I used to do a lot of bottom fishing for scup and blowfish when I was a kid. My father-in-law was a great fan of these saltwater panfish too, although he appreciated them more as a species that he could always count on being present when he took his many nieces and nephews fishing in his boat. If the blues and stripers were scarce, he knew that he could get the kids into something by anchoring and letting everyone dunk worms or cut squid.
But scup weren’t judged to be any kind of a prize back then, nor were blowfish. The whole process of cleaning a blowfish used to completely unnerve my poor mother. If you’ve never done this before, the short version of the story is that you cut the head off and then turn the fish completely inside out. All of the less desirable parts of the fish squirt out onto the cutting board and can then be neatly deposited in the trash. Blowfish were good for other fun too, besides grossing out my mother. Like any malevolent lad might have at the time, I would unhook the blowfish, scratch my fingers along its belly, and then watch as the little fish inflated itself. The obvious result of letting a blowfish fill itself up with air, instead of water, is that it suddenly becomes a strange, quivering balloon with fins. If you place it back in the water, it will float! Of course, doing so requires a delicate sense of judgment as blowfish can deflate themselves quite quickly once they determine that it is safe to do so, thereby making their escape.
One summer afternoon, my wife and daughter decided try their luck with the small, snapper bluefish that frequent a narrow strip of beach near North Sea Harbor on Long Island. The water there is usually flat as it’s sheltered from winds out of the north and south by the twin forks of the East End, allowing us to fish with fairly light spinning gear. I handed my ladies their respective rods, each rigged with a quarter ounce silver Phoebe spoon and then set about hauling my stuff out of the car. Before I had a chance to rig my own rod, my wife Lauren yelled, “Grace got a fish! Hurry and help her take it off the hook!”
I ran down to the water and was met with two astonishing sights. The first was that my daughter, who hadn’t held a fishing rod in years, was indeed fighting what appeared to be about a 1-pound fish of unknown lineage. I could just make out its oblong, brown body as it swam frantically in front of her, in a vain attempt at escape. But as I got closer, I got a look at something even more remarkable. There were dozens of sea robins basking on the surface, their backs partially out of the water. They didn’t appear to be swimming either. They just lay there, floating along in the gentle current. These were large specimens too, many of them easily over a foot in length. At this point Grace’s fish, which was one of those 12-inch plus sea robins, arrived at the shore and I hurried over to help her release it. Before I could get my own rod and reel ready to cast, Lauren was into a fish as well, another big sea robin as it turned out. I helped her release her fish and then had to run back over to Grace, who was into yet another sea robin. I finally got the two of my ladies squared away again and was able to take a good look at what was happening on the water.
I made a cast over one of the sunbathing fish and watched as my lure worked through the water towards it. When the lure was a few feet away from it, the fish turned slowly and began to follow. A few seconds later, it hit and I fought it into the shore. After releasing my fish, I spent a little time watching how the other sea robins reacted to Lauren and Grace’s lures. As I’d seen before, they seemed to ignore the lures until they were in easy range and then began their pursuit.
While I had caught this species close to the surface before, I had never seen them so exposed. I hadn’t planned on spending the day sight casting to sea robins (few people ever do) and I’m not sure I would go out of my way to do so again. Still, it can be a boost to the ego to have something, anything hit your line on those days when it appears that all of the fish in the ocean have migrated to the opposite side of the planet. You are simply thankful for whatever odd species engages you.