The Start of the Shack-Nasty Season
By Dr. John Gavencak
For most anglers across the island, January starts the beginning of the winter doldrums. While I was in school in upstate New York, the term “shack nasties” was used to describe the condition where an angler starts to loose his or her mind from not being on the water for weeks, or even months, on end. Being young and hardy, only frozen rivers kept us away from the wily steelhead which we so feverishly pursued. Fortunately for anglers on Long Island, the ocean does not freeze and we are only limited by the amount of discomfort we are willing to endure. While most private boats are sitting on the hard, wrapped perfectly in white shrink wrap, the opportunity does exist to hop on a party boat and drop clams and/or jigs for cod fish.
Early November, fishing was downright insane across the island as I write this article in mid-November. Like a switch, the striped bass and bluefish bite lit up after the full moon of October with the hard northwest winds. While predominantly consisting of small bass blitzing on tiny anchovies and peanut bunker, there have been opportunities to tangle with some larger specimens which were shadowing the huge bunker schools spread out across the south shore. Being fortunate enough to be on the water almost every morning of the week, I get a first hand look at the progress of the migration. Almost overnight starting on October 27th, the gannets were dive bombing bunker schools right outside the surf line, joined by scary big bluefish, huge pods of porpoise and even whales airing out in as little as 20 feet of water. The large biomass of five year old bass in the eight to ten pound range invaded the surf line and inlets, joined by some teen size bass as well. The larger bass tended to stay in deeper water and were mostly left alone thanks to the horrendous weather we have experienced. Day after day it seemed as if the wind never shut down. When it did, it was only for a day or two in the middle of the week, much to the chagrin of weekend warriors. Blitzes went on for hours and on many days the whole island lit up with action. Having a network of anglers across the island, we shared reports of wild action extending from Montauk to Breezy point. It always amazes me how the fish seem to chew at the same time regardless of location.
One big surprise was the fantastic false albacore bite we experienced near the east end south shore inlets. Traditionally an early fall bite, they no doubt stuck around due to the warm water temperatures and the plethora of tiny baits. Many anglers did not realize that it was albies they were casting to under the birds, only to leave frustrated without a strike for an hour worth of effort. I would have said you were crazy if you told me I would be catching them in mid-November, dressed for winter weather in four layers, hat and gloves. The nastier the weather, the better the fishing seemed to be for these speedsters. Hard northwest winds spurred the best action and the Indian summer days seemed to make them less aggressive. Not only were they numerous, they were big as well; bellies stuffed with one to two inch bay anchovies, they looked like swollen footballs. Weekends also made them very skittish due to boats chasing down breaking fish. Amusing to watch but frustrating to be in the middle of. Smart, patient anglers stayed back and watched the patterns of the fish and birds, choosing instead to use the wind to their advantage and let their boat drift towards the fish, not motoring up to a school at 30 knots, invariably putting them down. When a handful of boats work together and reposition slowly, everyone has a shot at them. All it takes is one boat bouncing around like a ping pong ball to ruin it for everyone.
Boating courtesy seems to get worse every year so I find it important to discuss the topic. There’s many unwritten rules amongst fisherman that many people are not aware of. Common courtesy is frequently lost, especially when the fish and birds are going nuts. If you’re running the bay and you see a boat working a rip, with the occupants of the boat clearly casting lures, slow down to an idle well before you reach them and keep a distance away from them. Figure out which way they are casting and pass on the opposite side of them Obviously do not put your boat in danger of running aground, but proceed as far away as safely possible. Once well past the boat fishing, you can go on plane again. When running an inlet, be mindful of the casters on the jetties. Often times there are so many boats drifting that it is impossible to stay away from the rocks. In this instance, again, slow to to an idle and pass slowly. The boats drifting will not get waked and be appreciate of the courtesy.
The sight of blitzing fish and acres of bird over them tends to quicken the pulse of the most patient angler. There is a method to fishing the schools of fish that are on the surface to make everyone get a piece of the action. When approaching the hysteria, slow down well before you reach the action. Figure out which way they are heading, generally in a path to the east or west, and motor around the school, keeping a good distance away. 50-100 yards will usually suffice. Once past them, turn towards their path and drift towards them. This way the school stays on top and does not get run over. It is often the bait which gets spooked and not the fish when someone runs right into the middle at full throttle and stops, wondering where all the fish went. It takes nerves of steel to fish this way, but you will have way more shots at the fish by drifting outside of them than if you run right up to them and start casting. Once the school has past, do not be so quick to move. Watch the fish finder and you will often see fish down deep trailing the action. These tend to be bigger anyway, so if you are getting cut off by other boats, keep fishing the area and you may be pleasantly surprised.
So what is a safe distance from a boat that’s working a school of bait, fish or structure? My rule is I stay at least a cast away. If the fish are deep and everyone is jigging, do not drift in the same line as the closest boat. Obviously different boats drift at different speeds and it is annoying to have to move every few minutes because a boat decided to stop fifty feet down wind from you and start fishing, drifting right towards you. Hopefully mother nature will be kind to us again this winter and give anglers across the island some much needed winter fishing.