All the signs of fall are present, with the foliage starting to don autumn colors and the trips off-Island are becoming easy as the summer hordes fade from the roads and the migratory fish are starting to seriously feed.
The negative of this dreamy scenario is the number of light tackle fishing boats suddenly appearing off Montauk and other inshore fishing hotspots. Boats from several states are launching skiffs locally and most of the public boat launching sites are crowded. When you get out on the water and the fish suddenly appear you better hang on because it’s “Bumper Boat” time!
Two weeks ago, fishing for false albacore, our boat was one of 20 covering the first three miles of the ocean on the west side of Montauk Light. There was the occasional bunching of boats when the fish surfaced but neither the fish were nor boaters were hassled and there was plenty of room for everyone to enjoy the fishing.
On our next trip a few days later we were all alone in one spot with no boats around us for nearly two hours until the birds circling overhead drew some attention. Even with the increased traffic (I counted 54 boats in the area), for the rest of that day we were able to cooperate with our neighbors on the water.
And then, just four days later, we ran into a fleet reminiscent of the one that landed troops at Normandy. We had taken a chance passing up a small crowd of boats fishing for the easy fish near the mouth of Montauk Harbor and went around the Point again. As soon as we made the turn there were small outboard skiffs like ours, larger skiffs, inboards, 40-footers and even a guy in a kayak, all looking for the same schools of albacore.
Seeing the size of that mob we tried our luck farther west. Thanks to some good spotting by our guide we located fish just off the shore and our plan worked for a while resulting in several albacore hooked and landed and a nice striper, too. However, it became pretty clear that the fishing was a bit off at the usual spots that day since soon the major fleet started to break up and move west towards us.
That’s when the fun started! If three birds circled one spot for a minute, 20 of the fishing boats would charge at it from every direction to get there first and hook a fish before they sounded. Some ran at the spot at full throttle and expected to stop and cast when they cut the motor. The result was they glided over and through the school of fish because there was no friction on the boats hull to make it come to a stop.
Shouts were heard and it’s times like these that you’re happy you don’t have the kids along because they would return home with a whole new vocabulary. The same thing happens when you’re easing in to a pod of fish that only you see and some dummy — who wouldn’t recognize fish feeding on the surface if he was swimming with them — comes speeding by at close range throwing a large wake severely rocking your craft and scaring the fish away.
While episodes like these take place when the fish are going hot and heavy and cut down everyone’s opportunity to catch them and ruin the experience for many, they are basically the “no foul” types of occurrence since no one gets hurt and no equipment is damaged or lost. What gets the captains and fishermen seriously upset is when there is some physical contact between boats.
This happens when an inexperienced or greedy captain barges between other boats trying to get to the fish. That is a situation no one on the water should ever get into and the perpetrator deserves all the abuse he gets for trying these dangerous maneuvers.
The ocean is always full of swells of various sizes and wind and tides are always active. It’s not like rowing a rowboat on a pond. Simply stated, boats should not get close to each other, no matter what the circumstances.
Finally, one of the most aggravating moves pulled by some is not paying attention to what is going on in a boat close to them. I think it’s hard to miss someone in a boat 50 feet away who has his rod doubled over with a fish hooked up. Most people with fish pulling hard on their lines are joyfully yelling, laughing out loud or otherwise attracting attention to their happy situation. About half of the fishing being done out there now is being done by someone using a flyrod, which is an expensive equipment system.
One of the key elements of flyfishing is the line that carries the fly to the fish. Modern lines cost $60 at a minimum and some go up to $100. So when a boater isn’t alert and casually starts up his boat to chase some fish he thinks he sees in the distance, cutting the line of someone hooked to a fish causing a lost fish and a lost line, the conversation gets, shall we say, intense.
While talking mostly about Montauk fishing in this column, the same is true in Plum Gut, the Sluiceway, Eastern Plains Point and Gardiners, where the fish are congregating now. If you pull your boat into one of these spots and see fishermen hooked up or birds working over bait, don’t be one of the Bumper Boat Boys and barge into the melee without a plan.
Always go above the fish and drift into them. If you can get upwind of them, your casts will be longer and your hookup numbers will go up too. If you want to get closer to the action, motor into an open spot near the fish at a very low rate of speed. And if you’re lucky enough to hook up to a good fish, continue to drift in a safe direction until the fish is landed, start the engine and do the whole thing again.
Everyone on the water with you will appreciate it.