From Westhampton to Shinnecock: A Life Lived On the Bays
By Andrew Botsford; photography by Michael Heller
On this one trip to planet Earth, I have been blessed with dozens of lives, and further blessed that many of those lives began — and some continue — on the bays and creeks and marshes stretching from the Shinnecock Canal to Moriches Inlet.
My life as a fisherman and my life “messing about in boats,” as Kenneth Grahame’s Water Rat so aptly put it, both began when I was six or seven. My friend Phil’s scarily gruff father took the two of us fishing right after sunrise in the Quogue Canal in a heavily fiberglassed ancient rowboat with a three-and-a-half-horsepower motor. Although they have overlapped extensively ever since, those two lives have also followed separate paths.
It is said there are four stages in the life of a fisherman: first fish, many fish, big fish, hard fish. The first fish Phil and I caught — using honest-to-God bamboo poles with cork bobbers and shiners for bait — were snappers. Of course. Some six years later, I would move on to many fish, catching dozens of snappers with my friend Mark from his 9-foot Skimmar with a five-horsepower Evinrude. We fished in the honey spot where currents converged at the mouth of Ogden Pond, just off the bulkhead at the end of Beach Lane in Quogue, where old man Randall, who was short one finger on his left hand, had a gas station serving both boats and cars.
The “many fish” stage would continue with bluefish and flounder as I roamed the bays and creeks and ventured just outside Shinnecock Inlet. It eventually gave way to big fish pursued offshore in much bigger boats. And now I am arrived at hard fish, struggling to catch a keeper striped bass on a fly or chasing false albacore around Shinnecock Inlet where they break the surface only to disappear before I can attempt to land a fly in their vicinity.
When I was eight or nine, my life as an accidental naturalist began when I started an informal study of horseshoe crabs and blue claw crabs: mating rituals, how to tell males from females, and blue claw shell moulting that yielded the highly prized softshells. It was around that time that I learned how to dig up steamer clams from the mud after locating them by the little fountains they sent up when the tide was out.
I came to duck hunting late by most people’s standards; I know I was the only 25-year-old in the NYS mandatory hunter safety class filled with boys who had just turned 14. But, guided by my friend Ted Shuttleworth — whose command of essential information about sailing, boating and fishing is exceeded only by his encyclopedic knowledge of hunting lore — I learned most of what I know about migratory waterfowl, salt marshes, and Long Island hunting history from sitting in a duck blind with him on Shinnecock Bay in the dead of winter.
Just as landing a fish is not the sole reward for going fishing, actually shooting one’s limit, or even one duck, is an intention that pales in significance next to the justification for spending time out on the bay when it shows its winter face: temperatures in the teens to 30s, wind at a steady 20 mph, with snow or rain a bonus.
My life as a buccaneer began in my early teens, when some friends and I staged a nighttime raid from a boat on somebody’s parents’ liquor cabinet in their house on Stone Creek. A two-man shore party took a mayonnaise jar and filled it with a few splashes from every bottle and we ran the boat out into the middle of the bay and passed it around like rations of grog.
Was it evolution or a return to childhood many years later, when I and two friends bought a used 16-foot runabout, named it DWI for Driving Wasn’t Indicated, and ran it to various bars and restaurants on the water: the Chart House in Shinnecock Canal, the Deck at Nick’s Marina inside the inlet or, better, to the little cove just behind Magic’s Pub in Westhampton Beach. I remember all too vividly running the DWI back to Quogue with one eye closed when the sun was coming up after a night at Club Marakesh and a bayman leaning on his rake shook his head as I passed by.
I can neither count nor catalogue all the things I have learned on and from the bays: the mysticism and romance of moon and tides, hope and heartbreak, lessons of spirit and flesh. Today, my connection to the inshore waters is mostly in my waders with a fly rod in hand, or in my kayak down by Ponquogue Bridge.
And sometimes when I paddle back to shore, and hear the granular sigh as I gently run aground, I sit and stare at a few square feet of bay bottom in water four inches deep. There I see periwinkles, tiny shiners and mummichog minnows, grass shrimp, jellyfish, bits of drifting eelgrass and sea lettuce, invisible phyto and zooplankton — hundreds of life forms minding their business, keeping their own counsel and getting on with their lives.
To Fish or Not to Fish at Ponquogue
First some basic facts: The Ponquogue Bridge is 2,812 feet in length, runs over Shinnecock Bay and connects mainland Hampton Bays with Dune Road at the eastern end of Westhampton Island. The bridge is made of concrete and was built in 1986 to provide greater clearance (55 feet, to be exact) for boats looking to either gain entry to the Atlantic Ocean through the Shinnecock Inlet or access points further west like the Quogue Canal or Quantuck, Moneyboque and Moriches bays.
The 1,000-foot long wooden drawbridge built in 1930, now referred to as the Ponquogue Pier, attracts huge populations of fish and, therefore, fishermen, as it’s one of the only ways to access deep running water on the entire South Fork. Damage to the north and south piers, particularly during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, left the pier’s fate up in the air, with the project still stuck in bureaucratic red tape.
“The wooden pilings and the marine ecosystem that they have harbored for almost a century need to be left in place,” Michael Wright, a fishing columnist for The Southampton Press, wrote earlier this year while advocating for the removal of the above-water portions of the bridge, which, he suggested, could be replaced with a steel boardwalk anchored to the old pilings. “Our stocks of fluke and black sea bass are higher now than they’ve been in decades, but there are no places that fishermen can fish for them reliably without a boat, other than Ponquogue.”
The southern fishing pier was deemed structurally sound by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which earmarked $1.58 million for the restoration project, but the northern pier has been cordoned off since suffering a partial collapse.
Into the Natural World
Because the Shinneock, Moriches and Great South bays, as well as the Quogue Canal, are protected from storm surge by barrier island dunes, there is limited tidal exchange in the brackish, or low salinity, waters, which therefore provides nursery estuaries for finfish and shellfish critical to Long Island’s commercial and recreational fisheries.
“This is a region of rich biodiversity, fisheries, habitat and transition,” said Dr. Christopher Gobler, a marine biologist from Stony Brook University. “It hosts New York’s second largest fishing fleet, lush seagrass beds, and abundant finfish and shellfish near the Shinnecock Inlet.”
Melanie Meade, an education coordinator at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton, said oysters, bay scallops, hard clams and other shellfish are both a natural resource in the bays and a significant part of Long Island’s fishing economy. The freshwater that makes these nurseries so valuable, however, also comes with excess nitrogen loading caused by human activity, which can lead to harmful algal blooms.
“DEC monitoring of the water bodies is done for public health reasons and can result in closures of some waters to shellfishing,” Meade said. “Fish can swim out of the area and so are less affected.”
A Unique World of Real Estate
A tour of the waterfront from the Shinnecock Inlet to Westhampton Beach unveils a world of real estate options from dilapidated and abandoned to eye-popping new construction. The property at 270 East Montauk Highway in Hampton Bays sits directly on the waterfront southeast of the Shinnecock Canal and is listed for sale for $1.995 million by Hedy Tufo of Sotheby’s International Realty. This unique 1.64-acre property has the potential for a two-story restaurant and 20 boat slips, or could become a family home with a zoning change.
And speaking of unique, a cruise under the Ponquogue Bridge west through Shinnecock Bay brings you to the Quogue Canal, a narrow slice of heaven dividing the barrier island from the mainland Village of Quogue. According to Marcia Altman, a broker with Brown Harris Stevens in Westhampton Beach, there are currently seven properties for sale along the canal, priced from $3 to $5 million. Altman believes that “whether a seven bedroom 1800’s with a pool is your cup of tea, or a slick six bedroom 2017 modern is more your speed, living on the Quogue Canal is as good as it gets.”
Boating — and Dining — West of the Canal
The inner part of Shinnecock Bay is surrounded by three surefire dining bets in Cowfish, Rumba and Edgewater, which have all received critical acclaim. Move further south toward the Shinnecock Inlet (side note: this connection between the bays and Atlantic Ocean was formed by the Great Hurricane of 1938) and you find Oakland’s Restaurant and Marina, Sundays on the Bay and Top of the Wharf, all side-by-side to the immediate west of the inlet with amazing 360-degree water views. Cruise west under the Ponquogue Bridge and, if the tide is right, make a stop at Dockers in East Quogue, after which a short ride west down the Quogue Canal and through Moneybogque Bay will put you at the municipal docks in the delightful Village of Westhampton Beach, where staples like Margarita Grille, Starr Boggs, Pizzetteria Brunetti and a Westhampton classic named The Patio await.