A Montauk Adventure
Growing up in NYC I knew nothing about the east end of Long Island. Back then summers were asphalt handball courts, municipal pools, and carp fishing in concrete-sided ponds.
That changed the summer I turned fifteen. My buddy Mike had read about the legendary fishing in Montauk Point. Also, about a place called Ditch Plains Oceanside Park, where you could camp right on the beach. So, between the two of us and our other fishing pal, John, we somehow convinced our parents that we could safely ride the train to Montauk and camp out for five days. In the waning era of the Eisenhower years parents were more trusting.
A week later we were sitting on the LIRR “Fisherman Express” for the three hour ride to Montauk. We were city kids and we thought we had come prepared. Our home on the beach was to be a heavy, canvas, war surplus tent purchased at an Army/Navy store. It probably weighed forty pounds. We each had knapsacks stuffed with clothes, pots and pans, and a supply of canned food—freeze-dried was still in the future. Plus—since it was the purpose of the trip—we all carried fishing rods and tackle bags.
What we hadn’t planned on was the location of the Montauk train station. We saw the morning sun rising over the waters of Fort Pond, not the Atlantic Ocean. Ditch Plains beach was due south, three long miles away.
I don’t remember the details of the hike except that it was a hot summer morning, and that the tent was an instrument of torture to carry. By the time we dropped our loads onto the sand at the campsite, we stripped off our shirts and shoes and collapsed in the cool surf.
Montauk was a quieter and simpler place in those days. The little town we had hiked through was mostly empty of tourists; the Ditch Plains campground consisted of a bathroom/shower building and a scattering of campsites. There were mostly Winnebago-style campers, some proper family-sized tents pitched on wooden platforms, and a few actual beach sites consisting of nothing more than a square of sand with a fire pit.
Ours was probably a hundred feet from the surf. No amenities, but what a view. Windswept dunes, blue-green ocean swells crashing on the beach in front of our tent, and, off to the east, the bouldered cliffs and height of land that stretched several miles across mostly empty moors to the Montauk Lighthouse.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I know that each day was an adventure. We fished in the mornings, swam and hiked along the cliffs in the afternoons, and cooked over an open campfire each evening. Mainly we fished. We caught fluke and porgies, bluefish and blackfish, sand sharks and skates, but the one thing we couldn’t seem to connect with was striped bass. These were what we wanted to catch most of all. Striped bass were, and still are, the king of coastal fish. But, in the late years of the 1950’s they were becoming scarce.
Or so we thought. Until we woke up early on, perhaps, the third morning to find the beach occupied by a large, silvery truck and a rusted car of ancient vintage. We could see the long line of tracks in the sand that they had left as they approached from the west. Now they had stopped and a couple of men wearing waders and long-billed fishing caps stared out to sea. The sun was just squeezing over the eastern horizon and the surf was pretty calm with long, undulating swells rolling lazily in.
Suddenly, the big truck backed up to the surf line and launched a skiff powered by an outboard motor. Two men in the boat surged over the waves paying out a net, held up by little cork buoys, as they headed out. Meanwhile, the rusty car drove west on the beach and stopped a few hundred yards away. We stood there watching as the skiff turned west, parallel to the beach, and then headed back in towards the car. Minutes later the skiff surfed up onto dry sand and the men leapt out. They attached that end of the net to a winch on the front of the car and began hauling it in as the silver truck drove slowly towards it carrying the other end of the net.
I don’t think we said much as we watched the net closing up towards the shore. At one point, the calm surface inside the confines of the net started to quiver. Then all hell broke loose. The enclosed water turned white with froth as the frenzy of big fish—striped bass—began leaping and thrashing. This was soon joined by a squadron of gulls and terns converging on the mayhem. Some fish escaped over the top of the net, and the men cursed and shouted orders to each other as they drew the net frantically up the beach.
We, too, shouted and cursed in wonderment as we ran down the beach to see the action up close.
The sun was up now and the wet sand glistened as hundreds of striped bass poured out of the spent net and thrashed while the men grabbed at them and tossed them into the back of the big truck. I don’t remember anybody asking, but at some point we were helping, lifting big bass by the gill plates or tails and heaving them up onto the truck.
It was over in an hour and for the first time the men talked to us.
“Ya did good, boys. Ye’re not from around here, are ya?” I remember the older man saying as he lit a cigarette and squinted towards our fishing rods. We told him we were from the city and were out here trying to catch a striped bass. The comment seemed ludicrous considering the scene we had just been part of.
He looked at us and smiled. “Yup, they’re the finest kind, they are,” he said. Then he pointed to some small bait fish that had come in with the net and still lay on the beach.
“Tell ya what. You take some of them bunker there and cut ‘em up. Chunk ‘em. And then you bait some big hooks, come back here tonight just when the sun is sinkin’ and cast them out there.” He pointed to some glacial boulders awash just beyond the surf. “Them bass’ll be back for dinner and them bunker is what they like to eat. Good luck, boys.”
He took one last look at the blue sky and calm sea, and added, “But watch out boys, today’s a weather breeder, we got some weather comin’ in soon.” Then both vehicles took off down the beach.
Later that evening we took his advice. Just as the sun sank below the western dunes all three of us had fish on. We whooped and hollered like drunken party goers as we fought the big fish in the dark until we were finally able to slide them up onto the beach. The fish were beautiful: bronze backs and white bellies with glistening scales the size of quarters and black lines running the length of their sides.
We released all but the biggest one, which we filleted on the beach and gave out to people in the campers.
The next day dawned with big clouds rolling in off the ocean. An east wind had come up and giant seas were booming onto the beach. I don’t remember how we spent that day but I do remember the campground pretty much clearing out by midday. By nightfall the rain had started and the wind was howling. Sometime during the night I awoke and realized I was lying in a puddle of water and the tent had sprung a dozen leaks. The three of us sat on upturned cooking pots and gazed miserably out at the scene. Lightning flashes lit the beach and tree branches blew past the tent.
An hour later, a thunderous crash of lightning struck an old Coast Guard tower a half-mile west of us. The tower toppled into the sand. Now, we were really scared.
Then, a miracle happened. From off the beach came the headlights of a vehicle. In the lightning flash we could see it was the big silver truck. The fisherman hopped out and helped us grab our packs and tent and toss everything into the truck. He drove us off the beach and took us to a big shed next to a fish processing plant where we stayed the night—dry and comfortable. Next morning we were on the train home.
Almost thirty-years later, when Peter Matthiessen published his book, Men’s Lives, I realized who we had to thank for our rescue. It was Ted Lester’s haul seining crew: old time Bonackers and true gentlemen. Thank you Captain Ted.