Montauk Caught

As I sped back to Montauk Point, I saw that I was outrunning the downeaster commercial fishing boat chasing me. The boat I was using wasn’t mine. I borrowed my friend’s old twenty-two foot clunker, which did have a two hundred horsepower outboard engine though it did not have great compression. I could only get twenty miles an hour out of her, but that was enough to get up on plane and run faster than the average downeaster running at fourteen knots wide open. I kept thinking how could I put myself in this position again? This was all I needed; a crazed, three hundred pound commercial fisherman and his posse of retired baymen—who looked like guys right out of the movie Deliverance—chasing me in this small boat, bellowing over the VHF radio that he was going to do all kinds of harm to me, knock my teeth in, etc.

I eventually turned the radio off so my horrified charter customers, huddled in the stern, did not have to hear the threats. They were two striped bass enthusiasts from Maryland who were vacationing in Montauk. I loaded them onto this piece-of-crap that afternoon and they were to pay me five hundred bucks which, by the way, is highly illegal, as my friend’s boat was not a registered charter boat and was not insured as such. But that was the least of our problems now. I was just hoping that it would not break down. My customers wanted to fish for big striped bass at the Porgy Hump, a famous fishing spot about two and a half miles east of Montauk Point, and were unfortunate enough to click on my website, “Second Choice Charters,” where I guaranteed 40 pound bass, also referred to as “pigs,” “cows” and “slobs.”

I am a fishing addict. I once promised myself and my girlfriend that once I hit my goal of a fifty-pound cow I would cut back. I now had three fifties under my belt and my addiction to catching huge striped bass seemed to be growing rather than waning. Since then, I’ve lost my girl, my furniture, my money…I even hocked my coffee maker for gas. Worse, to pay for my addiction I was now bringing innocent, unsuspecting people into harm’s way.

Whenever the price of striped bass gets up to six dollars a pound tension always seems to mount between the bootleggers and the legitimate licensed commercial fisherman. I had witnessed this scenario too many times and I knew the threats this guy was making over the VHF were all too real. He was blind with rage. As a general rule you never want to tangle with anyone who makes a living with his hands; I would put a construction worker against a gym rat any day. And this guy had worked for years stacking seventy-pound boxes of fish as if it was nothing for hours on end. Several times cops were called on him and a few captains had restraining orders against him. He was not your average pin hooker. For the most part, pin hookers are a docile group of commercial fisherman licensed by the state to catch certain fish with rod and reel and sell them. I interacted with some of these guys over the years and for the most part they are decent, hard-working people, but this particular pin hooker was a breed unto himself.

I actually felt bad for the two guys who were with me. They answered my ad looking for its guarantee of landing a forty-pound cow and could never have imagined this was part of the adventure. We were fishing in a spot just to the east of the Porgy Hump that has always held big bass. I saw this particular commercial boat about a half-mile away, but we were so busy catching fish I did not see him sneak up on us. In no time, he was alongside us screaming at me, accusing me of fishing on “his numbers” (his coordinates of longitude and latitude). It was obvious by his rage that he believed I had snuck onto his boat, turned on his GPS and stolen his fishing spot. Even if I had done this, the Porgy Hump is the size of a football field. There was plenty of room for two boats. Back in the day there used to be fifty boats out there.

At first he calmly asked what I was doing. I thought he meant what we were catching. I began to tell him that we were catching mostly small fish and were doing okay when he interrupted me, his voice still very serious and calm but his stern facial expression betraying anger. “I meant, what are you doing on this spot?” I was now genuinely confused. I said something along the lines of, “What’s so special about this spot?” and then finally understanding what he was getting at added, in as non-confrontational a way as possible, that I had never even seen him fish this particular area. He bridled. His eyes rolled back like a shark and he unleashed a tirade of obscenities I knew to be very real threats. “If you did not have those people on your boat I would ram you right here…I will see yous at the marina,” he snarled.

I was utterly mortified. I told my customers to reel up and we headed to Shagwong Rip about a half-mile from Montauk Harbor. They looked shocked although they tried to appear nonchalant. Since the money was on the fish, I knew the commercial guy would not leave a red-hot bite on the Porgy Hump until it got dark. It was around 7pm in early August so we had at least an hour to fish. I told the customers that as soon as we saw that commercial boat break the horizon from the east we had to scram back to the harbor ahead of them. I would pull up to the gas dock, they would unload their gear and fish and I would put the boat away as they got the car. I told them it would take me five minutes tops and that they should have their car running. “You guys don’t have to pay me, but that guy was serious, just get me out of Montauk to any train or bus station.” They agreed to the terms.

We went to Shagwong Rip and they actually had steady action. But the air was tense; there was no laughing. Not much was said. Still in a state of shock, my anxiety was contagious and contaminated the mood of the trip. The entire time the customers were fishing I had my hand on the throttle and my eye glued to the east waiting to see that downeaster show up over the horizon.

We had been fishing for about thirty-five minutes or so when the distinctive bow cut into view. I gave the command I was anxious to give: “Lines up!” and punched the throttle propelling the boat toward Montauk Harbor. I was a good two miles ahead of the downeaster and although I’m not good at math, I knew we would get into the marina a solid twenty minutes ahead of them. But putting the boat away took longer than I expected. As I was fastening the last critical line on the boat the ominous downeaster rounded the furthest bulkhead. Since it was a full moon, I could not get the final spring rope on because the tide was so low. It was like a horror movie where a girl gets her jacket caught on barbed wire just as Freddy Krueger is honing in on her. With one last flurry of energy brought on by shear adrenalin, and maybe the last drop of testosterone I had left in my drug addled forty-five year old body, I was able to pull the rope over the cleat and secure the boat. As I ran, his spotlight found me and followed me right down the dock and into the back of the waiting truck. “Go!” I screamed. We drove west in silence for about two hours. They dropped me off at Ronkonkoma train station, my legs shaking on an empty platform while I waited for the next train to Manhattan. I had over an hour to think about what happened.

My story is not a new one. Back in the 1970’s stories of ass-whippings were much more prevalent in Montauk and all fishing docks across the northeast. When fishermen had no high-tech tools with which to find fish only the best at sighting landmarks could stay “on the meat” using visuals like buildings, buoys and lighthouses to take “ranges” on important pieces of bottom. They would attach green fluorescent floating glow-sticks to a line and sinker them to mark where the large schools of strippers, the “money fish,” were. The fishermen would see the glowing stick just below the water line and know where to start their drifts. Only a few boats were privy to these locations. The others were forced to bang it out in Pollock Rip, which was hit or miss. If you were invited in with these king pin hookers, you could make a lot of money. If you were not in the clique, you better find a new form of work.

Montauk in the 70s was the closest New York State had to the Wild West. There were no Department of Conservation regulations on bass and there was no real legal presence on the water aside from the Coast Guard, which wasn’t exactly stocked with experts—three out of four people on the average Coast Guard boat were young kids from Oklahoma. At the docks and in the bars people handled things with their fists. They simply either administered or took a beating. I arrived in Montauk in 2002. I was not part of this ass-whipping era. I was white collar. I am a graduate of Hotchkiss tennis camp, I went to boarding school, I used to wear madras pants and I skied in Vail. I have never delivered a beating and I’m not certain I could take one.

How did a kid who grew up on Park Avenue and summering in the Cape and Nantucket get mixed up in the black market fish trade? Simple: I am a fishing addict. The “holy shit, he lost his job, his wife, his children, his bank account, his friends, his life…” type of addict. It’s real. There have been schoolteachers and postmen fired from their jobs for coming in late and smelling like fish (and it is very hard to get fired from the post office). Guys have refinanced their houses (back when they could) to pay for their boats and entry fees into tournaments. There has been bankruptcy, countless divorces and deaths, all in the pursuit of fish.

The train finally came and I went back to my empty apartment on Park Avenue. I was once a baby in arms in this large three-bedroom abode overlooking the opulent boulevard. There must have been such promise for me then. My grandfather was a captain of industry. Both he and my father attended Ivy League colleges and went on to do good things. Now, decades later, I sat in the living room in the only chair left, reeking of fish.

Excerpted from “Caught—One Man’s Maniacal Pursuit” (Kindle/Amazon)

From July to October selling striped bass illegally is a multi-million-dollar industry on Long Island, in Manhattan and the greater tri-state area. Most of the time the fish is presented on the menu as a special: “Fresh, Local Wild Striped Bass.” And most of the time the owners of the restaurants bought the fish out of the trunk of some guy’s car and not from a licensed fish market or distributor. Yes, the owners of the restaurant are taking a chance of being fined heavily or even shut down for accepting these undocumented fish. Still, no one wants to be the one guy in town who pays full wholesale prices. At the time of this caper striped bass wholesale was six bucks a pound for whole fish or twelve bucks a pound for the fillet. On the black market it was going for as little as a dollar-fifty a pound for the whole fish and five to eight bucks a pound for fillets. The average three to five-ounce filet could be sold as an entrée for close to thirty-five bucks depending on the restaurant. A busy, high-end hundred-seat restaurant could bang out fifty striped bass specials a night.

Aside from depleting a valuable and, as many feel, sacred national resource, the real victims of this are the legitimate licensed commercial fisherman who have been authorized to harvest a prescribed amount of these fish by hook and line. When a guy like me sells my fish to restaurants to offset my fuel bill it drives the wholesale price down. This puts more pressure on the legitimate commercial guys who, while trying to fish for a living, are already feeling pressure from constricting regulations and skyrocketing operating expenses. These guys have become endangered species themselves.