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Flyfisihng in Saltwaters: Sept/Oct 2004
Tracking tuna around the city that never sleeps
By Captain John McMurray
ďThree oíclock, Three oíclock!!! Now back to 12:00Ö Youíre other 12:00!!! Drop it, drop it!Ē I screamed from behind the helm as David flailed away wildly. On the last back cast I ducked as an epoxy bay anchovy imitation went whizzing by my ear. ďStrip, strip, stripĒ I barked like a drill sergeant on a fish crazed tirade. Above me cars whizzed by along the massive structure connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island as David futilely pulled through a series of boils and fleeing rain bait. The blitz seemingly over, David, still dangling his fly in the water, turned around and asked ďWhat am I doing wrong?Ē Before I could open my mouth, a violent splash and a quick view of a false albacoreís flank caused David yell a short expletive. Line flew out of Davidís hand and off the deck as he did the proverbial ďflyline jigĒ trying to keep it clear of his feet. In seconds the line had cleared the deck and a 10-pound false albacore was melting off backing with no stop in sight. The Red Bank ferry cruised by us dangerously close, on its way to New York City, its skyscrapers towering just a few miles north of where we were. Passengers peered at us from the deck with looks of curiosity as Davidís rod was bent hard into an albie. Blitzes began to form to the left and to the right of us again as David fought his fish. A violent slashing feed had begun. During that day it would lead us all the way up New York Harbor, under the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges and around the east perimeter of Manhattan until we had reached Hells Gate, the opening to Long Island Sound.
Over the years, the Hudson River Estuary, Western Long Island Sound, Jamaica Bay and Raritan Bay as well as the East River itself have become well publicized striped bass and bluefish haunts and darn good flyfishing waters. But the little-known run of pelagic fish the area experiences every late summer/early fall has hardly been discovered. While it is a rarity to have false albacore come up so far into the city, itís quite frequent that they feed around the Verrizano Bridge area where bait from the Hudson River and Long Island Sound gets washed through the bottleneck. Off Coney Island, the mouth of Jamaica Bay and the South East tip of Queens, Breezy Point you can pretty much count on a solid run of hungry little tuny beginning in mid-August and lasting as late as November. During many years the albie run is preceded by schools of green bonito, Spanish mackerel and skipjack tuna. After the albies have left, itís possible to encounter the rare inshore bluefin as well.
Itís All About The Bait
While flyrodding small tuna and other inshore pelagic species certainly isnít a new occurrence, the arrival of these speedsters in the New York metro area is. Their sudden influx into the area several years ago is the result of flourishing bait concentrations flooding out of the Hudson River, Jamaica Bay and Sandy Hook estuaries. And every year the fishing seems to get better! Local enforcement of the Clean Water Act, along with the monitoring efforts of the Hudson Riverkeeper and the NY/NJ Bay Keeper, has continually had the result of cleaner water, improved baitfish habitat and an increase in the number and species of bait. In fact, the saltwater in this area is cleaner that it has been in over 100-years.
Bonito and Spanish Macs in August
First comes the flood of Atlantic silversides (spearing) as the water temp reaches that 70-degree mark. Shortly after comes the juvenile menhaden hatch (locally called peanut bunker). Loads of the smaller version of adult menhaden flood out of the bays and the rivers in August, sometimes in super dense numbers. The first to take advantage of the bait rush are the hordes of fly-destroying bluefish, but once the bluefish blitzes begin the pelagic species canít be far behind, and these faster stronger fish often push the bluefish out of the picture. Spanish mackerel are usually the first to show and are often accompanied by Green Bonito.
While Spanish Mackerel are fun and quite tasty even when taken from New York waters, they are the smaller and easier of the two species, taking just about any small fly tossed in their direction. They are toothy and require a wire tippet to avoid loosing fly after fly. For the most part we donít focus on them unless we want one for the table. Green bonito are larger, faster and more challenging. Iíve found that once the water temp reaches that 72-degree mark in August, the potential for encountering bonito in the New York Metro area is pretty good. However some years, for reasons completely unknown to me, they are completely absent. While Iíve caught bonito deep, generally they are a schooling, surface feeding fish. This trait allows for some pretty spectacular visual blitzes. They slash the water at breakneck speed sending baitfish flying in all directions, quite often jumping out of the water to reach fleeing prey. This can be a sight to behold, especially with the city as a backdrop.
Bonito show up a good two to three weeks before the false albacore generally show. Many folks mistake a green bonito for a false albacore, partly because in States south of North Carolina, the Gulf and in the West Coast states, locals call false albacore bonito. Perhaps the most important distinguishing factor from false albacore is the bonitoís wonderful eating quality. These fish possess many of the same tasty attributes as the sought after offshore tuna species. Green bonito can be easily identified. They posses a series of dark wavy lines along the upper half of their bodies, and none of the distinguishing spots false albacore posses on the lower half. Its two dorsal fins are actually one continuous fin not divided like an albieís is. The back of the fish is a brilliant green and they have large teeth on both the upper and lower jaw, which are not present on false albacore.
Green bonito are generally less abundant in the New York area and harder to catch then false albacore. In addition, the window to get a crack at these fish is considerably smaller. My experience is that when they show, weíre lucky if they stay two weeks. In addition, these fish can sometimes be very finicky and very difficult to even get close to. In the New York Metro area they average 5 to 8-pounds but they can get larger. Because they are considered on the small side compared to the more commonly sought after striped bass and bluefish and false albacore, many try to target this species with a 7 or 8-weight. However these fish are hardcore, super fast and just as strong as any other tuna species. Unless you want to break a rod or two at least a 9-weight is required.
The rips at Breezy Point, the southeast corner of Lower New York Harbor, and those at Sandy Hook, the southwest edge, are good bets at catching the two species although they may be found anywhere in-between or east and south of the two hotspots. While rare, they have also been known to appear in Jamaica and Raritan Bays. Chasing birds using the ďrun and gunĒ technique is usually the common method of targeting these fish, setting up in the rips and casting peanut bunker imitations and small epoxies on intermediate or sinking lines can produce. Green bonito while toothy as well, but tend to be leader shy and require not only the absence of wire but a lighter tippet than you would usually use. Rarely do I have success unless I fish with a maximum of 14-pound fluorocarbon, usually resorting to 12-pound.
But what we all eagerly await is the consistent and sometimes downright extraordinary run of false albacore. If the conditions are right these fish can sometimes get super thick and voraciously hungry from the mouth of the Harbor north. Iíve even witnessed them blitzing rain-bait in some of my favorite bass flats in Jamaica Bay and have seen folks connecting from the beaches of Staten Island as albies push bait up against the bank.
What brings them here? In addition to the schools of peanut bunker and spearing, bay anchovies come in by the thousand in mid to late August. This copper backed bait seems to be the driving force behind false albacore frenzies. When they show, the false albacore are sure to be there soon. False albacore in the New York City area can be very challenging. They can behave quite different from those you might find in Montauk or Harkers Island, NC. They are scarcer, traveling in schools of 6 to 15 on most occasions, and surface for about 60 second before theyíre gone, only to resurface 400 yards down the beach. Albies in the NYC area can be nightmare, but the challenge makes hooking one all the more satisfying.
Understanding the way false albacore feed is fundamental to an anglerís success in targeting NYC albies. Out in Montauk, at times there are so many of them, and so much bait that itís all a matter of getting your offering in the water. While we have had such scenarios in the NYC area in years past, it certainly isnít an ordinary situation here. Small schools of little tuna will work pods of bait into a ball and then launch a strategic assault that sometimes results in these football shaped fish flying clean out of the water. This often lasts several minutes, but on most occasions, itís 30 to 60 seconds, and theyíre gone.
It is tough to resist the urge to chase these schools as they work their way up and down the beach along with flocks of screeching gulls and terns. Despite what I know these days, I still find myself doing it. More times than not, once you get near the fish they disappear, only to begin their splashing mayhem a quarter-mile away. Itís not uncommon to hear New York anglers, including myself, yelling profanities like a lunatic, as they continue this pattern all day. For this reason weekends can be kind of tough when these fish are around, only because there are another dozen folks with a complete lack of self control (just like myself sometimes) following the same pods of fish.
It can pay big time to be observant and patient in NYC waters. See if you can figure out a pattern, or at least something that resembles one. Often times little tuna will ball up a school of bay anchovies or peanut bunker, go on an all out 60 second massacre, and then move up the beach and set themselves up for another assault. Three or four times in a half-mile section youíll see them exploding in generally the same places. Now the trick is to set yourself up to make the drift (without the motor running!!!!) with the wind and current, and hope that you end up in the right place at the right time. Youíll be surprised how many times you do. Itís a pretty great feeling when all of the sudden the water around your boat starts boiling, and green backs appear in every direction. Maintaining enough composure to get a good cast off is a completely different story.
Tossing a fly into boiling fish is great, and nothing gets your blood going like seeing an albacore attacking your fly with reckless abandon on the surface, but when they get boat-shy and difficult, which is often the case right off the bat with New York Harbor albies, blind-casting can be very effective. Even if you donít see the ravenous school on the surface, often times one or two stray fish are swimming around. Itís smart to keep a sink tip, or even a full sink line ready. Once the splashing mayhem is over, a few fish will wait below to snatch up the pieces left by the fish feeding on top. Iíve scored several times with this method after the initial craziness stops. Just as with the bonito, blind casting along the riplines when the albies are not showing can be productive as well.
Breezy Point, the southwestern most tip of Rockaway Peninsula and ďthe other endĒ of New York is definitely your best shot in the area for false albacore, bonito and other pelagic species. Water rips out from Jamaica Bay, the Hudson and East Rivers traveling back out to its salty origin carrying a lot bait with it. A sweet little rip forms parallel to the jetty and extends past it for about one half a mile. The incoming tide also forms a nice rip moving water from the ocean northwest into the Harbor. During most years, this is the first spot albies will make a showing. Sandy Hook, New Jersey is a close second as it forms the same sorts of rips getting moving water and bait not only from the Hudson and Raritan Bay, but also from the Shrewsbury River.
From the Shore
Chasing false albacore and bonito in the NYC area is not just for the folks who own boats or fish with guides. In fact, during many blitzes the guys fishing the Breezy Point Jetty, out-fish the boat guys 10 to 1. The anglers on the rocks donít have to worry about putting the fish down with noisy motors. In addition, especially during a north wind bonito and/or albacore will push bait right up on the rocks and into the 4-foot deep pocket between the jetty and the beach. Flyrodders on the jetty and the beach have a field day when this happens, and quite often it does! Itís important to note here, that a little courtesy goes a long way. If youíre piloting a boat donít get close to the rocks and put the fish down for everyone. Keep in mind that guys on dry land canít move around and chase after the fish like you can. Itís also downright dangerous. If youíre not careful, a rogue swell can, and will, push you right up onto those rocks. Not to great for the gel-coat. Not to mention that waterís pretty chilly this time of the year and youíll have to deal with an irate NYPD Harbor Patrol afterwards. All along Rockaway beach, east of the Jetty to Debs Inlet, these little tuna will attack bait in as little as 4 feet of water.
The beaches of Coney Island can be pretty fantastic also. Especially during a North wind, little tuna push bait up right against the jetties and beach. Out-of-towners are always amazed to see breaking tuna right off the Steeplechase Pier. Nortonís Point (the western most tip of Coney Island) can be a great spot also. Staten Island has its hot spots also. Several times Iíve seen the guys fishing from the shores of Ft. Wadsworth nail the tuna as they chase balled up schools of peanut bunker up against the beach. If the conditions are right, all along Staten Islandís South Beach you can chase these fish.
Other Pelagic Fish
In addition to false albacore, bonito, and Spanish mackerel, chub mackerel (locally called mush mouths) have become a regular visitor in New York Harbor. These fish look like a smaller version of a false albacore. Theyíre very skittish but can most certainly be caught. Most weight in the 2-to-4-pound range. During particularly warm summers skipjack tuna will make an appearance as well. For one to three weeks these incredibly powerful and hard fighting fish will stick around the cityís adjacent waters. Many argue that they are the hardest fighting little tuna out there and I have to agree. If you can believe it, these fish pound for pound can be faster and strong than an albie.
During the last few years in November and December football and medium sized bluefin tuna on their way south have come inshore to take advantage of the bait pouring out of the Harbor. About three-quarters of a mile off the beach, Iíve witnessed bluefin chasing schools of peanut bunker. In late December of 99, shortly after I had pulled the boat from the water, I helplessly watched through binoculars a massive bluefin blitz maybe a Ĺ mile off the Rockaways. In addition, I saw a large bluefin in November of 2000 come completely out of the water on the inside of the Breezy point Jetty. It looked at least 150 pounds. So far, no one has taken one on a fly as far as I know, but they are definitely there. The same sort of scenario happened in Montauk (3-hours east of the City) just last year and several flyrodders hooked up and a few even landed medium sized bluefin within a half mile from the beach.
Catching inshore pelagics on a flyrod is exciting, challenging and tremendously fun. Anyone whoís done it can confirm this. But catching them so close to one of the most populous cities in the world is certainly a unique experience. So if youíre a NYC resident, or just in town for a visit in late August to early November, give it a shot. If you hit it right, it could very well be worth the effort.
Captain John McMurray is currently the Program Officer at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York; He is also the owner and primary operator of One More Cast Charters, Inc. saltwater fly and light tackle guide service in Jamaica Bay, New York and sits as the Conservation Officer of the New York Flyfishing and Light Tackle Guides Association (PFLGA). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.