A Great First Day at Orient

by

06/01/2007

Orient Point, Long Island

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

The middle of May holds much promise for the North Fork surfcaster, or fly fisherman. By that time the striped bass have moved up into the shallow flats and bays around Orient and the water has warmed enough so that the bass have begun to feed with a good deal of purpose. In mid-May the bay waters are clear and there is still a bite to the air. The chill in the air and water always reminds me that the fishing is a new beginning, and that beginnings are not always easy and comfortable.

I had been making my way out to the North Fork for the past few years, visiting a friend and then trying my luck with the bass and blues that follow the baitfish up into Hallock’s Bay, past Peter’s Neck point and up into the channels around Orient Park. That year the thought of the bass coming into the bays was giving me a real push to get out to Orient. In May I had packed up the stuff left from my marriage, and I had emptied out my father’s house. My father had died in mid January, and my wife had left sometime before that. I thought a move out of New York City was in order, and I was out on the North Fork by mid-May.

I lived in Greenport that year on the top floor of an old house on Sixth Street. In the spring and summer I spent almost everyday driving out to Orient State Park and fishing both sides of Long Beach all the way out to the Bug Light at the very end of the park. That season Bob up at Wego fishing sold me a pair of waders and a nice Penn reel and we exchanged theories about the striped bass and blues in the bays. Bob has since died, but for me that year he was a sort of native guide, telling me how I should fish the banks, and how I should offer my lures to the bass. And Bob was someone to report back to about my fishing luck, the where, how and when of it. It seemed that for weeks on end the only conversations that took place in my life were between Bob and me and they were about the bass and the lures and the tides and the baitfish. I don’t really think that Bob would remember any of these conversations, or me for that matter, if he were still alive. The things he knew most about were the bass, the tides the lures and the baitfish and he talked about those things with most of the people that came into his shop.

The light out on the fishing flats in Orient from mid-May to early June is soft. Summer is easing its way in politely and so all the colors of the wild flowers and the beach rose bloom seem vivid, enhanced by the sunlight rather than bleached out by it. The ospreys out in the park have been raising their chicks for some time now, and every once in a while you can see the chicks raise their heads above the nests’ branches. I always like watching the male circling the nest and calling out to the female after he has caught a fish. I think he is proud of what he’s done and would like to show off to his mate, but maybe I’m just reading too much into what’s going on from the point of view of a fellow fisherman. That year there were five osprey nests along the walk out to my favorite fishing spot in Orient State Park.

The common terns usually rest on the sandbar that curves out into the bay that creates the narrow outlet to Hallock’s that is called Peter’s Neck. From there they head out to the middle of Hallocks to scoop up baitfish bits left by the schools of small bluefish that hit the bays like murder at this time. Sometimes the blues feed right near Peter’s, ranging up and down the channels the boaters follow past Peter’s Neck and into the heart of the park waters. The blues are temporary residents of the bay. The bass feed more steadily up and down the lengths of these same channels, and some times right up close to the grassy banks that hold the fiddler crabs, killifish and spearing the bass love to eat. Out in the channels the bass take up feeding stations like trout. A particularly good lie for the bass is the Hallock’s Bay side of the sandbar. The sandbar offers a good place for the bass to lie in wait for whatever the tide sweeps out of the park waters into Hallocks and the sandbar produces a small rip that sometimes traps the baitfish. When fishing this spot I’ve often caught bass no more than a few feet from the sandbar by letting the current sweep my lure around the end of the bar, and then reeling the lure back against the current and back through the rip.

The first day I was out that year I went to Peter’s and fished the channel from the neck to the second wooden pile marker that leads into the park waters and that marks the curve of the channel for boatmen. The current was swift but I could still walk the banks along the channel easily. Every little while I would stop and look over the channel and the bay trying to see all the colors and the shades of color. Bright patches marked the sand bottom spots. These set off the shades of green and blue that showed the different depths of water. That day I didn’t have to fish very hard by trying to place my lures at different depths, or retrieve them at different speeds. I had managed to be out at just the right time, on just the right day. Everywhere I cast there was a blue or a bass and they all took the lure. I used diamond jigs with plastic tubing around their long bent hooks. I used colored plastic shad fish that I attached to jig heads, I used the lures that resemble both squid and eel that are called dirty dicks, and I used some fly streamers. I caught on all these that day at all different depths. I hit mostly bass but some blues would rip into the lure and they would jump and shake their heads trying to throw the lure and then make a couple of powerful runs when they saw the water get shallow close to the sand bar or bank. At those times I let out line to make sure I didn’t lose them. And then I would coax them back onto the beach. The bass would hit powerfully, but their fight would be steady rather than wild like the bluefish.

The bass looked silvery and neat with their black pinstripes and silver skins and their strong tapered athletic bodies. The bluefish were just as handsome with their iridescent blue-green backs and sides and their bright white bellies. On that day I felt the strong life energies of the fish. They were all light and shimmer and quicksilver in the water and their color and flash and fight reawakened some of my own vitality and energy after so many dark months. I think it must be the same for many fishermen at the beginning of the season, especially if they are lucky enough to have a great first day, and especially if they are after bass and blues at some place as beautiful as Orient. I didn’t want that day, and the many fishing days that followed during that season to end.

Out of the thirty bass and blues I caught I took home one keeper bass and one small blue. I wanted a reward, something to mark the day in my memory and to complete it properly, and so I took these fish. The bass would carry the flavors and the fragrances of the bay that first night and that was the fish I was going to eat. I had one entire fillet of the bass and saved the other for the next couple of nights. I grilled the blue for lunch the next day.

There have been times when I have fished these same places, at the same time of year, and have caught nothing after a full day of hard fishing. But the memory of that one first day is never spoiled by these trips.

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