Sunday, November 22, 2015
THEY TELL ME THAT MONTAUK'S A GHOST TOWN
There’s always something to fish for here on Long Island.
Even during the depths of winter, someone will be making a trip for cod, pollock or ling, and a few adventurous folks might even go all the way to the canyons and try to pick up a few tilefish.
However, for most inshore anglers, the end of the striped bass season marks the end of the year’s fishing, too.
Historically, that season ended strongly. Out at Montauk, and elsewhere on Long Island, too, November saw the herring come down from New England, followed by some of the last big bass of the year.
Yes, the fishing was tough, but it was Montauk’s last shot at glory until the next year rolled around. Surfcasters worked big plugs and some bucktails, knowing that they still had a shot at a 50. Out in the boats, the chances for big fish were even better as flocks of diving gannets marked herring schools that were pressed against the surface by striped bass hunting below.
For a few more weekends, as the solstice drew near, Montauk’s charter boat docks and tackle shops, along with its restaurants, bars and motels, pulsed with life as anglers hoped to pull on a few more quality bass before the season shut down for the winter.
But from what my friends on the East End are telling me, this year Montauk is a ghost town.
By the first week in November, most of the big stripers had headed west, and the anglers headed west with them. Die-hard surfcasters pulled a few nice stripers from all-but-deserted Easthampton beaches, and a few more fell to the boats. However, most of the folks on the party boats and charters were fishing the bottom for blackfish, sea bass and porgies, not for the stripers that usually supported the fleet.
And the reason for that was pretty simple—there were very few bass around, and over the long haul, fishing needs fish if it’s to be any fun.
Thus, it’s no coincidence that anglers gave most of their business to the party boats sailing for porgies—which are more properly known as “scup”—since they were large and abundant, and kept anglers busy all day.
A year ago, conservation-minded striped bass anglers were in a bitter fight with the for-hire fleet over striped bass regulation. The overwhelming majority of fishermen wanted to see the bag limit cut to one bass; the overwhelming majority of party and charter boats wanted their customers to continue to kill two striped bass per day.
Yet if we look at Montauk this November, a two-fish limit wouldn’t have done the for-hires much good; anglers aren’t likely to worry about a second bass when they can’t even put one in the boat.
Nor are anglers inclined to drive all the way to Montauk when they know that they’re likely to catch no bass at all.
However, many anglers will drive that far when the porgies are swarming, as they have throughout this fall.
Back in 2001, one of Montauk’s biggest party boat operators complained that a 9-inch minimum size and 50-fish bag limit would hurt his customers. However, even though the rules are stricter today, with a 30-fish bag and 10-inch minimum size, the same party boat owner has been sailing throught this fall with anglers shoulder-to-shoulder along his boat’s rails.
Those anglers are catching plenty of porgies, many the size of dinner plates, thanks to the regulations that he constantly opposed. Scup abundance is now twice its target level, so anglers can be sure of catching fish every time they go out.
That makes them want to go out even more.
This December, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board will meet to set recreational specifications for 2016. Here in New York, and in other states along the coast, regulators will ponder changes in the rules not just for those fish, but for others as well.
That debate will undoubtedly feature many loud and passionate complaints from party and charter boat owners, who will argue that they need bigger bag limits and smaller minimum sizes, in order to attract customers.
But that’s not really true.
What they need to attract customers is fish. Fish that can be reliably caught by their customers throughout the year.
Big bag limits might convince folks to go fishing once, but empty coolers will convince them to stay at home for the rest of the season. On the other hand, if anglers can reliably put fish on ice, even if those fish have to be pretty big and the bag limits are small, such anglers are far more likely to go fishing again.
As fisheries managers sit down to draft regulations for the upcoming season, Montauk charter and party boat captains—and their counterparts elsewhere—would be doing themselves a big favor if they didn’t fight rules intended to conserve and rebuild local fish stocks.
Because right now, Montauk is a ghost town in November, and it will probably stay that way until the striped bass stock rebuilds.
But if managers aren’t allowed to rebuild and properly conserve species such as summer flounder, black sea bass and bluefish, Montauk’s docks might easily resemble a ghost town in June, August and October, too.
And that would be a big problem. A big problem that no one can really afford.