11/27/12 12:23pm

ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO | A red-tailed hawk taking to the woods.

Graceful fliers riding warm air currents hundreds of feet above us — we usually view hawks from a worm’s eye view.

At rest, they are  as elusive as their prey and are nearly impossible to spot when hidden by foliage. But with the canopies bare, hawks are more easily observed. You may be surprised by how abundant they are on the East End if you consciously look for them.

And you may also develop a new appreciation for their beauty when you view them perched.

All the time I’ve lived on Shelter Island, there are still two animal groups I take note of when I see them; seals and hawks. The sheer size of an adult red-tailed hawk always inspires awe in me. They are by far the most commonly seen hawks in our area. Large open areas pocketed by woods offer the perfect habitat for these “apex predators,” or predators who don’t have predators, who live atop the food chain. Rabbit, squirrel, opossum, mice and just about anything else furry and smaller than a breadbox are on the red tail’s menu.

In the woods around my house I’ve seen huge hawks that easily push the 24-inch-long body and 40-inch-wide wingspan extents set in birding guides. When hovering lower than a few hundred feet, this bird’s tell-tale markings are easily spotted. Its underbody is pale and exhibits varying degrees of dark brown streaking, but the red tail is the giveaway. Within its range, which covers most of North America, plumage variations in individuals are extensive but fall in these simplified guidelines — brown head, back and upper wings.

As breathtaking as an airborne red-tailed hawk may be, I am more impressed when I see one on an oak tree in the woods. That impression grows grander when the bird springs from its branch and effortlessly navigates a path through the matrix of limbs and branches. It is within this crowded confine the hawk’s physical grace is so apparent. The mind and eye of the observer are pushed to their limits when deciphering the movement being viewed. It always takes me several seconds to process before I confidently conclude I’m seeing a red-tailed hawk flying in the woods.

Earlier this fall I was driving along a tree-lined road and saw a bird I couldn’t identify. In researching it, I found it had been a Cooper’s hawk. These birds are much rarer than their red-tailed cousin of the Buteo genus and fall under the genus Accipiter. Sighting this bird became more incredible due to the long duration of the encounter, as the bird flew above and ahead of my vehicle for several hundred feet before veering left down a path in the woods.

A Cooper’s hawk can reach lengths of 20 inches and have a 28-inch wingspan. What I saw was an adult bird whose upper parts were dark blue and gray with a very dark crown and pale nape. Its belly and chest were paler with burnt orange barring. This is just as it’s described on the website enature.com, from which I culled most of the information for this column.

The red-shouldered hawk is easy to identify with the naked eye thanks to its barred reddish-orange coverts (small feathers lining the base of the wing and tail quills) on its body and wings and the barred black and white flight and tail feathers. This bird falls between the two I’ve already mentioned when it comes to size. When perched it is commonly misidentified as a red-tailed hawk. Its brown head and reddish shoulders resemble its cousin. In flight, the distinguishing markings are more evident. The red-shouldered hawk’s body and wing coverts have a reddish-orange banding and its flight feathers and tail are banded in black and white.

“Accipiter” is the genus name of certan winged predators, and North America’s lagest of these is the northern goshawk, a raptor well-adapted to hunting in woodlands. In body size, the goshawk rivals the red-tailed hawk, but its wings are shorter and rounded at the tips. Hunting small mammals and songbirds in forested areas requires stealth and agility, which comes from this bird’s wing and tail structure. I’m not sure how many, if any, of these hawks are permanent residents of this area — they follow the food which is typically scarce here in winter. But you can glimpse the occasional migrating goshawk this time of year.

Goshawks range from 20 to 26 inches in length and stand out with their yellow legs, orange eyes and very pale supercilium (commonly called the “eyebrow”) that contrasts with the grayish-brown head. Adult birds are grayish brown above and paler underneath with fine grey banding. In flight this bird exhibits a long, broad banded tail that fans out impressively when the animal is soaring. I’ve spotted these birds by this appreciable characteristic and confirmed identification using binoculars.

Moving from the region’s largest accipiter to its smallest, we find, if we’re lucky, the sharp-shinned hawk. I mentioned luck since this bird is hard to spot for many reasons — it’s rarer than the others, quicker, camouflaged in a shadowy cloak and can look almost exactly like its cousin the Cooper’s hawk. Adults average a foot in length with a wingspan of 21 inches. If you’re searching the tree tops for this hawk, look for its dark blue-gray back and wings. To distinguish it from a Cooper’s hawk, examine its head, underbody shape and tail feather uniformity. According to the Cornell Cooperative website, the sharp-shinned hawk can be distinguished by its hooded appearance (its dark head feathers flow down past its nape) as well as its broad chest leading to narrow hips (whereas the Cooper’s hawk’s girth is more uniform throughout). Finally, the sharp-shinned hawk’s tail feathers are all one length, generally speaking, while its cousin’s are varied.

On a good day in mid fall you may spot two or three of these species, with the red-tailed being the most prolific. In fact, there aren’t many places on the East End where you won’t spot a soaring hawk when the sun is at its zenith on a bright day. They are most difficult to find in the woods where their bodies blend with bark and their feather bandings meld with tree branches.
Careful, quiet walking and scouting ahead with binoculars is the only way to catch a napping hawk in the woods. When you do, you’re filled with a great sense of accomplishment.

11/20/12 8:06am

JASON SHIELDS PHOTO | Rich Lenzer with a late-season linesider plucked from Gardiner’s Bay .

On bluebird days in November and December, we’d haul our barnacle-encrusted bait barrel and carefully shake out enough green crabs for a half day of blackfishing. Inclement days, on the other hand, were reserved for duck hunting, wood splitting, sinker making and tackle maintenance. If our Muscovy duck population was in need of thinning and a brood was ready for the chopping stump, we’d process a dozen or more.

It was a fitting activity for a stormy day; the birds sensed their impending doom under scudding grey clouds and the pelting rain added to my misery as I slid and sloshed around in duck slop chasing those poor birds. In the shed, the tin garbage can of piping hot water brought life back to my fingers when I dipped a bird to ease the plucking. Friends of my dad’s would come over and pluck with us and tell stories. I’d listen and laugh on cue, not quite getting the jokes and hoping in the back of my mind for a few more nice days to go fishing before the boat was hauled for winter.

Green crabs work best for blackfish. They are sturdy looking creatures, these would-be bait offerings we trapped around rock piles and other structures in shallow waters. A fish has to be pretty rugged to crack a green crab’s shell. Blackfish, or “tautog” as the Narragansett Indians called them, have front teeth that resemble human choppers and strong jaws that easily crush crab shell. They strike with a ferocity commensurate to the hardness of their quarry’s exoskeleton, and once hooked immediately wiggle back into the crevices of their rocky abodes. Eight pounders were common when I was a boy and the old man usually topped the pool with a 12- or 13-pound fish.

Blackfish yield one of the most tender fish meats I’ve eaten. We would poach them whole with vegetables and wine and my dad would go for the cheeks as soon as the fish was out of the pot. He’d pull the skin back like it was wet tape and pull the meat from the bones. It really was delicious.

Openngs and closings
Blackfish season opened October 8 and will close December 5. Mid-season reports are very good, with party boat fares limiting out most trips. The bag limit this year is four fish 16 inches or larger. North Fork party boats are booking now and filling up quickly. Trips are subject to cancellation based on weather so watch the forecast and try and pick a good day. Jumbo porgies also are still coming over the rails.

I haven’t seen or heard any reports on striped bass since the storm hit three weeks ago. I know the surfcasters on the south fork have been slowly trickling back to the beach but fish are scarce at best. Bass and blues continue to bite up west off beaches and seaside communities that were badly damaged by Sandy. A lot of folks simply have more important things to attend to than fishing.

Montauk is quiet now, in stark contrast to the blistering surf action anglers enjoyed before the storm. I’ve heard many people say this year’s fall run was unlike any they’d seen in decades. An epic weather event will literally turn the water upside down and send everything deep. We probably saw the last of the linesiders until next spring.
I did manage to make two trips with Gregg Petry and Rich Lenzer the week before the storm. We left the dock early Tuesday night, October 22 and found 11 boats in the spot we’d been fishing all fall. This was a marked increase in the fleet. Gregg said some of the boats were crewed by Bonnackers (East Hampton locals) and they’d be leaving soon. Bonnackers are descendants of farmers and prefer to be in bed by 9 p.m. and up by 4 the next day. Sure enough, several boats left the grounds around 8:30 headed for Three Mile Harbor.

The operators of two boats that stayed kept running back directly over the fish, a cardinal sin when fishing in shallow water. They also came close to cutting our lines a few times. Gregg always arcs around the spot when he runs back up to start a new drift. It’s the difference between being a conscientious fisherman and just some yahoo who can’t see the bigger picture. Despite some people’s best efforts to drive the fish deep, we got our limit and then some.
The final trip was the Saturday before the storm and we fished hard and late. It was a mixed bag of bluefish and bass and there were a few other boats from Shelter Island getting their last licks in. We three on the Pridwin boat were trying to take our minds off the coming storm and all of the unknowns that preceded it. It was hard to imagine that the placid bay we were gliding on would be a raging tempest 36 hours later. We put our last bass in the box around 1 a.m. and stuck it out for another half hour or so, knowing this would be it until next year.

Then we turned west and headed home to batten down the hatches.

08/25/12 12:00pm

I admit it. This time every year, I tune in for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week slate of programming. As long as man has been near water, these incredible specimens have inspired awe and fear in us as if they were gods. In fact, some cultures did consider them to be deities while others hunted them for medicinal and libidinal applications.

Yes, sharks have held a mystical spell over us from the beginning, one that has evolved with cultural trends to culminate in a week-long  potpourri of fascinating footage and stories. Sadly though, there were a number of shows premised on stupid, schlocky stunts in an unabashed appeal to an ever-growing segment of our population — people with short attention spans and little appreciation for all but the violent aspects of these creatures.

My fascination with sharks began with “Jaws.” Never heard of it? That’s the movie with Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw set in a Massachusetts seaside resort held hostage by a giant great white shark. It was the movie that “made you afraid to go in the water” and was based on a Peter Benchley novel of the same name.

It also gave people like charter Captain Frank Mundus of Montauk and his ilk license and public consent to kill sharks indiscriminately.

Mundus profited from this “sport” fishing as a captain who targeted “killer white sharks,” in his own words. I would venture to bet not one of the whites Captain Mundus killed ever so much as sniffed a human.

But we all were caught up in the hype, including my dad and his fishing buddies, who had the boat and the thrill-seeking mentality to chase sharks in the waters off Montauk. But there were a few differences between them and Mundus: they had to pay for their fuel by selling their catch and they didn’t really know what they were doing. Arthur Antenucci of the old Nostrand Parkway Antenucci clan had a big enough boat, the wooden Thundergull, 40-something feet of old loud tub that eerily resembled Quint’s Orca from the movie.

Between him, Harry Cass of Candlelite Inn fame, Julius Braunschweig of the Hilo Shore Braunschweigs and my dad, Alan, they pieced enough equipment together to launch an assault on the unwitting sharks.

I still have most of that stuff in my basement: 10/0 and 14/0 Penn Senators (just like Quint’s reel), stout custom rods with nicknames like “Fatboy,” a flying gaff that could kill an elephant, leather belly gimbals and shoulder harnesses with brass buckles and an old harpoon with darts. Perched on the Thundergull’s foredeck were several red pickle barrels waiting to be attached to a harpoon line. I can’t remember if the boat had a pulpit but I’m leaning toward no because, if it had, someone surely would have fallen from it and likely been run over and killed.

Against my mother’s will, I was essentially smuggled out of the house early one morning and brought aboard for a three-day adventure I would never forget. I doubt my mother slept a wink the entire time I was away. We stopped in Montauk for chum, fuel and refreshments unsuitable for consumption by a 10-year-old. Dead sharks lay on the dock at Darenberg’s Marina, blue sharks mostly. They likely ended up in a dumpster. They weren’t even good for fertilizer let alone human consumption. I would learn later that there were tricks to absorbing the heavy concentrations of ammonia from blue shark meat to make it edible. I’m not convinced the “sporties” who’d caught those fish were willing to put in the effort.

Which leads me back to the Thundergull and its crew. As I said, without saleable catch, no one was getting their money back for the fuel, food and beer and future trips would require more outlays and so were jeopardized. Once in a while, a mako shark was hoisted with Thundergull’s gin pole but usually the catch consisted of blue sharks. A quick aside: after catching and gutting their first tiger shark, all on deck quickly realized the leader was to be cut as soon as the hooked species was identified as such. That conclusion was reached after everyone was done puking over the side.

Blue sharks, however, could pass for edible, especially with their heads and tails cut off. Back then in the late ‘70s, many chefs and restaurant owners didn’t know mako from mud pie. And even if they did, their patrons didn’t. Yes, back then when everyone had shark fever and restaurants were scrambling to put shark on their menus, a person could off-load a dozen headless and tailless blue sharks to be steaked out and served as tonight’s special — fresh Montauk mako. And the take would be enough to cover fuel and beer for the next trip.

A BETTER BET

But if you’re fishing locally, like, say, off your neighbor’s dock, you’d do better to toss a snapper hook with a shiner then a meat hook with your wife’s holiday roast (remember that scene from the film?). The little blue streakers are here and hungry. Porgies and sea bass are biting in Island waters, too, and the occasional weakfish can be found at some of the traditional late spring spots.

Big boy bluefish are just about everywhere and are making it hard to find the stripers at the eastern spots. Your best chance for good, consistent fishing is east of Gardiners into Block Island Sound where the water is deeper, cleaner and cooler.

In all seriousness, the hysteria that fueled the “kill all sharks” mentality soon wore off for most reasonable people. Except for that first season, we always released blue sharks and other shark species except mako and thresher (one of the best eating fish I’ve ever had).

Today many shark species are threatened due to myriad causes including nets, pollution, climate change and over-fishing (specifically, fining for shark fin soup). Without concerted efforts to address and correct these problems, four hundred million years of a species’ existence could end on our watch.

08/05/12 8:00pm

CHRIS TEHAN PHOTO | Chris Tehan caught this triggerfish off Crescent Beach a few weeks ago. It’s just one of several of the more exotic species local anglers have hooked this year.

We’ve had a lot of unstable air this past week, making it difficult to plan a trip without the threat of being peppered by a passing thunderstorm. Anglers who did get out found mixed bags of bluefish, porgies, sea bass and fluke. And the usual bass spots to the northeast continued to yield strong catches depending on tide, bait and drift location. Offshore fishing reports are also beginning to filter in.

Gregg Petry, his dad Dick and crew, including Richie Lenzer, took the Pridwin boat out to Block Canyon last week in search of yellowfin tuna and any other offshore species that would look good on the Pridwin restaurant’s dining menu. They managed one yellowfin, dropping another at the rail and missing a few more opportunities during the overnight. Although the tuna pick was a little disappointing, they supplemented their catch with a hold full of mahi mahi.

This was the Pridwin’s first offshore trip of the season. Gregg said there was some life out there, describing whales and dolphins feeding, but there was nothing happening on the troll. They weren’t expecting much action during the night as reports of a night bite hadn’t been promising. But some 60- to 70-pound class fish did show up, following the chunk trail to the boat.

Chunking is basically chumming with large pieces of baitfish, typically butterfish or anchovies, cut into half-dollar-sized chunks.

Speaking of the Pridwin Hotel, Islander Chris Tehan was fishing the area in front of the boat ramp across from the Perlman Music Program, next door to the hotel. The tide was going out but an eddy was slowly pushing Chris west toward the Pridwin.

“Something kept stealing my three-inch squid,” Chris said, “So I put on a small porgy hook and a smaller squid strip and got him.”

What he caught was a triggerfish in the two-and-a-half-pound range.

Triggerfish have an exotic appearance, at least for these parts, where we’re used to the sleek torpedo shapes of bluefish and bass.

Triggers are oval with spiny anterior dorsal fins and larger, softer posterior fins. The tailfin ends in points at top and bottom, completing its resemblance to a giant angelfish. Chris bagged a grey trigger, the least colorful of the more than 30 members of the triggerfish family, but the best eating, according to most sources.

Chris mentioned that triggerfish are usually caught around rocks and jetties along the south shore of Long Island, and are common down South in warmer water. If you catch a trigger, be careful of the dorsal fin. And don’t be fooled into a sense of security by the fish’s small mouth — it’s equipped with razor-sharp teeth and very strong jaws.

ROD REBUILDING

If you have an old rod you want repaired or are thinking about having a custom rod built to your specifications, give Chris a call at 902-5687. He can build a rod to target specific species whether you fish from the beach or a boat. You can get a basic rod for around $200 and use that price as a starting point if you want some fancier hardware.

If you’re like me, you have a pile of old rods leaning in a corner of your basement destined for some future yard sale or the Goody Pile at the dump. Chris says instead of throwing those damaged rods out, give him a call. He can replace busted or missing guides and match the colors of the existing wraps. Guides come in around $30 and tips between $10 and $15. Those prices can vary and some repairs may be a little more involved. He’ll look at any rod and give you an idea of what it will cost to restore it. Blanks on the other hand are difficult but not impossible to replace.

“I will look at any repair,” Chris said, adding that even if you think the rod’s a junker, “Don’t throw it out. Sometimes the blank’s real nice and worth rebuilding.” He also takes old rods for parts so, even if it’s not worth fixing, it may serve a purpose. If you want to email Chris, his address is [email protected]

BOTTOM DWELLERS, BLUES

Although fluking locally has tailed off, other bottom dwellers have filled the void. Porgies and the occasional sea bass can be found off the east side of the Island between Mashomack and Cedar Point. Porgies are notorious bait stealers and sometimes snub squid strips, which are firmer than clams and give you more opportunities to hook the fish. If you’re serious about porgies, research some clam brining methods and try that. In fact, brining cut baits for all types of bottom fish has its advantages. And bring some frozen clam chum to attract the porgies and lure them into a feeding frenzy. Pull the pot when the fish show up in numbers; drop it back down when the bite slows.

Cocktail blues are patrolling waters around the Island and are a great diversion when the bottom fishing slows. On a hot, still day, I always welcomed a little artificial breeze supplied by trolling the bays for blues. Generally, you can troll some up out by Jessups and around the mouth of Coecles Harbor. If you’re willing to travel a bit farther, you can run down pods of bluefish in Gardiners Bay from the south shore of Plum Island right up to the Ruins. Look for the telltale swarms of terns in the air to pinpoint the fish.

07/15/12 3:00pm

JASON SHIELD PHOTOS: Back on land this week, Bob Best, left, and Phil Anderson display two bass caught on bucktails at the Race.

We left the dock a little before eight p.m. with stripers on the brain. On board were Gregg Petry, Phil Anderson, Bob Best and myself. Gregg, the captain, and I have been fishing together since we were teenagers in the early 1980s. Back then, my father bought a JC 31 hull and basically put the boat together in our driveway one winter. The following summer was the beginning of a solid decade of offshore adventures on Stinkpot V and Gregg crewed on many of the trips.

Gregg’s father, Dick, who owns and operates the Pridwin Hotel and restaurant, also loves to fish and before they graduated to better-equipped offshore fishing vessels, Gregg, his dad and whoever else brave enough to join them would scamper out to the tuna grounds at 40 fathoms in their 23-foot Seacraft. That was an adventure in rough seas. On one of those gnarly, green water trips, we managed a real nice fish (I want to say it was bluefin). It must have weighed a good buck and a half. Using a tail rope, we hoisted it up over a cross brace to the awning on the Pridwin dock to take pictures and bent the pipe. It’s still like that today.

That old Seacraft wasn’t much bigger than the Pridwin’s Grady White we took to the Race last week. The other anglers, Bob and Phil, both worked at the Pridwin as teenagers and Bob and Gregg are brothers-in-law. Bob’s parents are Bob and Terri Best of Smith Street. Young Bob now lives with his wife and daughter in a town just outside Seattle. He’s an avid sportsman, enjoying freshwater fishing, upland hunting and waterfowling in the Pacific Northwest and he makes sojourns to Alaska, under the pretense of work, to fish and hunt there.

Phil grew up in upstate New York, fishing its lakes and streams. Phil’s also been to Alaska. On completing his undergraduate studies, he decided to pursue the big paychecks earned by Bering Sea cod fishermen. Forty-five days at sea, half of them spent in his bunk too sick to eat, and with a cast of the scariest characters imaginable, including the captain who, as Phil described him, was a “card-carrying member” of a certain hatemongering group, left Phil with only one option: grad school.

Gardiners Bay is definitely not the Bering Sea, although a stout southwest breeze had it stirred up and helped push us east to catch the bottom of the incoming tide. Once we’d reached the northwest limits of Block Island Sound, the full moon appeared big and pink to the southeast and then disappeared in the clouds before breaking through again later in the night.

From Block Island along the Connecticut shore and west to Long Island, fireworks shows punctuated the horizon, red and green dazzlers blooming in slow motion, an effect of time and distance. The waters of the Race were the stage for another light show as green and red navigation lights zipped back and forth. As you’d expect, the tide was strong, carrying the Grady White at a clip close to five knots — the fast water may have kept stripers out of the first spot we fished or was moving too quickly for them to strike if they were there. We had clearly marked pods on the fishfinder on a couple of drifts but no one got touched.

I tossed a white bucktail with yellow rind on the hook for the first few drifts and then switched to a purple bucktail with yellow rind to see if the fish preferred that flavor. The other guys all had black on black bucktails and rinds. Bob managed a gator blue but that was the only fish to hit until we moved to the pack, which, thankfully, had dwindled to about 20 boats, or less than half the number fishing there when we first arrived.

Three drifts into our new location, I hooked a nice bass and things were starting to look up. Our drift speed was down around two and a half knots and, although most of the boats were bunched around the area, the drifts were comfortable. With one good fish in the box and a mark on the spot, we literally dropped right onto a clutch of fish to start the next drift. All were hooked in except me. I managed to avoid the fish and find a snag before I could move my hand from the lever to the crank. For that first split second, and with everyone around me simultaneously announcing they were on fish, I thought the gigantic strain on my line was a mother bass. By the time that second was over, I accepted the cold hard truth and had to bust off as quickly as possible to avoid a major tangle and lost fish.

Big Daddy Bob Best, who’d changed to an eel at the end of our stay at the first spot, couldn’t seal the deal with his linesider, pulling the hook after a minute or two. But Gregg and Phil brought two keepers over the side and we were anticipating at least several more productive drifts before the tide petered out. I threw an eel on and we fished hard but didn’t have another strike at the Race. We worked our way west, stopping at various spots with the hope the tide had turned and we’d scare up another keeper for the cooler and maybe practice some catch and release. But the southerly breeze stymied our drifts. Phil managed a short at our last stop, the sluiceway between Plum Island and Great Gull Island. We met with some boats that had stopped for a few drifts on their way to the eastern grounds to catch the top of the tide.

We squirted our way home, fighting a stiff wind off our port bow. Relief came once we approached Hay Beach Point and the waters flattened in the lee of the Island. The ferries were tucked in for the night but their decks were alive with anglers casting under the slip lights. The moon brought the Island’s north shore hills out from the shadows and made their silhouettes on the smooth ribbon of bay. The dock beckoned and Gregg glided the boat inside the L where it nestled to the pilings. We iced the fish, Gregg and Bob cut Phil and me loose from boat cleaning duties. I went home, took that truly awesome shower that comes after a night on the water and fell asleep with stripers on my brain.

If you have a report and/or picture you’d like to share with the rest of the fishing community, please send me an email at: [email protected] And don’t forget to register for local fishing guru Larry Winston’s informative angling seminar on Saturday, July 21 at the Shelter Island Emergency Medical Services building on Manwaring Road. The seminar is offered through the Shelter Island Recreation Department and class size is limited so call 749-0978.