Out to Sea: The Striper Returns

Sure Cure for Cabin Fever

BRIDGEHAMPTON—Every Wednesday at 7:00 a.m., a group of hunter-gatherers convenes at the Poxabogue golf course restaurant to size up its target. This tribe is known as the Bridgehampton crew, and their regular meeting, over bacon, eggs, toast, and lots of coffee, is significant for two reasons.

First, like the flowering shadbush and forsythia, it hints at a parallel convergence in the oceans, as schools of striped bass and other fish move up the coast and out to sea. Second, outside of tackle shops, fishermen don’t often get together. They are an insular lot who shy from sharing precious information even with close friends. Still, as early hunter-gatherers learned thousands of years ago, traveling in packs does bring certain advantages.

March 16. Rumor has it that 2005 will be a big year for the crew, which plies the beaches of Bridgehampton, focusing on the teaming waters near the cuts made to connect Sagaponack, Mecox, and Georgica Ponds with the ocean.

Opening these ponds to the ocean is like a dinner bell for the striped bass, bluefish, and other large predatory fish nearby, who come to the mouth of the trench to gorge. This past winter, the town of Southampton dredged the ponds to improve the salinity level for the resident oysters and other marine life. On top of that, the wet winter and spring mean that even the deeper ponds were near bursting by March.

“That bugger’s going to be beautiful,” said Joe Tyree of Bridgehampton, referring to Mecox Pond and rolling his eyes up. “When they open that baby, and that bait comes out of there. We’ll fish all night long.”

This spring run of fish isn’t as popular with sportfishers as the better-known fall blitzes. But the members of the crew relish it. The fish are eager from their spawning commute. The beaches are empty. And it beats waiting until the fall.

“It’s like being let out of prison,” said Alex Werner, sipping his coffee and speaking of the fishing season that will open on April 15. A native of Bridgehampton, Mr. Werner grew up fishing the docks of Sag Harbor, the ferry slips of Shelter Island, and the bridges of Sagaponack. He has fished with the crew for nearly a decade, including some members, like Mr. Tyree, he considers legends. “We’re just waiting for someone to throw some fish in the water,” Mr. Werner said.

March 23. “They’re very unique,” said “Big Time” Al Daniels, a long-time East End fisher who writes a fishing column for the Sag Harbor Express. Mr. Daniels noted that the Bridgehampton crew is perhaps the last that remains on the East End, where each town used to have its own crew.

This crew consists of 20 or so men, all locals, united by their single-minded devotion to fishing. The group includes landscapers, farmers, contractors, a chef, a member who works at an animal shelter, another who runs an entertainment equipment rental business, and a handful of retirees. “All different walks of life, and all ages” said Mr. Werner, who, at 40, is among the junior members. Mr. Tyree, among the crew’s elder statesmen, is 76. (Some of the other older members have given up golf because of problems with their knees, but continue to fish, often reeling in their line from the comfort of their front seat.)

“Like attracts like,” explained Mr. Tyree, winking towards a waitress who is too familiar with the crew. “The only guy who is going to fish at two in the morning is some goddamn moron like yourself.”

Consider Mr. Werner’s garage. “I can be at the beach in a heartbeat,” he said, giving an impromptu tour of his garage, which could easily double as a small tackle shop. The floor is stacked with Styrofoam salmon coolers and coffee cans full of lead weights. Dozens of rods and perhaps hundreds of reels, in various stages of disrepair, line the walls. Several drawers and tool cabinets contain lures for every scenario imaginable: Mag Darters and jointed Bombers that imitate small herring, Pencil Poppers that resemble fall whitebait, blue and white Kastmasters to mimic snapper blues. It’s also a form of obsessiveness that Mr. Werner readily acknowledges. But just-in-time preparedness reduces that part of fishing that is luck.

In this sense, the crew has benefited from changes in communications technology. In past years, members communicated by a shared frequency on police scanners or by leaving messages with spouses (before answering machines) or simply driving by someone’s place of work. The clumsiness of these methods made it hard for the whole crew to converge quickly and easily. Cellphones have changed all that, but have also raised the stakes. “If you get the call, you must be willing to drop everything,” said Adam Flax. “Blow off a dinner date, blow off work. It’s a sacred duty.”

March 30. It pays to have company for other reasons. Fishing the edge of the ocean at night can be dangerous. “It does get a little chaotic. You can see in a general way, but you can’t see exactly what’s going on,” said Mr. Tyree.

Mr. Werner added, “You want to be surrounded by friends if you get a hook through your hand or you slide into the water.” Mr. Werner remembered the time when he, Mr. Tyree, and two other anglers waded out to an offshore sandbar to prospect in deeper water. Distracted by great fishing, the group didn’t notice the rising tide which swept them into the water. With full waders, the three managed to get back to shore, holding hands, and periodically hoisting up Mr. Tyree, the shortest of the group, for air.

“The worst situation is when you are alone,” said Michael Grant, the chef at the Poxabogue restaurant. Not because of nighttime dangers, but because of those chaotic times when every rod is bent and the fish are piling up on the beach. “There’s no one to talk about it with. There’s no one to share it with.”

April 6. Last night, a crew of men riding tractors opened the cut at Sagg Pond. Wednesday-morning talk of when the cuts will open has turned to Wednesday-morning talk of when the fish will arrive. Alewives have already been spotted and caught in Water Mill and North Sea. Early anglers have already hooked striped bass in the coves of Sag Harbor, although they can’t keep the fish until April 15. Oceanside osprey have already taken fish. “There are all kinds of critters out there,” Mr. Werner added. “All good signs.”

Soon enough, the crew will fish morning and night, avoiding the beach between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., when vehicles are not permitted. (Crew members are often leaving the beach just as less punctual fishers—dubbed the “coffee clutch” by the crew—are arriving.)

From April through July, the crew doesn’t stray from the five-mile stretch between Mecox and Georgica Ponds, and there’s a certain logic to this geographic chauvinism, since three large ponds with close proximity to the oceans are particularly attractive to large, ocean fish. “There’s no place like this in the world,” said Mr. Tyree, who has been fishing this area consistently for over three decades. “If you can’t catch them here. You might as well give it up.”

The striped bass are the first fish to arrive, followed by bluefish and weakfish as the water temperature rises. The larger fish begin appearing in June and early July, but crew members typically return those large striped bass that are most important for breeding. “The better eating fish anyway are the 8- to 12-pounders,” said Mr. Tyree, referring to fish just over the legal limit. (After the striped bass population plummeted in the 1980s, restrictions on the size of legal fish, which crew members support, have been credited with a recent explosion in the population. This season, for the first time in decades, fishermen will be allowed to take two legal bass each day.)

By late July, the warmer temperatures have pushed the fish offshore and the fish—sated from spring feeding—are less interested in lures and store-bought bait. By that time, crew members like Mr. Werner are glad to have a break: “Who would want to fish with all those sunbathers?”

April 13. This morning, before dawn, just two days before striped bass season begins, Mr. Werner hooked into his first fish. He arrived at Poxabogue beaming. There is sand caked to the left lens of his eyeglasses and there is masking tape wrapped around the tip of his right index finger (his casting finger). The signs inspire a mixture of excitement and envy in the handful of other crew members here for breakfast.

“It’s about time,” said David Brennan, who owns a local bit and bridal shop. “I’m glad to see meat sticks on someone’s truck,” said Danny Loos, whose constant joking and impressions of other members have earned him a reputation as the “Rich Little” of the crew. Mr. Werner added, “Hopefully, by Friday night”—opening day—”I’ll have some food.”

As omelets and pancakes arrived, the conversation built into a hybrid of nostalgia and friendly one-liners. One member remembered a UFO sighting at the witching hour. Another mentioned the time someone hooked, and successfully landed, a Christmas tree. Everyone collapsed during a retelling of the time when Mr. Tyree bragged about a 60-inch cow, only to learn that his measuring stick was a foot short. And when Mr. Loos recounted the events of June 23, 2004, when the crew landed 30- and 40-pound fish from dawn until noon—”a day that will live in infamy,” he shouts in a radio-announcer’s baritone, simulating the fish striking the Pencil poppers by opening and closing his fists and making an explosive sound—everyone fell silent.

That evening, just before dusk, six men from the previous breakfast gathered at the same spot where Mr. Werner had caught fish earlier. Expectations were high since the sunset (typically a great time to catch fish) coincided with the changing of the tide (another great time to catch fish).

During several hours of unsuccessful fishing, the mood is bright, despite the cold weather. As the light fades, attrition begins. The group shrinks from six to three.

“I can’t work that edge any tighter,” said Nick Delprete, walking away from the surf and hanging his lure on one of his rod’s eyelets. Mr. Delprete doesn’t give up easy: in February, he braved ice-crusted tackle—”You dip your reel in the water to defrost it”—to catch stripers in the artificially warmed water near the Northport powerplant.

Mr. Werner is the last man with a pole in his hand. He is crouched, as if he is stalking the fish, holding his rod horizontal and grinding the reel as slowly as possible. “I know that from now on, they’re here,” he said. He looked towards the coming months, when it won’t be so cold, when all of the fish will be keepers, and when the ocean will close the cut and the town will open it several more times. “If you fish the magic moment,” he whispered. “You