“Moooooooooooo,” was what Brian Ritter heard when he answered the phone at 4 in the morning one week ago. He recognized the voice, and he needed no translation. It was Mike Coppola telling him he’d caught a big cow, a female of the species Morone saxatilis, a striped bass.
Both men are among the diehard surfcasters who participate in the Montauk SurfMasters spring and fall tournaments, emphasis on the diehard. It is not unusual for the hardcore to cast for five, six, even eight hours at a stretch. According to Fred (Eelman) Kalkstein, an organizer of the annual tests, the fishing that took place from Friday through the weekend was about as hardcore as it gets; fishermen casting for hours without a bite, casting until the cows came home.
On Friday morning two big fish were weighed in at Paulie’s Tackle shop. Coppolla and John Bruno knocked Jason Pecoraro and Mike Larson off the leader board with two cows taken just minutes apart in the wee hours of the night. Bruno fed an eel to a 41.24-pound bass that took the third place spot and Coppola, “clearly the better looking of the two,” if the author of the tournament’s updated standings did say so himself “drilled a 46.5-pound fish on a Superstrike needle lure. Coppola’s fish knocked Ben McCarron’s 44.74-pound bass into second place. But wait.
According to Coppola’s narrative, “the action drove everyone into the suds on Friday night with the promise of landing a cow bass. Mary Ellen Kane and Gary Krist took fish on both sides of Montauk Point in the low 30s, but not big enough to take over the leaderboard. Mary Ellen Kane’s 32-pound fish was a personal best. She took the fish on the north side. She said, ‘I just threw it out and he was right there.’ ”
Things were looking good for angler Coppola, but, in the light of the moon that was as close to Earth as it will be for some time, Billy Jakobs waded into the surf on Saturday night and found a 48.7-pound cow with a darter lure on the north side of the Point. The tournament ends at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
Why have there been so many big cow bass this spring? The entire explanation remains a mystery — probably a good thing — but for whatever reason the prey species known as sand eels plays a big role, as does the appearance of menhaden. Both species are high on the menu for our larger predators.
“There seem to be more sand eels than usual for June,” said Chris Miller of the West Lake Marina in Montauk. It probably explained the 70-pound cow bass that a spear-fishing friend said was caught off Block Island in recent days. “They are getting them in the dark. There were no sand eels in the bays for netters to catch to sell for fluke bait earlier,” Miller said. “Now they’re coming in from the ocean,” Miller said of the sand eels. “Umbrella rigs work when the sand eels are around. The Adios [charter boat] had a 52-pounder on an umbrella over Father’s Day weekend.”
Tuna like sand eels too, and Miller said there had been a few bluefin tuna sightings offshore. The cock rattle has a 140-pound bluefin caught off Shinnecock within the past week.
The sand eel bounty can also explain the “spectacular fluke bite” that Miller said took place over the weekend east of Montauk Point, while boats that traveled to fluke grounds south and west of Montauk were “dogged up,” cursed with dogfish.
Miller reported that sand eels were swarming inside Montauk Harbor around the West Lake Marina and Star Island. This and the hatch of cinder worms that occurs in early summer around the full moon can bring both striped bass and fluke within range of local docks. “I used to do it at night as a kid, cast out a sand worm with a bobber down by the yacht club. The cinder worms cause a big ruckus at night.”
Harvey Bennett at the Tackle Shop in Amagansett reported “sand eels all over the place, and stripers caught on clam baits by the Napeague Lane road end in Beach Hampton, also on diamond jigs. Everything is working, big porgies at the number two buoy off Napeague, and squid made another showing over the weekend. Three Mile Harbor has been hot for bluefish up to six pounds, and Accabonac is the hot spot for fluke. The fluke are all keeper size, 21 inches and up.”
Ken Rafferty, light spin-tackle and fly-fishing guide, reports productive fly-fishing for striped bass off Big and Little Gull Islands with “lots of bluefish, 6 to 10 pounds around Gardiner’s Bay. I hope this heat doesn’t chase them away.”
The sloop Leilani was able to strut her stuff in the 20-knot westerly wind on Saturday under reefed mainsail and jib from Montauk Harbor to Gardiner’s Island. The plan was to return from the sail in order to attend the “paddle-out” for Jeb Stuart, a surfing buddy, friend, former Coast Guardsman, lobsterman, and merchant seaman. He died in April at the age of 52.
A paddle-out is a funeral of sorts, a tradition among surfers that began in Hawaii. Friends paddle out beyond the breaking waves, form a circle, often with one or two in the center of the circle to offer the ashes of their departed water brother or sister to the sea along with flower leis.
This is what happened on Saturday afternoon in front of the Atlantic Terrace resort in downtown Montauk. The Terrace is a surf spot that Stuart lived for in his youth.
Leilani was running late on the sail back from Gardiner’s Island and her captain was feeling anxious about missing the paddle-out, anxious until Jeb Stuart slapped him upside the head. The sailor would miss seeing his old friends, miss the aloha, but he would not miss Jeb. Jeb was sitting right next to him at the helm, at sea, under sail, and always would be.