It is time to celebrate the fall harvest on the North Fork. Trekking from great distances, people flood onto the North Fork in search of the freshest vegetables, the juiciest apples, the savoriest of wines, and of course, the “Great Pumpkin.” Although the fall harvest typically focuses on agricultural products, there is another North Fork commodity that is just as equally sought after; seafood. Fishing has been and continues to play an important role in the heritage of the North Fork.
And as temperatures begin to drop, the fishing really heats up.
Probably the most prized of our local game fish is the striped bass, aka the striper. A long-lived fish, capable of living for more than thirty years, they have the potential to grow to very large sizes. In 1891, a 125-pound fish was caught in North Carolina and while fish of that size are no longer encountered, an International Game and Fish Association world record striped bass of 81 lb.. 14 oz. was caught in the Long Island Sound as recently as 2011.
Although striped bass have an extensive range (St. Lawrence River in Canada to northern sections of Florida, and the northern Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Louisiana), they can be found in large numbers on the North Fork in places like Orient Point. Here, they gorge themselves on the abundance of bunker, herring, sand eels, silversides and any other fish, crab or shrimp they can fit into their mouth before continuing onto their wintering grounds located offshore of North Carolina.
Striped bass are not alone in this autumn feeding frenzy, bluefish, too, are migrating south in search of warmer waters. While they do not get as large as striped bass (40 inches and 30 pounds), pound for pound they are one of the toughest fighting fish in our area. These voracious predators tear through schools of baitfish with relentless abandon creating the appearance that the water is boiling.
Bluefish go by many names, each depending on their size. Smaller, young of the year fish are often referred to as snappers. Cocktail blues are those fish that range in the one to five-pound size. And the name gorilla blue is reserved for the very largest individuals. After hooking one for the first time, it is easy to see why they are given this very appropriate nickname.
In recent years the false albacore has become a very popular fish to target, especially for those anglers using light tackle or fly-fishing gear. This small member of the tuna family also goes by many names; albie, little tunny, fat albert and funny fish. The term “funny fish” comes from the enjoyment one gets after hooking up with one, as the speed at which they are capable of peeling line from an angler’s reel is remarkable. Their feeding technique is also quite extraordinary, adding another level of excitement when trying to catch one. Unlike schools of striped bass and bluefish that make the water “boil” when they feed at the surface, albies lunge from the water as they chase small baitfish such as anchovies, silversides and peanut bunker.
Not all the fish found on the North Fork are chasing schools of baitfish. For the sinker bouncing angler, there are several species of bottom fish that can be targeted this time of year. On October 5, blackfish season officially opened in New York. They too go by many names; tautog, tog, and white chin. This bruiser can grow to lengths of 36 inches and weigh 28 pounds. Blackfish prefer a hard bottom with plenty of structure in the way of pilings, wrecks and rock piles. They feed on an assortment of hard-shelled crustaceans and mollusks. Scanning their surroundings for food while patrolling their territory, they pluck small prey items such as blue mussels from the rocks and swallow them whole, crushing them with pharyngeal teeth that are located in their throat. For larger prey, they simply crush them with their powerful front teeth. As visual predators, they remain active during daylight hours, quickly retreating to the shelter of the structure as the sun begins to set. Once settled in, they will sleep until sunrise the next morning. It is because of this behavior that we do not target blackfish at night, as we do other species of fish.
While targeting blackfish, several other desirable species can also be encountered. Porgies and black sea bass also frequent the same type of bottom structure and will readily take the same baits/rigs that are used for blackfish.
There are plenty of opportunities on the North Fork for both the novice and experienced angler to catch their own fresh seafood. For the shore bound angler, any of the beaches along the Long Island Sound are excellent places to tangle with any of the above mentioned fish. For the boat owner, there are several boat ramps (Mattituck Inlet, South Jamesport, Orient Point) that offer prime access to some great fishing areas. For those anglers not familiar with the area or would like to increase their odds of catching fish, I would suggest hopping on one of the North Fork’s open boats (party boat) or hire one of the many charter captains for a more personal experience. The North Fork Captain’s Association (northforkcaptains.com) is a great place to find reputable captains.
Whichever method you choose, one thing is for certain, winter is coming. As the temperatures continue to drop, there will be fewer and fewer opportunities to bring home freshly caught seafood for dinner. So do not delay, grab your rod, reel and tackle bag and fish the North Fork before it is too late!