A Year Of Ups And Downs Comes To An End

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Another year in the field comes to an end and a new one begins. Looking back, it was a so-so year all around for sportsmen. There was a lot of disappointment but also flashes of brilliant success to help us all forget the down days.The year kicked off with some spectacular waterfowl hunting in a snow-rain mixture that ducks, and hunters, love. Overall, there weren’t a ton of ducks in town for most of the first part of the hunting season, but the blast of cold air that swooped in during the first week of January brought plenty of life, especially for hunters with field pits or blinds on waters that remain open when everything else freezes up.

The winter fishing season also got off to a decent start. Mid-January brought some strings of very calm days and mild temperatures, and when the state reopened sea bass season there were plenty to be had on the not-too-distant wrecks. But after the sea bass moved offshore, things went quiet. No sizable body of cod moved through our waters this year.

Spring got off to a late start, with raw chills pressing well into May. Fluke season kicked off without much fanfare, and most boats turned to the big porgies stacked up in Peconic Bay to fill their coolers.

Good numbers of stripers really didn’t find their way into our waters until well into June. The spring surf fishing was poor at best, and it wasn’t until the storms of later in the month that some big fish showed up finally. Several days of southeast winds brought a rare June run of big stripers into the suds under the Montauk Lighthouse, and a number of 40-plus pound fish and one 50-pounder were caught. The rest of the summer and into the early fall was a frustrating stretch of poor surf fishing.

Boat fishermen had it better in the warm months, especially in Montauk. The daytime fishing in the rips off Montauk was outstanding in July and early August, with lots of fish and plenty of big fish being caught by the charter and recreational fleet alike. The night fishing was a bit bizarre: Where fish had been caught all day, there were none, and only a trip “out east” would bring stripers to the deck. Shinnecock and Moriches inlets, after some decent but not exciting fishing in June, were typically quiet for most of the summer.

So, those with the means or the connections turned their attention to pelagics.

The summer shark fishing was the best it has been in many years. Makos were everywhere, and for the first time in recent memory, just about anyone with a boat and a modicum of shark fishing smarts could expect to catch at least one on a 15-mile run.

The canyon season didn’t get off to a very good start, with stormy weather and a lack of warm Gulf Stream water inshore keeping most of the canyon runners at the dock well into July. Then the bluefin showed up. For about three weeks bluefins in the 70-to-150-pound range, with a smattering of larger fish of more than 200 pounds, put on a display, along with whales and dolphin, at the ocean’s surface, that is rarely witnessed in these waters. Even a couple of blue marlin (including a monster estimated at more than 1,000 pounds) and a few wahoo and bull dorado made appearances.

And just as that breathtaking excitement wound down, another spectacular showing exploded a few miles farther south. Bigeye tuna, some topping 300 pounds, swarmed across the canyon flats in huge numbers. A decade ago, if a canyon boat had two or three bigeyes in a year, they were probably high-hook at their marina. This year, several boats posted tallies of a dozen or more, and a few topped 20 bigeyes landed.

The highliners will look back on 2013 as one of the greatest seasons of canyon fishing ever, but the astounding number of bigeyes caught actually cloaked a surprising dearth of other pelagic species that usually make up the bulk of the canyon action. While the bigeye fishing was amazing and the catches made by those who got them were the talk of the docks, the reality was that on a given day only about half the boats fishing actually got bigeye bites, and those that didn’t had very little else to show for their efforts—and giant gas bills. There were very few yellowfin tuna in the northeast canyons this season at all, and, unlike the first several years of the millennium, longfin albacore did not fill the gap in huge numbers—those that did were mostly very small.

After a quiet summer on the beaches, many were looking forward to the fall striper fishing in Montauk. For the most part, it did not happen. False albacore kept anglers happy on some days, but the hordes of light-tackle anglers and surf fishermen who converged on Montauk in September and early October spent a lot of time looking and not a lot of time catching. The fall season, for surf fishermen and the Shinnecock-Moriches crowd especially, was really saved by the sandeel wave in October. After a big southeast blow, amazing numbers of sandeels suddenly showed up in our waters, and stripers were hot on their tails. The fishing for stripers was nothing short of spectacular for about two weeks and pretty damn good for a week or so on either side of it.

Once the sandeels moved on, though, the bass went with them, and the fishing was over. When the herring came, there were no fish left to feed them to. Opening day of the waterfowl season came with weather more suited for golf. Or canyon fishing, which is what most of us did. The bluefins came back, bigger and fatter, and cornered schools of squid and sandeels in the notch of the Hudson Canyon known as the “East Elbow.” Another two weeks of fishing, broken up into just three or four short weather windows, gave the canyon crowd a spectacular denouement to the season, and an early Christmas present from the NMFS, which upped the daily limit of bluefins from three to five.

As the year comes to a close, some of my friends have had great days in the duck blind on the stormy cycles. I’ve yet to fire my gun, but I’m hopeful that 2014 will bring chilly west winds and flights of bluebills to eastern Shinnecock.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. See you out there.

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