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Shinnecock East: Disneyland for Fishermen
May 10, 2006
by Michael Wright

Bucktailing the east jetty of Shinnecock Inlet requires beefy tackle.

Shinnecock Inlet Bucktailing

The bays of the South Shore are the heartbeat of Long Island, the pulsating chambers of life at the Island's center, around which everything surrounding them depends. The inlets that feed them work like arteries, delivering nature's bounty to the shoreline each spring.

From the Rockaways to the Hamptons nearly every resident of Long Island draws on the resources and offerings of the bays at one time or another, and most rely on the hordes of tourists and travelers that are drawn to them for their economic sustenance, and to fishermen the inlets and bays.

The eastern-most and smallest of these inlet-fed estuaries is Shinnecock Bay, named for the Native American tribe that has lived on her shores for millennia.

For shorebound anglers the anchor of Shinnecock Bay is the Shinnecock East County Park, a veritable Disneyland for surf anglers. From its long rock jetty and sandy beaches anglers can tap a bountiful cross section of Long Island's gamefish buffet. From striped bass pushing into the 40 and 50-pound range, to bottom dwellers like blackfish, to the swarms of false albacore and Spanish mackerel, Shinnecock East offers a good and easily accessed shot at the best of the East End's sportfishing.

Shinnecock East County Park sits at the westernmost end of Southampton Village, at the terminus of a narrow roadway called Meadow Lane (Southampton's version of Dune Road) that snakes through the low lying barrier beach between the flowing tidal marshes of Shinnecock Bay and the palatial waterfront mansions nestled amid the ocean dunes along the beach. At the end of the road a simple sign and guardhouse stand at the entrance to 20 acres of sand, dunes, and rock.

On weekends, hundreds of campers line up along the ocean and bay fronts, barbequing, playing volleyball, and surfing in their sandy temporary backyards. But during the week, and between sunset and sunrise, the park is the domain of the angler. From the open beaches on the south, to the jagged rocks of the jetty, to the submarine mussel beds just feet from the entrance to the park, Shinnecock East offers a wide variety of fishing options that all produce their share of fine fish at various times of the day and season.

The fun at Shinnecock starts early and typically holds steady throughout the summer and fall and often into the early days of winter. (In the fall of 2005 the second week of December brought a handful of days of red hot fishing from the east jetty of Shinnecock Inlet.) But springtime is when Shinnecock East is at its best.

The action at Shinnecock usually gets into full swing by mid-May with the arrival of the main body of migrating stripers. The gloaming of June days is primetime, when big stripers, many pushing 40 pounds, lay in the fairway of the inlet waiting for prey to be swept into or out of the bay by the ebb and flood tides.

Starting in mid-April, clouds of shiners, sandeels, bunker, and killies pour through the inlet and into Shinnecock Bay to start their annual mating rituals on the fringes of the salt marshes that rim the bay. And the predators are always hot on their tails. Schoolie stripers are usually the first to arrive, about the time the dogwoods start to bloom in early April.

The "elbow,"-where the quarry stones of the jetty curve sharply to the east with the channel leading into the bay, known as the "East Cut," the main route through the bay for boats returning to Shinnecock Canal from the ocean-is usually the best bet for catching these early season shorts.

The stripers hold tight to the small stones of the channel wall, ambushing baitfish skirting the edge of the jetty. Light tackle and small jigs, bucktails with touts or Storm-like jelly baits, will always take a few of these voracious little micro-bass by the time the bay water nears 50-degrees. The joint formed at the foot of the jetty and the ocean beach, known as "the pocket," usually holds balls of baitfish and a few stripers during warm sunny days early in the season as well.

The next gamefish to arrive in Shinnecock are the weakfish, usually by the last week of April, about the time bunker start schooling in the deep holes of the bay. The parking lot of Shinnecock East sits just a stone’s throw from some of these holes, where a sandy cove runs east into the bay from the park entrance, along the edge of the East Cut.

Some of these holes drop to more than 15 feet deep from the edge of vast stretches of old mussel beds that are only inches deep at low tide-prime tiderunner territory. The dark water of the holes is easy to spot even on a cloudy day. When the bunker are in the weakfish and stripers will pour into the deep spots and pick off bunker wounded or cleaved by bluefish.

Snagging a bunker, rigging just its head and letting it settle to the bottom can produce big stripers and will not usually attract the attention of the blues. But catching the jumbo weakies is a bit trickier. They will take just about any bucktail or rubber jig, but the hook needs to get to them before it is inhaled by a bruiser bluefish. The bunker can again guide the way.

Watch the nervous water created by the swimming bunker. They will work in a steady counter-clockwise rotation around the edges of the hole. When they are nearest to you, keep your jig in hand, or it will certainly be destroyed by bluefish teeth. But weakfish are as afraid of the blues as the bunker are and when the bait school is at the opposite side of the hole, furthest from you, the weakfish will be at your feet. Waiting for the opportune time will ensure the best chance at the big tiderunners with the least threat of losing tackle.

By mid-May the bunker schools break up and the predator fish scatter throughout the bay. When this happens, the best action at Shinnecock East will usually continue to be along the inside of the East Cut.

False albacore provide some exciting action at Shinnecock East.
As the water in the bay warms and big stripers arrive in greater numbers, they will take up position in the warmth of the bay where the mussel beds and jetty slip into the deep water. On still early mornings, topwater plugs worked along this edge will call fish from the deep and bring nuclear explosions, capped with a waving tail and singing drag. Despite the unthreatening terrain, this is no place for light tackle. Three-ounce pencil poppers are the weapon of choice to draw strikes from fish in the high 20 and 30 pound range and long casts to the channel edge require big surf sticks.

As the days turn warm in June, the fishing at Shinnecock East switches to the main fairway of the inlet, where cool ocean water runs deep and fast, just the way big stripers like it. Bucktails, big guns, and braided line are the bread and butter of fishing at Shinnecock East, and once the fish set up in the inlet, there can be good fishing straight through until it is time for the Christmas decorations to come out.

As air and water temps climb in late June and boat traffic in the inlet ramps up, stripers settle into their regular dusk, dark, and dawn routine. In early summer, some fish are taken in the late morning (that is, after 8 a.m.) but most of the fishing is done at the fringes of the normal day. As the days get warmer moving from June to July, the after dark and pre-dawn hours are typically the staples.

Bucktailing in Shinnecock and Moriches inlet is a far cry from the fast cast and retrieve style of fishing most anglers who have visited Montauk associate with bucktail fishing. In the inlets, retrieves are saved for retrieving the lure from the strike zone and the action of the bucktail is largely left to the control of the tides and bottom contours, bouncing along as naturally as possible with nary a flip until a rubber-jawed bucket wraps it lips around it.

Using a 1.5- to 2.5- ouncebucktail, depending on the speed of the current, flip your jig up-current. Take up the slack but don't move the bucktail until you feel it banging into the bottom. From there the handle of the reel should barely turn enough to keep the line taught and the rod-tip nibbling. As your bucktail passes down-current and naturally starts to swing in toward the jetty a couple of quick bounces of the tip will pop it up the slope of the jetty base, hopefully calling the attention of a last licks striper, before the jig has to be retrieved in a hurry to keep it out of the rocks.

Bucktailing this way is not something picked up in short order. The bucktailing lineup at Shinnecock-often 20 to 30 guys or more separated only by a quarry stone or two when fishing is good-is typically a who's who of the local Southampton sharpies. Out-of-towners fill themselves in where they can but it is the guys who fish the rocks day in and day out that consistently produce the fish.

August is typically the quietest time of year around the bays. But the fish are still there and the angler that is willing to go completely nocturnal will continue to find them. The dog days produce some great catches of fish for lazy anglers soaking bunker chunks, eels, or worms in the surf zone just east of the jetty in the midnight hours. The East Cut also becomes one of the better spots again as stripers crawl along the edges of the channel looking for crabs and baitfish once boat traffic has ended.

As the days begin to grow shorter, early mornings at Shinnecock Inlet bring some of the first signs of the fall run beginning. Even if the days are still summertime balmy, the dark clouds of rain minnows, or bay anchovies, that cluster tight to the jetty walls are a sure sign of the autumn feeding frenzies.

The first fish to start marauding these little morsels are usually cocktail blues and they often provide the day-timers with some outstanding fish blitzes marching up and down the jetty on the last days of summer.

But it is never very long before the inshore speedsters show up: Spanish mackerel and false albacore. The macks are usually only around for a short engagement-a week or two at the end of August in most years-and stay near the ocean-side tip of the jetty, but some tasty fillets can find their way to the cooler when they are in.

Once the falsies find the rainbait, they are in for the long haul and often in amazing numbers. On good days, there will be dozens of schools of falsies spread from the ocean end of the jetty far into the bay along the edge of the East Cut. Flyrodders and light tackle enthusiasts put on their rock cleats and sprint up and down the rocks as the tunas march up and down the edge of the jetty.

Perched high above the water, this type of albie fishing can be far more exciting than fishing them from a boat because anglers can clearly see the bright green backs and silvery sides of the albies as they cruise along the edge of the rocks, even when they are not "showing."

Little Al-Bone-Tuna flies for flyrodders and the 3/4-ounce Deadly Dicks for spin fishermen are the lures of choice. Spinning rods should be a little more stout than might usually be chosen for the sake of controlling the fish as they near the submerged rocks at the foot of the jetty.

The albies often hang around until the middle of October, or whenever the first bad northerly blow muddies up the bay. After that, attention of most anglers turns back to the stripers.

While the ocean beaches to the east can produce better days of fishing as fall wears on, the Shinnecock sharpies usually stick to the rocks, working the early morning tides more heavily. While there aren't the blitzes that the migrations bring to Montauk and the beaches, there are some shots of real good fishing, 10 fish or more, straight through until December.

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