Sunday, May 22, 2016
REFLECTIONS ON SUNRISE ABOVE A DEAD SEA
I’ve been traveling quite a bit this spring, so while I’ve been catching my share of fish in waters as distant and diverse as the snapper banks of the Gulf of Mexico and the Champlain Canal in upstate New York, I haven’t been putting in too much time on local waters.
Unusually inclement spring weather has also hampered my efforts, with a stiff east wind, often running against the tide, making conditions virtually unfishable even when I’ve had time to get my own boat out onto Long Island’s Great South Bay.
Yesterday, that finally changed. I was out of the house while the stars were still shining, in my boat and on the water before the smallest sliver of sun crept over the eastern horizon.
Conditions were perfect. The bay was barely ruffled by cats’ paws from a light southeast breeze. The water temperature was around 62; the incoming tide had begun to carve furrows around buoys marking the channels, but hadn’t yet started to run fast enough to lay them over onto their sides.
And I was the first boat out on the grounds.
It was the third weekend in May, my favorite time for fishing the bay. I target weakfish although, in the course of the morning, any number of species might latch onto my slowly-fished jig, including scup and black sea bass, fluke (also called “summer flounder), striped bass, sea robins and even the occasional oyster toadfish.
Bluefish are a virtual certainty; a typical May sunrise finds them shattering the surface as they attack pods of baitfish all over the bay.
But yesterday wasn’t typical.
I ran my boat slowly, heading east in the deep channel that runs north of Fire Island, passing the communities of Atlantique, Ocean Beach and Point O’ Woods. I scanned the surface, looking for signs of feeding bluefish. There were none.
I scanned the horizon, looking for of other boats. There were none.
I scanned the sky, looking for clusters of hovering, feeding seabirds. There were none.
And I scanned the screens of my depthfinders, both the narrow-beamed color machine that searched the water right under my boat, and the brown-shaded display of the side-scan, that reached out thirty yards abeam of my vessel. I was not only looking for the large, sharp marks that indicated gamefish, but also for the fuzzier, more amorphous blobs that represent balls of baitfish holding tightly together, in fear of predators that hovered nearby. But there were none.
All I saw was the occasional soft color change that marked handfuls of baitfish swimming in loose formation, not fearing immediate attack.
The weakfish population is badly depressed, largely for reasons other than fishing, although too much fishing pressure at the wrong time certainly never helped their cause. I knew that catching one was unlikely; I fish for them partly because of the challenge, partly because I have always done it and partly because, in my mind, fishing for weakfish defines the month of May. There’s just nothing I’d rather do at that time of year.
So I began searching the water, letting my bucktail sink to the bottom before retrieving it in the series of short hops that had always worked before. A plastic worm that might look like a sand eel or maybe a spearing, or perhaps just like an unknown something that weakfish eat, curled and undulated above the bottom as I slowly crept it back to the boat.
But nothing—nothing at all—showed any interest.
I combed the bottom, drifting over the holes from shallow to deep back onto the shelving shallows again, without a single touch. I fished the undulations where channels merged, but my lures did not draw a strike. I combed the channels, starting deep and sliding over the edges, moving a few yards uptide and doing it over again, so that the track displayed on my GPS screen looked like the teeth of a ripsaw.
Except for a single large sea robin, nothing paid my offerings a modicum of attention.
The bay’s surface remained unbroken. In the past, I would always see pods of bluefish feeding on the surface, sometimes so many that there weren’t enough birds to hover over them all. Yesterday, I saw nothing but some drifting weed, and some long lines of foam.
In the past, when the weakfish were in, boats were often so thick that they had to consciously avoid drifting into other vessels or drifting over hooked fish. Yesterday, at first, I was completely alone. Later, a few other fishermen happened by but, from what I saw, caught nothing. Instead, their boats bunched in the good spots, separated and searched, then bunched up again in the way that boats do when they’re catching nothing at all.
I cast for nearly four hours, constantly moving, observing and trying different things, believing, as anglers must do, that the next cast, the next retrieve or the next move would pay off. But yesterday, that never happened.
I like to fish alone, because the solitude and the quiet give me time to think, free of distractions.
Yesterday I thought, “This is what an empty ocean looks like.”
And I thought about the fish that weren’t there, and about what that meant for both anglers and the businesses that they support.
In the days when I caught (and almost always released) twenty weakfish in a couple of hours, or when fewer, but larger, yellow-finned “tiderunners” engulfed my lures, the east-west channel would be filled with boats that overflowed onto the flats and into the channels that extended north to mainland Long Island. I don’t know how many there were, but if you think of a vast mooring field a half-mile wide and maybe two miles long, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it looked like.
All of those boats bought fuel, tackle and bait or lures, and maybe some drinks and food. That made the May weakfish fishery pretty valuable to the coastal economy. Yet when it began to decline, you didn’t hear many folks who ran marinas, tackle shops or gas docks calling out for regulations to protect the stock.
Anglers did, along with a lot of the light-tackle guides, but the businesses, by and large, were not on board. I recall the words of Tom Fote, New Jersey’s Governor’s Representative to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, when he opposed a proposed moratorium on weakfish harvest after the stock collapsed.
“I’m looking at a solution that doesn’t basically shut down a complete fishery and basically allow the person, if he catches the weakfish of a lifetime or something like that or the kid on a beach actually catches a weakfish on that rare occasion, they can go home with one weakfish.
“..At least they’ll have, you know, one fish to take home, maybe one winter flounder and one weakfish. That’s about your whole catch nowadays. How do you keep an industry going? [emphasis added]”
In response, I ask: How do you keep an industry going when there are so few fish in the bay that anglers don’t even bother to try anymore?
How do you keep an industry going when a fishery, that used to have perhaps two hundred, boats headed out on a Saturday morning, now only attracts half a dozen old-time anglers too stubborn to admit that the good times are completely gone?
I don’t think that you can, and that’s something for the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industry should have considered before they supported HR 1335, the most recent incarnation of the “Empty Oceans Act.” And it’s something that those industries should think about before pushing the Senate to pass an ill-conceived companion to HR 1335, which will do real and substantial harm to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, arguably the only truly successful marine fisheries management law in the world.
For the strict regulations needed to rebuild a stock, even if they do burden business, will only last a short time. And they lead to a time of abundance, and prosperity for the angling industry. But the sort of desolation that I experienced yesterday morning can last a very long time, and benefits no one at all.