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John Skinner

John Skinner is the author of Fishing the Bucktail and A Season on the Edge. He’s the creator of the fishing log software FishersLog. He’s a consistent producer of trophy striped bass and holds the current New York State false albacore record.

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July 27, 2014

Changes Below

by John Skinner

On Saturday (7/26) my son and I made our first Long Island Sound dive in two years. It was only about 5 years ago when we would dive more than 20 times per year. His going off to college certainly shortened the season, but the real reasons we stopped going had more to do with visibility and the available of our primary target – lobsters. I've dove for lobsters in the sound since the mid 1970s. Until the early 1990s it was always easy to get a 6 lobster recreational limit from shore with snorkel gear. Then came the big lobster die-off in the mid-1990s, and that all changed. I stopped diving for awhile, until my son was 12 and old enough to scuba dive with me. We started back up again in 2006, and did pretty well by hitting good structure with the scuba gear. It was nowhere near as easy as it was in the days of snorkeling from shore, but we averaged 4 to 8 keepers per dive between the two of us, and we were still within 1000 feet of the beach most of the time. In 2011 we made only two dives because the visibility was so poor all season. We hit our two best spots, and saw only one lobster. It was a keeper, and was in a tire that was about as close to a sure thing as we had. We made several dives in 2012, and saw no signs whatsoever of lobsters. Usually you'll see their little caves dug out under rocks or see an occasional lost claw on the bottom. Again, visibility was poor all through the summer of 2013, and we had little incentive to strain our eyes through the silt looking for lobsters that weren't there. Having not even tried in two years, we decided to give it a shot on Saturday. The changes went beyond the lobster observations.
We dove our best spot. It has 17 to 23 feet of water at dead low tide and five major boulders, including a couple that reach 15 feet off the bottom. Smaller rock piles fill out most of the space between the boulders. We saw nothing that suggested that lobsters ever inhabited the area. They're just gone. We saw many more mussels than we ever had. The bottom was covered with them in some areas. The big blackfish were on the same rocks they are always on. We saw no bass, but they're smart enough to hang back a little from scuba gear, so they may have been out of visibility range. We saw one large fluke. Because terns were working overhead we expected to see sandeels, but instead found schools of tiny bait that were either anchovies or peanut bunker. They were too small to tell. We saw more quality seabass on the dive than we might have seen in an entire season years ago. Surprisingly we didn't see any porgies. I thought there were more dead spider crabs than there should have been, but there were a fair number of live ones too. Many areas had an unfamiliar reddish weed covering the bottom. I looked back on some 5-year-old video and it definitely wasn't there then. There were lots of sea urchins. They were so rare back in the 1980s that the first time I ever saw one I kept it and dried it out for a decoration. We did not find any surf clams. Those clams used to be there for the taking.
I guess there are always changes in the marine environment. When I was a kid you could go out to buoy 11 off Port Jefferson at the end of April and load up on Boston Mackerel. I used to catch them off the beach on tins as a kid. It wasn't unusual for them to blitz the shoreline on massive schools of big sandeels. On the other hand we didn't have fluke in the numbers we have today. As mentioned, we saw more large seabass than ever on this dive. They were a novelty to catch in this area when I was a kid. Back then I don't think there were enough false albacore around that they could be targeted successfully from shore. A couple things I'm sure of, there were a lot more bass years ago in this area of the sound, and there were lobsters. I'm not so pessimistic that I think I'll be talking about stripers some day in the same past tense that I do lobsters now. Then again I never could have imagined as a young angler that our bay and harbor bottoms wouldn't always be paved with winter flounder.
Here's a video from a night dive in 2010 shot where we dove on Saturday. The blackfish are still there, big and in good numbers. Hopefully the lobsters will come back someday.

July 06, 2014

No Shortage of Stripers – If You're Where They Are...

by John Skinner

I don't know any surfcasters who think shore fishing for stripers is better than it's been in past years. The general consensus is that it's getting worse, and a fair number believe the fishery is in trouble. I have to admit that there are times when I share that view, but then I talk to the boat anglers catching large numbers of big stripers while fishing the bunker pods in the ocean. Over the past few weeks these fish have been stretched from at least Fire Island Inlet to east of Shinnecock. That's over 50 miles, and that's only what I know about. That's not to say that there was a 50-mile-long school of big bass out there, but the adult bunker were easily found anywhere in this stretch and there were days when I had excellent bass reports spread throughout that range. These were mostly 30 to 43-pound fish, with numerous fish over 50 pounds sprinkled into the catches.
With the exception of using rigged and live eels, I don't bait fish for stripers, but given the outrageous reports and a calm ocean, I decided to paddle out to the pods and check out the action for myself. It took me less than 30 minutes to put a 40-pound plus bass in my kayak. Keep in mind that I was pretty clueless and this was my first attempt at "snag and drop" for bass in the ocean. At the rate this season's surf action is going, there's a chance I might not see a fish bigger than that from the beach this year despite many hours of effort in the best surf spots and under the fishiest of conditions.
Yes, there were some good surf opportunities in June. There always are in the top-notch places. The problem was that if you weren't fishing one of the small number of hotspots, you probably wondered what happened to all of the stripers. Two years ago I wondered where all of the bluefish were. They were somewhere, because there's no lack of the big ones this year. They inundated the south shore bays and inlet areas this spring and are on the bunker schools with the bass. I even found them hammering adult bunker in the Sound when I was fluking just prior to the bad weather associated with Hurricane Arthur.
Sometimes I have difficulty deciding whether what appears to be a low fish stock is really a distribution issue. For the record, my opinion is that the bass stocks are off, because there have been years of declining catches and too many good areas are nearly fishless. It is a slight relief though to know that there are such large numbers of big fish not far off the ocean beaches.
Here's a video of my first bunker pod fishery attempt with the kayak. It was fun for sure. Hopefully we'll get to see some of these big fish in respectable numbers on the beach in the coming months, or at least this fall.

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