Montauk's Shore Game
December 11, 2019
striped bass on The “Point of the Fishers”
(This story first appeared in the 2019 Oct-Nov-Dec issue of Fly-Fisherman.)
Between breaks in the pounding surf, I’m able to throw most of my line into the headwind. After a few minutes on my rock perch, I settle into an uneasy rhythm of casting and bracing for impact. Getting my line out isn’t necessary just for fishing; it’s to prevent the contents of my stripping basket from drowning me when a bigger wave hits and sends me to an unwanted meeting with Davy Jones. Every now and then, my retrieve is interrupted by a school-sized striped bass.
Located 120 miles from New York City at the eastern terminus of Long Island, Montauk Point has a long and storied past. Settled in the middle of the 1600s, this quaint fishing village has seen more than its fair share of history. It was the site of a famous deception in the Revolutionary War, and was where the Amistad made landfall after escaping the Caribbean. Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were quarantined there after the Spanish-American War. But the real story has always been the sea and the bounty it has provided for those willing to brave the elements. When Dutch explorer Adriaen Block first laid eyes on it in 1614, he called Montauk “Hoeck van de Visschers” or “Point of the Fishers.”
This craggy point would provide the home for the nation’s first lighthouse, built under the authority of George Washington in 1796. When President Washington commissioned the work, the beacon sat 300 feet inland. Now surrounded by Montauk Point State Park, Montauk Point Light is only 50 feet from the crashing surf, protected by rip-rap placed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 70s. The land mass isn’t the only thing to have diminished with time. The stock of finned denizens that visit Montauk have taken a steep decline since the Hero of San Juan Hill wet a line here.
Commercial boats still head out daily, providing for both fish markets on the other side of the globe and restaurants close to home. But Montauk’s waters also hold a number of fish that make ideal fly rod quarry in addition to the species of commercial interest. In the warmer months, marauding bluefish schools lay waste to baitfish, often abandoning caution in the process, launching themselves skyward in a mash-up of teeth and tails.
Summer flounder, known locally as fluke, are perhaps better known as table fare but they will aggressively hit a Clouser dragged in front of them. Weakfish are in the Cynoscion genus—like the spotted seatrout found in Southern waters—and often inhabit quiet backwaters that lend themselves to the long rod. The willingness of false albacore to hit flies is well documented, and their high-speed runs are the stuff of legend.
But striped bass are the undisputed kings of this point, with anglers from all over the world coming to tangle with linesiders against the picturesque backdrop of rocky outcroppings and quaint seaside villas. “As we saw while filming Running the Coast, stripers invariably wrap around the eastern tip of Long Island on their trip north and south,” says filmmaker Jamie Howard, who chronicled the 1,000-mile journey of striped bass from the Chesapeake up to Maine in his 164-minute documentary.
Two distinct breeding populations make their way here: The Chesapeake Bay stock follows Long Island’s south shore eastward, and the Hudson River population makes its way across Long Island Sound. Many local anglers believe that the majority originate in the Chesapeake—as documented by Howard in his film—but there are routinely recoveries of tagged fish from an ongoing study taking place in the Hudson River.
The first wave of stripers usually arrives at the Point in April, with the advance guard typically consisting of smaller specimens known as schoolies because of their propensity to gather in large groups. The larger cow stripers are generally more solitary, and arrive a couple of weeks behind them.
While locals wait with bated breath for these striped harbingers of spring, it’s the fall run that most anglers save their vacation days for. When they first arrive, the stripers are lean, having expended all their reserves on their arduous journey. To make their way back to the Chesapeake or up the Hudson, they must feed heavily. The collision of bait and bass that occurs in the fall creates epic blitzes, where hungry bass lay siege to acres of bait on the fertile grounds surrounding the Point.
Historically, the fall run kicked off around the end of September; now—due at least in part to warmer ocean and air temperatures—it doesn’t start until early November.
On The Rocks
They say the meek shall inherit the earth, but the brave shall inherit the sea. Nowhere is this more apparent than the rugged geology of Montauk Point, as the thin isthmus interrupts the Atlantic on its journey northward. The point is typified by sheer bluffs, carved by eons of relentless wind and waves, etching themselves indelibly into the glacial till of the Ronkonkoma Moraine—the same glacial plane that also formed Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Island. This irruption of land provides plenty of whitewater with access to deep water just offshore, and makes a haven for shore-bound anglers.
Montauk has been known as a Mecca for surfcasters since the heyday of market fishing in the 1950s and 60s, with that tradition continuing in spades to this day, though commercial rod and reel angling is much more limited now. During the height of the striper run, the beaches are shoulder to shoulder as anglers heave weighted bucktails and wooden surface swimmers at willing fish. Casters using spinning gear outnumber fly fishers 10 to 1, but that’s not because fly tackle won’t work.
Stripers often hunt the “wash,” the whitewater created when ocean strikes land. Getting slammed headlong into the beach is disorienting, and the larger stripers use their superior swimming abilities to stay parallel to the beach, cruising the surf zone picking off dazed baitfish caught in the wave action. Because of this, the fish and the bait are often right at your feet, making long casts unnecessary much of the time. Depending on where you set up and the stage of the tide, you may be casting back toward shore.
The rocks that define this rugged place are perilous, even for the most sure-footed among us. The ever-present algae all but prevents your boots from getting purchase, and the relentless waves will knock over anyone who lets their guard down. Even on calm days, wading anglers should wear cleats or studs as standard equipment.
To tame the spray, a dry top or other foul-weather gear is mandatory. Cinch it tight with a wading belt. Stay sideways to the waves and cast backhanded to minimize your profile, which can help you stay shiny side up. I have been called a fearless wader but unfortunately, there’s no reason for that praise as the surf has humbled me on more than one occasion. Be careful out there.
Ditching waders in favor of less cumbersome garb is popular on the Montauk rocks. Considered the unofficial mayor of Montauk, Jack Yee was one of the pioneers of wetsuiting. Donning a neoprene suit and pair of flippers like those favored by scuba divers, he would swim out to distant rocks in order to place himself in prime feeding lanes. Yee held court out in front of Paulie’s Bait & Tackle, and helped popularize wetsuits among surf casters. If you’re going to spend any length of time in the surf, consider investing in one, so the inevitable tumble will have a much easier recovery.
The seal population has grown in recent years, and with it, an increase in sharks. Fortunately this hasn’t translated into any attacks on neoprene-clad fishermen or surfers. Currently, shark populations are well below the levels that convinced Frank Mundus to pursue them for sport and profit in the 1950s. Known as the captain who served as inspiration for Quint’s character in Jaws, Mundus chartered his boat out of Montauk for years. In 1986, he landed the largest fish ever caught on hook and line while fishing out of that port. Unfortunately for him, the IGFA doesn’t consider records when mammals are used as bait or chum—and Muddus caught that great white shark in the vicinity of a whale carcass.
Flies & Tackle
Fly selection is driven by the prevalent bait. In the early spring and late fall, sand lances—known locally as sand eels because of the conspicuous lack of a dorsal fin—dominate the forage base. Match the narrow profile of this 3- to 6-inch baitfish with a Clouser Minnow or Jiggy. Chartreuse/white is the most reliable color combination but olive/white and yellow/white flies also produce.
Squid follow the sand eels in from the 60-foot depths, gorging on the slender baitfish. These cephalopods are favorites of big stripers, and you should use flies to imitate them if you think they may be present. They can be tough to spot in the wash, but consider throwing patterns such as the Emergent Sparkle Squid if you’re seeing lots of sand eels.
Rainbait are so called because when scattered they dimple the surface of the water like so many raindrops. These small baitfish belong to a number of genera, including bay anchovies and sardines, characterized by their nearly transparent appearance. Use classic Northeast patterns such as Surf Candies or Mikkleson’s Epoxy Baitfish. Alternatively, try throwing noisy topwater pattern such as Skipping Bugs and Gartside’s Gurglers to set your fly apart from the pack and draw a strike.
Atlantic menhaden provide an important protein source for Montauk stripers. When they first arrive in the late spring, the menhaden are all adults, with some taping out to 14 inches. Imitating this size fish is no small task, but flies such as Bob Popovics’s Beast provide solid imitations of the large baits while still being (relatively) easy to cast. In late summer, the young-of-the-year menhaden begin to emerge from the estuaries. These are in the 3- to 6-inch range. Even the juvenile menhaden present a wide profile, so use patterns such as Deceivers or Cowen’s Magnum Baitfish. The aptly named Montauk Monster is a favorite for making a large surface commotion.
You’re going to take a beating fishing the Montauk surf, and so is your gear. Reels with sealed drags are mandatory, as you’re going to get wet and sandy even on the calmest days. Hooking an albie in the late summer or early fall is always a possibility, so use a drag capable of stopping screaming runs.
Montauk is not a place for light tackle.
The wind always makes casting a challenge, even for those accustomed to fishing in a blow. A 10-weight rod is the minimum, and 11-weights are common among the rock jockeys. Most use single-handed rods, but switch rods also work well here to hold line up out of the surf.
When it comes to lines for the surf, intermediates really come into their own. Floating lines are at the mercy of the wave action, and even a small roller can put all of your line back at your feet. The slow-sinking properties of the intermediate cut through the surface tension, and ride out the wave below much like a surfer swimming out to the next breaker. Sinking tips also have their place, but if they’re too heavy they can easily become tangled or damaged on subsurface rocks. Stripping baskets are mandatory to keep the ever-present currents from tangling your line underfoot.
Leader selection is simple, and a straight 6-foot trace of 15-pound fluorocarbon is sufficient most of the time. The whitewater of the wash doesn’t offer fish the greatest visibility, and you want a shorter leader to take advantage of your line’s slow sink. I’ve always favored fluorocarbon for its abrasion-resistant qualities. If the fish get picky, I switch to a 12-foot leader tapered from a 20-pound butt section to a 12-pound tip. Be prepared with either 40-pound fluorocarbon or knottable wire in case bluefish show up and start separating you from all your flies.
A Species In Flux
Striped bass populations hit an all-time low in the 1980s, and a harvest moratorium was put in place to protect the remaining biomass. Those regulations worked, and worked well. The early 2000s produced some incredible striper fishing at the Point and beyond, though many who ply these waters believe that abundance has been on the decline for some years now.
“Montauk acts as sort of a canary in the coal mine for a fluctuating population. Their numbers are revealed by and large by the activity on the point. When the anchovy and the vital but declining menhaden are swimming, healthy populations of striped bass should be following,” says Howard. “But unfortunately for those tossing flies below Montauk’s hallowed cliffs, that isn’t always the case. And the incredible fall blitzes have decreased in size and frequency from their recent zenith in the 2000s.”
Fishing can still be excellent at the Point but as in many places, “it ain’t like it used to be.” While many saltwater fish populations are cyclical in nature, some people speculate that the striper downturn is beyond naturally occurring rhythms, and cite overharvest by both commercial interests and recreational anglers as the cause. Another cause may be the 100,000 metric tons of Atlantic menhaden legally harvested annually by a fleet based in Reedville, Virginia. These essential parts of the ocean food chain are used for omega-3 health supplements, fertilizer, and dog food.
When Jamie Howard was making his film, he “didn’t realize he was filming the beginning of the end.” Hopefully he’s wrong.
*Joseph Albanese was formerly a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and is now a freelance writer. He lives in Lynnbrook, New York.