Cuts, Nets Are Windows to What Lurks Beneath - 27 East

Cuts, Nets Are Windows to What Lurks Beneath

Number of images 3 Photos
Paul Rosko with one of the striped bass that came charging into the Bridgehampton surf last week.

Paul Rosko with one of the striped bass that came charging into the Bridgehampton surf last week.

Jay Glover of Westhampton caught this 11-pound blackfish while fishing aboard the Hampton Lady last weekend.  Capt. James Foley

Jay Glover of Westhampton caught this 11-pound blackfish while fishing aboard the Hampton Lady last weekend. Capt. James Foley

Noah Kent of Southampton caught this 33-inch, 22-pound striped bass off Smith Point last week.

Noah Kent of Southampton caught this 33-inch, 22-pound striped bass off Smith Point last week.

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In the Field

  • Publication: East Hampton Press
  • Published on: Nov 1, 2022
  • Columnist: Michael Wright

The opening of the cuts in Sagaponack and Water Mill can be a bit of maddening experience for surfcasters because, after the joy of the wonderful fishing that can explode with an opening, the realization sets in that there had been fish there all along — we just couldn’t catch ’em.

When the cut opens and the baitfish in the coastal ponds — alewives, especially — that have been lingering near the southern ends, able to smell the saltwater but blocked from reaching the marine environment they long to return to by the sand barrier, come flushing out, suddenly, an ocean that had seemed devoid of predators can burst to life.

It’s like the scene in the cartoons when a kid is in a dark room and suddenly the light clicks on and reveals that he is surrounded by monsters just inches away.

Obviously, fish have tails and they can cover great distances in short periods in pursuit of baitfish. But the cuts are brutally educational, because the striped bass are not arriving on the heels of the bait; they have to have been there. When the cut runs for several hours with only smatterings of signs of life, then suddenly a big slug of alewives comes pouring out, and it almost instantly turns to mayhem, with thousands of fish crashing into the fleeing bait — those fish were lying in wait.

This fall’s showings were relatively brief — a couple of good nights. But the fish are still here, that much I can guarantee you.

Another window into what is lurking and just not detected by my casts has, for me, always been watching the gillnet boats haul their nets.

Despite my generally disapproving acceptance of the practice, I like watching the nets come up. It’s a great little window into what can’t be seen below the surface. For all the bitching we surfcasters do about the nets, there are few better ways to know where the fish are than by looking where the net boats are setting.

A few weeks ago, just before the cut mayhem set in, I watched one of the Shinnecock gillnetters run a morning set. Some observations:

First of all, there really have not been many gillnets along the Southampton-East Hampton beaches this fall, much to the delight of surf fishermen (though perhaps that is misplaced delight). I have a feeling this is mainly because the striper run this spring was robust, and most of those with striper tags probably filled them then rather than risk getting stuck with them by the increasingly unpredictable fall runs.

On this day, with the remnants of Hurricane Ian approaching, the crew was clearly filling tags for some noncommercial fisherman — a common practice that is not really in the spirit of how the striped bass commercial tagging program was designed, but is the reality — who was standing in the wheelhouse door while the net crew went to work.

The boat steamed into the beach off Southampton Village before daylight and dropped three nets about a mile apart.

I watched them pull all three up after sunup and drop them back and move to the next one. They did this twice for each net (in the daylight; it’s possible they got a haul in before I could see), so the nets only soaked for about an hour or two at most — a stark contrast to the too-common practice of leaving them to “soak” all day and all night (more about that in a minute).

There were about a dozen or so striped bass in each net in the first haul — along with a handful of false albacore, which I’d never seen get caught in the nets before — and only a smattering in each on the second go-round. I’m guessing the fisherman with the tags was left with a few for another day.

I noted a few things through my binoculars as I watched the process. First of all, all of the fish that came up in the net were still flopping vigorously — definitely not the case when the nets are allowed to soak for much longer, and they come up stiff as a board.

I saw the crew measuring the larger fish to ensure that they met the commercial slot maximum. One did not and went back over the side, and it looked from a distance to possibly be in good enough condition to survive.

A lot of the fish that were coming up were quite apparently bleeding from the gills. That’s not a good sign for the survivability of the under/over-slot fish that must be thrown back. It’s not necessarily a death sentence; fish blood clots in saltwater just like ours clots in the air. But just like I might not die if I were dropped on the ground with blood gushing from my neck, it’s not a good start.

I thought that the scene painted a clear picture of why gillnetting should be time-limited.

As hated as the nets are by surfcasters, they aren’t the worst way to be targeting striped bass commercially. I’ve been watching them for several years now, and the most stripers I’ve ever seen come up in one net is 60. Considering that the season is short and the total number of nets being set is fairly small, that’s a sustainable ratio in the grand scheme.

It could be made much more so — and only slightly less profitable to the fishermen — with only a few tweaks to the fishery rules.

It wasn’t that long ago when the gillnets were never in the water for more than a matter of hours. The boats set them every morning at 2 a.m., and by 11 a.m. they had pulled each once or twice and had them back on the drum and were headed for the dock. But somewhere in the last few years, leaving them in around the clock, sometimes not even hauling them for days at a time if sea conditions don’t allow it, has become commonplace. That should be ended.

Commercial fishing for striped bass is a fact of life. Our gillnets may not be the worst way it’s done. In Massachusetts, commercial fishermen may only fish rod-and-reel on very limited days but may keep anything they catch — which in the springtime means sharpies filled with 40-pound cow stripers. Considering what the main focus of striped bass management is these days, that seems like a far more galling approach.

There is, of course, an argument to be made that striped bass should be preserved solely for sportsmen. They are popular in restaurants, but they are not economically critical to commercial fisheries the way other species are, and a relatively small number of commercial fishermen benefit from them, earning little more than a few days’ pay. The economy that surrounds the recreational pursuit of them, on the other hand, is gargantuan, accounting for tens of millions of dollars spent by hundreds of thousands of fishermen every year.

Believe me, I should know!

Catch ’em up. See you out there.

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