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Saltwater Flyfishing Magazine: Oct/Nov 2003
In waters surrounding New York City there are places where game fish are as abundant as stock traders on Wall Street
By Capt. John McMurray
It’s 4:00AM as the alarm begins its incessant pleading in my Manhattan studio Apartment. I flail my left arm knocking everything off the nightstand, still failing to disengage the piercing buzz. Thirty minutes and a tall cup of coffee later I’m on the A-train with tubed flyrods strapped to my back, drawing confused stares from the young partiers fresh from the base thumping night clubs that help make Manhattan the city that never sleeps. The subway shuttles through Brooklyn and dumps me out 20-minutes later in Broad Channel, a small Island in the middle of Jamaica Bay’s 10,000 acres of salt mash. My partner in crime, Captain Robin Calitri awaits me with another healthy dose of caffeine, and in minutes we are on a skiff and moving at a good clip as the sun comes up at our backs, turning the sky before us a dark orange. Passing Rockaway on our left and Coney Island on our right, we head toward the towering spans of the Verrizano Bridge. Turning the corner at Nortons Point, the goliath structure appears before us like a shrine. Manhattan’s skyline comes to view between the great spans as we head toward Staten Island. Robin takes the bow and I kill the engine as the swift outgoing current pushes us by the riprap of the bridge’s west stanchion. Robin fires out 70-feet of line, putting a large popping bug right against the rocks. One strip and a boil forms right behind it. One more strip and the water explodes, line flies off the deck and the scream of the reel begins amidst Robin’s “whohooing.” Several minutes later, Robin gently holds a beautiful lateral-striped 15-pound striper as its pinkish purple flanks radiate from the day’s new sun. Just a few miles north of us lies a brave and towering city of 8-million-plus people, most of which are still sleeping soundly amidst the bright lights, unknowing of the underwater wilderness in the saltwater Harbor that surrounds them. To the South lies the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and the uncountable underwater creatures that inhabit it.
The juxtaposition between the wild ocean and the proverbial big city is a unique and wonderful phenomenon. One that anglers have enjoyed during the last several years because of greatly improved water quality and recovering gamefish stocks. While some still find it hard to believe, there exists some fantastic yet overlooked saltwater flyfishing opportunities within the confines and in very close proximity to New York City. Most are just a cab ride or subway hop away. We’ll briefly examine them here from east to west.
Jamaica Bay, part of the Gateway National Park system, exists about nine miles southeast of Manhattan. It consists of approximately 10,000-acres of salt marsh amidst several deepwater pools that were dredged out for landfill for JFK International Airport in the 50’s. Nine-thousand out of the Bay’s 10,000-acres was designated a wildlife preserve in the 70’s, therefore the park service affords it a level of protection that keeps it in good ecological shape.
The Bay’s vast expanse of marsh grass creates exceptional habitat for various species of bait and that undoubtedly brings the predators in. Around the second week of April, grass shrimp hatches bring in the first of the spring stripers. Thousands of these tiny shrimp flood the marsh flats at high tides and ravenous schoolies, with the occasional fish in the 36-inch range, slurp them up by the dozen. Small popping bugs and sliders fished in shallow water can sometimes draw breathtaking strikes from aggressive fish.
Shortly after the grass shrimp arrive, sandeels and spearing show up in dense numbers. Larger bass begin to feed on them, and fishing sinking lines in 10 to 20-foot depths can bring some nice striped bass to the boat. Along with stripers, weakfish are abound in these waters, some tipping the scales at 10-pounds. Bluefish begin to show towards the end of the month as well.
May brings adult Atlantic Menhaden (locally called bunker) into the Bay and with them big stripers and alligator bluefish. Atlantic menhaden range in size from 8 to 14-inches and, as you can imagine, the predators are considerably larger than those that go for the grass shrimp and sandeels. Sinking lines and 9-inch-plus bunker patterns, if you can get through the bluefish, can bring stripers of trophy proportions to the boat.
June offers some great sight fishing opportunities as winter microscopic blooms begin to die off and the summer blooms have not taken over yet. Crystal clear water, a good flats skiff and a push-pole, or a quite electric trolling motor, will allow you to see and hook some gigantic bluefish in less than a foot of water. For the most part, the bass are generally a bit smaller, but you’ll see some larger and more skittish fish. Getting them to eat can be a whole different story. The bait during this time of the year appears to be spearing, but there are times when the bass won’t touch anything but a crab pattern.
For the most part, the dog days of summer are a little slow in the bay consisting mostly of cocktail bluefish, but things heat up again in the fall as hordes of juvenile menhaden (aka peanut bunker) flood the Bay creating blitz-type conditions. Getting a short, but broad profile fly in the mayhem will get you a mix of big and small stripers as well as bluefish. The action can last well into December if the weather holds up.
During certain times of the year, west of Jamaica Bay can be red hot also. Along the backside of Western Rockaway, June and July can offer excellent shallow water fishing. Depending on the conditions, various sand flats can turn out days where you’ll see dozens and dozens of fish that appear well over 20-pounds. Getting them to eat can be difficult as these fish spook easily and don’t seem to want to eat conventional flies. However, a well-placed crab pattern put there by a skilled long distance caster can and will interest these trophy-sized stripers. There are areas along Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay that offer similar action. Sinking lines worked in the various rips along Breezy Point often produce some quality bass and bluefish with the occasional large weakfish.
The real action in Lower New York Harbor begins in late July and early August as green bonito make their annual showings. Depending on bait concentrations, some years these fish show thick for up to two weeks. But during years with weak amounts of rain bait, these speedsters stick around for only a few days. An incredibly fast and beautiful fish, bonito can be very boat shy, so getting to them without the motor running (using the wind and tide) is the key.
Late August brings in dense concentrations of bay anchovies and with them, false albacore. Their location can range from Nassau County, NewYork all the way to Monmouth County in New Jersey and everywhere in-between. Find the bait and you’ll find the albies. Crowds can be a problem, so weekdays are generally more productive. Albies usually stick around this area until mid October, however as of late they’ve been around well into November. Nine weights, clear mono-core fly-lines and epoxy flies are by far the best combos to hook one of these lighting rods.
Late August and Early September bring finger-mullet into the shallow breaking bars off of Breezy Point. These mullet seem to prefer whitewater, therefore the bigger the surf the better the fishing. Big bluefish in the 10 to 15-pound range prowl the shallow turbid waters, smashing anything that makes a commotion on the surface. Get a popper or a large deceiver anywhere near the white water and a bluefish is bound to hammer it. The trick to fishing this scenario is having a good captain who can get you in to get a cast off and then getting you out before a swell breaks. This type of fishing is not for the inexperienced or light of heart. Often times, when the swell is big and the sun is angled right, you can see a half-dozen or more big fish inside of the swell. The stripers join the bluefish in late September as the water cools. The Mullet will usually stick around until early October.
October and November in Lower New York Harbor consists of stripers and bluefish of all sizes feeding on copious schools of peanut bunker. During this time of the year, these fish are so fired up they’ll hit just about anything. December draws in big Atlantic herring and consequently, the predators get bigger. Weather can be a big problem though, and if you can’t get out you can’t fish. These fish also seem to be very sensitive to weather changes and extreme cold fronts can turn the fishing off for long periods of time.
From the Verrizano Bridge north, good fishing exists year round because of copious structure and fast moving water. Some popular spots include the Bay Ridge Flats off of Brooklyn, which in the spring can be a real hot spot for weakfish. Pink flies and heavy sinking lines can be deadly here. The area just south of the southern tip of Manhattan called Diamond Shoal can hold both bass and bluefish throughout the whole season and often you’ll find birds working under feeding fish. Up in the East River, the areas outside of 23rd street and the UN building on 45th street can be very productive. However, 550 to 750-grain sinking lines are the norm here. Current runs upwards of 8-knots and because of heavy traffic, the fish for the most part, remain deep. Jigging with a light spin rod and a 1-ounce jig is by far a more productive method.
South and west of the Harbor, Raritan Bay, on the Staten Island Side is a favorite of many fly anglers and guides. From Great Kills National Park (also part of the Gateway National Park System) west to Ft. Wadsworth, sod banks and rock Jetties line the beach creating a plethora of fish holding structure. In the Bay itself exists several riprap-strewn lighthouses and small, uninhabited islands offering rips and plenty of moving water. Adult Atlantic Menhaden in the spring bring in big bluefish and bass into the placid water, and spearing and sand-eels frequent the moving water. You’ll find stripers, bluefish and weakfish from May until December in the bay, although the spring and fall are by far the most productive. False Albacore make a strong showing in late August and generally stay around until mid October in the Bay. Sometimes they venture close to shore allowing anglers to target them from the Staten Island and New Jersey beaches.
Northern New Jersey
On the New Jersey side, the Navesink and Shrewsbury River, located on the Northeast corner of Raritan Bay, offer some great opportunities for the shore and boat angler. The action starts early in the spring when the shallow, dark mud bottom areas warm the water quickly and the resident bass begin feeding on alewives, herring, killifish, and grass shrimp. By the end of April, weakfish and blues are abundant. During late April, early May, when the adult menhaden arrive in the river, using a large bunker pattern on a fast-sink line along the edge of the menhaden schools can draw monster spring blues, tide runner weakfish, or big stripers. In May and June, flyrodders fishing sinking lines along the channel edges can catch keeper-sized fluke. Once late June and July push the water temps up past 70, small pesky cocktail blues take over attacking anything that resembles bait. The daytime fishing in the Navesink and Shrewsbury, with the exception of small blues, slows considerably, but night fishing can pay off as less crowds, and active stripers and weakfish make things interesting. Usually around the 3rd week in September, the finger-mullet run starts and gives the river systems a much-needed jolt as larger gamefish start to chase and eat these larger baits.
Directly north of these rivers lies Sandy Hook peninsula, jutting out northwards off the South East Corner of New Jersey, separating Raritan Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The Sandy Hook area on a map reads like a textbook hot spot. Its hook-like shape is a magnet for bait and predators. Whether you fish from the beach, kayak or boat you can find plenty of productive flyrodding here. The inner estuary provides habitat for all types of baitfish, worms and crabs. At the base of "the Hook" the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers constantly flush nutrients in and out of this system providing the angler with non-stop moving water to fish in. Springtime at the Hook draws in schools of migrating stripers, bluefish and weakfish that follow the herring and menhaden up the rivers. In addition to the larger forage species, sea worms, crabs, spearing, and grass shrimp gather in the grassy areas just inside of the Hook. This action continues thru June until the water temps hit the mid 70's, slowing things down considerably. Once October rolls around, the big predators move back into the area to intercept the young-of-the-year baitfish migrating out of the river. The past few years have seen an unprecedented amount of juvenile menhaden. Stripers gorge themselves on these peanuts and it’s not uncommon to catch and release 2 or 3 dozen stripers in a day, all on larger, full-bodied deceivers. The stripers and blues are so engorged when you catch them they often regurgitate a half dozen peanut bunker right at your feet. In September, when the bay anchovies show, False Albacore make perhaps one of the best showings in the New York Metro area here. They can be spotted from Sandy Hook and South all along the shoreline. Find the birds and bait, and odds are the albies are close by.
The area around New York City undoubtedly holds some top-notch saltwater flyfishing water. With its improved condition and successful fisheries management, we’ve enjoyed some fantastic fishing, as schools of migrating gamefish seem to increase every year. However, because of the proximity to urban centers, these areas are faced with several serious threats (see side bars). But the good news is that while there are some problems, there is no question that things are still improving. Every year, we see the angling getting better, and every year we benifit in the form of bent graphite and screaming reels. There are times when schools are so thick and the action so fast that you’d think you were thousands of miles from the city. The diversity of marine life in this area is truly amazing, considering the proximity to one of the most densely populated and developed areas in the world. So if you are a NYC resident, or just in town for a few days, give these waters a try. It’s truly a unique and rewarding area to fish.
POSSIBLE SIDE BARS:
Since 9/11, there have been stricter than usual security regulations. Areas in Jamaica Bay within 100-yards of JFK Airport are currently off limits. In addition, boats cannot approach within 25-yards of any bridge stanchion. However, these security regulations seem to change on a daily basis. The best bet is to call the Coast Guard and ask where you can and can’t fish.
Striped Bass Poaching:
Striped bass poaching is a large problem in the New York Metro Area. There is a huge market in NYC for wild striped bass. Illegal fishermen trolling umbrella rigs on wire line can easily take 300 to 500 pounds a day and sell them directly to restaurants and local fish markets. For them it’s very lucrative, and law enforcement is almost non-existent because of lack of manpower and priority issues. It’s important to note here that commercial fishing for striped bass in NYC waters is prohibited because of PCB contamination. The NYC chapter of the CCA has been working with the NYS DEC to improve the situation.
While the size limit is 28-inches, keeping fish in the New York Metro area is unadvisable. The New York State Department of Health recommends that no one should eat more than one meal per week (8 ounces) of striped bass taken from Jamaica Bay. In the upper and lower bays of New York Harbor, women of childbearing age and children under the age of 15 should eat no striped bass taken from Upper and Lower Bays of New York Harbor. Regardless, these fish are beautiful and an incredible resource. Releasing them just makes more sense.
Jamaica Bay’s marsh islands have been disappearing at an alarming rate. According to the New York Times, from 1994 to 1999 it lost an average of 44-acres per year. Scientists estimate that if something is not done to correct the problem the marsh will disappear completely in 20-years. However, no one is exactly sure what is causing the problem. Theories range from dense development along the Bay to pollutants and sewage treatment plant wastewater. Deepwater areas dredged out for landfill have also been attributed to the problem, accepting the sediment that has historically shored up the marsh. Currently, the National Park Service only has very limited funds to study the problem. Experts say that’s not near enough. To make matters worse, the Army Corps of Engineers has been considering these deep water dredge pits as possible dumping sites for New York Harbor dredge spoils, calling them “dead zones.” These areas most certainly are not dead zones, and this would be a huge blow to the ecosystem. Fortunately, organizations like the NY Chapter of The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), and the Natural Resource Protective Association are working to prevent this.