Fall Grab Bag: Smithtown Bay Potpourri - The Fisherman

Fall Grab Bag: Smithtown Bay Potpourri

2018 9 Smithtown Bay Potpourri Catch
Although the bulk of the fish caught were porgies, we did score a few healthy sea bass.

When anglers are able to identify productive waters, use tides and set up on structure, they usually catch fish, and sometimes the unexpected happens. Last year for example, Rich Lazar and I caught quite a few school stripers while fishing for porgies: not every trip, but often. I’ve made trips to the surf expecting to catch bluefish, only to find an out-sized bass: like the time one May at Cedar Beach. Large stripers are rare during the annual May bluefish run, but on one occasion I hooked and landed a 35-pound striper. Never repeated in May, but you just never know!

Be Prepared

It is helpful to be prepared, but impossible to be prepared for everything. So, if tuna fish show up while you are porgy fishing it isn’t likely you’ll have the right gear to catch and land them. That said, we can be somewhat prepared for a variety of fish that might sometimes accompany the target species. The appearance of fish that surprise us is usually a result of a confluence of forces and inclinations of Nature. Such serendipities present the angler with an unexpected potpourri of fish. For example, if you are bottom fishing you may not be prepared for tuna fish, but can be prepared for the possibility of catching a variety of bottom dwellers. Beware, although you may carry a variety of bottom rigs, if you aren’t flexible you may miss a golden opportunity.

I’ve fished with anglers with tunnel vision, and I don’t like it. Take this one fellow who was always so committed to fluke fishing that he drove his boat past an acre of writhing stripers. Or the fellow who only wanted to fish for flounder and fluke so, when I asked him to diamond jig during a great run of large stripers, he simply shrugged his shoulders and snorted. On the other hand, I’ve fished with guys that rejoice in what Nature sends their way, such as Rich Lazar and Rocco Ciurleo, and it’s a trip with Rocco that rang the potpourri bell.


Rocco is a gregarious guy who is quick to laugh and passionate about fishing. After an absence of decades, I bounced into him in Smithtown Bay last autumn. I was in the surf and he was cruising inshore, we called to each other, chatted, exchanged phone numbers, and several weeks later went fishing for blackfish. Perhaps you’ll remember that last fall’s weather was more like summer than autumn.

Rocco’s eyes studied the recorder once we reached the rugged blackfish grounds. There are clusters of boulders and piles of smaller rocks, and an up and down bottom. However, Rocco told me although structure was everywhere, the fish tended to select certain pieces over others. He patiently searched for a favorite spot until he was certain he had the right bottom, then adjusted for tide and breeze before anchoring. What I didn’t know is that Rocco was prepared for the possibility that there were no blackfish: it was unusually warm, after all. He told me he brought along a quart of clams to fish for porgies, “Just in case there’s no blackfish yet.”

Well, that made sense since water temperatures were holding in the upper 60s. I was prepared to be flexible, too. Although I had blackfish jigs and traditional blackfish rigs, I also brought along a few porgy rigs, just in case.

Tons Of Fish

When the boat settled, I dropped a crab baited blackfish hook to the bottom. Immediately, fish started banging on the crab. Hit, swing, miss, and hit, swing, miss. “There’s tons of fish down there Rocco, but I’m getting the feeling they aren’t blackfish. Where are those clams?” While I changed rigs, Rocco dug out the clams, and I asked him, “Have a chum pot?” “No, we didn’t need it this summer.” This was quite different from my experiences in the western Sound where chum was essential for a good catch of porgies.

I dropped two hooks with clams and immediately had action. Bang, swing, hook-up! The action was incredible and without chum. The porgies were mixed sizes but some of them were 13 and 14 inches. We also caught numerous double headers, and although we didn’t catch any blackfish we were having a blast. I like catching fish, so porgies or blackfish I was delighted with the action. Of course, I switched from a blackfish rod and reel to light porgy gear that made catching the pugnacious porgies that much more fun.

2018 9 Smithtown Bay Potpourri Catch 2
This weakfish joined the potpourri and took a clam baited hook meant for a porgy.

Now, when you catch fifty or sixty porgies without catching anything else, you tend to settle down to the idea that it’s a porgy day. Normally, the assumption holds up, but not that day. Eventually, we caught a few small sea bass, a few 1-pound blues, and then, right before we were about to leave I caught a legal blackfish on my porgy rig. That was a fun day, but the next trip proved to be even better.

Two Weeks Later

Did I set you up for this? You know, like the TV shows that set up the story line and then the scene shifts and on the bottom of the screen it says, “Two weeks later.” Anyway, we made a second trip a few weeks later, and the crew included my son Drew. It was still warm so we cautioned Drew about how many blackfish we might catch or, more correctly wouldn’t catch. Yet anglers are optimists, and our optimism was bolstered by Rocco who, a few days before, made a solo trip and caught 20 legal blackfish up to 4 pounds.

When we arrived at Rocco’s recent bonanza spot, we were disappointed to find a boat anchored on the spot. We searched for another piece and found one at a way-point that Rocco had previously marked. We anchored and once again, before the boat settled, porgies were banging away at the crabs below. Given my experience from the previous trip, I once again brought light gear rigged for porgies. I retrieved my crab, baited porgy hooks with clam, lowered the rig to the bottom, and on my first drop had a double-header. Rocco is a determined fellow and stuck with the crab for blackfish, but Drew and I enjoyed a great porgy bite.

2018 9 Smithtown Bay Potpourri Catch 3
Rocco is an affable guy who loves fishing, which is obvious as he shows off a big porgy.

At that point Rocco was concentrating on blackfish while Drew and I were hammering the porgies; and some big ones, too. To his credit Rocco was persistent about blackfish. I admire the dedication because if I saw friends pulling in fish after fish while I had porgies picking my crabs apart below without catching a single blackfish, I’d change for porgies immediately! However, it is possible to get one’s fill of porgies, at least for a little while, so when Rocco pulled in a blackfish Drew and I switched to blackfish rods.


In all aspects of life, it’s better to appreciate the irony around you and laugh than fight it and cry. It didn’t take long. With so many porgies dissecting crabs below without a serious blackfish bite, Drew and I resumed porgy fishing with clams. We shrugged at each other, laughed and gave in to reality. Yet, when we sent porgy rigs to the deep we were surprised when sea bass mixed with porgies; nothing monstrous mind you, but a different fish that offered a little excitement and a different fight. Then, I caught a sub-legal blackfish. I looked over the side to see it come up through the clear water. The calm surface made visibility great, and to my astonishment there was a big dark shape following the blackfish to the surface. At first, I thought it was a curious big blackfish, but as the pair came to within inches of the surface the large dark shape turned and headed for the bottom. It was obvious the big fish was a sea bass replete with long white tipped fins. The sea bass had to be at least 5 pounds. Well, that got my juices going.

Anglers are definitely optimistic, but they also can be unrealistic. I actually believed that I could catch that big sea bass and tried for it—hard! How silly, it was probably the only huge sea bass within a mile of our position and probably had already wandered off by the time I rebaited and returned my rig to the bottom. Furthermore, big fish are generally wary and slow to bite, and I’ll bet the trillion porgies put the big fish off.

The Mix

Drew and I continued to enjoy the potpourri of small and large porgies, a few sea bass, and the occasional small blackfish, but Rocco was steadfast. He wanted that big blackfish, and he finally had his chance. I watched his rod tip bounce hard, then he set the hook, and the rod bent sharply. This was a big blackfish. At first, he gained some line, but then the blackfish turned and headed for the rocks below. It was stuck, but still attached. Rocco knew the fish was still on his hook because when he gave it slack, it would swim away and tighten the line, but he could only retrieve a limited amount of line before the fish was stuck again. Once again, I admired Rocco’s stick-to-itiveness. He stayed with the fish: it must have been 15 minutes, trying to coax the fish out of the structure, but to no avail and lost the fish.

Suddenly, a school of small to medium blues began attacking schools of peanut bunker close to the boat. Enjoy the potpourri, my friends. We switched to small bucktails and enjoyed the toothy beasts for 15 minutes. Sweet! However, soon the blues disappeared, and we sent rigs back to the bottom. I had a strong hit: not a blackfish thump or a porgy rat-tat-tat, but a strong strike. I set the hook and began the fight. The fish made several long runs. Good sized blackfish make short power runs and big porgies take line inches at a time, but this was different. “I think I’ve hooked into a striper, boys, get a net!” I glanced over the gunwale hoping to get a glimpse of the fish in the calm clear water, but it was still too deep. My light rod that is akin to a crappie outfight was under stress as the fish ran up and down. Then, I caught a glimpse of the fish. I saw it was long and not bulky, and soon, I noticed yellow, pink, and other colored dots. “Damn, it’s a weakfish.” Yes, it was weakfish mixed in the fish equivalent of a multi-ethnic community below. I love to catch weakfish, so this was a wonderful surprise.

The only fish missing from the mix was a fluke or two. Well, maybe this year. I believe it’s a gift to catch fish and catching lots of them of several species is a blessing.



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