While we are still in the summer season, early Saturday morning in Montauk Harbor felt as if a faint hint of September were in the air. A cold front had passed through a few hours earlier and the breeze was coming from the cooler and drier northwest. The dense humidity of the past few days was broken.
It was 5 a.m. and it was still pitch dark as Eddie Harrison, the longtime first mate of the charter boat Breakaway, untied the dock lines from the beamy 42-foot Torres. Fishing rods, gear, and food were stored. A day of fishing for cod was on the menu.
As we sailed at a steady 16 knots on an easterly course, the sun started to break above the cloudless horizon as we passed the majestic cliffs of the Mohegan Bluffs along the southern coast of Block Island. The historical Southeast Lighthouse was now in clear view off our port bow, while the five giant wind turbines ahead of us whirled in silent unison. The weather, as it has been for most of this summer, would be favorable for a day offshore.
There are no fish as iconic as codfish. The importance of this popular fish in American history is undeniable. It was cod that attracted Europeans to North America and eventually enticed them to stay. Cod became one of the most sought-after fish in the North Atlantic, and it was its popularity that caused its enormous decline and the precarious situation it’s in today.
In 1992, the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on the cod fishery along the country’s east coast. Decades of overfishing had severely depleted cod stocks and government officials hoped the moratorium would allow the species to rebuild.
The closure ended almost 500 years of fishing activity in Newfoundland and Labrador, where it put about 30,000 people out of work — about 15 percent of the labor force — a majority of whom decided to relocate westward to the oil fields of Alberta for greater riches. Since then, codfish have yet to return in any numbers to their original home off eastern Canada.
Here in Montauk, codfish were a popular fish to pursue for decades. In addition to a concerted effort by commercial fishermen, to the delight of many anglers, several party boats even focused on them year round. The fish were plentiful and much of the time were caught in sight of the Montauk Lighthouse. I lose count of all the trips I made on the Viking, Marlin, Hel-Cat, or Peconic Queen while growing up. The fish were always there. But not anymore.
A boat or two may run a few trips during the winter, but those 12-hour summer trips to Cox’s Ledge to the east of Block Island are rarely done anymore by party, charter, or recreational craft. It’s much like the disappearance of winter flounder, and many people have lost interest in the fishery and stowed their heavy tackle in the darkest corner of their basement. It’s sad.
“I used to fish commercially for cod during the winter for a long time, but I had to give it up by 2005,” recalled Capt. Richard Etzel of the Breakaway from the aft deck of his boat on Saturday afternoon. “But the fishing was on a steady decline and it finally became not worth the time and money. I miss it.”
Alas, the fishing on Saturday was picky at best. Captain Etzel pulled out all the stops and tried a number of lumps, rocks, and reefs, finally working his way to Cox’s, about 33 miles east of Montauk. In the past, you would see a number of boats on its easterly ledge, especially on a sunny, summer Saturday. But other than a lone, aged lobster boat out of Point Judith checking its traps, the grounds were vacant.
Still, the four of us caught enough cod for several dinners and I even landed a hefty 20-pound specimen on a diamond jig that put up a very sporting tussle. It was a very pleasant surprise. We also picked up a few whiting that will be eagerly prepared for a hardwood smoking later in the week. Whiting are another fish that used to be caught in great quantities in the days of yore, but that’s a story for another day.
I will still fish for cod whenever I can. My trip for next year is already booked, and I’m hopeful to get in another trip or two this year. It reminds me of better times that I was most fortunate to partake of. I’m not giving up. That said, it’s a bit of a challenge to get a crew together as there are other species to pursue closer to port.
“Cod is my favorite fish to eat,” proclaimed Harvey Bennett of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett, where the Basque flag flew proudly in the breeze late Saturday afternoon, and where I dropped off a fillet of our prized catch. Ironically, Basque fishermen were fishing for cod off the Grand Banks east of Newfoundland well before Columbus discovered America (by the way, over half of the crew sailing with Columbus were Basque).
“The Basques were great and fearless fishermen,” Bennett explained. “The Basques discovered the Grand Banks in 1372. People forget their incredible fishing heritage.”
Focusing on fish much closer to home, Bennett was enthused about the current run of blowfish. “One young boy took his bike down to Albert’s Landing the other day and caught a bucketful of large ones,” he said. Bennett was even more amused that the young angler abstained from using the typical bait of clams or worms, but rather pizza dough. “I have to hand it to that kid, he did it his own way and was successful. Very cool to see.”
Bennett said that kingfish are also around in great quantities along with porgies. “Atlantic bonito have showed up too, but have not been found west of Montauk Harbor yet,” he added. “Bass and blues are in the surf and the snappers are getting bigger by the day too.”
Back at Montauk, fluke fanatics continue to be satisfied with the fishing for the summer flatties, as a sizable number of fish from 5 to 12 pounds continue to be taken on a daily basis. “Fishing has been good,” said Kathy Vegessi of the Lazybones on Monday. “Some days are better than others, but over all there are some nice fish around. Sea bass, too, are mixing in.”
On a side note, during the summer, there’s an increase of life off our coasts, including large whales and dolphins. While we did not see any on Saturday, humpback whales are one of the most common whale species in New York’s waters. They can be found close to shore due to their diet of near-shore small fish and crustaceans, mainly bunker and krill. They are also commonly seen close to the surface, and display breaching and slapping of their tail and fins. Very cool stuff to witness, as many can attest to this summer.
However, all whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and boaters are instructed to remain at least 500 yards away in their boat from North Atlantic right whales and at least 100 feet from all other whales.
If a whale approaches you, please remember to idle your engine and not to re-engage power until the whale has cleared your path. Attempting to leave the area may interrupt natural behaviors such as feeding, nursing, resting, and traveling, or could result in a vessel strike causing harm to the whale and possibly your boat.
It has been a real pleasure to witness a resurgence of such incredible mammals in our local waters. Perhaps codfish will one day be as fortunate.
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