Sunday, July 24, 2016
Our local waters are getting too hot for sharks, and our local canyons are mostly quiet. This morning, I decided to fish inshore and try to put something in the freezer, rather than run deep and look for the big fish that probably weren’t there.
The problem is that the inshore fishing has been pretty spotty, too.
There are a few summer flounder around, but although some big fish are being taken, four consecutive years of poor recruitment has significantly reduced the number of legal fish landed by anglers.
Poor spawns took place in every year from 2010 through 2013. It takes a summer flounder about 4 years to grow larger than the 18-inch minimum size so, at best, things will get worse until 2018.
Although 2014 still provided a lot of good fishing, probably thanks to strong recruitment in 2008 and 2009, things went downhill quickly in 2015, with anglers landing only about two-thirds of the fish that they had harvested the year before.
This year, we’re in the heart of the drought caused by the recruitment decline, and fishing feels even worse than it did last season.
Thus, I figured that I’d run out to a few wrecks that lie in 80 to 100 feet of water and look for some survivors from the ’08 and ’09 year classes. Big fluke like to hunt the edges of the wrecks’ rubble piles, where they have a good chance to snatch a small sea bass, porgy or other fish attracted to the structure.
Most seasons, I’d have left the fluke alone and fished the wrecks for black sea bass, but after New York dropped the bag limit down to just 3 fish, running 15 miles or more for that few fish didn’t seem to be very worthwhile. The shot at a few big fluke, perhaps even a legitimate “doormat” of 10 pounds or more, made the run a lot more appealing.
I was hoping to have at least one or two of the wrecks to myself, believing that the meager sea bass limit would deter most anglers from running that far. As drew within three miles or so of the first piece, I could see a couple of dark spots on the horizon; at least two other boats had decided to make the run.
That was still OK. Both boats were drifting the structure, and as the wreck had broken up into three distinct pieces, we could all stay out of each other’s way and still manage to catch a few fish. I started to bait up my line, and saw two more boats on the horizon, headed my way.
By the time that I started my first drift, two more boats drew closer.
It wasn’t long before seven boats, including mine, were all trying to fish the same small piece of bottom. The crowd made it impossible to make the sort of precise, just-brushing-the-wreck sort of drifts that produce most of the summer flounder.
However, that didn’t seem bother anyone but me, because I appeared to be the only fluke fisherman on the wreck.
Everyone else, despite the low bag limit, was apparently targeting black sea bass. And it seems that a lot of boats have been targeting black sea bass on that wreck since the season opened a month ago, because the fish were very picked-over. Almost all were small, below the legal size limit; any big fish that had been there were gone.
Even so, there were more boats fishing for black sea bass on that wreck this morning than I had ever seen there before, including the years when the bag limit had been five times higher and it wasn’t uncommon to catch two quality fish at a time, each a big knucklehead male that weighed between three and four pounds.
I’m not sure what it means when that many anglers are willing to spend between $50 and $100—perhaps more—just in fuel, plus bait and tackle, to catch a mere 3 sea bass per person.
Optimists might say that it’s a good sign, proving that people are more concerned with the act of angling, and aren’t feeling the need to come home with a load of dead fish.
Pessimists—include me in that number—are more likely to say that it just shows that people aren't concerned with the law, and will fill up their cooler with undersized fish, knowing that the odds of getting caught are slim. I will note that while I was drifting, I saw a lot of black sea bass get caught, and saw very few go back into the water.
More broadly, it certainly says that the fluke fishing is bad; people aren’t going to run 15 miles for 3 black sea bass if they can catch 3 similar-sized—or larger—fluke closer to home. And it shows that the artificial reefs outside each inlet are probably picked-over too, because if they weren’t, folks would stay and fish there.
And it gives us another indication of just how perilously balanced our local recreational fishing industry is right now.
The summer flounder fishing isn’t very good, so more people fish for black sea bass. Black sea bass are abundant, but because of strict regulation, folks can’t take too many home. Yet, for the moment, they’re willing to settle for whatever they can (legally or illegally) have.
In some places, the very abundant scup are taking up the slack, but on the South Shore, scup fishing is spotty; some days, there will be a lot of decent-sized scup on a wreck, but on other days—such as today—there won’t be any at all.
In the old days, bluefish were always a summer standby, but lately, they’re hit-and-miss, too. Summer weakfish are largely a think of the past, while summer striped bass, always a nighttime proposition, are largely gone from the South Shore as well.
And that explains why the fishing industry ought to be more concerned with conservation issues, rather than how many fish they can kill. Right now, New York’s marine fishing industry stands on a shaky tripod, with one leg made of striped bass (which may be rebuilding slowly), one of summer flounder (which may be in decline) and one of black sea bass and other, lesser stuff.
The striped bass leg has gotten pretty weak; there are some fish at Montauk, but few elsewhere. Poor recruitment has weakened the summer flounder leg as well. From what I’m seeing on the water, black sea bass are probably carrying a lot of the industry right now.
That means that we need to conserve them, and make sure that overfishing doesn’t occur. For if it does, and should the black sea bass also decline, the tripod that holds up the recreational fishing industry could well collapse.
And that would be a very bad thing.