Montauk Striper Blitz
By Terry Gibson
Montauk is hands down the Northeast’s inshore fishing focal point during the fall striped bass and false albacore migrations. But, the area is a hotspot from late May through Thanksgiving.
Long Island Sound’s north shore can offer phenomenal sight fishing on flats for striped bass, especially in June. During the hot months of July and August, the emphasis shifts to night fishing the beaches and dredging the deeper rips during the day. The albies arrive in late August, and by September stronger runs of both bass and albies occur along the beaches and in the rips. It gets much easier to find affordable accommodations after Labor Day.
After the blitzes are over, fishable numbers of huge stripers linger through October and November for a late-season herring run. While the weather is dicey, the late season is devoid of crowds and often produces the season’s biggest stripers.
Some Montauk surfcasters are so hardcore they don wetsuits and swim out to rock perches.
During the last week of September, or thereabouts, the immense population of striped bass that summers in Long Island Sound migrates out through the funnel between Beacon Hill and Montauk, New York. With a force as ineluctable as the moon’s gravitational pull, the bass migration draws hoards of fish-crazed anglers. They cannot help but file out east, in rusted out, four-wheel drives bristling with rods, across the Hamptons’ invisible pedigree fence. In fact, our motley brethren regard the non-fishing sophisticates of the Tudor style mansions ironically, if at all, as the deprived, or confined.
In his book, The Moon Pulled Up an Acre of Bass, Peter Kaminsky’s descriptions of this seasonal climax, and the subculture it inspires, first put the glassy, blitz-obsessed look in my eyes last fall.
“If you love fly fishing as I do, as my friends at [Montauk] Point do,” he taunts, “you will, at times, forsake career and family, sobriety, sleep, food, and warmth for the chance to be on the water when the migration occurs.”
The shoulds were plenty: “Now that you have power, get back to writing; tend to hurricane repairs; look for a job…” Instead I spend my last $300 on a plane ticket, leave friends, family and dogs in Florida to endure curfews and the herd’s hurricane histrionics, while I fly to New York with visions of blitzing stripers dancing in my head.
I never lose my way, but get disoriented heading “out east” on Montauk Highway. The sunset is straight behind me and the orderly farms and manicured yards are worlds away from the jungle, yet I feel like I’m headed literally and figuratively south, toward one of my hideaways in Central America, nearing one of those pleasant limbos where the artificial psychological arrows I call “social shoulds” can’t penetrate fish obsession. The way Kaminsky’s book describes it, ahead lies a bastion of that sweet madness shared by a loose cast of loner, fishing mavericks—denizens of floating docks and beaches beneath crumbling cliffs, who teeter on the edge of social acceptability. It may sound like limbo to some, but “The End” sounds like heaven to me.
I don’t get to see heaven as good as it gets, nor will the dozens of anglers coming to fish the Redbone-at-Large event. The day before the tournament flung Montauk’s recreational fishing fleet into a testosterone maelstrom, the remnants of Hurricane Jeanne stormed through and scattered the striped bass, bluefish and false albacore all over Long Island Sound. The conditions add a sense of desperation to the fish lust.
Of all the guides in Montauk, Capt. Amanda Switzer is the least put off by the conditions and the scattered fish. She had demurred from the tournament; instead she invited a few friends for two days of “binge fishing.”
“Beats combat fishing,” she says, launching into a torrid description, replete with four-letter intensifiers, of tournament fishing amid the frenetic jockeying that occurs during the blitz. “This weekend, we’ve got a wide open playing field.”
Amanda, one of the most colorful and expert members of the Montauk fly/light-tackle set, is probably sick of being introduced as the first woman to run a successful guide service on Long Island. Foolish, envious competitors say things like, “They charter her more to look at her than to fish with her.” While Amanda’s face could launch a thousand ships, it features a sailor’s mouth with a gaff for a tongue.
This heavy bass came off a deeper rip.
She stands in line at the coffee shop at 5, a captain entered in the tournament says, just loud enough for her to hear, “What, she’s not fishing the Redbone? She can’t hang?”
“No way I can compete,” she concedes, sarcastically. “Not with you soaking eels in the federal no-fishing zone.”
Doubtless the man would have started swinging had anyone else accused him of cheating, but he just looked down.
Amanda handles a boat and a fly rod as well as she handles herself. Three hundred yards off the lighthouse lurks an anvil-shaped reef. It seems to collect swells like a magnet, but in reality, offshore canyons focus wave energy onto the shallow slab. We watch the emerald peaks explode on the outside reef, but back off through a shallow channel before grinding across the inside shelf. Between sets, Amanda zips the bay boat into the channel. These incursions, into the bowels of one of the East Coast’s most famous surf breaks, allow us to lob suspending plugs and sinking fly lines (see sidebar for tackle tips) over the backs of the racing waves, where small pods of striped bass feed.
The swell is waning, and the time between sets lengthens. But, like a huffing bull about to charge, the reef snorts boils. Down the beach we can see a capsized boat wrecked on the rocks. No one was hurt, but since everyone’s talking about it through rueful grins you get the feeling that the guide wishes he’d gone down with his ship. I want nothing to do with the frigid water, or their derision, and so keep a wary eye on the horizon.
Every third cast or so yields a striper, each between 20 and 30 inches long. And after catching a half-dozen carbon copies, Mike Neil asks over his shoulder if Amanda would like to fish. He doesn’t see the 6-foot set she’s regarding with nonchalance.
“No, thanks,” she says, spinning the wheel. “I’m a voyeur.”
We crest the waves, and looking back Amanda spots the black outlines of bigger fish through the translucent swells. She runs us right back in there without hesitation, and Mike’s still laughing at what just came out that pretty mouth, but he’s obviously glad she stayed at the wheel. Moments later, he hooks the biggest striper of the trip. We dodge another set while he fights it. The 37-inch fish seems to know when waves will buffet the boat; it runs when Mike’s off balance.
These incursions into bowels of one of the East Coast’s most famous surf breaks allow us to lob suspending plugs and sinking lines over the backs of the racing waves.
Come morning, the swell has diminished. Amanda, Steve Brechard and I sit watching the sunrise gild Montauk’s tawny, aged cliffs. The ocean is flat, the engine is off, and I am transfixed. Furrowed and battered by wind and waves, each cliff seems inscribed with effigies of fishermen wearing obsessed looks. One headland seems to wear a headdress and sport the flat nose of an Indian; another looks remarkably like the stony face of a whaler staring into a storm, doused again and again with spray. Maybe they are figments of my imagination, but there’s an energy here that makes people turn their backs on the land, permanently.
Suddenly, a commotion on the beach. Spotters scurrying atop the cliffs have found a pod of bass, and anglers are bounding over the rocks and down the beach. A few boats converge on the school, only to be repelled by huge plugs hurled like rocks. A couple surf casters hook up, but more arrive on their heals and throw over their lines without breaking stride. Amanda just shakes her head.
“Everything’s a rivalry out here and nobody cares anything about social bubbles. They cast over and at each other cursing, but forget about it as soon they hook up.
Shortly, we see the two fastest anglers drag keepers up the beach then elbow their way back into the brawl. One angler’s plug goes whizzing right past the other angler’s ear. Most folks would call this play dangerous, its participants psychos, but I understand the absence of caution, the madness. I’ve been fortunate enough to get caught up in it many times. In high school, for example, a bluefish blitz got me so fired up that I smacked a close friend in the head with a 4-ounce Gator spoon. It concussed him and the hook stuck into his skull, but I was so drunk with fish lust I asked him if it was okay if I kept fishing. He said, “sure,” picked up his rod, then fainted at the sight of his own blood.
“Hang on,” Amanda says, and makes a short sprint to a cacophony of birds. I feel the anxiety, the desperate need for the feeling of a deeply bent rod, but still remember to check the angle of my backcast. A local favorite, a fly designed by Richard Reagan called the Albie Whore, falls into the melee.
“Just hang on to the line and let the boat momentum move the fly,” she says. An albie pulls the line right out of my fingers and tight to the reel. A few seconds later I feel the backing knot bump through the guides, and smile. Steve’s hooked up, too, and the fish are headed in opposite directions. Helter skelter! I can catch those things ’til I’m blue in the face at home in the Gulf Stream, where they eat anything and stay with the boat. But they act like a whole ’nother species up north and in shallow water. They go up and down like jacks-in-the box, are finicky about flies, and make long, horizontal runs instead of vertical sounds. On rougher days albie fishing in the Northeast can be compared to shooting clay pigeons while streaking across speedbumps on a bicycle. It’s as demanding as it is exhilarating. You must have good balance, and be quick, agile and precise. When you blow shots at them, it’s heartbreaking.
Amanda patterns these pods quickly, and keeps us in fish all day. They feed in a circular pattern around a rip, and want different retrieves at different places along the rip. At the top they fall for Crease Flies skittered across the surface. Mid-rip they belt an Albie Whore swinging through the rip at the pace of the tide. At the bottom, only a rapidly ascending minnow pattern fished on a heavy sinking line does the job. Although our shoulders are sore, fingers ripped raw and our stripping hands swollen with blood from all the fast downward motions, we chase the schools fanatically for hours. We slow down only to dredge a rip occasionally for a bass. Past three o’clock we realize we’re the only vessel on the water.
“The Redbone anglers had to be back at the dock by three,” Amanda grins. Suddenly, I understand the real reason for her diffidence about tournament fishing. For the most addicted, the completely obsessed, rules other than conservation measures just don’t set right with them. Rules are for landlubbers; there’s still plenty of daylight, and we need to keep fishing.
Fly anglers should bring an 8- , 9- and a 10-weight rod. Most blitz fishing is done with intermediate sinking lines, short leaders and small flies, since the fish feed mainly on “rain bait.” But, the fish will take poppers and Crease Flies, so bring a floating line with an aggressive taper (with a heavy, wind-punching head.) Good casters can get away with an 8-weight, especially on calm days, but winds in excess of 10 knots are the rule. Sinking lines between 200 and 400 grains work best in the surf, unless it’s very calm. These lines are best handled on 9- and 10-weight rods. Some anglers are turning to double-handed fly rods in the surf. A 500-grain sinking line is useful when dredging the rips. You should cast these heavy lines with open, arcing loops, and a rod with a soft tip but a stiff butt section seems to accomplish that best.
Unless sight-fishing on the flats, there’s no need for long leaders. Wire bite tippets are good when fishing for bluefish or for bass under bluefish schools. Fly selection should include small green Clouser Minnows and sand eel patterns, Crease Flies, poppers and some large-bodied Deceivers to imitate bunker.
Hardware chunkers rely mainly on light/medium action spinners with 10- or 12-pound line, unless surf casting. A heavier plug rod for fishing large poppers and walking plugs, and for jigging the rips is also a useful tool. Small tins and swim baits work particularly well in the bass and albie blitzes. Large poppers, and Slug-Gos or similar jerkbaits work well in the surf and for prospecting the rips early. Slug-Gos fished on jigheads or white bucktails are the go-to lure in the rips.