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Saltwater Sportsman Magazine: Oct 2003
Few spots rival Montauk, New York when it comes to producing wild fall action with the Northeast's top inshore gamefish.
By Captain John McMurray
I must admit I was skeptical of Captain Jim Hull’s recommendation that we leave the pier at 2:00PM. I was always an “early bird catches the worm” type when it came to inshore fishing. Out at the crack of dawn and in before noon. Given the weather forecast was calling for 25-knotts out of the northeast I was wondering if I wasn’t just wasting time making the three-hour drive from Manhattan. But after a bumpy boat ride South along Montauk’s eastern shoreline, we turned the corner at the fabled Montauk Light House to a flat calm sea and a scene that appeared to be right out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. “Wow!” was the only word I managed to get out over the hum of Jim’s four-stroke outboard. Zooming by several schools of what looked like thousands of big marauding bluefish, I tapped his shoulder saying, “How come we’re not stopping!” Ignoring me, he continued west along the shoreline toward a point jutting seaward, stopping at what appeared to be a small grouping of football sized tuna slashing the surface at break-neck speed. Behind us I couldn’t help but stare at the enormous schools of bluefish continuing to work over massive pods of bay anchovies. The extraordinary massacre sounded like the distant applause of hundreds of people. My host, Peter McCarthy picked up a flyrod and began stripping out line on the deck as Jim looked at me and said, “What are you doing… get that fly out there.” Before I could even grab a rod, I heard Peter’s reel zinging as backing melted from his reel. He was fast into a 10-pound false albacore (little tunny) as he let out a “whoop!” Minutes later I was hooked up to one of these speedsters and Peter and I did the over and under each other routine, taking a hand off the arbor briefly and hi-fiving some on the way.
After several more false albacore and a few big blues, I began to savor the thought of what a great day it had been only an hour into the trip. But I was totally unprepared for what was to happen next. The outgoing tide began to gather momentum and just as Jim had predicted, the bass came to the surface in one of the most awesome displays of nature I have ever seen, and probably ever will have the opportunity to witness. Just to the South of the boat rose several hundred stripers ranging from thirty to forty-five-inches, so close they appeared to be slithering over one another. Our drift put us right on top of them and you could hear and feel the accentuated thumps as they bumped and smacked the hull of Jim’s boat. Their silvery purple striped backs glistened in the fall’s afternoon sun like finish on a freshly waxed 57’ Chevy, as bay anchovies flipped in every direction. My mouth remained agape in awe and I couldn’t even think about casting. The strikingly visual scene of predator and prey was totally overwhelming. The sound of Jim screaming at me to get out of the way as he tried to net Peter’s fish immediately broke my trance. Jim’s attempt to net Peter’s fish resulted in two stripers of substantial size. Unfortunately, neither was Peter’s hooked fish. What a day!!!
This is what Captain Jim considered a “good day” in Montauk, the place many refer to as the Mecca of striped bass fishing. Montauk has perhaps the best fall run of big stripers on the East Coast. Since striped bass fishing literally began, trollers, eelers, chunk fishermen, jig fishermen and pluggers have been working its beautiful, cliff-lined shorelines and roiling rip lines in search of trophy stripers. But in the last six or seven years, it has surfaced as one of the best saltwater flyfishing and light tackle destinations in the world, as schools of migrating striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito pass through the bait rich waters where the Long Island Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean. Peter Kaminski speculated that, while for the most part unseen, this could perhaps be the largest wildlife migration in the entire world.
The mayhem begins in September when the first schools of false albacore show up to feed on massive schools of bay anchovies. A good false albacore blitz appears as machine gun fire on the water’s surface as these fish tear through baitfish. These extremely fast predators have small mouths and feed mostly on small baits, so flies of choice are small epoxy anchovy imitations in copper and white, chartreuse and white and solid white. Small clouser minnows in all white or tan over white are another favorite out in Montauk. If you enjoy adrenalin producing surface strikes, crease flies, sliders and small poppers can create heart-stopping action. Nine and ten-weight rods are required. While you will rarely find an albie over 15-pounds in Montauk, they are pelagic and are extremely fast and powerful fish. For this reason you’ll also need a quality fly-reel with a super smooth and reliable drag. This is no place to skimp. I’ve seen several cheaper reels seize up, fail and in at least one case, begin to smoke as a result of the swift runs the little tuna make. Make sure your reel is spooled with at least 250-yards of Dacron or gel-spun backing. If you hook up with a fish of over ten-pounds, you’ll most certainly need it. As far as lines go, a floater will work, but intermediate lines with a fast taper will help get that fly underneath a short chop if there is a little wind. Most Montauk guides and experienced anglers prefer clear mono-core lines. While these schools can be extremely thick at times they can also be quite picky. For this reason, fluorocarbon leaders can make the difference between a two-fish day and a 20-fish day. Fishing with anything under 15-pound class tippet is inadvisable. The sheer speed of these fish dragging line through the water will break a tippet of a lighter class. Quick and accurate casts to breaking fish, and then the ability to pick the line up out of the water and toss it in another direction are skills that will help you put many fish in the boat.
Light spin enthusiasts targeting these speedsters do well with small tins like the three-quarter and one-half ounce versions of the Deadly Dick and the Crippled Herring. Small soft plastics on half-ounce jig heads, like sluggos and finesse fish in the three-inch versions, work well also. Both of these lures are retrieved quickly at less than a foot under the surface. Just like the fly anglers, it’s important to have a spinning reel with a flawless drag system and plenty of line to allow for the long blistering runs these fish provide. It’s a fairly common occurrence for those working light spinning reels to get spooled. A braid or small diameter synthetic line will allow you to pile a whole lot more line on a spinning reel than a conventional mono line. You’ll need at least 15-pound test and a 20-pound flora carbon leader of several feet. Seven-foot light to medium action graphite rods work best here.
The large schools of bluefish arrive a bit earlier than the first of the false albacore. These fish are here for the same reason as the little tuna: loads and loads of bay anchovies. However, these blues are also here to feed on the prolific juvenile menhaden (locally called peanut-bunker). These junior versions of the adult ten to 14-inch bunker run an average of about four inches, and are an oily, broad profile, silvery baitfish with shades of pink and purple reflecting from their flanks. Broader profile flies and spoons in the four-inch range are very productive on these blues; however, just about anything with a hook on it tossed into one of these bluefish blitzes will result in an immediate hook-up. The same fly and spin gear required for false albacore will suffice for blue fish. The schools can be so thick at times they stretch for miles. For the most part, they group by size category. Some schools will contain fish of ten to 15-pounds, while others will contain hundreds of two to three pound fish. Most already know that bluefish are toothy critters and to keep them hooked most definitely requires around five-inches of wire leader.
The false albacore and bluefish blitzes of Montauk provide for some great light tackle and flyfishing sport, however it’s no secret that most come to Montauk for the mind-boggling striped bass blitzes. Nowhere in the world do striped bass amass in the sheer quantities that they do here. Areas like Cape Cod in June, or the Outer Banks in December offer some great blitz-like conditions, but for those who have witnessed a true Montauk Blitz, nothing compares.
The striped bass’ unique behavior in Montauk can be attributed to the enormous amounts of bay anchovies that arrive in Montauk in September and remain through October. Because of their coppery backs, they can appear as large blooms of red tide. Once these bait concentrations show on the surface, it’s only a matter of time before the slaughter begins. Large schools of striped bass in the hundreds appear from the depths, plowing through the bay anchovy school with open mouths so close to each other they appear to be slithering on top of the water. Locals call this fall phenomenon a “striper boil,” because from a distance, the water actually appears to violently boil. Many times they’ll push the bay anchovies shoreward hugging the beach and getting so close they bump into surfcasters’ legs.
The dynamics of a striper boil in Montauk are quite interesting. The stripers seem to be the alpha species, pushing out all other predators by sheer mass. Bluefish flock around the perimeter of the blitzes, picking off any stunned or fleeing baitfish. Close behind are false albacore that dart in and out of the outer perimeter at incredible speeds. Casting into a bass blitz can often result in any of the three species.
There sheer mass of the school and the fact that these bass are in such close proximity to each other can create an often-tough situation for the angler looking to score one of these big linesiders rolling in the center. An epoxy bay anchovy pattern on an intermediate fly line or a small tin tossed into the blitz will often do nothing but bounce off these fish’s backs when retrieved. For this reason, fly anglers have a better hook rate when fishing a sinking line or a heavy clouser minnow, allowing the fly to get under the school a bit. Light tackle spin fishermen can let their offering sink some before beginning their retrieve. Most often you won’t get two turns or two strips before the rod doubles over and the drag starts screaming.
Montauk is truly a unique place and one that accommodates many anglers and guiding services (see side bar) but because of these wonderful bass boils and the number of boats fishing them, things can get a bit hairy at times. It’s important to know and follow a few rules of Montauk blitz etiquette. In doing so these blitzes will stay up for longer and everyone one can take advantage of them.
The first rule of thumb is do not troll lines through a blitz. Trolling is a good method of finding fish when they’re not showing but when they are on the surface it makes no sense to troll through them and it puts them down pretty quickly. It takes a lot less work, and it’s a lot more fun to cast into these fish with light tackle and feel the hit as you’re reeling. It’s also important to avoid running the boat right into the middle of a blitz for a quick cast. Again, most of the time, it’s going to put the fish down for everyone. Working the perimeter of the school without the motor running is a much more effective method. Try and set your self up with the wind and tide so that you will drift effortlessly around or over the bass boil. When employing this method of letting the wind and tide push you quietly into the school, it’s important for your own success, as well as those around you, to keep your motor off. Yes, sometimes the fish are so lit-up that they will continue feeding when you leave the motor on, but often times it will put them right down.
It’s also important to not apply the “run and gun” technique so often. Don’t restrict yourself to just the surface action. Try staying put after the top action has died down. Odds are pretty good that there are still fish where that pod of surface feeding fish once was. A little patience can go a long way here as many catch their bigger fish fishing in the lull of the blitz. Big bass are opportunistic in nature and will hang out deep and suck up all the dead or stunned baitfish that float down after the initial attack. So, when the mayhem has died down, fishing the general vicinity of the blitz with a jig or a sinking fly-line can produce some serious Montauk linesiders
The last, and probably the most important rule of Montauk blitz etiquette, is to stay far away from those working the blitz from the beach. As previously mentioned, quite often these blitzes occur right along the rocky beach line. It is unfair for boats to crowd the school along the beach and get in the surfcasters’ way. At times it’s almost irresistible to motor up to shallow water and toss in a few casts to ravenous feeding fish, but be very conscious of those working the beach. Boaters have the whole ocean to fish. These guys only have the beach. Give them their space, and when a blitz comes close to the beach let them take advantage of it. If you decide not to, you might get pelted with three-ounce diamond jigs. In addition, if you get out of control, and just can’t help going into that surf line, you could very likely find yourself on the face of a rather large wave and then subsequently underwater, as your boat gets tossed on the rocks.
Blitzes are what every red-blooded bass fisherman dreams of and the Montauk “bass boil” is truly one of the most amazing occurrences in the world, and one that is unique to this area only. Catching fish out of these blitzes is great, but just watching the mayhem is sometimes enough. Being there when nature’s predator and prey relationship shows itself in such a lucid and violent display is awe-inspiring. I highly recommend giving Montauk a try.
Montauk Light Tackle and Saltwater Flyfishing Guides:
Light Tackle Challenge, Captain Jim Hull, 631 749-1906
To the Point Charters, Captain Paul Dixon, 631-329-6186
North Flats Guiding, Captain David Blinken, 631 324-2860
Double Haul Charters, Captain Jim Levinson, 917-714-3222
Flyfish Montauk, Captain Ernie French, 516 769-4030
Guidelines, Captain Amanda Switzer, 516 901 2639
Fishing-Longisland.com, Captain Ken Rafferty, 631 324-8746