by Marissa Maier
To the naked eye, surfcasting is nothing more than repeatedly throwing a line into the surf and waiting for the fish to bite. The local sport, however, is an intricate world, made up of fishing cliques, camaraderie and developing a sixth sense with the natural world. Spanning every age and background, surfcasters are a diverse group. What keeps them casting their fishing lines for hours at a time? For some, it is the thrill of the hunt, the pursuit of the unknown or the therapeutic nature of repetitive action. Others are seeking those infrequent moments when all the elemental variables align for a perfect day of fishing.
Surfcasting, a recreation long pursued on the East End, is fishing on the shores or in the shallow waters of an ocean or bay. The fishing season runs from April through December, with the fall being the peak of the season, and requires a high level of commitment on the part of the surfcaster. Most fishing is done at sunrise, sunset, and during certain tides, into the wee hours of the evening. Fisherman Sean Barber recalled an evening when he surfcast in the pitch black until three in the morning.
Acquiring an almost instinctual sense for nature is an integral part of the sport, but this awareness only develops after years of experience. In the same way an artist might look at a painting with a keen eye to brushstrokes or use of color, the surfcaster views the shores from a different perspective than an average beach goer.
“Surfcasting changes your relationship with the topography of the bays and oceans. You look at the conditions. You check out the subtleties. The wind, the color of the water, the height of the waves, the stages of the tides, the structure of the beach are [all] important. There are conditions you learn are good for striped sass fishing,” noted Adam Flax, speaking of the species most commonly pursued by surfcasters. When Barber fishes, he follows one simple rule; “You have to think like a fish. What would they be doing right now? Where would they go?”
When a tight-knit group of surfcasters have successfully tracked the movement of a school of fish or stumbled upon a prime spot, the information is closely guarded within a select group of fishermen. As any surfcaster will explain, if this information is disseminated through the grapevine close to a hundred people might show up at the same location. And in the arena of surfcasting, there are a number of small cliques. Flax explains his core group is comprised of around six fishermen. During the peak season, local Jim Kennedy will call up his fishing buddies twice or three times a day with updates on fishing locations.
On the shores, not every fisherman is created equal. Flax explains with the Internet some surfcasters have become lazy and rely on two-day old reports.
“My buddies and I pride ourselves on finding the fish by putting the elements together. There are other guys who look at reports and go based on old news. They usually won’t catch anything,” said Flax. “We call them ‘report chasers.’”
Other surfcasters, like Kennedy, are a bit frustrated over the rising popularity of the sport and the subsequent loss of the etiquette of surfcasting. As Kennedy explains it, many people who come to the East End a few days a year to fish will spy on others further down the beach to see if they are catching fish. Others will stand within inches of another fisherman who is having a successful day of fishing.
Despite these reports, veteran surfcasters continue to return to the shores, through snow and rain, to spend a few hours fishing with their friends. For Kennedy, he continues to fish for the thrill of the hunt.
“The most thrilling part is when you feel that tug [on your line]. You are almost at the end of the day and you feel that tug and you keep going. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it,” noted Kennedy.
He also enjoys the hunter/gatherer element of fishing; “It is satisfying to come home and feed your family, like you are the provider. [If things get really tough] I could revert back to the old way and continue to feed myself.”
A surfcaster might experience a long dry spell, of going out to the beach in the early morning without catching a single fish and then subsequently falling asleep at work. These hard times make a perfect day of fishing, when with every cast a fish is biting, all the sweeter.
“You are always there because there is a chance you will catch the fish of a lifetime,” remarked Flax. “There have been some fall days in Montauk when you measure the schools of fish by the acre. They are tight to the beach and you just catch on every cast. There have been days when we have caught over a hundred fish. It goes back to the [common surfcaster] saying ‘it’s never enough.’ Why do you need to catch a hundred? You just do.”
And though the action of casting a line might seem mind numbingly repetitive, Kennedy counters that the motion is therapeutic; “You forget what is out there. You clear your mind and lose yourself.”