House of Blues

House of Blues

With bluefish, it's all about the BITE...

When an angler meets his fishing guide on the dock and comes away from the greeting with a hearty handshake and a handful of blood, it is a telltale sign that this must be the season of the bluefish. "Hey, good to see you," says Capt. Alex Powers. "Got a Band-Aid?" Alex is bleeding because he could not resist casting to a pod of bluefish on the way to pick me up for an afternoon of late-season fishing off Montauk. In his haste to be punctual to the dock, Alex let his hand slip into the garbage-disposal mouth of a chopper-size bluefish, which promptly shredded his fingers.I am impressed, and I ask to see a close up of the wound. Alex waves me off. His thoughts seem focused elsewhere. "Let's get going before the weather closes in," he says. Good thinking. It's already blowing 25 knots out of the north with gusts over 30 and near freezing rain. We don't want to miss anything. With the wind against the tide on the Shagwong rip, I brace myself for a beating. It is an interesting force that drives anglers to endure severe discomfort and occasional bloodshed in the pursuit of a fish. Ah, but this is not just any fish; this is a junk fish (my favorite kind!)-just ask any striped bass or false albacore snob who turns up his nose at the idea of angling for the proletariat bluefish. The lowly bluefish does not have the elegant pin-striped suit of a bass or the blinding hydrodynamic speed of an albie. Instead, it is a Mesozoic-era eating machine that cannibalizes its young and attacks surfers, while at the same time regurgitating its feed like some crazed bulimic on a murderous rampage. Who among us could resist casting a fly to a creature like this? In his classic book Blues, author John Hersey recounts watching a slow-motion film of bluefish savagely feeding on mummichog minnows in a glass tank at the old Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory. "One fish opened its mouth and moved its tongue, as if trying to test if there was any spoor of baitfish-or perhaps the bad taste of human beings-around." It quickly became a feeding frenzy with bluefish moving at such great speeds that they had to open their mouths two or three feet before reaching the unfortunate baitfish. "And how those saw-edged caverns gaped!" wrote Hersey. Each charge of the bluefish ended with a "doom chop of razor teeth and a sudden sharp swerve to right or left, and a spurt downward to be ready at once to kill again." With bluefish, it is all about the bite. And, because I have a somewhat unnatural fondness for fly-casting to fish with teeth, Montauk during the blitz is a perfect destination to witness bluefish on a tear. The anticipation of my visit is further fueled by a letter from an old friend, an authentic Long Island bayman with inclination toward understatement. "It's Bluefish Day!" he writes in one letter. "We mugged 'em and fugged 'em. There are 50 acres of blues roaring on the surface. Rivers of peanut bunker have arrived and their predators are having it out with them. It's wild out here. Today we saw a bass flopping on the top. On close observation we saw his tail had been bitten off. As he's floundering with blood drifting around him, we approach to see two monstrous bluefish beneath, waiting impatiently to close in for the kill. I lip the bass and rescue him for our dinner table. Yea boy, another day in Montauk." This is the beginning of what is known by some in Montauk as the Sayonara Blitz. It is the last furious feeding before the bluefish, striped bass, false albacore, and tuna all migrate south along the eastern seaboard. It is also the season of ferocious weather. I hope and plan for a week of solid fishing but the realistic expectation is that it is going to blow and blow hard. It is cold, wicked and nasty when I land in Montauk, but the fishing guides here seem unaffected by these conditions. The watermen and women on the eastern end of Long Island are a tough breed. There is no talk of staying at the dock just because the wind and temperature is nicely squared somewhere between 30 knots and 30 degrees. Alex Powers, with blood still flowing steadily from the bite wounds on his fingers, widens his stance at the console of his open boat and throttles into the chop at Shagwong's. John Hersey described the condition of a rip as "a conversation between wind and water." The Shagwong rip off Montauk is more like a shouting match than a conversation. It seems as if all of the water in Long Island Sound wants to flow around this point, while all of the Atlantic Ocean wants to hold it back. Adding the element of wind to the rip creates pyramid shaped waves unpredictably timed and completely without sequence. These are waves that can come aboard a small boat with weight, mass and speed. A guide here once told me, "If I say 'On your knees' do it now or you will be swimming." There is, of course, a positive aspect to this sea of confusion. The turbulence creates eddies and upwellings that corral the bait. It is a biomass bouillabaisse bubbling with predators and prey, including a hardy swarm of anglers casting fly rods. Montauk has become a Mecca for fly casters. In the passive months of summer, flats fishing here can be extraordinary. But when the wind and cold arrive announcing Montauk's Mean Season, the fly anglers here are not dissuaded; they simply shift gears and start fishing the blitz. On any given day, more than half of the people fishing off Montauk will be doing it with a fly rod in their hands. As we round the point, there are birds diving and fish boiling in the peak of the rip. Alex can only look wistfully as he maneuvers past. To fish in this standing heave of violent seas might easily result in a swamping of the boat. In this frigid water, with a fast outgoing tide at sunset, Alex makes the prudent decision of looking for fish elsewhere. He finds them breaking on the surface off a stretch of sand called Gin Beach. I am relieved because the sea conditions here do not suggest imminent death. Hard charging bluefish tear across the surface in pursuit of our poppers. It is almost possible to see their teeth bare before the "doom chop" slashes across the fly. There is a reckless tendency to pull the popper away from those fish deemed unworthy because of their diminutive size or lackadaisical attitude, but I sense this is a mistake. The weather is horrendous and getting worse. I should be fishing like there is no tomorrow. Instead, I suggest that maybe we are nuts to even be out here. Alex says that the Montauk surfcasters on Gin Beach raise the bar on what is considered nuts. In these conditions, the surfcasters sometimes swim-fish the rip in heavy wetsuits. Each season several are picked up well offshore, floating in their rubber suits, bound for the Flemish Cap. At my encouragement, Alex navigates back to Montauk harbor. My thoughts are on a hot cup of coffee, or perhaps something stronger. Alex is still bleeding. There is the well-worn adage in Montauk that if you don't like the weather just wait five minutes and it is bound to change. Well, so it seems the same with the fishing here as well. The next day breaks with no indication of the near gale blow of the night before. My bayman friend Barry Kanavy is at the helm this day. His character reflects that of both a naturalist and philosopher. Over coffee, we muse upon the three states of bluefishing: the anticipation of the bite, the excitement of the bite, and the reflection of the bite. The anticipation part comes easily; Barry has had me lathered up with daily fishing reports ("Birds diving into blitzing bluefish…three inch peanut bunker leaping for the sky only to fall back into the mouths of waiting blues…complete hysteria.") But there is no bite on this day. No bunker falling back into the mouths of waiting blues. No hysteria. There is only calm water under a crystalline sky. But that there is not a fish in sight seems of little consequence; so much else is happening. The seasonal change here is melodramatic. Birds and fish-even people-are in a constant state of unrest. "This migration thing is mind-boggling," Barry says, "both on the water and in the air. In the sky it begins with the movement of dragonflies (known locally as "dining needles"). This gives way to the pageantry of monarch butterflies on their way south to Mexico's Sierra Madre. Then the kingfishers arrive, and from above them hawks fold their wings and attack them in flight. The passage in the water is almost a mirror image of what is happening overhead. Joining the bass and bluefish are Spanish mackerel, Atlantic bonito, tuna, and albies. "Strings of baitfish a mile long can be seen 10 feet off the beach during this migration," Barry says. "On one side of them they are being paralleled by striped bass, on the other side are bluefish. When the combatants converge, the bait flies through the air like so many silver coins thrown up onto the beach." In Napeague harbor, we look for snapper blues or tailors that might have sought safe haven here for the season. This closed body of water is separated from the Atlantic by only a narrow strip of sand dune and asphalt highway. A good sea, it seems, could easily breach the gap. There are no bluefish here, but we are comforted watching a flight of scooters passing low across the surface of the water. Barry runs across the bay to Cartwright Shoals. We have known the feeling of the anticipation of the bite. Here we reflect upon other days, remembering the excitement of the bite. Barry earned a client for life by guiding an angler to Cartwright Shoals several years ago during Montauk's annual UFB (U Fat Bastard) tournament. "The guy insisted upon using the most ridiculous oversized purple fly I had ever seen," Barry says. "I told him, 'You're not gonna catch anything on that,' and of course at that moment it was savaged by a huge bluefish so surprising the angler that he struck high and hard breaking the rod in half, which caused him to lose his balance and tumble backwards off the deck into Long Island Sound." This gives us a moment of mirth and then it is quiet again as we scan the shoals. The last of the ebb tide is running off the gravel edge of these spectacular flats with music that only moving water can make. "This is a spiritual place," Barry says softly. Spiritual indeed, but where have the fish gone? There is a remarkable crab hatch near the ruins off Gardiner's Island, but nothing is feeding upon them. We dredge up a few bluefish late in the day with deep sinking lines at the edge of the shoal and listen to radio reports of a strong offshore bluefin tuna bite far to the south. In the northwest sky the weather begins to rapidly deteriorate. "We may be too late," the Fisherman says to the Stranger in John Hersey's Blues. "I think they have left-for good." "Oh, Stranger, this is a bad time of year. To me, the drifting away of the bluefish is the falling of leaves-the shoal becoming bare and sapless as a stripped branch-another harvesttime marked off, one more winter of a frigid and hostile sea to come, too soon." The range of emotions in the course of a fishing trip will always continue to amaze me. Land bound and looking out of the rain-drizzled glass windows of the Montauk library, I watch an ocean that is frothing and tumultuous. I know there will be no more fishing for me here this year. The coming weeks and months will produce an occasional day of "bluefish hysteria," but for all practical purposes, the season has ended. And then I remember the third part of bayman Barry Kanavy's musing about bluefish. First there is the anticipation of the bite, then the excitement of the bite-and finally, the reflection of the bite. It is the reflection of the bite that I will hang onto until I can return to this house of blues. Travel notes: Capt. Barry Kanavy is a true Long Island bayman and expert fly-fishing guide in Montauk. He can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 516-785-7171. Capt. Alex Powers works the travel desk at the Urban Angler in New York City. Contact him at [email protected] or call 800-255-5488, where in addition to accessing the right tackle for bluefish, anglers fishing late season in Montauk can also purchase layers of wool insulation, neoprene gloves, and hats with ear flaps.