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Montauk The Way It Used To Be…

Perhaps my real love of fishing flourished when, as a child, my father took me fishing on Long Island for fluke, flounder, sea bass and porgies, or in the Catskill Mountains for trout. Everything about the whole picture fascinated me. Occasionally, my parents drove to the South Shore at Hampton Bays and I watched the surfcasters endlessly casting and retrieving metal lures. I wore the print off fishing magazines, especially Salt Water Sportsman articles by Frank Woolner and Hal Lyman on the fantastic surf fishing on Cape Cod. Names like Race Point, P-Town, Nauset Inlet, Monomoy, and Great Point became indelibly etched in my mind. I also read about Montauk Point, and all its spots – magic names like Shagwong, North Bar, Jones Reef and “Under the Light.”

My family drove out to Montauk for picnics, and I was awed by the beauty of the place. I never did any serious surf fishing at Montauk in those days, but that changed when I got my first car.
 

Ralph Vigmostad

The author with a 62-pound striper taken from the Montauk surf on November 10, 1967.

Back in the early 50s, the Montauk Chamber of Commerce ran a full-page ad on the back cover of Salt Water Sportsman every month from May through October. The ad showed a photo of Montauk Light and a charter boat trolling about a mile offshore. It read, “If you fish, sooner or later you will fish Montauk.” Truer words were never spoken. Back then, the number of IGFA line class records held by Montauk was only exceeded by the Bahama Islands.
 
My first surf-fishing trip to Montauk was in late October 1957. I arrived well before daybreak on a Sunday morning. I rigged up and walked down to Turtle Cove, just west of the lighthouse. I quickly hooked a small bluefish on tin and made some more casts before I moved around the light and worked my way north, making a dozen or so casts at various spots until it was full light.

Photo courtesy ©MONTAUK LIBRARY rights reserved

At North Bar, I hooked a small bass. I made my way south to Jones Reef, where the tide was halfway out by then. A green four-wheel-drive Jeep station wagon drove up—in those days, green was the only color that it came in—and three surfcasters exited the vehicle. They promptly adorned their belts and jig bags, and made their way out on the reef as far as waders allowed in the moderate surf. Almost immediately, I saw three bent rods. The bass were all nice fish in the 12- to 20-pound range. As a novice, I did not have felt sandals or metal spikes, and as I made my way out on the reef, I stumbled and got drenched. Soaking wet, I started to cast, got a backlash (by then, I never backlashed – it must have been buck fever), picked it out, continued to cast, but got no hits. The threesome returned to their Jeep with two or three nice bass each and drove off. With what I had just seen, I knew I had discovered Nirvana, and my surf-fishing life would never be the same.

The next twenty years were wonderful and exciting times, and it only took a few seasons to really learn Montauk and become a “regular,” as they say.

big Montauk striped bass

When I’d started fishing Montauk, conventional reels were the norm, but the late 50s saw the advent of quality saltwater spinning reels. Fiberglass surf rods from Lamiglas and Harnel on the West Coast were the first choices among Montauk surfmen. Most of us used the popular Lami 1165 blank, often called the “honey blank” on account of its color. It was 11½ feet long and had a medium action—back then you could buy it for $9. To the rod, I’d wind or tape three or four Mildrum stainless steel guides and top it off with an agate tip. The butt section was wrapped in either neo-cork grips or neo-cork tape.

Luxor spinning reel

Luxor spinning reels were the most popular choice for surfcasters back in the early 60s.

I preferred a skeleton reel seat to a conventional seat because using electrical tape to attach the reel gave me a much warmer grip in cold weather. As for the reel, the French Luxor was the workhorse. It was a solid reel with a direct-drive cam, and was easily converted to manual pickup. Many years later, Van Staal used this same design. The Luxor was not waterproof, but its simple design allowed it to be taken apart, drained of saltwater, and re-greased in 15 minutes. This reel changed names to Crack in the 70s due to a legal dispute over patent rights in France, then stopped production around 1980. If your Crack wore out and you couldn’t find black-market parts, your next best bet was the Penn 704 or 706.

Back then, various brands of monofilament were used until Ande from West Germany appeared, and pink Ande became the first choice. For the fishermen who continued to use conventional line, braided nylon, referred to as “squidding line” was most popular. However, with the tendency for line to fray along Montauk’s rocks, some used monofilament even though it was not as easy to cast. To cut the cost of braided nylon, some surf-men used parachute line (a nylon used to weave a thicker strand for parachutes). It was made in New Jersey, was inexpensive, and cast well, but it had a short life due to fraying.

I did not use a leader, but like many of my friends, doubled the last 20 feet of line with a Bimini twist and added a snap swivel. When I burned the tag end of the knot with a cigarette, the mono mushroomed to a smooth surface and the Bimini rarely caught on any guide during the cast. For the most part, I fished 20-pound test; however, I dropped down to 15 or even 12 for a longer cast. Even with the last 20 feet doubled, this was a risky strategy.

Night fishing was primarily done with Gibbs 2.5-ounce darters—there were no needlefish plugs in those days—while the daytime lures consisted of popping plugs, like the Atom Striper Swiper and the Gibbs Pencil, plus an assortment of tins, including Hopkins and Kastmasters.

In my early days at Montauk, four-wheel-drive vehicles were unusual until the late 60s. You didn’t really need a buggy to fish “out front” from the light to North Bar, but it did make it easier to get from one spot to another. A fish box was also a big asset when one had 50 to 100 pounds of fish on a stringer. Bear in mind, there were no limits back in those days.

old Jeep Wagon ad

Before four-wheel-drive vehicles became available, the two-wheel-drive Jeep Station Wagon was the most common beach buggy at Montauk.

For getting to Shagwong and the sand beach, a beach buggy was invaluable. Most of my friends and I slept in our buggies or station wagons in those days. A typical buggy often was a two-wheel-drive Willys Jeep station wagon that, if at least 8-10 years old, could be bought for $100-$200. These vehicles had to be fitted with the largest tires possible (the less tread the better) and deflated to 10 or 12 psi for beach travel. This meant that the rims had to be replaced to handle the larger tires. In the case of Willys, Chrysler rims fit the lug pattern, so we purchased rims and tires from junk dealers for a few bucks each.

Tubeless tires couldn’t handle very low tire pressure without the rim of the tire losing the seal, so innertubes had to be installed. To air up for regular road use, I carried what was called a spark plug pump – a device that replaced one of the engine’s spark plugs and connected to a hose and the tire. I started the engine and the pistons pumped up the tires. It wasn’t clean air, but it didn’t seem to damage the innertubes. Contrary to modern engines, the spark plugs back then were very easily accessible. We didn’t bring our buggies home until the end of the season in November—we’d park them behind gas stations in town.

Sam Cox

Photo courtesy ©MONTAUK LIBRARY rights reserved

Although I frequently lament not having the freedom to roam that we once had at Montauk, I regularly count my blessings. I have been up and down the East Coast to many areas that were once accessible and are now either private or made off-limits by the very people who were supposed to help us, America’s citizens. I was initially enthused when the Outer Banks, Cape Cod and Fire Island became National Seashores, thinking that private development would be curtailed. It was, but it also essentially shut the fishermen out, especially on Cape Cod. The excuse was that certain individuals were abusing the beach and dunes, which was true, but rather than punish the guilty few with heavy fines, beach driving was prohibited for everyone.

montauk point map

We were very lucky that 90 years ago, governor Al Smith made Montauk Point a state park. Additionally, Hither Hills State Park was founded, and another three miles of beach, known as Napeague, was put under state control. The two-mile stretch from the light to Driftwood Cove on the South Side, encompassing Turtle Cove, Browns, and Kings Point, is now Camp Hero State Park. This area used to be an Air Force base—part of the early warning radar system during the cold war. At that time, the Air Force gave fishermen complete access day and night with a free pass they issued. We did lose access to 3 miles on the South Side (including hotspots such as Caswells, Coconuts, Frisbies and Ditch Plains) due to private home development. However, if you are willing and able to do a lot of hiking, you can walk into those areas along the rocky beach.

Shagwong, which used to be a cattle ranch with an owner who gracefully granted us access, is now a Suffolk County park—another stroke of luck.

Back then, the bass fishing was best in the spring and fall, especially the latter. There was sporadic summer action during northeast blows, but autumn was the time. I did not spend a lot of time on the South Side or the sand beach, primarily because the fishing was so good out front from the light to North Bar. September and October saw many daytime blitzes, but the nights produced far more quality fish. While North Bar and the light had a few nights that produced “pigs,” fish over 40 pounds, the bulk of what I called quality fishing produced fish from 15 to 30 pounds. On many occasions, most bass caught were under 20 inches.

Montauk surfcaster circa 1950s

Montauk’s rocky shorelines have produced big bass since the dawn of surfcasting. Photo courtesy ©MONTAUK LIBRARY rights reserved

Around 1967, I began using a wetsuit, enjoying the freedom to reach so much more fishy water without the concern of filling up a pair of waders. When fishing on Jones reef at night wearing a wetsuit, “striking out” was a one-in-ten occurrence. Some nights brought two or three fish; others eight to ten “quality” fish. I believe the first wetsuiter at Montauk was a gentleman named Alston Beckman, and he was followed by Jack Frech and then Fred Schwab, all very fine fishermen. The first two were certified fishing fanatics. A year later, my good friend Mike Damberger and I (and about a dozen others) switched to wetsuits, though they weren’t necessary when fishing the lighthouse or the sand beach areas.

Jack Frech made his own plugs and gave me what he called a “Montauk Darter.” It was a copy of the Gibbs darter, but weighed an ounce more and was a little thicker in diameter to give it the same buoyancy. It added about 30 feet to my cast, but was more tiring to throw for hours on end. I bought a cheap wood lathe and made some. I want to say that the extra casting distance made a big difference, but in all those years, I can count on one hand how many times it made a difference. However, on those rare nights when I got a hit in the first five cranks and all the other guys in the water next to me couldn’t pick a fish, well…I will never forget those nights.

Montauk keepers

Big bluefish were a rarity in the author’s early years of fishing Montauk; a 10-pounder was considered a trophy. – Photo courtesy of MONTAUK historical society

It is interesting to note how much larger some of the bluefish have gotten since I started fishing Montauk. When I was in high school, a 10-pound bluefish was considered humongous. The world record then was caught off Barnegat Inlet in 1945 and weighed 14¾ pounds, but that was broken in 1950 with a 20-pound fish at Montauk. The record of 31 pounds caught in Hatteras stands now, but every year Long Island sees countless numbers of blues between 20 and 25 pounds.

I should mention that weakfish were almost extinct in the 50s and 60s, but the 70s saw a decade of a resurgence on Long Island. I had many good summer nights at Shagwong in that decade, but weakfish became scarce again in the 80s.

Starting around 1957 and ending around 1963, pollock, a bottom feeding fish caught primarily while cod fishing at sea, invaded the Montauk surf in May, early June and again in November. Hordes of pollock moved into the surf at Jones reef and North Bar. It was usually at daybreak or late afternoon to dusk; at times, there were acres of breaking fish hitting tins. Some of the schools were made up of 5- to 7-pound fish, while others held 10- to 15- pounders; sometimes, pollock as large as 27 pounds were caught. In November, they sometimes hit plugs at night. It was great sport, but it totally came to an end around 1963. Most people believe that the Russian commercial fleet, which was legally fishing just a few miles from shore in those years, decimated the fisheries. In those years, there were also some surf-caught pollock at Race Point on the Cape and in Point Judith, Rhode Island.

Harry Bruno Montauk surfcasters

Striped bass fishing was phenomenal in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy ©MONTAUK LIBRARY rights reserved

In the 60s, there were several surfmen who would car-top or trailer lightweight aluminum boats out to Montauk and surf launch them at Clarks Cove just north of North Bar. The most popular boats were either Starcraft or Duratech and were powered by 10 or 15 horsepower outboards. On calm October nights, you could easily count 20 to 30 of them. Many of these guys did very well on bass, but I never got involved in it. It was a copycat of what the regulars did at Provincetown at the Cape ten years earlier and died out when the government took over the Cape Cod beaches. Not only did these Cape regulars take some very large bass, but on occasion they took school tuna, but that never happened at Montauk. The tin-boat fleet also came to an end at Clarks Cove when the State Park authorities felt it was getting out of hand.

After the bass fishery collapsed in the early 80s, a moratorium was put in place and the fish came back quite strong. It recovered in the 90s and the first decade of this century, but the surf picture has dropped off in the last three or four years. It used to be that when a school of migrating bass hit Montauk from Rhode Island, they stayed for a week or so. When they departed south, they were replaced with another school from New England, and so on, for most of the autumn. The last few seasons, however, There have been only had four or five days of good surf fishing for bass at Montauk. In July and August, the boats do very well fishing for stripers because they target a mass of resident bass that have been easy to locate with modern electronics.

Montauk light past vs present

Over the past 200 years, approximately 200 feet of Montauk Point has washed away into the ocean. Today, the lighthouse stands less than 100 feet from the edge of the bluff. Photo Courtesy MONTAUK LIGHTHOUSE NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARK

There has been a very noticeable change in beach conditions at Montauk. The rip at North Bar is essentially gone and False Bar is not what it used to be. Jones Reef has changed, and not for the better; other than on a dead calm night, the conditions under the light make fishing in the water on the lower rocks just about impossible. Fishing the sea wall above these rocks makes landing a good fish a two-man operation. One can see how dramatic these changes are when landmark rocks such as the “Twin Rocks” at the light, “Weakfish Rock” at the bluff, and the “Big Flat Rock” off Evans are no longer three feet out of the water at high tide, but are now invisible. I am no geologist, but this proves that these rocks are sinking into the ocean bottom. It can’t be explained by the rising sea level, which is only a matter of inches in this century. There is still plenty of good water out front, but despite being a rocky coast, it has changed somewhat.

Summertime Montauk surfcasters

Summertime surfcasters in the 1970s enjoyed the sun and Montauk’s fine fishing. Photo curtesy ©MONTAUK LIBRARY rights reserved

These days, the main group of surf-men still picking large bass at Montauk are those wetsuiters swimming at nighttime out to rocks 300 to 500 feet from shore – on the south side at Kings and Caswells. Finding these rocks at night takes much daylight reconnoitering and these guys deserve their success. Even that group, however, was doing much better ten years ago.

With the reduced success these days, I have noticed that many “regulars” are not to be seen anymore. I can only assume that some of them are fishing their local waters, while others may have gone to a boat—some may have even taken up golf. To the latter two categories, I can only say that they were never real surfmen! A friend of mine, a superb surfcaster lamenting about how crowded Montauk was, said, “What this place needs is a couple of really bad years, and that will get rid of the crowds.” Poor fall runs notwithstanding, I fish on. I no longer fish in a wetsuit, and at 79, I can’t navigate the rocks well anymore, so I stick to the easier areas. But, I still fish. It’s in my blood!

Today, I spend most of my time on conservation matters. I would love to see the next generation enjoy the fine fishing that I did. It is discouraging that the Chesapeake Bay has experienced only two good spawning years in the last decade, but I hope for the best, and I am deeply thankful for the wonderful years I experienced.


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