A Huge Bite in the Gut

striped bass_Tony Ludovico

Is 2013 a banner year for fishing on the East End?

On May 1, fluke season opens. Without fail, squadrons of anglers and handfuls of party boats drift from my oyster plot on the west shore of Greenport Harbor to the breakwater on the harbor’s eastern boundary. For the last 10 years, they have come for a week or two, then faded away, disillusioned by the poor bite. This year is different. From the opening day, more and more boats convened in the harbor. I took out my binoculars to see if they were catching, and I spied the Black Rock, Captain Sloan Gurney’s 45-foot charter boat. As I focused on his transom, I knew people pay him $1,000 for a day’s fishing. Something was going on. I called Sloan that night, and he gave me some bait. I asked if the striped bass had arrived. Shortly, he counseled. We have an arrangement: Every May, I hire him to take boatloads of chefs from the city out into Plum Gut to harvest some cows. The big stripers become the daily specials all over New York, and I cement my relationship with the restaurants that carry our oysters. And I get to fish with Sloan.

The fluke bite continued through early May. Black Rock drifted across the harbor catching doormat flukes. I kept up a steady stream of texts with Captain Sloan. He assured me I would be the first to know when the bass arrived. I called Dave Pasternak, chef of Esca, herald of crudo to Manhattan and a devoted fisherman. He had just caught a bass up-island. They’re on their way to the East End, he assured me while confirming his spot on the Black Rock. Chef Dave, who has fished all over the world, will admit the Gut is the best bass fishing on Long Island. Maybe the best in the world.

Via Plum Gut, the Long Island Sound empties into Mare Atlantico. Its bottom is pitted with canyons and caves. The depth changes abruptly from 300 to 20 to 200 feet. The tidal rip can easily exceed 5 knots. The chop at the tide line can lap over the transom of a small boat. The baitfish get roiled in the turbulence. The predator fish hunker in the caves saving their energy and pounce on their meal. It’s striped bass heaven.

Cappy Sloan Gurney has been fishing Plum Gut all his life. He caught his first striper at age nine. He wrestled with engineering and computers for years, but came back to fishing the Gut. The other fishing captains call him the Gut Keeper. He’s booked every day from May 1 to Thanksgiving, rising before dawn and sleeping with the sunset, seven days a week. The Friday after Thanksgiving he goes into the city with his girlfriend, watches a play, has dinner—actually is feted to a feast that would make a Cuomo tear up—and flies down to Costa Rica for the winter.

“People love to fish because it sates their desire to hunt,” Sloan told me over some oysters and wine. “They may not realize it, but they’re out for the hunt.” We barter shellfish for fish. “I’ve caught tens of thousands of bass. It’s no thrill for me to have one at the end of the line. But I do enjoy watching a novice land one.” A week later he texted me a photo of him with a 50-pounder. We’re all hunters.

Sloan advised we do the night bite. The cows were in.

From his dock in Orient Harbor to the Gut is 15 minutes. Chefs Dave Pasternak, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson met me at the dock. The sommelier from Ten Bells brought a great rosé from the Loire valley.

“Fish on!” Dave called out.

“Two on!” Riad countered.

Two big, fat stripers thumped to the deck, first mate Joey netting them both in one scoop. A pair of 30-pounders. We caught our limit that day in 90 minutes: 12 bass over 25 pounds each. I had never seen fishing like that. It was just another day out the Gut for Captain Sloan, something he has to grind through at times.

We finished the rosé, and I got the name of a store that carried it in the city. We turned back to port. The Connecticut shore was to our backs, as was Fishers Island and the Race. Little Gull over our shoulder, Plum at three o’clock, Gardiners Island and Montauk in front and Shelter Island coming into view. There’s no better place in the world for bass and no better captain than Sloan Gurney, the Gut Keeper. •

Mike Osinski owns the Greenport-based Widows Hole Oyster Company. Captain Sloan Gurney says, for him, every year is a good year for striped bass. Photographer Tony Ludovico’s work can be seen at tonyludovico.com.