The Loneliness of Montauk Surfcasting - 27 East

The Loneliness of Montauk Surfcasting

Number of images 2 Photos
The fluke season went out with a bang for Gary Lavery and Capt. John Capuano of the Shinnecock Star party boat. Lavery decked this 14-pound doormat in just 8 feet of water in Shinnecock Bay last week. No Gulp! No fancy bucktail or complicated rig. Just a spearing and a piece of fluke belly on a hook.

The fluke season went out with a bang for Gary Lavery and Capt. John Capuano of the Shinnecock Star party boat. Lavery decked this 14-pound doormat in just 8 feet of water in Shinnecock Bay last week. No Gulp! No fancy bucktail or complicated rig. Just a spearing and a piece of fluke belly on a hook.

The Lavery family got a nice treat last week to wind down the 2022 fluke season aboard the Shinnecock Star when this 14 pounder climbed on to Gary Lavery's rig in just eight feet of water in Shinnecock Bay.

The Lavery family got a nice treat last week to wind down the 2022 fluke season aboard the Shinnecock Star when this 14 pounder climbed on to Gary Lavery's rig in just eight feet of water in Shinnecock Bay.

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In the Field

  • Publication: East Hampton Press
  • Published on: Oct 5, 2022
  • Columnist: Michael Wright

I was out in Montauk last week doing a story about the “pillbox” being lifted out of Turtle Cove so that it can eventually be put back together, right side up, and used as a reminder of Montauk Point’s role in coastal defense during World War II.

Standing atop the new revetment, which will basically cut the sandy beach of Turtle Cove in half when it is completed, I felt as if I must have been visiting in the middle of summer, or early spring. There was not a surfcaster to be seen anywhere.

But it was the third week of September. The water was clean, a light north breeze was blowing, a nice swell was rolling in from the southeast, filling the rocky points with frothy white water. But nobody was “keeping it honest,” as Jack Yee would have said.

Jason Walter, the site manager, remarked to me how much things have changed since the “old days” in Montauk — and he doesn’t even mean the 1960s or 1970s.

Even in the 1980s, when striped bass were about as scarce as they have ever been, Montauk would have been crawling with surfcasters in the third week of September.

There are a few reasons for this, I think.

The obvious one is that the fishing is not what it once was. Even in the 1980s, when bass blitzes were weak, bluefish would churn the surface in huge blitzes that were such a sight to behold that it would draw fishermen from all over.

But bluefish are in even more dire straits now than striped bass, which is a sad and concerning state of affairs for a fish once seen as a pest to be avoided if at all possible.

After a run of seven or eight years where essentially no blitzes happened in Montauk between 2011 and 2018, there had been some signs of things returning to normal. Blitzes are driven by fish of a certain size and age, and some large spawning years in 2015 and 2016 suddenly had spiked the number of those fish that were in the stock. The blitzes returned in 2019 and 2020, and last year to a more limited extent.

But striped bass management has been handled over the last two decades about as badly as you could conceive, considering the painful lesson we were supposed to have learned in the 1980s. Apparently, we learned nothing and allowed politics and greed to remain the drivers of policy.

The result: Millions, literally, of striped bass being killed on the beaches and boat decks of the Chesapeake Bay two or three years before their biology would give them the chance to spawn even once.

Those once-huge stocks of small stripers that had everyone marveling in December 2019 at the numbers of fish still swimming our shores, and saying how there may be a bright future ahead after all, are now whittled down to a smattering of fish here and there. And those that have survived are now reaching the slightly more rational “keeper” size in the Northeast, so they dwindle steadily.

Another shift that has happened is, I have to assume, warming waters. The changes may be nearly imperceptible to us, but fish are keen to such things and react in ways we can’t even fathom. The shores of Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut see stripers blitzing like they do in Montauk.

Finally, I think, that part of the reason the crowds of surfcasters are not lining Montauk’s shores these days is that they know there’s no fish! The internet, social media and instant messaging have changed the calculations for fishermen.

Certainly, there were always years when the fishing didn’t get good until October, or years where the fishing never really got good at all. But until the mid-2000s, you had to come to Montauk to find out, regardless. Those coming from up-island, or New Jersey or even Delaware — rest in peace, Bob — had to plan to come for a week or two or three, and they just came, and so there they were filling the beaches with trucks and casters every tide, regardless of whether the fishing was gangbusters.

Now, everyone just waits to hear or see evidence in their feeds of the fishing being good, and then they come running. Certainly it’s more efficient, but it’s left Montauk a sadly quiet place (or happily quiet, for some of the local sharpies).

Will we see the blitzes this year? That remains to be seen. This week’s stormy weather should be the spark if it’s going to happen. Certainly, the bait is there. The balls of bay anchovies are like polka-dots in the blue ocean from Gurneys to Gardiners Island, so if the bass roll in, they should find plenty of reasons to get excited. Hopefully, we all will too!

Catch ’em up. See you out there.

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