A Culture of Casters
By Stephen J. Kotz
The autumn equinox dawned clear and still, and golden mist rose over ponds and fields along the back roads to Montauk, promising a glorious day ahead.
At Camp Hero State Park, in the shadow of the lighthouse, a handful of surfcasters — some of whom had been out for hours already — milled about in their waders at the top of the bluff with its panoramic view of the ocean and the small fleet of fishing boats bobbing in the calm waters not far from the boulder-strewn coast.
Greg Flanagan, a retired advertising executive from Montauk, peered out over the water through his binoculars, checking for birds, a telltale splash, or the shimmer of bait breaking the surface that would tell him another blitz of fish preparing for their annual fall migration south had arrived to gorge on the smaller fish that were themselves following nature’s call to school up and head toward warmer waters.
And by fish, he most certainly did not mean bluefish or false albacore, but striped bass, the prized catch of recreational fishermen, who, if they aren’t lucky enough to live on the East End, book some vacation time and make their own annual migration to Montauk at this time of year.
Mr. Flanagan’s fishing partner was Adam Flax of East Hampton who runs his generator rental business remotely in the fall — there’s an iPhone in a watertight pouch hanging from his neck — so he can get down to the water as often as possible.
“I hated fishing as a kid,” said Mr. Flax, who grew up in New Jersey and eventually moved east in the mid-1990s. “My dad would take me to these pristine lakes in Canada and I just couldn’t wait to get home.”
That all changed about 20 years ago, shortly after he and his wife moved to the East End and began taking frequent walks along the beach in Southampton, where they were renting a house at the time. “We ran into all these trucks lined up on the beach and guys catching 3-foot striped fish in not that deep of water,” he recalled. “I didn’t even know what they were, but I thought it was pretty cool.”
Within a few weeks, he had picked up a cheap setup from the old Caldor in Bridgehampton Commons and started to blindly try his luck out on the beach. He continued to struggle until he found a couple of mentors in Al Daniels of Sag Harbor and Kenny Morse, who now runs Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor. They gave him advice on everything from knot tying to lure selection.
“It’s addictive,” Mr. Flax said matter-of-factly, as he showed off his Van Stall reel and 10-foot Lamiglas surf rod that had set him back about a grand. “Fishermen like Van Stalls because they are waterproof,” he said. And that’s not just because they get doused with plenty of saltwater during a typical outing. “Sometimes you use them as cane pole to pick your way out on the rocks and they get totally submerged.” It doesn’t hurt that they also cast and retrieve as smooth as silk.
This season has gotten off to a promising start, with schools of bass hugging the shoreline, within easy striking distance of surfcasters. It’s a marked improvement, Mr. Flax said, from the last two years when the schools tended to stay farther off shore. There’s no telling if it will continue as the weather cools, the surf grows increasingly unruly, and the fall migration picks up pace.
“In the old days I would drive up and down the beach in my truck looking for any sign of fish,” Mr. Flax said. “But I’ve learned there are times when you simply have to fold ’em.” That doesn’t mean he’s not ready to go, morning, noon, or night, rain or shine, howling wind or dead still.
On this calm and warm morning, Mr. Flax spotted something in the water that looked different, to him at least, from the eddies swirling around the submerged rocks that he seemed to know by heart. It was something that told him a morning that had been fairly dull might just get interesting.
“Don’t point!” Mr. Flanagan said, as the two men nonchalantly turned away from the bluff and strolled toward their trucks for the short ride down to the beach. “And don’t look like you are in a hurry.”
“Otherwise, we’ll be mugged,” added Mr. Flax. Other fishermen are drawn to a hot spot as surely as seagulls are drawn to garbage cans along the waterfront.
On the beach, not far from “the sewer pipe,” a spot that got its appetizing name from the remnant of a drain pipe sticking out from the base of the bluff, Mr. Flax and Mr. Flanagan, wearing boots with short cleats, pick their way over slippery bowling ball sized rocks to a spot called the rat hole, where they set up about 50 feet off shore in water that can’t be more than 2 feet deep. Although it’s fairly late in the morning and the sun is high in the sky, it’s more important that the tide is coming in and the fish with it.
“They like the white water,” Mr. Flax had said earlier of striped bass. “They like to drive the bait into the shallow water where they have the advantage because they can maneuver so well.”
Despite trucks full of equipment — Mr. Flax’s SUV, for instance, has a trunk stacked two deep with boxes of plugs, swimming lures, tins, and bucktails, plus backup reels, tools and flashlights — these two fishermen say they favor simple bucktails for most of their fishing.
“Every year there are new plugs on the market,” said Mr. Flanagan dismissively, noting that manufacturers make slight, usually cosmetic changes to the designs much like Nike or Adidas do with their sneakers every year. “They catch more fishermen than fish.”
Today, because they are pursuing “schoolies,”— fish that weigh a couple of pounds and measure about 24-to-26 inches, with the occasional keeper measuring 28 inches or longer, mixed in — they are using small, ½-ounce bucktails.
A bucktail is a pretty simple lure. It consists of a rounded piece of lead weighing anything from a quarter ounce on up to several ounces, sometimes with a little face painted on it, and a skirt of deer tail fur camouflaging a single hook. Most fishermen add a rubber tail, a piece of pork rind, or a feather, all of which make the lure look more realistic in the water.
The two say they prefer the light-weight lures because in calm weather they don’t need the extra weight to fight the wind or current, and they are light enough to bounce along the water and not get snagged on a rock when they work the shallows. “When the wind is heavy out of the east and the current is moving fast, you need the extra weight” of, say, a 2-ounce lure, Mr. Flanagan said.
On this quiet morning, an observer expecting a grand show of splashing, flailing fish, might have been disappointed. After 15 minutes of casting a short distance out among the rocks, Mr. Flax caught his first fish. It took him less than a minute to reel it in and another few seconds to disengage the hook from its lip. Back in the water it went. The routine continued like that pretty much for another hour or so, with both men, on just about every other cast, reeling in fish and dropping them back into the water.
Unlike bluefish, which put up a fight worthy of James Cagney in “Public Enemy” — “You’ll never take me alive, copper!” — a bass on the other end of the line is more resolute, steady and heavy, making you think you have snared a waterlogged boot.
At one point, Mr. Flanagan was casting more toward the shore than away from it, as he sought to entice a greedy fish his way. It worked quickly enough, and he reeled in a fish that he looked over carefully, measuring it against the markings on his rod, before turning shoreward with it. “That will be sushi tonight,” he said of the first keeper of the day.
Despite their best efforts to go unnoticed, Mr. Flax and Mr. Flanagan’s catch-and-release demonstration caught the eye of others. A single boat offshore was soon joined by four or five others and then four or five more, and surfcasters began sliding into position on either side of the two men.
It was still far better than the kind of scene that sometimes unfolds at the foot of the lighthouse, when fishermen crowd the shoreline and boats press inward, with lines tangling and tempers flaring, or when fishermen line up elbow to elbow along the beach, and a neophyte’s cast veers off at a 45-degree angle, crossing over several other lines.
Beginners are called “googans,” and experts “sharpies.” As they returned to their trucks, the two men paused to watch a pair of fishermen, who, to an untrained eye, looked like sharpies, given their expensive gear. “That guy doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Mr. Flanagan whispered, as he nodded toward a fisherman who had set up on a rock far from shore and was casting way beyond where the fish were clearly working in the shallows right under his nose.
They say they don’t mind beginners tangling their lines — after all, they were both novices too, they say — but there is a bit of resentment just under the surface aimed at a new breed of Type A fishermen, who don’t seem to understand such basic etiquette as not climbing on a rock directly in front of a fisherman who was in position first.
Mr. Flax and Mr. Flanagan each kept a single fish this day. Mr. Flax, who only brings home a catch “once in a blue moon — when we have houseguests,” said he would give his away to a friend. It’s nice, he said, to share fish with someone who appreciates it and may not be able to afford to spend $50 to $60 at the market.
Besides, “we really don’t like striped bass,” he said of his wife and him. “Lucky for them.”