By John McMurray
I think we got the best of it guys,” I said to my two anglers, after four solid hours of big bluefish and schoolie stripers. They all came on surface baits to boot, so we were feeling pretty satisfied.
It was almost 10:00 a.m. The birds had become scattered and onshore winds began to set in. The number of boats in the immediate vicinity had quadrupled and many more were headed our way from the general direction of Coney Island.
I suggested we start heading back up the Harbor to Lower Manhattan. The June air was beginning to warm and the sun lit up the water along the Rockaway shoreline to a rare turquoise shade of green. As I ran parallel to the dropoff, quick silver flashes, hordes of sand eels panicked and shot away from the boat. An exceptionally high tide gave me the courage to turn the boat hard right to check it out. As I shot across the white sand flat large dark shadows darted in every direction. Startled by what I had just seen, I cut the engine. But I was disappointed to see no other fish as we drifted over the entire length of the sand flat. I made a mental note and filed it away.
Two days later I installed electric trolling motors and a raised platform on my skiff. Before the week was out, I was atop that platform pointing out numerous cruising striped bass in two feet of water to an angler on the bow. On one particularly accurate cast, I was treated to the whole show—the follow, the red, flaring gillplates as the fish inhaled the fly, the hookset, the headshake and a blistering run toward deeper water. What could be cooler than that? Especially in one of New York City’s boroughs!
Six seasons ago, I stumbled into this sight fishing. To this day, like clockwork, sand eels move onto the white sand flats of the Rockaways, Coney Island, Brooklyn, and even Staten Island, after the first 70-degree day in June. With them come good numbers of hungry stripers. When the water is at its clearest and stripers are thick, you can literally forget you are just a stone’s throw away from Manhattan.
Improving Water Quality
Striper, bluefish, weakfish, false albacore and bonito opportunities in Lower New York Harbor are well-documented, but dependable sight fishing on sand flats in New York City waters is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s a direct benefit of radically improved water quality, even in the past several years.
The clarity of the shallows varies from season to season, but it’s better in general thanks to reductions in point and non-point source pollution (which cause algae blooms), and the emerging watchdog and advocacy groups that keep a close eye on industries that violate environmental laws (see sidebar). Even after heavy rain, the water seems to clear up within a day or two. Improved water in areas such as the Rockaways has allowed for some world-class sight fishing in one of the most unlikely places in the world.
When the conditions allow it, the ocean side of the Rockaways seems to hold the largest concentration of bigger fish. Sand eels hug the beach on flat days with no wind or ocean swell, and the water clarity can be fantastic. The area from Breezy Point to the beginning of the jetties in Far Rockaway can hold sand eels and stripers right up against the shoreline. Of course, one must consider safety first. Even if it is flat as a lake, there is always the chance that even a small 2- to 3-foot wave can knock you on your butt, and even beach your skiff if you are not careful.
Locate the shoal just off of the Silver Gull Beach Club between the beach and the channel. This spot usually fishes quite well on a low tide and the visibility can be spectacular. A similar shoal exists just west of Jacob Riis Park. Of course, while this is a safer bet than fishing the beach, caution must be exercised on these shoals also, as larger swells can break on these bars. Waters inside the Rockaways can fish well also, and are considerably safer. There are numerous shallow sand flats from the Marine Parkway Bridge all the way to Breezy Point. On the other side in Brooklyn there are also some opportunities. Plum Beach, between Gateway Marina and Sheepshead Bay, is one giant flat that can hold a ton of stripers with the right conditions. The visibility is a little tougher here, but the flats are tough to beat in terms of sheer quantity of bass. The outgoing tide, particularly on moon tides, pulls a lot of bait from inside Jamaica Bay over these flats. Plus there are dips and drastic depth changes on the east side of Plum Beach, which create some funky rip lines that act as fish magnets. The areas on the north side of the Marine Parkway Bridge all the way around to Gateway Marina can hold fish under the right conditions as well.
Basically, the opportunities are limitless. If you can manage to find a shallow spot with good water clarity and moving water, then odds are there are going to be sand eels and crabs there, and hopefully, big stripers in pursuit.
Follow the general rule of flats everywhere: You cannot run your outboard in shallow water and expect to catch fish. As mentioned, stripers are not comfortable in shallow water. They are only in this environment temporarily, to find food. I feel stripers are a far tougher target than bonefish, tarpon or redfish because they are incredibly skittish. Add this to the fact that you’re fishing in Lower New York Harbor with all the associated boat traffic, and it becomes that much more difficult. So stealth is the name of the game here. Once someone runs a motor on a flat, that flat’s shot for a while. The stripers spook off the flat, and if they come back, they’re so sketched out that you’ll never get close enough for a cast. If by some chance you manage to get a fly or plug in front of a fish, they will treat your offering like the plague.
There are basically two ways to approach and stalk fish. Ideally, fish out of a flats skiff with an experienced poler. A poling platform not only increases leverage but it allows you to see fish at a much greater distance. Along these same lines, I have my Maritime Skiff set up with trim-tab-mounted trolling motors. In addition, I mounted a custom leaning post with a raised platform that I can stand on behind the console so as to see fish from atop the platform while operating the trolling motors with a remote control. It also allows me to operate the boat in deeper water along the dropoff while an angler casts to fish on the flat. The other benefit of this setup is that if I am fishing alone, I can see fish, cast, and operate the trolling motors all at the same time and from one spot.
If you don’t have a flats skiff with a poling platform, or a tricked-out rig with trolling motors and sighting platforms, cut your engine before reaching the edge and use the wind and current to drift onto the flat. Once in a likely spot, or you find traveling fish, quietly anchor. Stripers tend to cruise continuously in schools of three to six fish.
Flats around Breezy Point are open game for wading anglers, but that calls for tailing fish due to a lower vantage point. But there’s a perfect solution—grab a regular stepladder, take it out on the flats, take a few steps up, then watch, look and wait. You may be astounded by what you see. I did this last year and watched in disbelief as a half-dozen 30- to 40-pound fish ambled along behind a cownose ray.
What to Cast?
Given a choice, I prefer fly gear here. The splash of a plug or jig can send fish running for deeper water. A good fly caster can delicately present a fly in front of a cruising fish. If forced to go with spin gear, nothing beats an unweighted Slug-Go, or similar soft plastic. For the shallows, I prefer the 6-inch, white-and-gray “Alewife” version rigged on a weedless hook, retrieved in a jerk-and-pause fashion. Cast well ahead of and beyond cruising fish and get in their path. If you are close enough to the beach, you can actually cast the lure onto the sand and work it back into the water. Tossing it right in front of cruising fish will result in spooking those fish nine times out of ten. If it’s overcast, I can toss a 7-inch or even 9-inch chartreuse Slug-Go and the bass will go berserk over it. Small Redfin, Rapala or Bomber style plugs can work here as well, but nothing beats a Slug-Go.
Again, flies are better for stealth. Though sand eels are the dominant bait, I’ve had limited luck with close color and size imitations. I do get some looks and follows with realistic patterns, but dark-brown flies produce better. That’s what many East Hampton fly fishers use so I began to use them here with much success. My guess is that these 2- to 3-inch brown flies look like small crabs, but even more so, dark flies show well on a white sand flat. I’ve always subscribed to the theory that half the battle is getting your fly noticed. I tie a dark-brown Sea-Ducer style fly on a 1/0 hook with brass eyes and palmered Estatz for the head. It’s easy to tie, gets down to the bottom relatively quickly, and, most importantly, it catches fish. A 3-inch, sparsely tied chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnow is a close second.
A clear intermediate line outfishes a traditional floating line for me in two to four feet, particularly when using a brown fly. A full sinking, or sink-tip line does not work here. They sink too fast and stir up the bottom sometimes because the line sinks faster than the fly. Try a much slower retrieve that you would normally use when fishing for stripers, to imitate a scurrying crab rather than a speeding baitfish.
Be advised that fishing New York City’s flats stripers calls for long, accurate casts. Though this fishery is composed mostly of small fish, they are on alert. The occasional large fish can be almost impossible to catch. Sure, they may follow your offering, but the big gals, and surprisingly, those following the rays, are very difficult to fool. But if you’re up for the challenge, New York City flats fishing is on the rebound. SWA
Sand Eelsare the Attraction
For the most part, stripers are highly migratory coastal pelagic species, and not a flats fish. But when sand eels congregate in dense schools on Lower New York Harbor’s sandy shoals, they act like redfish.
Sand eels are easy to distinguish from other baitfish because they swim on their sides in undulating fashion, much as large American eels do. A sand eel’s pigmentation varies against different bottoms, so anglers’ descriptions vary. I have handled some that were olive, brownish or bluish green above, with silvery lower sides and a duller white belly. Some have a longitudinal stripe of steel-blue iridescence along each side, but others lack this. When alarmed, they burrow four to six inches deep in the sand. Stripers root in the bottom for them. Early in the morning when the light’s low, your best bet is when they tail up over the burrowed baits.
In the winter, sand eels move offshore to spawn, and move inshore in late May or early June. The bait schools appear in New York City’s shoal water close in to the tide mark, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are so close to a city of eight million people.
Crabs are also a forage source. Just about every sand eel-chasing striper I’ve filleted from these sand flats has had at least one small crab in its belly, but rarely do I find a sand eel. On the flip side, I rarely see any crabs on the sand. Blackfish (tautog) anglers frequently fish the dropoffs and put down a baited dip net. Back at the marina one day, I confirmed my suspicion that these anglers were netting green crabs for bait. So, N.Y.C. sand flats have good populations of green crabs and stripers love’ em—perhaps even more than sand eels. Perhaps eels are easier to digest and pass than crabs, thus my visual findings.
NYC Flats Guides
There are two guides that specialize in sight-fishing New York City’s boroughs:
The author Captain John McMurray email@example.com 718 791-2094, Captain Ralf Burtis firstname.lastname@example.org 516 887-2784.
New York/New Jersey Baykeeper
The Lower New York Harbor estuary is one of the most urban bodies of water in the world, with only a tiny portion of its open space left undeveloped. You can imagine the runoff, source and point-source pollution problems it is faced with. But, the fact of the matter is that it is one of the cleanest urban bodies of water around.
One can certainly give credit to the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper for these improvements. Since 1989, the NY/NJ Baykeeper has served as a citizen advocate and watchdog for the estuary’s bays, streams and shores. Through its watchful eye on polluting industries, and its no-holds barred policy on suing corporations and individuals that violate environmental laws, it serves as a powerful deterrent in Lower New York Harbor. Furthermore, NY/NJ Baykeeper has been working for seven years on an Oyster Restoration Program in New York Harbor. Oysters are important filter feeders that have the capacity to clean large amounts of water if they are allowed to proliferate. There happens to be a large and growing oyster bed just a few hundred yards south of the Statue of Liberty. The restoration of oysters in these tidal waters is a vital step toward the full restoration of the Hudson-Raritan estuary. NY/NJ Baykeeper, part of the 157-chapter Waterkeeper Alliance, is largely responsible for the water quality that is so paramount to sight fishing.
For more information on the NY/NJ Baykeeper, or to make a donation, visit www.nynjbaykeeper.org
By John McMurray