September is an interesting time of year to be on the ocean because literally, anything can happen. If the summer has been warm, species from the south along with some offshore monsters may wander in along the shoreline to feed. Shark week features attacks and sightings to grab audience attention and I have to admit I’ve seen every episode, it’s interesting, fascinating and thought provoking programming.
Until I saw “Jaws” I never gave sharks a second thought, being there were essentially none other than some dogfish and maybe a brown shark or two in Long Island Sound when I was patrolling the shallow reefs with a snorkel and spear gun or Hawaiian sling. After seeing that dam movie I was constantly looking behind me and seldom swam over water where I couldn’t see the bottom.
The reefs and rock piles where I shot blackfish were actually fairly shallow and clear making the fish hunting relatively easy. The rocks were covered with black mussels so I could often hear them crunching shells as they fed, follow the sound and pick off a fish or two within a few minutes of entering the water. Once in a while, there would be a flounder or fluke in a sand or gravel patch that I would simply “jab” without firing the gun, which made the trip even easier and quicker. Bear in mind rules were totally different in those days in fact the only species I ever saw that had a size limit was fluke and at that time the commercial limit was fourteen inches, I never kept any much shorter than sixteen or seventeen inches. Times have certainly changed for many reasons.
Due to a drastic increase in seal populations in the northeast, along with stricter regulations on offshore commercial netting and long line fisheries there are more sharks swimming in the waters of New England. There was even a fatal shark attack off the Cape a summer or two ago.
Every September a friend and I would cut school when the winds and tides were right to drift diamond jigs for stripers and bluefish in The Race, the deep, turbulent, fast flowing often fish filled waters across the mouth of Long Island Sound. From Plum Island to Fishers Island and from there to Watch Hill.
One year there were smaller “harbor bluefish” (two to four pound class fish) around than in the past. We were catching a fish or two every drift, along with a few six to ten pounders.
We were hauling those small bluefish in on every drift. On what was going to be our last drift I dropped the jig one last time while my friend stowed gear and moved fish to balance the boat properly for the run back to Groton Long Point. I had a fish about halfway up when something big grabbed it and took off with the tide heading out to sea towards Africa. It was not like anything I’d ever experienced in the past. Whatever it was it was very strong, heavy big and peeled about half the line off the reel so fast it permanently damaged the gearing inside, everything bound up, the butt broke off my rod, I was barely able to save it from going into the water when the fifty pound mono was snapped like a thread.
We initially thought I had hooked a shark, but after doing some offshore fishing beginning a few years after that event, we are pretty sure, unless it was a mako, the culprit was probably a big bluefin tuna that grabbed that small bluefish for brunch.
In those days during the fall there were times when giants would literally make a fast feeding run along the southern Rhode Island coast before heading out into the ocean for their annual migration.
I tried but never caught a giant bluefin, my best was in the eighty to ninety pound range. While fishing with some other, wealthy friends in a now defunct event, the United States Atlantic Tuna Tournament (USATT) where I helped the captain Mario Pagano and his mate “hand feed” some big ones to the boat that others in the boat hooked and landed. The biggest we ever landed, which helped win the event that year weighed 525 pounds.
The following year literally on my birthday, I hooked a big one estimated to be around 700 pounds by the mate, fought it for about forty minutes before it ran back into the fleet and broke off on some anchor chain despite great boat maneuvering, a powerful swimmer like that pretty much does what it wants. I have had the thrill of gaffing and or tail roping some of the tournament winners we caught over a five year period including that five hundred pounder during those events.
Simply never caught a big one myself. My best “true fish” as in non shark was a 135 pound yellowfin tuna taken during a canyon run with some other friends many years later. A great catch but far from a quarter or half ton bluefin.
For a few years late in the fall, November if my memory is right, there would be a very short rapid showing of bluefins inshore as they headed southward down the coast. Very often they would be here gone before my friends and I could get out on the water to give them a shot. Many charter fishermen had their boats out of the water by that time. Even though the reports often came from surprised or maybe not surprised anglers fishing for stripers and bluefish off the beaches and local reefs, I don’t recall anyone catching any of those late run fish.
During that time frame there were some caught off Narragansett Bay and of course Block Island. Tuna are such fast swimming fish they can be here in our waters one day and on Cape Cod or New Jersey the next, depending which way they are heading, north or south.
During September I used to do what I’d call a “double trouble” trip. The timing was planned to coincide with an outgoing tide that would be fished usually with success for fluke. Then when the tides ran out and winds changed in the afternoon we’d head out to the south side of Fishers Island to cast and/or troll tubes for stripers, also with a high degree of success. We only took enough fluke for a meal or two and the stripers strictly catch and release, photos and fun, unless one was mortally damaged which was rare the way we fished and handled those we hooked.
The way we fished, the striped bass were usually lip hooked so were in great shape and released. From their point of view, it was a sort of alien abduction. Fluke if they were big enough and I had a private size limit bigger than most of the state and federal lengths until the regulations approached the twenty inch range. Then it was sometimes difficult to catch a keeper, but the plan worked and the fluke made a decent come back we are still enjoying today.
An ideal double trouble day, and over the years we pulled a number of them off, was making a short early morning run for fluke and quit once we had a couple for each of us. Then we’d pull the boat out of the ocean and head to one of our pike lakes as the thunderheads or thick rain clouds rolled during the late summer and fall these conditions often turned those toothy critters on. The best freshwater action came during the approach of spent hurricanes when the barometric pressure was plummeting. Probably the same is true on the ocean, though the potential for life threatening waves so we would stay home or go to a freshwater lake.
In fact, later in the day if rain clouds gathered and skies began spitting, I’d often head to a decent pike lake that was only a few miles from home. During one of those kinds of days when I was considering heading to the lake, I called a long time fishing buddy who had taught me a great deal about freshwater bass catching but never did much pike fishing. Because it was getting late and I didn’t want to torture him too much if the rain turned into a torrent I headed straight to one of those zones that usually held fish. Within our first ten casts we caught five pike he caught two smaller fish because he was using smaller lures than me. I caught three quality fish of 36, 37, and 39 inches in three consecutive casts, the best three casts of my fishing career so far. A lucky last minute idea that paid off.
Most memorable weather curtailed trip was a fluke run with my then young daughter to the mouth of the Mystic River. We spent so much time on the road fighting beach traffic by the time we got there clouds were building to the west. Literally, within a minute of dropping her line to the bottom, she caught a single six or seven pound fluke.
Almost as soon as the fish had been netted, put in the live well for supper, rebaited and back in the water and my line finally hit the bottom it was over. Winds picked up, skies darkened with lightning bolts in the sky and thunder booming we ran back to the launch. Hate to admit it but that night in my fishing log I had to put my symbol for a “skunking” in the book below her great catch. The photo I took of Julie’s fluke is still hanging in a cluster of fluking photos in my home.
I always keep a handheld barometer (with other functions, such as altitude and even a predictor of storms, made by Bushnell) that I’ve had for about thirty years handy. It’s charged by sunlight and very accurate. One thing I’ve known, even studied via my log books over many years is the association between weather, especially as it relates to barometric pressure and how productive or poor “catching will be”. The correlation is stronger with freshwater species than salt.
One such day I saw the pressure dropping in front of a spent hurricane coming from the south and west. Stormy weather was moving in and there had been a light cooling rain an hour or so before my buddy arrived, with heavier rains were on the way.
To spare it a possible soaking, I left the camera home. We headed to Mansfield Hollow the pike lake near my home fully expecting a curtailed maybe wet trip. We each caught a small “hammer handle pike” (under 24 inches) right off the bat, then everything slowed down. Just before we decided to pack it in I began the traditional, three more casts and on the first one, hooked and landed my personal largest northern.
The fish was 43.5 inches, skinny as a rail due to the extremely hot dry summer that year and only weighed something like 22 pounds. That spring with some eggs it probably would have pulled the Boga Grip scale down closer to 30 pounds.
It didn’t put up much of a fight due to the warm water. It was netted measured and released in good shape before it knew what had happened. Naturally due to the heavy rains that never blew through that afternoon or evening, I had left my camera home to spare it a potential soaking so I don’t have a photo of that one.
I do have a witness, who was astounded that fish that big, grew in any of Connecticut's lakes. This guy was and still is a highly experienced and successful offshore fisherman, who once caught a near record thresher shark during one of the trips on his own boat. But never had much interest in freshwater species of any kind. I’m kind of the opposite and simply love fishing for everything from bluegills to bluefish, though probably not anymore due to aging, bluefin tuna.