By Georgia Suter
Aside from good luck, great fishing comes from weaving bits and pieces of information together to form the bigger picture — knowing where and when fish are being caught and what type of bait is successfully attracting them can boost the chances of getting to the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment. Often these facts come by word of mouth or by trial and error. In other instances, experience is what really reels in the “keepers” — fish you wouldn’t dare throw back.
Ken Morse, owner of Tight Lines Bait & Tackle in Sag Harbor, is a local expert of the sport with a deep understanding of the relativity of it all. Introduced to snapper fishing at age two, and with a degree in Ecology and Marine Biology, Ken is quick to point out that baiting the hook and casting the rod are small pieces of a much larger puzzle—migration patterns, season, weather, tide— numerous elements intertwine to affect the complete picture, and the picture is constantly changing. Success can be very relative to the current condition.
In early spring, for instance, the temperature will affect migration patterns, which in turn affects what’s populating our local waters.
“About 90 percent of the fish species that are here in the summer will migrate out of the area in the winter,” notes Ken. “As the water temperature rises in the spring, the fish move from the south back up north. If you’ve noticed in January and February the bay might freeze — it fluctuates throughout the winter between freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing. Fish can’t handle that type of environment, so some of them will actually migrate off shore into the ocean — it doesn’t freeze 20 miles out into the ocean.”
Ken also notes that certain fish will migrate out of the area all together in the winter, like “blue fish and bass. These schools will go down South. A few will stick around an bear the cold months—out in Montauk you can find black fish, cod, sea bass and ling.”
“Migration patterns generally depend on how cold of a winter and how quick of a spring it is. I always pray for a cold winter and a mild spring. A lot of South West winds will bring the fish up in late April and early May.”
Depending on the weather and changing temperatures, every year brings a different story.
“Blue fish came in early April last year — they came in and spread out from the inlets. It was interestingly very early, even early for blue fish. Those that come up in the spring have expended so much energy that they’ve spawned out, with a long, skinny body, huge head and huge appetite — they’re a lot of fun in the spring.”
Amongst the constantly changing waters, the sport continues to lure all kinds into the tackle shop and onto the boat. Whether it’s a pastime or part of a serious competition, or in the bay or the big ocean, “fishing is very personal,” Ken explains. “Each person is very different — they might prefer being on the beach or on boat, some are more gung-ho and others are more hesitant. You can go out with bait which is the most organic, this could even be with clams or crabs. Or you can go with artificials, some species react just as well with artificials. You can really fish in so many different ways.”
With everything being relative, returning home with catch in hand is never guaranteed, making motivation an integral piece of the puzzle. Getting out there, whether it’s solo or with friends and family, and experiencing the luck of the sea, is the first step.
“Most of it is about putting the effort in.”
Strategies for success are wide ranging, with knowledge of the tide being paramount, as it’s affecting the movement and circulation of fish.
“I always recommend fishing relative to the tide, especially if you have the time to do some research — I’ll often wait for the tide cycle to be in my favor for a particular location. It changes by 45 minutes to an hour every day ahead. As to whether it’s better on boat or on the shore, it’s very relative to the species.”
Along with the tide, additional factors are influencing the types and volumes of different populations that are even available — fish farming, marine pollution and overfishing being several rather threatening influences.
Ken notes that “certain species that used to be plentiful are not any more, like flounder. You could walk on them when we were kids, the bottom was paved with them. Now there’s over fishing. Right now you’re allowed to catch two flounder per day, per person. Once the season is open, this is really nothing for us to gear up for, or get excited about. I used to be able to catch 20 to 30 of them, now it’s a novelty. Striped bass also populate in the late spring. Today, you’re legally allowed to harvest two—back in the day you could go out and catch 70, 80 at a time.”
Despite the harsh limitations on the amount of fish, the few that are brought back home can make for enticing meals, and as Ken points out, the taste is largely affected by “the handling and preparation, a step that is often overlooked.” Blue fish, for example, are often neglected for their “bad taste,” but Ken offers insight:
“I think blue fish get a very bad rep. The taste is really all about how you take care of the blue fish. You need to get them on ice immediately, and then proper handling involves getting all the blood out and the guts out, right away. This affects the taste. You can’t throw it on beach for a couple hours.”
“I like to take my daughters out just to get porgies and blue fish,” says Ken. “It wears their arms out. Porgies are very good to eat, a little bony — but it’s a matter of how you clean them. It’s probably the most common species of bottom fish—they live on the bottom with a silver-white color and they’re very scrappy for their size. They put up quite a little battle on the end of their line. As far as the taste, they’re incredibly mild, perfectly white and flaky. The big 2-pounders that you get in the spring are just delicious.”