Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound?

A rapid quacking like pleading ducks
The view from Leilani at sunrise. Russell Drumm

It’s hard to describe. The sound was a rapid quacking like pleading ducks. No, it was more a staccato croaking, frogs imitating a motorcycle, frogs ululating, but it had to be a species of goose I’d never heard before passing by the sloop Leilani on her mooring as I lay on my bunk in the middle of the night that had fallen through Friday’s gloom.

I climbed up the companionway to investigate. Nothing, not a sign of them and what’s more, not a sound but for the wind and the metallic music of waves lapping on the old Grumman dinghy. I retreated to my berth and there it was again. Some of whatever they were sounded close by, others farther from the boat. What could they be?

I wanted to sleep, but if the sound’s disappearance topside precluded birds, then it must be coming from fish through Leilani’s hull. Sea robins croak, blowfish croak, croakers croak. That’s it. The sounds were coming from a large school of mystery fish settled in the south end of Lake Montauk to converse. In and out of sleep I imagined them as a flock, like submarine birds singing, a mating ritual perhaps. I felt like Richard Attenborough on the cusp of discovery.

Wait till I tell wife Kyle sleeping in the forepeak. For a moment I thought I should wake her. No, not a good idea. 

I’d been wondering about what prey species the large striped bass were feeding on for the past couple of weeks. No one can remember such an invasion of cow bass. What has brought them here? The ongoing bite is a fisherman’s dream come true, trophy-size bass a virtual surety.

The word was the bass were feeding on a glut of bunker and porgies. Perhaps bunker croak, I thought, or the cows were being drawn to the tidal rips around Montauk Point by a mystery school’s siren song — heretofore an unknown phenomenon. I’ll call Carl Safina over on Lazy Point, I decided. He led the Audubon Society’s foray into fisheries matters a number of years ago. He might have a clue.

Next morning over coffee on the backdeck, I revealed what I’d discovered in the night. There was no immediate verbal response, only a look that spoke volumes. No, she hadn’t heard the talking fish, she said kindly. Later, I asked Peter Spacek if he’d heard the fish. His boat is moored close by. He said no, but allowed that some fish croak. I could tell he was being polite.

Saturday night, there it was again. I placed my iPhone on the below deck and activated the record app, but the waves slapping against the hull obliterated the proof I needed.

Next day, I walked the docks down in front of Salivar’s and Swallow East, once known as Lenny’s and Tuma’s bait and tackle back in the day. Capt. Skip Rudolph had just tied up the Adios charter boat. Four striped bass in the 40-pound range lay on the dock waiting for the mate’s fillet knife.

“I’ve been asking my customers to be happy with one. They’re allowed two, but I tell them these are breeding females, the future, and it’s working,” Rudolph said. “Rick’s doing the same,” he added, meaning Rick Etzel, skipper of the Breakaway boat.

Boating anglers working live eels or trolling single lures around the Montauk Lighthouse have been enjoying the big bite thus far.

The unprecedented bass fishing has evolved into something of a slaughter. No one had expected it to last this long, and Montauk’s responsible guides are urging anglers to put on the brakes. Paul Apostolides of Paulie’s Tackle in Montauk said on Tuesday that the lunker bass continued to school out of range of surfcasters for the most part, although smaller bass were being caught around the Lighthouse.

Bluefish up to 20 pounds, most likely gorging on bunker and porgies, and whatever croaks in the night, have made forays within range of surfcasters along the south side of Napeague. Harvey Bennett of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett reports, “large fluke are back off of Napeague on the bay side, and the snappers are here.”

The state season for black sea bass — yum — opened on July 15 and will run through Dec. 31. Anglers report a productive first week.

I didn’t hear the fish on Sunday night. Gone, and with no recording, nothing to buttress my story of discovery. I rose early Monday morning, boiled coffee water on the Coleman, climbed through the companionway as the sun lit the tops of the trees to the east, and settled against Leilani’s bulkhead with my cup. The wind that had tugged on the boat’s mooring lines for days was sleeping, as the German’s say. The lake was still, and then . . . there they were again, but this time the fish were audible topside. Their calls were coming from the east.

You know, humility is a good thing. It might smart at first, but it’s probably healthy in the long run. The world’s religions tell us so, pride goeth before a fall and all that. Okay, so the staccato croaking, my school of submarine birds, my discovery turned out to be the gas generator on a sailboat about 100 yards away. I haven’t told Kyle.