An East End charter skipper once told me he couldn’t wait to get back to Florida for winter action on snook and tarpon. This confession came on a late November day when we were pursuing tautog and the tides were rather strong, causing one-pound sinkers to bounce merrily away in 70-foot depths. The thought of catching fish averaging four times the weight of the sinkers doesn’t appeal to anyone who regularly fishes tropical seas where currents are often non-existent.
But, if you are a pilgrim in our area, you have to learn how to fish northeast waters where “5-to-1” or “10-to-1” ratios of fish weight to line strength are impractical, and techniques are different from those used in other coastal areas. There are three good ways to learn these techniques first hand, once you’ve been properly outfitted. You can share a charter, sail aboard a party boat, or, in a few places, rent a skiff and motor. I’ve deliberately left out the surf game here; although beach techniques are relatively easy to learn, the game is daunting because of its feast-or-famine aspects and because of the difficulty getting access to the beaches when you want to fish them. I’ll have more on this in a later article.
A “newbie” should spend a few days scouting the docks and tackle shops, observing and asking questions. What boats are recommended? What do the catches look like? What does the tackle look like? No matter how well you think you’re set up, there are always new rigs to learn, new baits to bring, and new techniques to apply, good reasons for our first preference, a shared charter.
A good charter boat has a patient skipper plus an attentive crew, and provides a running tutorial during at least four hours of fishing, maybe twice that. Almost always, there are well-rigged, well-maintained outfits on hand; even if you’ve brought your own, it’s not a bad idea to try fishing with the boat’s tackle. Just make sure you check reel drags, hooks, and, above all, knots. If drags have no “give” (generally, they are set at one-third line or knot strength for strong running predators like bass and blues, a bit higher for powerful bottom-hugging bulldogs like tautog or fluke; for delicate-mouthed scup and small hooks, drags should be on the light side), if hooks seem dull, if lines look frayed — ask the mate courteously about the outfit or get another.
Pay strict attention to instructions about hooking fish, avoiding hangups, and manipulating baits. Dropping a live eel into the maw of a striper or discerning the difference between the bounce of a sinker and a strike in a strong current won’t be easy for you. You’ll lose rigs and drop fish while you learn. Again, the best skippers are either very patient or they have diplomatic crews to smooth hurt feelings!
Party boats serve beautifully once you’ve got the essentials or if you’re able to handle your own errors in public. Again, there should be a patient skipper and an attentive crew, but now you’re at a buffet, not a private table, so you’re serving yourself! You should learn the rigs and baits of the day ahead of the trip or at least during the boat ride to the grounds, but then, once the action gets going, you had better be able to tie and rig after any breakoffs. If you can find a kind, honest “regular,” ask questions, lots of questions, and pay attention to the railbirds who have figured out what techniques and rigs are paying off on that particular trip. If you stumble into something that works, share it and be modest about success. Many a pool-winning fluke has been decked by a grade-school kid who paid no attention to his or her rod or by an old gaffer who had too much beer with lunch and went to sleep with a rod fastened to the rail.
Sadly, liveries or boat rental stations, our final choices for the pilgrim, are disappearing rapidly. Still, places like Captain Marty’s in New Suffolk, the Caraftis Fishing Station in Port Jefferson, or Silly Lily in East Moriches can provide an inshore experience like no other. They will help you set up rigs and baits for the day and give you instructions on where to find the fish out in that incredible expanse of water; however, once you leave the dock behind, you and your companions are on your own. Nevertheless, if you want to really learn the secrets of anchoring on a good spot or drifting a productive area at the right speed, nothing beats fishing in “your own” rental craft. And if you have a few fish to show for your efforts at the end of the day, you know you did it yourself.
Learning how to fish a new way never grows old.