The current was just starting to ebb as I pulled up to the backside of Shinnecock East County Park on Long Island’s South Shore just prior to a mid-August sunrise. I grabbed my gear and hustled to the water’s edge, being careful not to take a spill on the small, uneven rocks. My offering was in the water for no more than five seconds before I felt the taps that I was expecting. With a flick of the wrist, my rod was bending. It was a double header – a tiny black sea bass and a 4-inch bergal. The sea bass went back, but the bergal was exactly what I was looking for and went in my bucket that was half-filled with water.
I quickly attached new clam strips to my Sabiki rig and flipped it to the edge of the rocks. I instantly had a pair of bergals. The next try produced a much sharper tap followed by a lot of resistance when I set the hook. After a brief struggle, I was happy to be unhooking a nice-sized triggerfish. After 15 minutes I was finished with the backside of the inlet. I had all of the bergals I needed for the main event, and a bonus of three triggerfish.
The “main event” was a kayak trip on the opposite side of the barrier island where the fluke action had been red hot in the 50- to 80-foot depths for the past two weeks. There were enough quality fluke being landed that I wanted some big live baits that had the potential to attract a doormat. I prefer live snapper bluefish, but when they’re scarce, the bergals are easy pickings. Little bits of clam on very small hooks is all that’s required. If you don’t want to mess with real bait, small pieces of Berkeley Gulp will also work. A Sabiki rig is ideal for catching these baits.
I used clams this trip because I knew the triggerfish were around. These semi-tropical visitors have been very numerous in recent years, especially in August and early September. They put up a good battle and are delicious eating. I target them on the outer edge of the rocks, and a little beyond if there is too much interference from smaller fish.
With enough bergals swimming in my bucket and a nice meal of triggerfish already on ice, I headed for the ocean side of the park. The sea was as flat as a pond, and this had nothing to do with lucky timing. I love kayak fishing, but have no desire to ever experience anything close to kayak surfing. I watched the weather and made sure I’d have a flat day with barely more than a breeze.
As soon as I arrived on the ocean side, I did a quick water exchange on the bergal bucket. These are very hardy creatures, but I figured the cooler, more oxygenated ocean water was better for keeping them lively than what I had scooped out of the bay. In just a few minutes, the kayak was ready for launch. The saying “leash it or lose it” has extra meaning for me on these ocean trips, so I made sure everything above deck was either in something that floats or was tied to the craft. Just before pushing off, I transferred the live bait to a killie cart, a wooden bait box that allows fresh water to flow through to keep baitfish lively. When stood vertical, the cart holds enough water to keep the bait alive for the paddle out. This is important because it wouldn’t be reasonable to paddle a significant distance with the cart dragging in the water.
The “big” waves this morning were only about two-footers from the southeast. I waited for one to pass and then easily punched through the one behind it with just a little bit of water spilling over the deck of my 16-foot kayak and out its scupper holes. It was an uneventful launch as planned. As soon as I was out of the surf line, I headed in a south-southeasterly direction with moderate effort that leveled my GPS speed reading at about 4 miles-per-hour. I held this pace comfortably for the next 15 minutes with the help of a very slight breeze on my back. By then I was in over 50 feet of water and ready to get started.
I immediately plunged the bait cart into the water and pushed the spring-loaded lid open just enough to confirm that my bergals were all still swimming. My bait rod was a medium-action 6-foot spinner with a rig consisting of a 4/0 shiner hook on a 3-foot fluorocarbon leader attached to a dropper loop just above the sinker loop. With my GPS showing a relatively slow 0.7-mph drift speed, a 4-ounce sinker would suffice. I grabbed a bergal, hooked it through the lips, and sent it to the bottom. I’ve never had red-hot action on bergals, but they do a good job of catching the larger fluke, as well as big sea bass. Because the hits on the big baits come rather infrequently, I placed the rod in a Scotty Mount rodholder positioned about arm’s length in front of me and angled toward the bow. This gave me plenty of room for the rod that usually sees most of the fun – the light baitcasting bucktail stick.
This is a 6-foot baitcaster rated for 8- to 14-pound test line coupled with a Quantum Accurist PT reel with a flipping switch. The flipping switch feature allows one-handed depth control with a thumb bar. Depress the bar, and line goes out. Release the pressure with your thumb, and the line stops going out. There’s no messing with a lever to go in and out of free spool or having to engage the spool by taking a crank. The reel is spooled with 15-pound-test braid. To the end of the braid I have a 36-inch leader of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon with a perfection loop at the bottom for the bucktail and a dropper loop a foot above that for a teaser. The fluorocarbon rig is attached to the mainline with a small barrel swivel. I normally use SPRO bucktails in the ¾- to 2-ounce range. These can be tipped with any of the typical fluke baits such as sand eels, spearing, killies, squid strips, or other meat strips. I’ve used all of these, and now use none of them, as I’ve become hooked on Berkley Gulp Alive. I tip my bucktails with either the 3-inch Minnow Grubs or the 4-inch Swimming Mullets. My teaser is a bare 4/0 Gamakatsu baitholder hook with another Gulp bait.
The convenience of using Gulp in a kayak is priceless. Before I started using it, I needed to have a bait cooler with ice and possibly a cutting board. A small Gulp bucket replaces that. One of the big advantages is that you rarely lose your bait. If I miss a hit with traditional bait, the first thing I’m wondering is if the fish stole the bait. Even if it didn’t, I’m probably going to waste time checking. If it did steal it, I’ll have to reach into the cooler for some more. It’s time lost and extra work, especially in a kayak where storage is at a premium and the cooler is likely in the tank well behind where I’m sitting. If you miss a hit with a Gulp-tipped jig, you just keep jigging. I average about seven fluke for each Gulp grub. As long as the curly tail isn’t torn off, I simply keep sticking them back on the hooks.
I dropped my 1.5-ounce bucktail to the bottom and began a rapid jigging motion. For whatever reason, this somewhat-unnatural, fast vertical bouncing does a good job of triggering fluke to strike. The individual lifts are short, less than 6 inches, so the jig is always close to the bottom. After about a minute of bouncing, my rod tip suddenly picked up some weight. I grabbed the rod with both hands and set the hook hard. The fish put up a nice fight on its 55-foot trip to the surface, but missed the current minimum length by about an inch. The next drop produced a fish that was a little bigger, but still short. The big shorts kept coming. Even though I wasn’t immediately into eating-sized fish, I was still having a good time. I find that there’s something very pleasing about catching fish from a kayak. It might be the simplistic approach of not using an engine, or maybe it’s the perspective of sitting on top of the water. Whatever it is, I like it.
While I was releasing another fluke, I saw my bergal rod bounce. I pulled it from the holder, felt weight on the other end, and buried the hook with the excitement of wondering what took the big bait. I knew right away this wasn’t another short. It pulled some drag against the 30-pound braid several times on the way up, and the telltale headshakes left little doubt that this was a nice fluke. As the brown mass became visible through the clear blue ocean water, I grabbed the net from the flush-mount rodholder. The 5-pound fluke was soon dangling over the side on my fish stringer. Although I considered it very unlikely that I would need it, I placed a sharp knife nearby so that I could cut the stringer if a shark grabbed it. The good action continued this trip, but it was dominated by fluke falling just a little short of the limit at that time of 21 inches. The bergals came through two more times by putting big sea bass in the boat.
Two weeks later I was at it again. After another quick effort that produced triggers and bergals, I pushed deeper and didn’t start fishing until I was beyond 60 feet of water. A big sea bass and my fluke limit came quickly this time, with both the bucktail and bergals contributing. I continued fishing hoping to score some more big sea bass. I thought that’s what I had when I saw the bait rod bounce sharply. I quickly cleared the bucktail rod and grabbed the deadstick from the holder. I lifted slowly expecting to make contact with my rig, but couldn’t feel it. I began reeling slowly, but felt only line. It was then that I noticed the line was running behind me and under the kayak. I reeled quickly, and when I picked up the slack, the rod was yanked under the boat to the sound of a screaming drag. “Big bluefish” I thought immediately, not considering the other possibilities lurking this far out. I pushed the rod toward the bow and spun the yak in the direction of the fish. As the fish cut across the bow rising toward the surface, I noticed the color was closer to a bass, but it was moving faster than I’d expect for a big striper. I let out some expletives of surprise when I saw a shark fin break the surface. After being towed around for a few minutes, the 4-foot brown shark tired to the point that I could get it alongside the kayak. My only regret was not getting a picture, but I had my hands full and was satisfied to get it close enough to cut the leader without any mishaps.
Triggerfish, sea bass, fluke, and now a shark. That was a pretty nice mixed bag for a couple hours of a summer morning without using a real boat.
I make these trips a few times a year, and they’re always fun and productive. Ideally I like to fish with live snappers. Sometimes they’re easy to catch from the bay, but at other times they’re difficult to find, and I don’t like spending a lot of time trying to catch bait. Bergals are a good second choice, and they’re a sure thing to catch from where I fish and very easy to keep alive. Fishing for them with clams also provides the triggerfish potential.
I’ve had a few “you’re crazy” looks when I’ve told people that I’ve fished as far as two miles out in the ocean with my kayak. I’m not crazy, and I’m actually a very careful person. I do a lot of things on the water. I consider myself primarily a surfcaster, but I also freedive, scuba dive, kayak, and do a little bit of boat fishing. If I take risks, even at long odds, something bad will happen because I make a lot of trips and those odds will eventually catch up with me. So I consider myself extra cautious. I always think about the worst-case scenario of my activities, and an ocean kayak fishing trip certainly gets extra consideration. So what might go wrong? Maybe I’ll somehow flip the kayak. I’ve never even come close to flipping accidentally, but I’ve done it intentionally to practice righting the yak and climbing back in. I’m wearing a PFD, so I’m not going to drown. The water temperature is 70 degrees, so cold is not an issue. If the water was significantly colder, I have plenty of wetsuits and would wear one to match the conditions. Because I do this only on calm days, the chance of taking a spill while launching or landing is greatly minimized. In that case the PFD will keep me out of trouble, and the kayak would likely wash up on the beach. I’m more concerned about my gear in these situations and store my valuables inside the hull if I think there’s even a remote chance of trouble at the surf line. The “rod pod” feature of my Ocean Kayak Prowler Trident gives me easy access to the inside of the hull from where I’m sitting. I consider use of a sit-on-top kayak to be safer than the type you sit in because any water that washes onto a sit-on goes out the scupper holes.
My one serious concern is getting run over by a boater who’s not paying attention. When I bought my second kayak, I chose yellow over my preferred green just so I’d have the extra visibility. There’s no way a boater should miss a 16-foot bright yellow object. Nonetheless, I stay away from the fleet and the front of the inlet. When I set up for a drift, I do so in a way that gives me the best view of where boats are likely to be coming from. Because I like to fish Shinnecock East in the early mornings, I do my best to have a very good view of the boats coming out of the inlet, which is always over a mile away. My concern is for the offshore anglers that typically head southeasterly and into the sun. I’ve never had to react to a boat headed my way, but I can move in a hurry if I have to. When I take everything into consideration, I feel much safer in my kayak on the ocean than I do in my Jeep on the highway.
It’s a given that you need to pick a calm day to do this fishing safely, but calm days also keep the paddling (or pedaling) to a reasonable level. If you’re out there in a stiff wind, you’ll spend an uncomfortable amount of time paddling into it to repeat your drifts. Under breezy conditions, your faster drift speed might also make it difficult to do the light-tackle jigging because you won’t be able to keep the small jigs on the bottom. A drift sock can help keep the drift speed in a reasonable range if there’s a moderate breeze. On the other end of the spectrum, fluking is tough when there’s a very slow drift. I don’t like to troll for fluke in a boat, but it’s very easy and enjoyable in a kayak. I place the bait rod in my front rodholder and take an occasional stroke of the paddle while watching my speed on the GPS. I’ve had boring trips brought to life by doing this.
Like many stretches of inshore ocean waters in the Northeast, Long Island’s South Shore provides some excellent ocean fluking opportunities. While it’s normally assumed that a substantial ocean-capable boat is required, a quality sit-on-top fishing kayak can be used safely under the right conditions to take advantage of this fishing. One of the big advantages of a kayak is that finding a place to launch is generally much easier than finding a place to launch a boat. By combining the access options that a kayak provides with the bait-gathering opportunities available in the nearby bays, kayak anglers are in a good position to take advantage of the excellent fluking that our inshore ocean waters have to offer.