver lining to the whole thing, somewhere.
Shinnecock Tuna Fishing On NBC Sports
The newly renamed NBC Sports Network—formerly Versus/Outdoor Life Network—will broadcast an episode of “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta” on January 19 featuring footage shot during the Shinnecock Marlin and Tuna Club’s annual Hamptons Offshore Invitational big game tournament out of Oakland’s Marina in Hampton Bays this past August. Along with the personal drama of the show’s host, Tred Barta, the notoriously outspoken local sportsman, returning to the East End for the first time since he was left paralyzed by blood cancer, the show features amazing footage of a spectacular offshore trip. While fishing aboard John Bauman’s boat White Water, Barta and crew caught some 30 tunas, both on the troll and on the night chunk, plus a wahoo and a white marlin.