Smithtown Bay has always been special in its own way, for a variety of species including oceanic predators.
Although I’m an inveterate surf fisherman and have been for far too many decades, each method – surf and boat – offers me and others a different set of joys and opportunities.
Generally, surf fishing aims to catch one or perhaps two species at a time. Lately the prime seasonal surf target has been stripers, but recently I’ve caught some blues from time to time while working the suds. Not too many years ago, May along the South Shore was all about big blues and on some days a few school bass, too. Lately, the big blues have become scarce and the primary target is shifting, although this spring saw more blues than the last two or three seasons.
In another example, around the new millennium change I found lots of big weakfish. Although weakfish were the species I was aiming to catch, there were also a few stripers, small blues, and big fluke.
But boat fishing is different, and always has been for me. As a kid fishing in Peconic Bay, we followed a drifting formula, mostly on the west side of Robin’s Island that included a high-low rig with each hook baited with squid strips. We never knew what we’d catch but always caught a mixed bag. Each tide offered a chance to catch weakfish, porgies, and big kingfish (up to four pounds), but there were also big blowfish, a few fluke, dogfish, and sandbar sharks as big as us. Those days of plenty are over in most places, but the inshore summer grounds still provide anglers with a variety of species, and all in one tide.
A Special Bay
I have fished many places on Long Island, and each spot has its unique qualities. For example, I think every angler who has ever fished at Montauk understands both its esthetic and big fish appeals. The south bays are special to me because of the fluke they hold and, once upon a time, loads of flounder. The west end of Long Island Sound has great harbor fishing for stripers, porgies, fluke, and sometimes blues. These harbors boast some of the best light tackle shallow water angling there is on the Island.
Smithtown Bay has always been special in its own way, too, for a variety of species including oceanic predators. For example, I remember how my father and I stood high on a cliff one day and watched common Atlantic dolphin chase bait back and forth across the width of the bay. Each location is special to me and, because I have lived in a number of places on Long Island during my life, I’ve adopted a philosophy that has been successful. Namely, I generally focus on spots close to home and because fishing there was convenient, I spent more time on the water, and learned how the area worked.
For the last few decades home base has been Smithtown Bay. Recently, my son bought a boat and we’ve been working the bay from stem to stern. In the process of learning, or should I say relearning the bay, I recall experiences from past days’ fishing in the bay and the loved ones and friends I fished with. Sadly, many are gone now, but memories last forever. That fishing cements relationships is one of the sport’s best aspects, I think. Although many populations of fish are less abundant now, there are still some terrific bottom fishing opportunities in the bay.
A variety of bottom fishing methods are successful in Smithtown Bay because the bottom is so diverse and includes, slopes, gravel bottoms, wrecks, rockpiles, reefs, and sand flats. I’ve observed in recent years that some anglers seem to be dedicated to a specific approach. As we’ve fished, we’ve noticed that we see the same boats fishing an area over and over again. If one is observant, soon you realize the angler’s M.O.
For example, there are several larger boats that always anchor in the vicinity of the tugboat wreck. There’s also an armada that works the rips northwest of Crane’s Neck, and even here there are specialists; some anchor and some drift. I guess that my son and I have developed our own preferences. In fact, we have three modes: one in spring, one in summer, and a third in the fall. Yet, in each season we stick to our guns because our method has proven to be successful for us.
Drift First, Anchor Second
This is our main summer method. Like everyone else with a depth recorder, my son has marked dozens of spots that have been productive during the summer. So, we pick one, motor there, and set up a drift. Sometimes, we get into fish right away – usually porgies – but at other times we drift without a touch. Since porgies are our primary target during the dog days of summer, we may abandon a spot when we catch only small porgies in favor of hoping for bigger ones elsewhere. Sooner or later, we get into a good drift of big porgies, and then we double back to the original waypoint and set the anchor. While Drew sets the anchor, I get the chum pot ready. Here too, there are days when the first bait down snags a porgy and I wonder why we bother to fill the chum pot. However, that result is atypical.
Most of the time we anchor, put out a few baits along with the chum pot and nothing happens. Typically, it takes a while for the chum to draw scattered porgies to the boat. If they are in the area, the gentle current will carry the scent and bits of clams to a school of porgies and sooner or later will pull them to the boat. My experience over many decades has been that it takes about fifteen to twenty minutes for the chum to do its thing. The smart angler walks a line between total patience and an eagerness to get into fish. If we are too patient, we waste both time and chum, but if we are just a shade impatient, we may miss the bite. It’s a call that should be made not only by the clock, but always with instinct based upon experience.
Keep The Chum Going
It’s easy for anglers to make a basic and costly mistake. Namely, to put out the pot and begin catching fish, but forgetting about the pot. The pot soon runs dry and the fish stop biting. At this point the pot is retrieved and more chum is put into it, but it is possible that the porgy school has wandered so far away that the chum doesn’t reach them. Even if the refilled pot is successful in pulling fish to the boat, time is wasted because anglers must reset the clock and wait-out the time it takes for the porgies to gather under the boat.
Another mistake, in my opinion, is to attempt to solve the need to tend the pot by placing an entire log in the pot. In warm summer water the chum melts fast and that has two negative results. First, you go through a lot of chum and second you feed the porgies, and that can slow the bite. It may seem unlikely, but it is possible that they get full and stop eating. So, although it requires some discipline and focus, the pot needs attention. We add a quarter of a log at a time and that strategy has provided us with more steady fishing.
Although porgies are abundant now and can be easy marks, schools do move or stop feeding, and it’s therefore a good idea not to continue chumming and fishing once the bite dies. You’ll know when the bite is over because no matter how much chumming you do, time passes and the fish don’t return. If the tide has stopped, we head in for the day, but if the tide is still moving, we haul anchor and drift over another area that has been successful in the past. Of course, what to do and when to do it is a judgement call, and that’s why it’s best to have someone on board that has experience bottom fishing in the area.
Drew and I both enjoy eating many species of fish, but we’ve never been fish hogs. My father taught me that and I’ve also taught my sons the importance of selective harvest. Therefore, we only keep a few very large porgies. Large ones are easier to fillet and we end up with a substantial piece to cook. Most of all, we are lovers of fast action and will usually remain in a spot with lots of fish, even if the size is somewhat smaller than we believe we might catch elsewhere in the bay.
The Mixed Bag
We also enjoy a mixed bag. Although we catch a variety of species on the drift, we have noticed that we catch a greater variety when we find a good spot, anchor, and chum. I’ve fished with many different types of anglers over the years and noted they own differing philosophies and technique preferences. That is, some enjoy catching a mixed bag, while others are uniquely dedicated to one target species at a time. One fellow I used to fish with only wanted to catch flounder in the spring and fluke in the summer. Another guy would routinely whiz past surface feeding stripers and blues because his focus was fluke and only fluke. Of course, we also know anglers who, regardless of season and circumstances, will only chase striped bass.
I suppose my appreciation of a mixed bag relates back to my youth in Peconic Bay when, as mentioned above, we almost always caught a mixed bag. Imagine catching numbers of five or six different species in one tide, and I’m not talking about tiny fish? If you’ve never caught a 4-pound kingfish as I have, you have no idea how strong they are. Remember, they are a member of the drum family along with weakfish, black drum, and red drum and then maybe you can use your imagination and appreciate how hard they fight. I doubt we’ll ever see kingfish that big again in our waters, but I have the memories.
There are many reasons why I love catching a mixed bag that goes beyond the fond memories of my youth, because I appreciate the qualities of each species I catch. For one thing, they look different with varying shapes, colors, and markings, and I enjoy the beauty of each pattern. Appearance isn’t the only thing, because they also have differing attitudes and behaviors. These qualities affect the bite and the fight. I try to figure out what I have on the line before it gets to the surface. Sometimes, I know immediately by the bite, and sometimes by the way the fish fights once it’s hooked.
I cringe when someone asks me if I’ve “had any luck?” My reaction is a result of learning that if an angler relies solely on luck, they won’t catch much most of the time. Consistent success develops over time as we learn how to use information. The data log consists of a mix of skill and experience including being at the right place at the right time, understanding the effects of weather and tide, developing an intimate knowledge of local waters, and getting the most out of their gear. That leaves inclination. I think inclination is a combination of experience and skill so that a good fisherman comes to trust their instincts and therefore have the confidence to go here or there, use this technique or that, or leave a withering bite in hopes of a better one elsewhere.
“And the sea grants each man new hope, while sleep brings dreams of home.” As a fisherman I often think of this quote from Christopher Columbus because each trip begins with new hope and expectations, but it’s in reveries where I find a connection to the core of my love for fishing and the people I’ve fished with.