Fish On: Six is a pretty good number these days

Summer has suddenly become a shadow in everyone’s rear view mirror.  

The Winston family is about to close up for the season. After we drive to Rochester for a granddaughter’s wedding in a couple of weeks, we’re flying to our winter nest in Florida. This summer was certainly a different kind of four months, with long periods of extremely hot days, dirty water in the bays and harbors, very little rain and practically no fish of note caught in striking distance of Shelter Island.

We’re all scrambling to see if the fall looks any more exciting and, believe it or not, I think the outlook is looking up. 

I mentioned in an earlier column that there were very few fish at Plum Gut being caught and those that can be caught by sport fisherfolk were generally smaller than in the past. I’m now hearing (and seeing in photos) that the bluefish are larger than the “large snapper size,” popping up at the Gut as the tides change. The story on Striped Bass is not as rosy, but there are fish being caught while chasing all that bait in the turbulent waters. 

If you’re headed that way, don’t be surprised that you’ll have others fishing around you, many with casting rods and lures with double sets of treble hooks. They’re not afraid of casting in your direction if the fish are breaking near your boat. One of my fishing buddies told me that there were over 30 boats swirling around him one day last week in the Gut catching small bass and larger bluefish. Most of the local dozen or so seals have congregated in the Gut and are quick to take a shot at a tired fish swimming next to the boat. 

If you’re fishing out there and things are wild, stay alert for a seal trying to take your fish from you. They might look cute and friendly, but they’ll be ready to take a large share of your prize — or your hand.

There still aren’t any large fish being caught in any of our local spots. Almost all of the bass are in the 18-24-inch range and can’t be kept. That’s the story out at Montauk as the “bass blitzes” are almost all too small to keep. I doubt there will be a large number of big bass caught since they’ve already passed us in their migration south and are in the New York City and New Jersey waters. The bluefish are also active inshore and occasional groups of false albacore are out there too.

I decided to cut back on the long trips to the Gut or the beaches of Plum and Gardiners Island and stay in local waters. I’d noticed about a thousand small bait fish around my dock and then I saw lots of snappers below them eating whenever they wanted to. I also spied several schools of bunkers in the middle of Coecles with the occasional splash of a larger fish, I figured bluefish but I wasn’t sure.

To find out what was going on, while leaving time to winterize our home, I’ve been spending about two hours a day, on the incoming tide and with weather permitting, in Coecles Harbor, or on the flats at the mouth of the harbor, and I’ve been doing OK. I lightened up on my tackle and am using 6.5- or 7-foot spinning rods with Penn Battle 3 reels and 12-pound test line tipped with 2-feet of 20 pound test mono leader and an assortment of top water popping plugs. It worked.

On the first day I tried to fish out of the wind on the west side of the Harbor and saw some activity near the shoreline starting about where Cobbetts Lane meets with Gardiner’s Bay Drive. I threw a plug in there and got a high-speed slashing hit punctuated by a tail slap from what I guessed was a nice-sized bluefish that sent my lure flying.  

I tried the same spot again with the same result and on the third try I got a hookup. I fought the fish for about five minutes on my light tackle before I landed a very athletic 22-inch bass of 6 pounds. I put it back in the water after taking a photo and continued working the shore until it turned east. 

The water was calm, but there was definitely some life in the creek in that corner. For the next half hour I got hit after hit in that one spot and landed five more bass and missed at least a dozen more that tail swatted my lure time and time again. I also lost one of my favorite plugs when an obviously larger fish broke my leader-line connection and took the plug with it. (The lesson here is to check your tackle before you make your first cast.) 

That was day one, six nice-sized feisty fish and lots of misses in my allotted two hours. The next day was more of the same with a northwest wind blowing, except there were no hits in the creek mouth but lots of them as I turned east and worked that shore. Amazingly, I landed and released another six fish, all between 19- and 22-inches and all scrappy as the devil. 

And finally, on day three, I tried both sides of the corner all the way to the first point in the weeds on the north side of the Harbor and landed another six fish.

I learned several lessons about fishing in the back of Coecles Harbor, which you might be interested in hearing. First, I only fished out of the wind (as much as I could) using light tackle and the same lures every day. This was because when I tried others, I got no takers. I found out that the ride out to my spot and back was fuel conserving, smooth, comfortable and fun to do in the short time I was out there. 

The fish were extremely aggressive when they hit the lures and when hooked they fought like crazy and felt like much larger fish on the lighter tackle. 

And finally, I think the fish are not just back there, but in other places in the Harbor that I’ve never fished. When I do, I’ll be really satisfied landing six aggressive fish. Six is a pretty good number.