Things are beginning to stir in the bays, creeks and backwaters of our coastline. The movement is subtle but distinct, like tall marsh grass rustling in the breeze, and it represents another tiny cog on earth’s great chronological gear. It may feel colder than normal and air temperatures this spring support that notion. But water temperatures along the eastern seaboard aren’t that much lower than average and the spring runs should arrive right on schedule.
Winter flounder season opened April 1 and will remain open through May 30. The size limit is 12 inches and the daily possession limit is two fish per angler. The two-fish limit has been in effect since 2009 and is a far cry from the regulation-free days of my youth. In the early 1980s flounder were plentiful and their return from the deeper wintering grounds officially marked the opening of fishing season for us.
The other species we targeted this time of year was Spanish mackerel, which we caught on mackerel trees in the sound between Shelter Island and Greenport, right in front of a deserted Louis’ Beach. The jigs we used were comprised of small treble hooks strung like branches on a main leader. Brightly colored rubber tubes – red, green and yellow – covered the hook shafts. We would snag two or three fish at a time, pulling them over the rail to flop around the deck like little elongated tuna.
These mackerel prefer water temperatures in the 40-degree-Fahrenheit range and are strong, high-energy fish. Back then, we smoked them, or soaked them in brine and froze them to be used for bait later in the year. The mackerel’s fleshy white meat is full of oil and exudes a strong taste and odor, fitting the bill for shark bait. We also made “daisy chains” of the mackerel for bluefin tuna fishing in the fall. These baits had to be preserved in brine before they were frozen in order to stay firm once they were thawed. Five or six of these foot-long baits were tied to a heavy gauge monofilament leader. The last mackerel in the chain hid a hook. An experience I won’t forget is seeing tuna the size of Mini Coopers crashing the surface in our wake as they chased mackerel chains in Block Island Sound.
Spanish mackerel are school fish and can still be found around the Peconics and Gardiners Bay. The bag limit is 15 fish with a size limit of 14 inches and an open season throughout the year. While mackerel populations are relatively strong, winter flounder numbers have been in decline seemingly for the better part of a century, according to published studies of populations in our region. The line graph does show periods of abundance, most notably in the 1970s, but the population has without a doubt been depleted during the last two decades. This trend led to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s 2009 ruling to limit commercial and recreational harvesting of winter flounder in response to a depleted biomass, effectively reduced the bag limits in New England, New York and New Jersey to two-fish per angler and restricting the open season to April and May.
According to the research, the flounder dilemma doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of the fishing industry. A combination of resource mismanagement (the recreational fishery blames the commercial fishery for that), climate change and habitat degradation, resulting in low oxygen levels and contributing to juvenile mortality, is the culprit. New data compiled since 2010 shows mortality rates from fishing had declined to sustainable levels, however stocks were still suffering because of the other two factors. In simple terms, the data shows climate change is the main cause of a restructuring of species allocations in our waters. And winter flounder, a staple of these parts for so many years, is one of several species being negatively impacted.
As disturbing as that news may be, the current and future statuses of migratory pelagic species like striped bass and bluefish are brighter than their demersal, or bottom-dwelling, cousins. Small bass are being caught in shallows along the south shore of Long Island now. And some Shelter Island diehards are tossing lures at their favorite spots. With bait around, it wouldn’t surprise me if small bass are biting in the shallows around here. There are bunker in the water, as confirmed by our local ospreys which have been seen clutching the reluctant prey.
With the arrival of larger stripers and bluefish imminent, I should clarify the recreational fishing regulations for these species. Anglers are allowed one striped bass between 28 and 40 inches in their possession. A second bass longer than 40 inches (a trophy fish) is permitted. The season opened Monday, April 15 and runs through December 15. Anglers aboard licensed charter or party boats can keep two fish 28 inches or larger. Keep your receipt from the boat in case you come across a law enforcement agent who wants to see what’s in your cooler on the way home.
Bluefish soon will be staging their annual grand entrance down at Menhaden Lane. I spotted several anglers casting from the beach Sunday but didn’t have time to stop and see if they were catching anything. I tried a spoon, swimmer and surface lure Monday evening but had no luck. As for the limits, this year’s regulations are the same as last year. Anglers can keep 15 fish a day with the snapper rule in effect. That rule allows no more than 10 of those fish to be 12 inches or less. Confused? Basically, you can keep 10 snappers and five mature fish (bigger than 12 inches), if you’re so inclined.
Anyone with fishing reports can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send me your reports and photos.