March 17 was always a special day for me when I was a kid in Hempstead a long time ago. I couldn’t wait for the day to arrive every spring because it was the official kickoff of two important but very different celebrations.
The first was and still is St. Patrick’s Day and for those of Irish ancestry it is a day to enjoy with the revelry, parades, general good will and maybe a libation or two.
The second event to celebrate, in the mind of that teenaged fisherman, was that March 17 marked the unofficial start of flounder fishing season.
In those bygone days, I remember starting to rattle through my meager store of fishing tackle around March 1 to ensure it was in good shape and ready to go on the big day. I’d makes sure that the rod I wanted to use had been stored properly and I’d clean off any winter grime that may have accumulated and do the same with the reel and line that went with the rig.
Then I’d have to look around to find the small, snelled hooks that I’d put on each end of my “spreader” and also the small sinkers to get the whole rig to the bottom for the flounder so I could catch two at a time, .
The harder parts of organizing the trip on the 17th included my buddy and I searching around trying to find blood worms or parts of clams for bait from the very few bait shops open in those days. But when we found one we reserved the right bait so we wouldn’t get shut out.
Then came the really hard part — five miles of transportation to the boat dock in Freeport. The question was could my dad or my buddy’s dad drive us or were we on our own? (Think walking and public buses with fishing rods in hand). Both of our fathers worked hard and really couldn’t afford time off during the week, but assuming that we had been on our good behavior for a while, one of them would usually arrange for a break from his job and take us to Freeport in time to catch one of the party boats heading out into the bay for a half-day of fishing.
When the big day dawned we were up and ready to go hours in advance and on the dock early so we didn’t miss our boat. We picked up our bait, got dropped off, paid the princely sum of about $10 for the fare and secured the best spots at the stern of the old tubs they chartered back then.
Finally we were off and in most cases we never went a mile from the dock The boat captains each had their special spots and they got there first, dropped the anchor, started to chum with little pieces of clam and even some frozen corn which the flounders seemed to like. Over went the baits and before long, we started to feel the gentle pull on our lines.
Soon flounders were coming over the rails in torrents. It wasn’t unusual for both of us to have about 20 pounds of fish in each of our buckets when the we finally returned to the dock, tired and mostly frozen from the stiff early spring breezes on the bay.
Waiting for our ride home, we fileted as many of the fish as we could at the cleaning table on the dock — we couldn’t afford to have the mate do it for us. When we got back to Hempstead, we spent at least a half hour delivering fish to friends and relatives who had “ordered” some when they heard we were going out. There wasn’t a parade or a party or any other folderol, but I remember those trips more than most of the hundreds I have taken since.
Oh, by the way, the fish tasted fantastic. But by the third day I wanted hot dogs for variety.
Those days are long gone and so is flounder season opening on March 17. Also gone are the buckets of flounder per person and the old boats with half-day charters. Now the season opens April 1 and the limit is two fish per day of 12 inches or longer. What is still the same is that if you can catch a few larger fish and cook those filets they are as delicious now as they were then.
If you’re around Shelter Island in late March and the weather forecast is good for April 1 and your boat or someone else’s is ready to go, give flounder fishing a try. Just take your lightest spinning rod out and make sure it’s rigged and ready, dig or buy some blood worms, rig them on flounder spreaders and drift around the 6-to-8 foot depths around the Island and I’ll bet you can get a few.
If you’re like me, whatever the outcome, it will still be a special day. Happy St. Patrick’s Day and happy fishing!