Fish On column: A tour ’round Plum Island

I have an idea for you. Think about arranging a boat ride out to Plum Island and soaking up the fascinating history of the Island as you go.

Rapidly rising waters continue to batter and erode the Island and many of the military artillery positions that were on the periphery are nothing more than piles of brick and mortar, slipping below the waterline.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture operates the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, known for its work on dangerous animal diseases. No private citizens are allowed on the Island at any time and the shores are under constant surveillance by private security firms.

From time to time, special tours are made available for local folks or select groups. My wife and I have been on tours of the Island twice. On both trips we toured one end of the Island to the other, including stops at the lighthouse on the edge of Plum Gut, and into the conference room of the Animal Disease Center, which was enlightening but a bit scary. You might want to contact the Laboratory on your own to see if a tour might be in the making.

I’ve fished around the Island quite a bit over the 44 years we’ve been on Shelter Island. The waters around Plum are still among the best places to go looking for big-fish action.

Plum Island is really a blocking point for a large amount of the water that flows in and out of Long Island Sound twice a day, so there are strong currents all around the Island most of the time. Imagine a large flow of water running downhill on a dirt road that is suddenly blocked by a large tree falling across the road from one side to the other and you have an example of the situation at Plum. If the water continues to flow down the hill and hits the tree, most of it will be pushed off to the sides of the road and will not slow down, but will just dig up the soft dirt on each side of the road going deeper and deeper until it is capable of just flowing right by the tree at each end of the tree.

That’s what happens at Plum Gut on the north side of the Island four times a day, as the tide changes, so that over centuries the water has dug huge gullies on each side of the Island. While most of the waters in the Gut are 20- to 40-foot deep, depths between the Orient Point Light and Plum Light drop as deep as 150 feet.

On the north side of Plum at Pigeon Rip, the water is as deep as 250 feet in spots. So, if things are slow and the water is moving and you have heavy tackle and some 6-ounce diamond jigs or other deep-diving lures, those spots are good places to fish to see if the big ones are around.

An interesting and easily viewed part of the Island is a run from Pine Point northeast along the beach to view the remains of one of the artillery positions in the sand. Heading farther along the beach is another large structure, which had two major functions in the days it was used. First, it was filled with artillery shells for the cannons along the beaches that guarded the waterways from attack.

The large, faded-white building has walls 3-feet thick so if there was an explosion, the blast would go up and not out, saving lives of those in the area. When the Island was de-militarized, the Department of Agriculture converted the “Magazine,” as it was called, into testing labs and holding areas for cattle.

You can see the ramp that the cattle walked on to get in and out of the thick-walled building. Several hundred yards farther north are several smaller buildings that have recently been exposed by the wave action and will soon be bricks on the bottom of the bay.

Farther along that beach, the water becomes clearer. You can see where the constant beating of the waves is eroding the shore and the crumbling cliffs behind them. I’ll bet the cliffs have moved back 30 yards in the past several years and there is more to come. I often see fish swimming against the sand beaches on this stretch, but they are somewhat jumpy there, so if you’re fishing, you have to see them first to get a cast to them.

As you reach the corner by what’s left of the troop area of Fort Terry, you can see the parade grounds, the first aid building, several troop buildings, the church and a lot of boarded-up windows. Slowly cruising along here, you’ll notice the rocks along the cliffs have fallen into the water, to the point that the sand base has eroded, so look carefully not to hit a submerged boulder.

Another reason to go slow in that area is that a colony of gray seals have infiltrated the whole stretch of beach. You’ll probably see one or more of the large animals lounging on a rock soaking up the sun. If you spook them, they’ll slip into the water and suddenly lots of seals’ heads will be watching you as you slowly drift or motor along.

If you want them to come closer to your boat, raise your arms. They’ll become interested, thinking you will be feeding them something. It’s illegal to feed the seals so do not, under any circumstances.

Finally, as you get to the end of Plum, you’ll see two piles of rocks, half in the water about 400 yards apart. They were the gun positions that held the cannons directed at Long Island Sound and Gardiner’s Bay to protect the coastline prior to World Wars I and II.

When I saw them for the first time my heart jumped. I was an artillery officer and couldn’t believe how well they had built those little forts into the sides of the cliffs. No one got at them all this time, but Mother Nature did, and all traces will be soon lost, as the surf continues to roll in.

The water around the rest of Plum is in good shape. If you go fishing out there, understand that it’s an open area and it’s a good idea to take a buddy along with you. I’d suggest stopping near any diving birds, since they really go after surfacing baits in the Gut and on the Points and some of the sand bars. The best times are on the incoming and outgoing tides.

Dead low and high are the best times to get in close to the Island, since the tide is quiet for about 30 minutes. Drift a bit and cast popping plugs, some soft plastic swimbaits, and even some bucktails along the rocks, getting your lures as close to the shore as you can and dragging them out.

Don’t go in close to the area where the animal tests are being done, which is at the northwest part of the Island — the labs are distinct with their tall smokestacks.

If the fishing stays bad around Shelter Island, and company is coming, and the kids want to fish and explore, take them out to Plum on a quiet weather day and show them how the world was about 100 years ago.