NORTH FORK OUTDOORS/Martin Garrell: A fishing season of promise begins

As cold as this spring has been, the calendar still moves on. Suddenly it’s May and the first boats are already on the fluke grounds off Greenport and the “Lawns” while striper fanatics freeze their legs off wading the beaches (mostly west of Riverhead). The long wait is over and another saltwater season has begun!

Nevertheless, the anticipation of the first cast or the first drop of a rig brings a sense of doubt. Is my tackle really ready? Why didn’t I inventory my gear weeks ago? There’s a classic picture of a mad evening’s scramble, a jumble of rigs, a tangle of lines, and a heap of equipment in various states of disarray for many. When we put things aside five months ago we had good intentions of sorting things out, cleaning, repairing, etc., but somehow the football playoffs, then the basketball and hockey seasons, drew our attention first. Then there was the deer hunt or the trip south. Now it’s too late. The bell tolls!

You can go absolutely nuts if you race about without prioritizing. By starting with ancillary gear, clothing and outerwear, waders or high boots and plenty of warm gloves, we usually calm down a bit. Those pieces are generally stashed in places we use regularly, so we find them easily.

As confidence grows, we pull rods from cases; if we’re fortunate, the guide wraps are still O.K. and a wipe or two cleans the reel seats. Thank heaven for braided line that seldom needs replacing. If we’ve stored reels loaded with monofilament in dark places at room temperatures, those lines are usually O.K., too. Sometimes, even the connections between lines and leaders still check out when we test them, pulling until we can feel the leaders begin to stretch.

At the very end, when confidence has surged, we go for the rigs or lures and pull apart any tangles left in last year’s gear. You can’t spend a lot of time on that stuff, however, so, if the situation is dire, you may have to stop off at a tackle shop on the way out for replacement rigs, even if store-bought rigs or those prepared by the crew aren’t quite as refined as you would like. Sharpen the hooks and check the knots, and they’ll probably do just fine. If you need bucktails or new plastic baits or teasers, make sure those have sharp hooks, too.

Somehow, we always prefer to start the season gently, so freshwater is usually an even better way to go. By its very nature, the tackle we use for panfish — white or yellow perch, bluegills, or even chain pickerel — isn’t nearly as complex as what we need for the beach or the party boat. There’s little temptation to carry more than a spinning outfit or a fly rod along with a little packet or lures or flies. The bitter end of the lines and leaders require some careful checking, often retying, simply because the thin strands used by freshwater sharpies are easily nicked and aren’t especially strong to start with. Six pounds of pull is often plenty (no bulldogs here) but two pounds isn’t enough if a healthy largemouth intervenes.

Speaking of bass, because the seasons are closed for both largemouth and smallmouth for another month, any bass you accidentally catch, should be handled with care and released. Not too many years back, I considered “catch and release,” but a friend with lots of freshwater experience talked me out of it. Our waters depend on natural reproduction for the basses, and stresses on even pre-spawn and post-spawn fish can’t be helpful. Besides, there are plenty of other fish available.

What we really miss now are the saltwater panfish that used to begin our season in Peconic Bay and in Long Island Sound. To take a skiff out of Captain Marty’s in New Suffolk or have Charlie Caraftis haul a dory from Charlie’s Mattituck Marina so we could work up a flounder meal was always an April treat. The tackle was simple, although the extensive hauling of chum pots and double anchors could be anything but, and the weather was always “iffy” for any small boat adventure. Nevertheless, winter flounder were special. Then, come the first days of May, we could bring a light spinning rig along with a packet of tiny tins and teaser flies and look for the swirls made by “Boston” makerel chasing bait. My, how those little speedsters could melt the mono from a tiny spinning reel meant for trout fishing! And, of course, both the winter flounder and the mackerel served nicely as “spring training” for the game that came next when the tiderunners of mid-May began to eat in the zone around Robins Island. It’s been more than 20 years back, but it seems like yesterday!

But it’s a new season, a spring of promise, so here goes. See you on the water!