For decades, professional filmmakers and celebrity fishermen, from Van Campen Heilner to Jose Wejebe, have tried to capture the action, the culture and the aura of fishing from the shore in Montauk in the fall. But nobody has managed to do it as sweepingly as filmmaker Richard Siberry has done with his new documentary, “Montauk Rocks,” which was released last week.
If you are a aficionado of surfcasting anywhere, this movie is a must-see—but it will be especially so for those who will recognize the locations, certain scenes and, of course, the characters who stroll the shores of Montauk when bass and bluefish are blitzing the shallows. If you’ve ever been snarled at by Richie Michelson, wondered where Joe Bragen had been fishing the night before, or shaken your head as Paul Melnyk’s yellow sou’wester cap bobbed past far from shore, their self-depreciating tales of past exploits and missteps will have a special tenor.
A warning to some, however: if you are a surfer or one of the horde of novice anglers who occasionally come to Montauk’s shores in the early fall to give surfcasting a go, you will find this movie a bit of a kick in the pants. “Montauk Rocks” is something of an insider’s look at the Montauk surfcasting scene and it has a decided “locals only” bent, while at the same time laying out some of the finest footage of the jaw-dropping displays that Mother Nature graces us with in the fall—exactly what draws so many from so far.
“You see things in Montauk that you don’t see anywhere else,” says Arden Gardell, a Montauk local and avid surfacaster, in one of the film’s one-on-one interviews.
Mr. Gardell is talking about the fish, which swarm around Montauk Point in the fall by the millions—one of the largest massing of animals on the planet, comparable to the great wandering herds of Africa. But “Montauk Rocks” is as much about the people as it is the fish. That is because, as awe-inspiring
and mesmerizing as the sight of acre-sized schools of fish exploding from the surface of a flat calm ocean in a churning, frothing, roiling “blitz” is, the spectacle of how humans—anglers, technically—react to such a thing is almost as mind-boggling to witness.
And that is where “Montauk Rocks” sets itself apart from every other attempt to capture what it is, exactly, that happens in Montauk in the fall.
There’s a reason that Siberry’s movie is unique. Others have certainly had bigger budgets, crews of veteran cameramen and skilled fishermen to guide them to the best fishing spots at the best times. But all have had a hard time really capturing the spectacle of Montauk in its glory and few have ever even tried to crack into the subculture of fishermen who dedicate the bulk of their waking hours to plying the Montauk surf for striped bass.
The main leg-up that Mr. Siberry had was time. Fishing is anything but predictable and trying to drop a film crew into the scene for three days that were booked months earlier is a shot in the dark at best. Overcoming this takes the dedication of massive amounts of time. Mr. Siberry spent two entire fall seasons, generally Labor Day to Thanksgiving, with his camera mounted to his shoulder, dashing with the fishermen from beach to beach, rock to rock, dawn to dusk and well into the wee hours of the night. His dedication of such massive amounts of time paid off—with a dash of good luck to finish.
“I was very fortunate, those were two pretty good years of fishing—had I done it over the last two years, I wouldn’t have gotten half the footage that I got,” Mr. Siberry said of the autumn of 2007 and 2008. “I had so much material that I had to really weed out a lot of it. It was disheartening to do, really, I was so married to every second of good footage. But it’s left me in a good position in that I’ve had a lot of requests for footage from other places like National Geographic who are looking for good raw footage.”
To capture the scenes of fish charging the beaches in the day and being dragged from the inky waters offshore at night, Mr. Siberry had to set aside his own desire to catch fish—an obsession that had brought him to Montauk shortly after he moved to the United States from his native Ireland—in favor of positioning his camera.
But, of course, the fish are only one of the characters of “Montauk Rocks.” The film opens with one of Montauk’s more loquacious residents, Paul Melnyk, as he loads a hooked eel into a hobbyist’s rocket launcher—apparently to blast the bait far from shore to fish outside of casting range.