Fish on: De-bunking the bunker

COURTESY PHOTO | The menhaden, or bunker fish, seen for centuries in huge schools in our waters.

COURTESY PHOTO | The menhaden, or bunker fish, seen for centuries in huge schools in our waters.

The last three weeks have brought us the wildest kind of weather that we’ve seen in many years.

Fishing had just started to pick up again and fishermen were doing O.K. on false albacore, striped bass and bluefish using bait, casting lures and flies. Some even scored  “Grand Slams,” which means that you had to catch a blue, a striper and an albacore on the same trip. I even extended that string one day to a “Super Grand Slam” by catching a porgy to add to the list.

Then, on September 19, out of a clear blue sky on a day with modest winds, it all changed. Mike Mc­Connell and I were out in his 24-foot Pathfinder skiff off Gardiners Island at a spot called Eastern Plains Point when we noticed some clouds forming over Plum Island and the Sound to our northwest.

Within minutes a low, rolling series of clouds came over us at high speed, changing our relatively calm spot into a hull-banging, “let’s get out of here” situation.

As we ran back to the Island, we kept our eyes on the clouds looking for anything like a “water spout,” or a small tornado that forms over water, but we were  spared. I was in close proximity to one in the Gulf of Mexico about 10 years ago and it’s not something you should put on your bucket list.

We made it back in but that was the beginning of about three weeks of strong east to northeast winds that totally re-arranged everyone’s fishing plans. There have been some days when we snuck out for a few hours and we actually did O.K. Not as well as earlier in September, but albacore and bluefish  were around so we got some of both on every trip.

The last time out Mike took me close to the rip at Bostwick’s Point on the northwest point of Gardiners so I could cast big plugs into the roiling water. I was rewarded with several short but gratifying battles with great, water clearing leaps from over 10-pound bluefish that either pulled loose or cut my leader with their teeth taking my plugs with them.  After that trip, the strong easterly winds turned northeasterly and intensified; we have all been shore bound for a while now.

From my vantage on the tip of Little Ram Island, I’ve seen several hearty fishing folk head toward Reel Point to fish, only to watch  them return minutes later after looking at the 4- to 6-foot breaking seas in the teeth of those 25- to 30-mph gusts.

Question: What does a fishing columnist write about when everyone knows there are no fish being caught? Answer: One of my main duties is to help educate those who want to learn more about the fish in our waters and to answer questions.

The current hot question, which may become moot now that the waters have been rough for two weeks, is what are/were those schools of fish that have been all over our creeks, bays, harbors, races and Long Island Sound?

The fish you’ve seen in schools ranging in size from a bathtub to several acres, are a small silvery blue herring called Atlantic menhaden. They’ve been native to Shelter Islands waters for longer than any of Shelter Island’s current inhabitants. They are better known as bunker or pogies (not porgies) and  the smaller fish (1 to 5 inches) are called peanut bunker.

They are number one on the hit parade for all game fish anywhere along the Eastern Seaboard, including stripers, blues, albacore, weakfish, porgies and even fluke. The predatory fish swim through schools of peanuts with mouths open to see how many they can eat in one pass.

The larger bunker, up to about 15 inches in length, are prime targets for the larger game fish like 10- to 20-pound bluefish or larger bass, and are often used as bait for those fish. A bluefish can chop a large bunker in half with one bite starting at the rear  —— no tail, no swim — and leisurely gobble up the remaining half.

Bunkers travel in large, tightly packed schools, using lots of oxygen from the water while at the same time excreting nitrogen from their food intake. Because of this, they’re vulnerable to suffocating if they get into a slow-running, low-oxygen estuary situation like they did in the Riverhead area in the spring when thousands of the larger bunker died and fouled the waters for weeks.

If you sneak up to one of their schools in our waters you’ll see up to 1,000 fish swimming in a circle, some with their dorsal (top) fins out. They’ll dive at your approach or at the first sign of trouble. While they appear not to be going anywhere, the entire school you’re watching will actually be moving the entire circle around in the water, seeking food that includes both tiny animal life and plant life too. Go to menhaden.gsmfc.org/2010%20FAQ.shtm to sample their entire diet.

We all know there’s a Menhaden Lane on the Island and many know there had been at least one bunker rendering plant here a long time ago. I dug a little deeper and came up with the following information that says there were several plants over the years, including some on Hay Beach.

I came across Stewart W. Herman’s book, “The Smallest Village: The Story of Dering Harbor, Shelter Island, New York,” a great history with interesting facts about bunker.

Here’s an excerpt: “Indeed, there was a Bunker City growing like a tumor on the shores of Coecles Harbor. The business was based on great schools of menhaden or mossbunker, an inedible kind of herring, valuable only for oil used in paints and the leftover scrap, whose high nitrogen content the Indians had long ago learned to make use of. Following the aboriginal example, white settlers spread the decaying fish on their cropland — using as many as 15,000 fish per acre. Soon the farmers were banding together to catch fish for this purpose, and before long the commercial possibilities of this smelly operation — at from 50 to 75 cents per thousand — was recognized.

“… Horsford bought out the fertilizer plant at Dinah’s Rock in order to transform that beach and some of its buildings into a picnic grove which for many years was to be a powerful magnet for excursion steamers up and down the coast. Especially the carousel.

“In many respects this was the closing phase of a war already won. Mounting sentiment against the odorous industry had culminated in an order from the Board of Health to the Island’s factories ‘to discontinue all manufacturing of fish oil, fish scraps and fish guano’ by November 1871. The plant on Hay Beach obligingly burned down at about this time. Those remaining were obliged to remove all ‘badsmelling & noisome’ compounds from the Island by April 1872 …”

Discover the rest of the story, if you care to, at haybeachshelterisland.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/BunkerCityChapter.pdf.

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