Warmed by memories on the cold, crisp mornings

JASON SHIELDS PHOTO | Rich Lenzer with a late-season linesider plucked from Gardiner’s Bay .

On bluebird days in November and December, we’d haul our barnacle-encrusted bait barrel and carefully shake out enough green crabs for a half day of blackfishing. Inclement days, on the other hand, were reserved for duck hunting, wood splitting, sinker making and tackle maintenance. If our Muscovy duck population was in need of thinning and a brood was ready for the chopping stump, we’d process a dozen or more.

It was a fitting activity for a stormy day; the birds sensed their impending doom under scudding grey clouds and the pelting rain added to my misery as I slid and sloshed around in duck slop chasing those poor birds. In the shed, the tin garbage can of piping hot water brought life back to my fingers when I dipped a bird to ease the plucking. Friends of my dad’s would come over and pluck with us and tell stories. I’d listen and laugh on cue, not quite getting the jokes and hoping in the back of my mind for a few more nice days to go fishing before the boat was hauled for winter.

Green crabs work best for blackfish. They are sturdy looking creatures, these would-be bait offerings we trapped around rock piles and other structures in shallow waters. A fish has to be pretty rugged to crack a green crab’s shell. Blackfish, or “tautog” as the Narragansett Indians called them, have front teeth that resemble human choppers and strong jaws that easily crush crab shell. They strike with a ferocity commensurate to the hardness of their quarry’s exoskeleton, and once hooked immediately wiggle back into the crevices of their rocky abodes. Eight pounders were common when I was a boy and the old man usually topped the pool with a 12- or 13-pound fish.

Blackfish yield one of the most tender fish meats I’ve eaten. We would poach them whole with vegetables and wine and my dad would go for the cheeks as soon as the fish was out of the pot. He’d pull the skin back like it was wet tape and pull the meat from the bones. It really was delicious.

Openngs and closings
Blackfish season opened October 8 and will close December 5. Mid-season reports are very good, with party boat fares limiting out most trips. The bag limit this year is four fish 16 inches or larger. North Fork party boats are booking now and filling up quickly. Trips are subject to cancellation based on weather so watch the forecast and try and pick a good day. Jumbo porgies also are still coming over the rails.

I haven’t seen or heard any reports on striped bass since the storm hit three weeks ago. I know the surfcasters on the south fork have been slowly trickling back to the beach but fish are scarce at best. Bass and blues continue to bite up west off beaches and seaside communities that were badly damaged by Sandy. A lot of folks simply have more important things to attend to than fishing.

Montauk is quiet now, in stark contrast to the blistering surf action anglers enjoyed before the storm. I’ve heard many people say this year’s fall run was unlike any they’d seen in decades. An epic weather event will literally turn the water upside down and send everything deep. We probably saw the last of the linesiders until next spring.
I did manage to make two trips with Gregg Petry and Rich Lenzer the week before the storm. We left the dock early Tuesday night, October 22 and found 11 boats in the spot we’d been fishing all fall. This was a marked increase in the fleet. Gregg said some of the boats were crewed by Bonnackers (East Hampton locals) and they’d be leaving soon. Bonnackers are descendants of farmers and prefer to be in bed by 9 p.m. and up by 4 the next day. Sure enough, several boats left the grounds around 8:30 headed for Three Mile Harbor.

The operators of two boats that stayed kept running back directly over the fish, a cardinal sin when fishing in shallow water. They also came close to cutting our lines a few times. Gregg always arcs around the spot when he runs back up to start a new drift. It’s the difference between being a conscientious fisherman and just some yahoo who can’t see the bigger picture. Despite some people’s best efforts to drive the fish deep, we got our limit and then some.
The final trip was the Saturday before the storm and we fished hard and late. It was a mixed bag of bluefish and bass and there were a few other boats from Shelter Island getting their last licks in. We three on the Pridwin boat were trying to take our minds off the coming storm and all of the unknowns that preceded it. It was hard to imagine that the placid bay we were gliding on would be a raging tempest 36 hours later. We put our last bass in the box around 1 a.m. and stuck it out for another half hour or so, knowing this would be it until next year.

Then we turned west and headed home to batten down the hatches.