Fish on: Here come the fish? Yes, eventually

COURTESY PHOTO | Hooked for life. Four-year-old William Birch beams as he shows off the first snappers he has ever caught while fishing off his family’s dock on Little Ram Island last week.
Hooked for life. Four-year-old William Birch beams as he shows off the first snappers he has ever caught while fishing off his family’s dock on Little Ram Island last week.

The sport fishing season is halfway over and it is no secret that it hasn’t been a good one.

Things started well enough with striped bass of all sizes and mid-sized bluefish chasing schools of mossbunkers around Shelter Island through most of May. Anglers casting from our beaches or fishing from boats nearby were able to score with catches of stripers up to 25 pounds and blues of 5 to 6 pounds without too much trouble.

Then we had a sharp cold front drop water temperatures 4 to 5 degrees and the bunkers disappeared, taking the blues and bass with them.

In addition, the annual sand eel migration never materialized, killies were very hard to find and only the ground fish like fluke and porgies stayed around to munch on what food they could find. Even those fish were scarcer than usual. Add brisk winds to the formula and you can see why it has been hard to just get out there to find where the fish might be.

This year my personal fishing log shows half the number of trips compared to this time last year. Fishing buddies, friends, commercial netters and sport fishing guides who I talk “fishing” with regularly, mirrored my results and some local charter boat captains even cancelled trips so as not to disappoint customers with no fish. No one ever figured out or knew what was wrong or when it would change.

But, as of the last week of July, I started to hear chatter about a break in that awful pattern and about fish being caught again. A call from a guide told me of a strong bass bite on plugs early in the morning near shore on the north side of Plum Island. On scouting trips I managed to catch a few bass, five to six per trip, around Plum Island and at the Ruins at Gardiner’s that were also hitting plugs.

Word from a friend sent Mike McConnell and I to fish one tide in the rips at Gardiner’s where we boated and released 40 bluefish up to 10  pounds. Two days later, on a quick trip to the same place, my granddaughter managed to land three aggressive blues of 8,10 and 11 pounds on surface plugs before the tide quit. That was a classic bluefish frenzy with the blues absolutely swarming the plugs, hitting them five to 10 times on every cast before getting hooked.

The next day, Mike Stromberg and Roy Bumsted found a school of bass mixed with blues under diving terns in the Gut and managed to land three keeper bass and some blues that were feeding on small butterfish as the tide ebbed. More recently, I caught bass and blues at Plum and Gardiner’s again. Former Shelter Islander Rich Hurley reported doing well with the bluefish on tide changes at Jessups. So, as I said earlier, they are coming, the bait is here and cooling water makes our prospects good.

August is the “Month of the Bluefish” and especially the snapper blues here just in time for the upcoming Shelter Island annual Snapper Derby on August 30. The bays and creeks around the Island are consistently yielding 6- to 8-inch snapper blues and with all the kids and grandchildren visiting, it’s worth the effort to at least try to hook the snappers that are so exciting to catch.

They are voracious feeders and require only inexpensive fishing outfits to catch them. A simple 10-foot bamboo pole, 10 to 12 feet of 20 pound fishing line attached to it, a bright colored bobber with a short leader and snapper hook on it will suffice to land anything up to a pound or so.

Your best bet for bait would be some frozen shiners that you can thaw and thread on the hook one at a time so that the toothy little critters don’t get all of your shiner in one bite. I know that Jack’s Marine has these rigs all set for sale and has bait, too. Fish where the tide is moving under the road bridges or in the many inlets on the Island and also off practically any dock on our bays or harbors.

I suggest fishing the higher tide from the docks and if you have one with a light on it, leave it on in the evening to attract the live bait in the water. Soon you should see snappers doing their thing and there will be lots of them.

The only problem with night fishing is that the kids get so wound up they are hard to get to bed after fishing, but their excitement is well worth it. Remember to keep just a few snappers as they are our future 10-pound bluefish.

Go get ‘em.