Most accomplished surf anglers I’ve talked with over the years have indicated that catching fish is only one facet of their enjoyment. They mentioned other things such as tackle preparation, the hunt, the unique beauty of various locales, and the solitude of night fishing. In addition, sooner or later, every one of them came around to discussing a particular day, night, or run of fish that left an indelible mark, not only because of the fish, but also because of the anglers they fished with. Happily, I know that feeling, too.
Take, for example, a run of big stripers at the tip of Democrat Point in early November 10 or so years ago. For the first three or four nights, there were eight of us throwing 2-ounce bucktails in the outgoing rip. There was only a small amount of shoreline available to present a lure properly—a little too far up the inlet or a little too far down meant the lure missed the key area on the swing. So, we all fished, we all caught fish, and no one interfered with anyone else even though we fished in close quarters. The last night I was there, a horde of new guys showed up. Most failed at appropriate etiquette, and some arrived ill-equipped for the surf in calf-high boots with 7-foot rods. I never went back after that night; not because the fish stopped biting or a storm blew us out, but because the behavior of the newcomers took the joy out of the experience. What had been more like a ballet of top-notch surfcasters turned into a melee of confusion. I enjoyed the fishing, but I think I enjoyed the ballet and the camaraderie more.
The Cedar Bar
For me, the best of these special angling experiences occurred on the Cedar Bar in the 1980s. I remember hearing about the bar as a kid and fishing it as a young adult, but then something happened around 1980. What had been a standard-shaped bar on the west side of Fire Island Inlet suddenly began to enlarge. Instead of growing west as most South Shore bars do, it veered straight south into the Atlantic Ocean. When it eventually stopped growing, it extended out about three-quarters of a mile into the ocean, parallel to the Democrat Point jetty. For the first time, there was sand to drive or walk on that allowed anglers access to a massive set of offshore bars that previously we could only dream about. We always knew there were fish on those bars because we could see the boats hauling them in; now it was our turn. That bar remained for almost 10 years before disappearing in just weeks, but that decade was special indeed.
Monster bluefish were the norm then, but it wasn’t the fishing part I remember best. It was the “old gang” that I still see in my mind’s eye and the stories we made together—like the ones below.
It was John Fritz and George Wade who, as they did every year during the mullet run, went down to the bar only to discover that the old form was gone, replaced with a peninsula. They caught a lot of fish and spread the word to the rest of us. Remember, in those years there were no cell phones or social media, so it was easier to keep things quiet. Most of the guys were members of the Farragut Striper Club, while I was a member of the High Hill Striper Club – the only outsider. No one objected to my presence because I’d been a regular with this group for years, and they knew I wouldn’t blow their cover.
Over time, stories began to accumulate. For example, take the quiet 12-hour bluefish blitz one October evening. Most of us were on the bar all day, but the action was picky. I left at 4 pm because my dog needed walking and I wanted dinner. When I drove onto the bar at 7 pm, the gang was leaving. I ran to them, asking what had happened while I was gone. The guys laughed and told me I missed an incredible bite. “Is it over?” I asked. Jack indicated the action had slowed at slack current but then picked up again. “So, why are you guys leaving?” Again, laughter rang out and Jack said, “Are you kidding? We’re tired, man, and there aren’t enough lures left between us to keep fishing.”
I was alone on the beach and not about to leave until I gave it a try. I suited up, made my first cast, and immediately hooked up to a bluefish. I didn’t fight the fish for long because another blue chopped through my running line. I retied, recast, hooked up again, and got cut off once more. This happened over and over because there were so many blues there. I moved right and left, but it didn’t matter. I even flipped the lure out instead of casting, tightened the drag, but it still didn’t matter. By 11 pm, I was out of lures and steaming mad. I vowed that I was going to land one fish before I left, even if it meant staying all night.
I climbed into the back of my truck and rummaged around until I found a few beaten-up swimming plugs with rusted hooks. I lost a couple of them, but I finally landed a blue and could go home.
I spent that Saturday refueling my tackle larder, and it was expensive. I told my son, Drew, about it, and he and my friend Tom joined me on Saturday night. We said hello to the usual gang, then Drew quickly dressed and vanished toward the tip of the bar, while Tom stood casting to my right. We both sent needlefish into the darkness and both hooked up. Tom landed his blue, but I was bitten off. That kept repeating, mirroring Friday night, while Tom landed fish after fish. “Where’s Drew?” I asked the gang. No one had seen him. Now, Drew was in his late teens at the time, and was fishing about a quarter-mile down the beach. Unknown to me, he had brought along only one Gibbs bottle plug; it was the only nighttime lure he owned. He didn’t ask me for a supply; he just started fishing with one lure. Well, I thought, he’ll be back soon and need some lures. But he never did.
Eventually, as I kept getting bitten off and Tom caught fish, one of the gang came along and said that Drew had just caught a 37-pound striper as well as a mess of big blues. When the bite died off, Drew was ready to go home. We talked as I drove, and he mentioned the one bottle plug he’d used all night. I was proud, but also profoundly confused because I’d lost another mess of lures. On Monday, I showed up after work and the gang had a field day at my expense.
“Maybe we should do a beach seminar on knot tying?”
“Yeah, or how to land fish without breaking your line.”
Busting on each other is one of the joys, and we all get turns at it.
The gang had assembled at the tip of the bar the night before Hurricane Gloria plowed into Long Island. We could fish effectively only at the tip of the bar because of massive waves, gusty winds, and murky water that pounded its sides, so we huddled together and caught monster bluefish. Suddenly, a big wave came from the southwest, another from the southeast, and a third from the south. They lifted, slammed together, and accelerated toward the beach so fast there was not time to react. The combined wave hit Rich and me square on, knocked us down, and the receding water dragged us into the Atlantic. I thought it was the end despite the fact that I was wearing a top cinched at the neck and wrists with tape, and I also had a tight belt at my waist. I could feel the sandy water slowly seeping into my waders. Thankfully, my friend Rich is six-foot-four and his 220 pounds are about as fit as an NFL linebacker. Although I couldn’t stop my flow out to sea, Rich apparently found some purchase because a strong, meaty hand grabbed my clothing and halted my sweep out to sea. I suppose Rich had experienced a surge of adrenalin because he was able to lift me high enough to toss me a few feet up the beach. We linked hands, then using our rod butts and toes, we pulled ourselves up the beach slope inches at a time between crashing waves.
One year in October, a large tropical storm passed just to the east of Montauk Point. It generated 15-foot waves in the ocean that rumbled across the mouth of the inlet and slammed into the “new” Cedar Bar. It was impossible to fish on the east side of the bar, so we piled onto the tip as well as a stretch of beach a hundred feet long on the west side. We used the east wind to propel our lures a long way and found lots of bluefish waiting to engage us. Although it was tight quarters and the weather uncooperative, there were no tangles, no one jumped into a spot vacated by an angler fighting a fish, and the rhythm of the ballet dominated the afternoon while fish-catching became secondary. The gang was in good form that afternoon and lots of blues in the 20-pound class were caught and released.
Sadly, the peninsula bar is gone as are most of the “old gang.” Although most are no longer with us, memories of them as people, the fishing stories, and many great, finely choreographed fishing ballets will linger with me. On the happy side, a few of those anglers are still around, meaning we are creating new angling memories, though our adventures are much less vigorous today. Through it all, I’ve learned that experiences top results. Anglers probably don’t think about how many fish they caught on a given day as they live their last days, but I hope they do remember the laughs, the teasing, and the ballet of skilled comrades.