Pictured above: Captain Vinny Catalano of Joey C Charters admires a big blue that’s about to be released to battle another day.
Cast flies to bass and blues on the North Fork of Long Island.
Three monster bluefish in a row rose up to crush the big white popper that Vinny Catalano was working rapidly across the face of a roiled rip.
“Did you see that one?” he shouted, as yet another slammer joined the vicious attack. “Get ready…cast now!”
My backcast felt strong and I could feel the foam fly popper loading up perfectly before I brought it forward to drop three feet ahead of the commotion. One strip, two strips, and fish on!
“I love it when we play bait and switch,” said Vinny Catalano, as the 12-pound blue turned on the afterburners and sizzled away in the general direction of Fishers Island.
I set about applying enough pressure to turn the brute back in our direction while pods of vicious choppers—and an occasional striper—continued to slash bay anchovies near the surface. After a quick photo and a smooth release, we repositioned the boat and were at it again with another hefty blue straining at the end of my line.
Such is the action with big blues during September, October, and even early November off the eastern tip of Long Island’s North Fork.
TRIANGLE OF FUN
With so much bait in the water, there really is no set hotspot on a seasonal basis. From day to day, the predator species, which can also include false albacore from late August through mid-October, simply set up on the plumes of baitfish washing out of the estuaries. This means they can be found almost anywhere in a large triangle from Orient Point to Gardiners Island on over to Fishers Island. If you feel adventurous, or prefer to work the slightly more civil waters of eastern Long Island Sound, there are usually aggressive schools of blues and bass to be had in the rips off Hortons, Rocky and Mulford points as well.
“Given that the East End is awash in big blues and mixed-sized stripers during the fall,” Catalano said, as we continued pounding the ‘gators, “it’s more important to time things right than it is to try and guess where the fish are going to be. That means getting an early start whenever possible and focusing your efforts on the slower stages of the tide.”
While bait-fishermen, diamond jiggers and bucktailers often tailor their trips to match up with the push of mid-tide currents, fly-fishermen will do better to target the last hour or two of any moving water and consider fishing right through the slack between tides.
“With fly-fishing, you must be very deliberate in presenting your offerings,” notes Catalano. “Most anglers need to get a little closer to the schools than when spin-fishing or diamond jigging, which means it can take a little longer to get your boat in position and your fly right on the fish. Especially around small structure, you might only get in a cast or two if the tide is pushing hard. It’s also more difficult to stay on the fish when the tide is running full bore. With the current pushing a little slower, however, you might be able to get in several casts at a selected target or school of fish.”
Indeed, on our trip we fished the end of incoming, slack water and the start of outgoing, which Catalano called “the ideal slot” since it allowed us to line up the slower stages of the tide for just about our entire outing.
Another point that fly-casters in particular should be aware of is that low-light conditions can really sharpen the bite. Generally speaking, overcast days are better than those featuring bright skies, evening hours are better than midday, and early dawn is best of all. Be sure to take advantage of foggy, overcast days as they can see non-stop blitzes from start to finish.
“Probably the biggest factor you can stack in your favor is to get an early start,” suggests Catalano. “Especially with the bass, first light is not only beautiful out here, it offers the surest shot at raising big fish with foam surface poppers—my first choice for fun and excitement under any conditions. I try to get out for the predawn bite whenever possible, but even more so if the forecast calls for sunny skies. Often, it’s harder to convince clients to arrive at the boat before the sun rises than it is to hook fish at daybreak.”
SMOOTH, STURDY TACKLE
Of course, you’ll want to consider wind direction when heading out, but as long as it isn’t blowing too hard, don’t let that be an overriding concern. If breezes are stiff, begin searching in the lee of an island or bluff, which should make casting the long wand a little more manageable. Cool, freshening winds from the east or northeast frequently stimulate the bite, although a strong northeast blow can quickly shut you down.
In terms of tackle, there’s nothing outside the realm of standard saltwater fly-fishing gear required to make the most of this monster mash. For blues that can top 10 pounds and husky schoolie stripers (the norm at this time of year), a 10-weight rod and floating line work well. Since the majority of the fish will be on or near the surface, there’s really no need for intermediate lines under most conditions. You can get away with a 9-weight if that’s all you’ve got, but a 10-weight with floating line, says Catalano, allows most anglers to pick up their lines faster from the water and get out a second or third shot at cruising fish, if necessary. The heavier rod, of course, also provides a little more backbone should an 18-pound blue or cow bass crush your fly. In terms of reels, any appropriate-sized brand-name product should work fine as long as it has a smooth-working sealed drag with sufficient stopping power.
“My own setup for this type of fishing is a 10-weight, Scott Meridian fly rod matched to a 3-Tand reel,” states Catalano, who is a Scott Fly Rod pro staffer. “The Meridian comes in both two-piece and four-piece formats. I like the two-piece slightly better for this application as it is a little faster and great for tossing large flies or punching a big fly into the wind. It also has plenty of backbone, which you’ll need when battling anything from blues to stripers to false albacore in these waters.”
Because you’ll be dealing with some ferocious dentures most days, it’s a good idea to go a little heavy when it comes to leader selection. Set up with a seven- or eight-foot tapered leader, if possible, but be aware that a straight length of 30-pound test mono will work in a pinch. If the blues are thick, as they often are, you can finish off with a 6-inch length of 40- to 50-pound-test wire. Go to an 80-pound-test fluorocarbon shock tippet if the bass begin to show, but appear a bit line shy.
WHEN POPPERS DON’T WORK
Getting back to the foam poppers for a minute, white, yellow and green always seem to work well early in the morning. I’ve also had good luck with red and blue during more gentlemanly hours. In either case, go with large poppers at this time of the year. Most of the bait is large now and the fish are feeding aggressively, so there’s little need to scale things down.
It would be nice if the popper bite lasted all day, but most of the time it doesn’t. Eventually you’ll hit a point when sub-surface presentations greatly increase the odds of success. When you feel this shift beginning to swing, it’s time to match the hatch a little more carefully, which means you should carry patterns to approximate a variety of baits. On any given day, menu specials might include a smorgasbord of rain bait such as bay anchovies, spearing and sand eels. Peanut and adult bunker will likely be in the mix, as well, and don’t forget the occasional migrating schools of mullet, small bluefish and even baby weaks.
That is certainly a lot of choices, so it helps to narrow things down by choosing a few favored patterns in various sizes that can mimic a wide variety of baitfish. Consider olive or white Clouser Minnows to cover the smaller, slimmer stuff. Puglisi Minnows and Steve Farrar Peanut Bunker patterns in chartreuse, white or blue do a good job of approximating bunker both big and small. For really big stuff, a heavier Lefty’s Deceiver is a good choice.
“The retrieve with any of these streamers will vary from day to day,” cautions Catalano. “Watch the fish to get a feel for their aggressiveness. Finning, gliding and lazy-looking bruisers usually want a slow retrieve; aggressive fish want those flies to be moving fast. Be aware that this can change from day to day, tide to tide, or even hour to hour, so you observe as much as you cast. When all else fails, bump up the size of your flies.”
STRIKE IT RIGHT!
When you boil it down, the real beauty of this Long Island East End action isn’t only that the fish are big, willing and able—it’s also that you can’t do much to screw it up after setting the hook! Even novice fly-casters have a pretty good success rate with a little bit of coaching— and should a monster slip the hook, there’s usually another lurking close behind.
“The most important thing is to use a strip set,” reminds Catalano. “By keeping your rod tip always pointed down at the water and setting the hook with a hard strip of the line, you remove all slack and bury the point deep with one motion. Don’t lift the rod until the hook has dug in and the fish begins to power off. At that point, just hang on, and you are halfway home.”
That may be the basic rule, but there are a couple of small points you might want to keep in mind as the fight unfolds. First off, line management is always important. Remember that fly line will wrap around anything it can, so be aware of your loops as you retrieve line and drop it to the floor. Use your stripping hand to make sure each loop clears the reel at the base of the rod. A lot of fish are lost when the line wraps around the reel, providing a big fish enough extra leverage to slice or break the leader.
Most anglers will battle their fish with the rod held at a 45-degree angle to the water. That’s usually okay, but should you hook into something really big, consider fighting the fish with the rod held parallel to the water. This will lessen the chances of the hook falling out because the rod will not be bouncing up and down, and will help you more easily turn a running lunker. In general, though, if you keep the rod bent and don’t allow any slack, most fish will stay buttoned.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to sample the wild fly-fishing to be found in the waters of Gardiners Bay and eastern Long Island Sound, right now is prime time to head out and give it a go. Schools of hefty blues, school bass and explosive false albacore have been thick in recent years, and this fall is already off to a great start. Rising early and planning midweek trips will help you avoid the crowds, but you’ll have to leave the dock long before sunrise to beat Catalano to the hottest action.
“I fish all year long,” says this fun and knowledgeable skipper, “but I live for the fly-rod blitzes of fall.”