Sand Bar Stripers and the Artful Dodger (Part 1)
Being a lifetime paddle sports enthusiast and avid saltwater fisherman, it was only natural that I would some day get into Kayak Fishing. After giving it a try, I must say that Kayak fishing has become a much bigger part of my regular fishing and paddling routine than I ever imagined possible.
I think what hooked me on Kayak fishing early on, was the night that I paddled out from our neighborhood beach, on the advice of a local old timer. I took a few casts along the edge of a beautiful sand flat and caught a nice keeper striped bass. I was fishing a Gibbs Top Water Plug all-alone under a waxing gibbons springtime full moon. I cant tell you how dumfounded I was when I pulled that fat 32” bass into the Kayak after a fun light tackle tussle. How could I have overlooked this spot, so close to home, so accessible, so conducive to fun, light tackle fishing? If I could catch quality fish at the end of the road, imagine what I could do in other well-established spots that were easily accessible to the kayaks and stand up paddleboards that I was already paddling on a regular basis?
After getting the Kayak fishing bug. I set my sights on purchasing a high quality, functional fishing Kayak. My initial goal was to get a boat that would serve as a good platform for sight fishing on the bay and allow me to stand up and stretch my legs when either casting for Stripers or drifting for Fluke. Launching into the Surf along the South Shore beaches would be a secondary consideration as I had access to a good surf kayak and several Stand up Boards that were somewhat suitable for fishing and very good in the surf zone.
In addition to being a lifetime paddle sports enthusiast, I work in a local area Kayak shop, Main Beach Surf and Sport. As you may surmise people who work in the paddle sport industry, typically have access to lots of boats, paddles and gear. Now this can be both a blessing and a curse. When you truly need gear it is great, when something cool arrives at the shop and you really do not need it but you want it, not so much. I will say that I love water sports gear, and having the opportunity to see and try the latest and best offerings is pretty cool.
The year that I started my search, several new fishing kayaks came on the market and they quickly caught my attention. The Slayer from Native Watercraft, and the Ride X from Wilderness Systems, were two fine fishing kayaks that were at the top of the list. I was very comfortable with my Werner Paddles, Cyprus 210cm, high angle performance kayak paddle, but I was interested to see how a wider fishing boat would impact paddle length. Both boats had great seats and well thought out accessory tracks, convenient tackle storage, large open storage wells and the stability necessary to allow an angler to stand up and take a few casts when the conditions were right. How would I make a decision between these two fine boats? I would have to delve deeper into each boat by getting on the water and take them fishing.
Fortunately, our Kayak shop gets semi-annual visits from our kayak manufacturers representatives. I reached out to our Wilderness Systems and Native Watercraft reps, and requested a demo opportunity of their new boats. Both reps were eager to get their new boats on the water and we decided that a Hamptons Kayak fishing trip would be the best way to give the boats a proper sea trial.
The summer season was way too busy to consider this personal research project, but I knew that September would soon be upon us and I set the calendar for our demo outings. Let me start by saying September in Montauk is legendary for inshore fishing, insane Striped Bass Blitzes, Screaming schools of Albacore, hard hitting bluefish and then some. On September 17th, Zach from Wilderness and I planned to meet at Camp Hero State Park and start our outing with some early morning surfcasting and then launch the kayaks up around the North Side of the Light house. I liked this plan since we would be fishing 2 distinct bodies of water, (South Side and North Side of the lighthouse) and in addition, the Launch on the North Side is a little more sheltered from the prevailing ocean swell.
Arriving at Camp Hero Pre-Dawn is usually an interesting endeavor with campers and trucks parked about with waders and boots hung to dry like a ragtag yard sale on wheels. Some fisherman will be heading out to start their session, while others are returning from their twilight outings in need of food and rest. Everyone is hyper focused on one thing and that is putting a bend in the rod with a trophy striper.
In addition to the transient fisherman who set up camp for one or more days, the Montauk Point area is frequented by a hard-core crew of local surfcasters that typically look down their noses at anyone who is not from the local community.
Fishing the south side of Montauk, “in the coves”, is truly an art form. Often taking countless days and nights spread over many seasons to really learn the secret to unlocking its magical bounty. Having fished Montauk since the mid 1960’s I have had the benefit of many seasons chasing stripers through the boulder fields, south and west of the lighthouse and I had high hopes for putting us on some nice fall stripers. Zach and I met at 4:30am in the upper parking lot and readied for our descent along the rugged footpath to the surf zone. As we approached the beach I recognized the faint silhouette of a local fishing legend, “The Artful Dodger”. Anyone who fishes Montauk knows just how challenging fishing the boulder fields can be. Between the slippery rock perches and the numerous underwater obstacles and hangs, it truly requires one to be “An Artful Dodger”. Montauk tackle shop owners love the boulder fields, as anglers are know to lose literally dozens of buck tails during one trip to Montauk.
The pre-dawn hour brought moderate surf and light southwest winds, a nice scenario for the south side. I positioned Zach along a nice rocky outcropping with a drop off to the right along a nice sandy cove. This topography creates a desirable location blending both rocky structure and sandy bottom, which attracts and holds baitfish such as sand eels, while providing a good ambush spot for hungry stripers.
After setting Zach up on his perch, I pushed deeper into the boulder field and waded out to an outlying rock, a tricky but potentially lucrative proposition. Zach was casting a S/S pencil popper on the surface and I was working a white buck tail deeper in the water column. In spite of the favorable conditions, we were unable to raise any fish over the course of about two hours. While mid-September is typically the start of the Montauk surfcasting season, this year, it did not happen for us. Zach and I re-connected at his rock and we started the walk of shame back to the truck. We both commented on the amazing beauty of the area and how clean the water was on this awesome September morning. As we approached the parking lot we met up with none other than the Artful Dodger a local Montauk fishing legend. He was holding court with a handful of locals, commiserating about the ominous lack of Striped Bass, but that a friend had seen large schools of sand eels along the 50-foot shelf while spear fishing earlier in the week. The mere mention of Sand Eels amongst hard-core surfcasters is like the talk of a big snowstorm to powder skiers or big waves to surfers. Upon gaining some new fishing intelligence, we quietly broke ranks with the circle of locals and headed to our trucks. Over bananas, granola bars and chai tea we discussed our next move. The talk of sand eels had my head spinning. Should we stay the course and launch on the north side or head southwest to the nearest sand beach for a potential surf zone launch. Following the bleak prognosis of surfcasting by some of the better local surf casters I made the case for exploring the 50-foot ledge on the Southwest side of town. If the sand eels had in fact set up, there would surely be fish on them sooner or later, the question was, would it be today?
Surf conditions were running at about 2 to 3 feet with a medium period swell, just on the edge for launching our kayaks. Montauk is renowned for great waves a result of a rocky, gradually sloping bottom contour, that creates great sand bars.
After a brief 10-minute drive, we arrived at our South Side Launch and we were greeted by a scene that resembled something out of a National Geographic Nature Special on PBS television. Flocks of birds, Bait balls and fish exploding on the surface. The most amazing thing about this scenario was that there was no one here. The word was not yet out on the sand eels arrival. Now, I’ve humped a lot of Kayaks in my day, but I have never unloaded boats so quickly, as we did this September morning. It certainly didn’t hurt to be working with an industry professional as we slung boats like tacos onto the sandy shoreline. Handling boats quickly is one thing, and big blitzes like we were seeing off shore can create quite a surge of emotions to rush into the abyss with reckless abandon. However, with a technical launch being eminent you need to keep your cool and follow procedure. Furthermore, it is exponentially easier to rig up your rods on the beach than once on the water in hot pursuit of migrating pelagic game fish.
We readied our crafts dogging down rods, tackle and provisions in preparation of an exciting and somewhat challenging outing. We located a channel in the break along the beach and Zach lined up his Yak a Wilderness Systems 12 ft. Tarpon Sit on Top. Launching into our local shore break is never easy, but Zach did a great job, timing the entry and got off clean punching through a friendly 2-foot swell. Once outside the break he made a b-line for the nearest pod of birds. I got the short end of the launch having a series of set waves roll in as I waited in the wash doing my best to steady the Wilderness ride x 11.5. Nothing is more frustrating than watching fish breaking on the surface just out of casting range while you are pinned on the inside waiting for your opening to launch. Finally the swell ebbed and I thrust the kayak over the backside of the next small wave and hopped tail first into one of the most comfortable kayak seats that I have ever sat in. I dug my Werner Paddles Cyprus high angle paddle into the trough just ahead of the next wave and pulled hard to pop over the on coming wave. Reach, catch, repeat and I am outside and pulling for open water.
As my focused shifted from getting through the surf break to locating a nearby school of fish I saw Zach hooked up on a what appeared to be a solid fish. Sand eels mean fishing tins and I cast my 007 into a swarm of birds with fish crashing on the surface. My first cast and retrieve went untouched and I settled down and made sure the next cast was more calculated and my retrieve a little slower. Let it sink a twitch of the tip and BANG, solid hook up, a nice fish that quickly pulled the nose of my Ride 11.5 dead center and I was pulled forward on a modified Nantucket sleigh ride. Fishing a 7ft ugly stick matched with a Penn slammer reel with 30lb braid is a lot of fun on 15 to 20 lb fish. The Wilderness Ride X handled nicely in the moderate sea conditions and I felt stable and in control through out the 6 minute light tackle tussle with my 18lb striper. I saw Zach grappling with a wild 10lb blue fish and after he was able to perform a release he was moving up current to get back on the fish in his Wilderness Tarpon 12. I took some time with my fish as we wanted one for the table and looked up to see Zach hooked up again.
Fast forward, Zach and I each enjoyed tangling with several nice stripers and bluefish over the course of about 2 hours. All good things must come to an end and as the tide waned and the intensity of the blitzes subsided we looked up at each other, somewhat disheveled but grinning like a pair of Cheshire cats. Surf Zone launches are exciting and fishing a good ole Montauk blitz is a blast. Once out on the open water while having fun catching fish one can quickly lose sight of the fact that you now have to get back onto the beach safely.
Fortunately, the surf conditions remained moderate through out the morning and we readied our boats for our landing. I am not sure which is more challenging, the launch or the return? Timing, balance, focus and good paddling skills are required for both. We briefly surmised the break, looking for the channel that we used for our launch. Zach dialed in on the channel at the end of a small surf break and positioned himself to paddle on the back side of the last wave of a good sized set while I hung back giving him some working room. Zach nailed it, edging his kayak along the face of a small wave before turning perpendicular to the shoreline and hitting the beach clean. I followed suit paddling at a 45 degree angle across the face of a smaller swell then turning into the beach and leaned back hard into my seat to prevent the boat from pearling.
A quick pop up out of the seat, grab the front handle to get the boat out of the wash and pull it up to safety. We had successfully accomplished our mission, safely launching and returning through the surf zone while catching some nice fish on light tackle equipment. In all the excitement and fun, I almost lost sight of the fact that we were doing a sea trial of the boats in open water conditions. Both the Tarpon and Ride X handled great in the surf zone and on open water. The ride X was stable while angling and the seat was super comfortable. I was definitely impressed with the boat and was very appreciative for the opportunity to have taken it fishing. Next up my outing on the Native Slayer.
Please visit http://www.mainbeach.com for more information on fishing kayaks and tours in the Hamptons and Montauk.