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An Underwater Guide to Dining on Long Island
By John W. Papciak
The fish are coming! With the first hints of changing weather, you can almost feel it in the air. You stop off at your favorite tackle shop and stare at the hundreds of lures designed to catch both fishermen and fish. If you fish the "long rod," you browse the selection of meticulously tied flies. Where to begin?
You may not want to hear this, but our beloved striped bass will eat just about anything that swims, crawls, or digs itself into the mud. Bluefish are a bit more discriminating, but not always. As long as food is available, whatever the bait happens to be, gamefish seem to make the most of it. Still, there are those movements of baitfish that always seem to get gamefish to stand up and take notice. Study the food source, and youll learn a surprising amount about the gamefish you seek. In this article, a few thoughts on important baits found in the waters around Long Island.
A short explanation of format: With each bait species Ive included a time schedule, plus a "peak" time period. These dates are not targeted at the baitfish themselves, but rather for a period when gamefish and bait are likely to cross paths. Time-frames are based on a meticulously kept fishing log, and validated by comparing notes with fishing club members and others. Some adjustments may be in order, based on unseasonable weather, and for areas well north and south (or east/west). If you are not sure, check with a local tackle shop. This is true local knowledge, and they are the experts. I should further note that this is written from a flyrodders perspective, but youll find a few spinning suggestions as well. Lets be realistic. On some days, the wind and waves make flyrodding a chore for anglers, but a windfall for gamefish. Now, lets look at the menu!
Late May through early July, and again in November, peaking 1st and 2nd week of June. For the past several years, the arrival of sand eels has ushered in the seasons first reliable flyrod action on Long Island. These swarms of sand eels act like a magnet, pulling in migrating gamefish, and keeping them within casting distance for up to one month. Im reminded that sand eels were a dominant forage on Long Islands south shore / east end. But in recent years, the more consistent fly rod action has occurred on Long Island Sound. During the peak, the sound of bass feeding at night seems to be coming from every direction. Ive observed fish taken on sand eel patterns at every stage of the tide, day and night, but my preference is a moon-less night and a dropping tide.
Fly: Any thin-profile artificial. Deceivers, clousers, bendbacks, epoxies and surfboard foam type sliders between 2" and 4" will all take fish. Spin: Rapala, Bomber, Red Fin, Heddon Hellcats, AVA jigs, whiptails. Just dont forget the "teaser" (a sand eel imitation tied about 3 feet above plug).
May through August Peak June new moon phase. Although not a "baitfish," the cinder worm hatch is ideally suited for the flyrodder. The exceptionally high tide of a new and full moon coaxes these seaworms out of the mud, and they are carried out with the tide. Ironically, my first observation of a full-fledged worm hatch was in Jones Inlet on the South Shore..I have yet to see a repeat performance on that scale in Jones vicinity since. The rivers and creeks on Long Island Sound get my vote. Expect the entire week of the full or new moon to produce some worms, but the "peak" can be tough to predict. Most fishermen admit missing peak hatches by a day or two. The gamefish that show up to feed always seem to get it right.
Fly: A good fly shop will carry local favorites of the cinderworm pattern. Spin: Tie the cinder worm pattern as a teaser about 3 feet in front of a small swimming plug.
September through mid October peaking 3rd week of September or thereabout. September 16th, 1995 on the south side of Montauk: The clouds moved in, and the wind increased out of the southeast to 20 knots with higher gusts. Small squadrons of v-wakes clearly indicated that mullet were on the move, swimming just below the surface. The waves began to build and the bass moved in. Every now and then I could see a bass chasing mullet in the face of a wave. This day I carried spinning gear.
A fly rod wouldnt have cut it. I tied on a blue and white pencil popper and threw it as far as I could. The gusts of wind made it difficult to work the top water plug correctly, but it didnt matter. A few swirls, then the plug disappeared into an explosion of white water. Sound familiar? On a calm day, it can be very difficult to get a bass to key in on your artificial. Turbulent water tilts the odds in favor of the larger predator (and the angler).. Flyrodding is not always ruled out. Rough or turbulent water can be fished with a fast sinking line. Furthermore, an accurate imitation has indeed worked on calmer days. Walk the beach in September and look for those v-wakes. Game fish are probably not far behind.
Fly: Full bodied deceivers, large snake fly, slab side, or foam body slider patterns. White or blue and white. Spin: Atom Jr or Danny metal lip swimmer, pencil poppers, Little neck poppers, "bottle" plugs (also called "casting swimmers") in high wind or rough water. White or Blue and White.
Early September through October, Peak last week of September into first week of October. Known as part of grouping surfcasters refer to as "white bait," the anchovy has been a very important species in recent fall runs in Montauk. Im constantly reminded by Montauk veterans that the white bait pattern, complete with daytime blitzes, is not the historical norm. Perhaps we should enjoy it while it lasts.
I should also emphasize that this is one of the few situations where daytime action can sometimes out produce the night (the other such pattern involves mullet). This bait comes in a variety of sizes, but the bulk has been made up of individuals no more than an inch or two long. Bay anchovies are not the best swimmers and have no means to escape from a game fish. Tight schooling is their defense. When anchovies end up in the wash, it is not unusual to observe game fish rolling through the school taking gulps as they go. I can assure you, from first-hand observation, the sight of hundreds of bass rolling on white bait in twelve inches of water is enough to make any "sharpie" weak in the knees.
Fly: Very small deceivers, clousers or foam sliders. White or yellow. Spin: Small bucktails, tins or poppers. White or yellow.
Varies throughout season, Peak late May/early June and early/mid November
Known locally as "pogies" or "bunker," these oily critters are probably a stripers idea of a turkey dinner. The Western Sound seems to get an early batch, but the late May/early June movements are most interesting from a predator/prey perspective. If you are putting in your time on the water, you will eventually witness what can happen when these fish move through an inlet or along an open beach. If they are ambushed by gamefish, your odds of hooking a trophy bass or blue just went up 1000%.
We also know that they take up summer residence in back bays and harbors, and stay through November. Atlantic Highlands Marina (NJ), Great Kills Harbor, Sheepshead Bay, Hempstead Harbor, Cold Spring Harbor, and Huntington Harbor (all NY) are just a few places of where you can find adult menhaden during the summer and early fall. Yes, all locations have produced large gamefish for anglers working below the jumbo bait. This is currently not in most flyrodders repertoire (including my own), but success with spinning gear is reason enough to expand my horizons.
Fly: Very large deceivers (8 inch+), or any pattern designed with a large, bulky profile. Spin: Atom 40 or large "Danny" metal lipped swimmers. Large Gibbs "pencil" poppers, Gibbs "bottle" plugs (also called "casting swimmers") rough water or heavy rips.
Late November to early December, Peak last half of November into December.
In Montauk, there is a tackle shop thats almost a landmark among LI surfcasters - Johnnys. The walls of Johnnys are covered with photographs of trophy stripers dating all the way back to the beginning of modern surfcasting. Each photograph lists the
weight of fish and the date taken. Study these photographs and youll quickly realize that late November is an excellent time to catch a trophy bass. Why? HERRING! As winter moves in, die-hards brave the bone-chilling northwest winds as they wait for the herring to arrive. The last few years have been a bust, but it will only take a few good innings to erase the bad memories. If we are blessed with another herring-filled November, we can put some of the latest fly patterns and techniques to the test. Past success with spinning gear suggests some interesting possibilities.
Fly: Very large deceivers (8 inch+), or any pattern designed with a large, bulky profile. Spin: Atom 40 or large "Danny" metal lipped swimmers. Large Gibbs "pencil" poppers, Gibbs "bottle" plugs (also called "casting swimmers") in rough water or heavy rips (white of blue and white)
I would be remiss if I did not at least given mention to a number of other important baitfish. Spearing, baby tautog, baby flounder, baby bluefish (snappers), shrimp and various species of crab are just a few of the morsels that a gamefish will not easily pass up. The 1998 crop of peanut bunker was exceptional, and put a smile on many faces during the latter half of the fall run. Squid continue to be a favorite for bass frequenting waters in New England. Calico crabs are frequently singled out as a major food item for resident bass along many of the beaches of New Jersey. Clearly, each region has its own special cuisine for Mr. Gamefish. Study the menu, and make sure you know the specials. You are sure to hook plenty of paying customers.
John W. Papciak: John has been fishing the salt, in some form, for over 30 years, and has been fly fishing for 25 years. John currently concentrates most of his time in the surf, and while he will fish with bait or lures, he prefers the flyrod whenever possible. John won the New York Surf Fishing Contest, Striped Bass Flyrod Division, in 1996 and 1998, he won the Annual LIBBA Surf Contest for Weakfish in 1999, and he won the Artificials Division of CCA Manhattan Cup in 2000. He is the current President of the Farragut Striper Club, a surfcasting club locating on Long Island. He is a founding member of Coastal Conservation Association-NY, and is also a member of the Long Island Beach Buggy Association, the Montauk Surfcasters Association, and the Recreational Fishing Alliance.