It’s been said that for every new surfcaster who falls in love with Montauk, another drives home disappointed. I can’t say for certain what’s behind this dichotomy, but I can offer some structured thinking to help focus your efforts and develop a handful of viable fishing strategies. Let’s start with some background information, and then work into the basics.
Surfcasters might refer to Montauk as “Mecca” or “The End,” but the US Geological Survey suggests a trip to Montauk is “a pilgrimage for individuals interested in coastal dynamics and Pleistocene history.” Translated, this means you can fish all the way up the Eastern Seaboard, and you will encounter mostly low-lying barrier island beaches made up of sand. It’s not until you arrive at the western end of Montauk that you begin to see a marked change in the shoreline profile.
We can thank the Wisconsin Glacier for all of this. It receded about 25,000 years ago, leaving huge deposits of soil and boulders. Today, most of the inshore bottom surrounding Montauk is covered in rocks and boulders of various shapes and sizes. These form the basis of the endless reefs and flow obstructions all along Montauk’s North and South sides, and are one of the key features that makes Montauk so special. (It also helps that it is the tip of an island sticking out more than 100 miles into the Atlantic, but you already knew that.)
If you’ve never fished rocks for a string of consecutive days, you’ll need to invest in Korkers and some footwear offering good ankle support. Be sure to have a backup pair of waders, or at least a decent repair kit with patches and AquaSeal.
At least ninety percent of all surfcasting takes place in one of five main areas: Shagwong, the North Side, the South Side, Town Beach, and Hither Hills. Each area can be further broken down into dozens of locally-named spots. Many are no wider than 100-200 yards; others are as specific as a submerged rock. Regardless of the spot, one can think of the entire 13 winding miles from Montauk Inlet to the lighthouse, and then west to Hither Hills, as a series of points and coves, allowing a shore-bound fisherman to take advantage of (or hide from) just about any possible wind/tide combination.
It’s impossible to predict how schools of bait will move, but it’s safe to classify Shagwong and the North Side as outgoing spots, and the rest of the south-facing beaches as incoming spots. I write this knowing full well that I’ll run into a surfcaster or two this fall who will offer some opposing views. I won’t disagree, but I think this is a more acceptable approach than sending anyone off chasing nuances and exceptions.
Why is the North Side said to be an outgoing spot? Assuming no major influence from strong winds, there is a much more noticeable west-to-east (left to right) pull on the drop along any north-facing beach. Likewise, there is a more pronounced west-to-east (right to left) sweep during the flood on the south side.
Despite the vast opportunities that Montauk offers, I won’t sugar-coat the fact that you’ll need up to four different permits to access and/or drive the beaches mentioned above. The good news is, except for Shagwong, a NY State permit is all you’ll need if you are willing to park and walk to the rest. Most of the Montauk Town beaches can be easily accessed by foot via legal street parking. Likewise, as mentioned above, if you are staying at a local motel, some offer guests a temporary Town beach parking permit. Whatever your preferences, here are the main permits that apply.
Please Note: Some permits require proof of enrollment in the NY State Marine Recreational Fishing Registry. Always call ahead to confirm that: (1) permits are still available, and (2) the beaches you are interested in fishing are not closed.
- NYS 4×4 Annual State Night Parking: $110 ($65 Resident) 4×4 access to lighthouse area and North Side as well as access to Hither Hills, Napeague and other State beaches across Long Island. (631) 668-5000
- NYS Camp Hero Annual: $75 Non-Resident ($40 Resident) – South Side Night Parking
- NYS Park Daily Parking: $8 Daily Fee parking lighthouse and Camp Hero (yes, despite having a night permit, a parking fee is collected during daytime hours).
- NYS 7-Day “Visitor Fishing” Parking Pass: $25 – Lighthouse parking only. Walk-on access to North and South Sides, Memorial Day – Labor Day.
- NYS Fall 48-Hour Non-Resident Parking Pass: $55.
- Suffolk County Outer Beach 4×4 Annual Non-Resident: $250, Annual Resident $100 (with $30 Green Key), which also covers other Suffolk beaches.
- Suffolk County Outer Beach 4×4 Day Pass Non-Resident: $44 ($33 Resident)
- East Hampton Annual Non-Resident Beach Parking Permit: $375
- East Hampton Annual Non-Resident “Drive-On” Permit: $275
“A quaint drinking village with a fishing problem” is a humorous, yet accurate description of the Montauk I’ve known for the last 25 years. However, that all changed about 12 years ago when a new generation of visitors (mainly from New York City) took a liking to the gritty, rugged, and even bohemian culture of Montauk. Parlay that with a specific interest in the blossoming “surfing culture,” and within a decade, Montauk had gone viral for a whole new generation of young seasonal visitors.
This is all very relevant to surfcasters because many of the freedoms we used to take for granted—such as parking in any town lot without a permit, fishing all night and sleeping in our trucks wherever the fishing dictated—is no longer possible given a dramatic increase in law enforcement. Montauk is now much more popular in the fall, and you’ll have to look a bit harder to find off-season deals on hotel rooms. The upside is that many hotels offer guests hard-to-get town parking permits along with better overall accommodations. For those of you traveling with significant others, you’ll find better restaurants that stay open later into the fall, and more festivals and “things to do” to entertain your party while you are out fishing. To be sure, Montauk still welcomes its die-hard fishing visitors during the fall shoulder season—as long as we follow the rules regarding parking, beach driving, alcohol consumption, and beach bonfires.
Given the myriad of possible bait-gamefish interactions that might take place within a cast of Montauk Point, it’s easy for a newcomer to feel overwhelmed. I’ve found it more practical to break the season down into three main periods: Labor Day to Columbus Day, Columbus Day to Veteran’s Day, and Veteran’s Day to Thanksgiving.
Each period represents a more limited set of location/bait scenarios. For example, Labor Day to Columbus Day tends to feature mullet, snappers and bay anchovies, the latter fueling those famous daytime blitzes. Labor Day to Columbus Day action can take place on both the North or South sides, often within proximity of the lighthouse. Action is more likely to spread west along the South Side as we get into October.
The second period, after Columbus Day, is more likely to feature sand eels moving inshore, and peanut bunker (and possibly adult bunker), all generally moving west toward the Town Beach or further toward Hither Hills. The peanuts can be especially valuable since they’ve been known to migrate closer to shore and can stay in place for longer periods, making day-to-day action a bit more predictable. The Veteran’s Day to Thanksgiving period often still features bunker, but by mid-November many surfcasters (those who haven’t switched over to hunting) are keeping an eye out for the arrival of herring near the lighthouse.
3RD Week of September
SW Wind 15-20 kts, Dropping Tide
A high-pressure system with a strengthening onshore breeze by late afternoon is a typical forecast for the early fall. It’s quite possible that bay anchovies, mullet or snappers are moving along the North Side and around the point. North or South are equally viable options, but a dropping tide suggests the North Side should get the first look. You’ll have the wind over your shoulder at most North Side spots, and you may very well need that wind to get off a longer cast. As the tide bottoms out, Camp Hero might be worth a visit, especially in the corners of any of the coves where small bait may have gathered. Try small bucktails, shads, metal lips or possibly poppers, especially if there are signs of mullet.
1st Week of October
NE Wind 30-35+ kts, Any Time
This is the forecast that Montauk surfcasters dream about. A strong low-pressure system with enough punch to create a NE gale is a signature North Side blitz scenario. Just about any bait migrating around the point will be pushed tight to the beach and (if the stars align) even large fish from deeper water will move in. In this wind, you’ll be looking sideways to keep the rain from stinging your face. Most of the plugs in your bag will be useless if you are casting directly into the wind, but you’ll find plenty of casters firing bucktails of 2 to 3 ounces and pointing their rod tips down to keep the bow out of their lines. The more brave and adventurous person in a wetsuit might even visit the South Side to cast bucktails into the raging white water. Fish or no fish, you’ll earn that pint of Montauk Driftwood Ale with your next meal.
2nd Week of October
W Wind 20-25 kts, Incoming Tide
Surfcasters may dream of a nor’easter, but most will curse any forecast with a sustained hard west wind. I’m including this scenario because, like it or not, it is the hand you’ll be dealt at some point during an extended stay in the fall. If the wind continues for more than a day or two, I’ve seen surfcasters drive home and save their vacation days for a better forecast. Others have sought refuge near the east-facing lighthouse, or managed to find some cleaner water in a lee section of a cove along the South Side. Bucktails, poppers, metal lips (or possibly tins if the water is not too dirty) are all good choices.
3rd Week of October
NW Wind 15-20 kts, Low Incoming Tide
A hard northwest wind at this stage of October suggests a cold front has moved in, along with steep drops in overnight temperatures. This implies water temperatures have been dropping as well, and could likely trigger movement of mid-fall baits like peanut bunker or possibly even sand eels. After scouting around the North Side during the drop, many surfcasters run the sand on the Town Beach and Hither Hills, looking for signs of life. Bucktails, shads and metal lips are good choices if bunker are around. Ava jigs should be added to the bag if sand eels are suspected.
2nd Week of November
W Wind 20-25 kts, Incoming Tide
This scenario offers a couple of different options, depending on what temperatures have been like over the previous week, and whether a bona fide run of peanuts or sand eels still has some life in it. Running the sand beaches is still a viable choice, even with a north wind. That said, you would be foolish not to keep the North Side and the lighthouse honest. Signs of gannets anywhere close to casting distance means staying put. Bucktails in the 1½- to 2-ounce range or bottles are good choices if casting straight into the wind anywhere on the North Side. Smaller and lighter lures, including metal lips or large shads, should be in the bag on the south-facing beaches where the wind will be at your back.