Aboard the Shinnecock Star
There were those from south of the Highway and others who reside above the barrier, but it was the best of times. I’m sitting on a wet cooler and it’s twenty to seven on a Sunday morning in August, and the sun’s rays are just beginning to glisten brilliantly on the bay. My family made the drive out from Westhampton to the docks at the end of Dune Road, where the inlet merges the Atlantic and Shinnecock Bay. Although I am dreary eyed, there is no more unique sight on the East End.
In an effort to secure a coveted corner spot on the Shinnecock Star fishing “party boat,” we’ve arrived before everyone, including Captain John Capuano. It must be said that this type of a “party boat” has little in common with your typical booze-cruise. At about five to seven, Captain John is ready to collect the fares before we push off. First-mate Deena alerts everyone on-board that there is a pool for the largest fluke, as that’s what’s in season, so those sea robins that chew up the line, known as “birds” to the old salts on board, are not included in the contest. John announces that everyone is in the pool, including a separate one for kids.
My dad who had owned a 24’ Grady White before married life, has recently been trying to get back into fishing more seriously. His most recollected memories with his father usually include stories about past exploits including landing a 40lb striped bass, so it’s no coincidence he’s passed on the fishing family-bonding tradition. We’ve brought our own rods and rigs to “jig-fish,” a more intricate form of fluke fishing as opposed to “drag fishing” with the Star’s house-conventional setups. While sipping coffee purchased from the fisherman’s diner down the dock, we’re huddled around the stern of the boat rigging sinkers, lines and preparing bait for the day’s trip. My younger brother guarantees that he’ll bring home a bigger fish than me, only to be reminded by our father that we’d be lucky to catch anything, even “shorts.”
What has always been striking to me about these hopeful, pensive and exciting moments before the day begins in earnest is watching the people board the boat and fill-up the 24 spots along the rail. In the “window,” the position closest to the captain, a heavyset, goateed man and his brother, who I overhear, are from Hampton Bays, set up their cooler with their own bait and six-pack. An older fellow in water-resistant overalls is helped down the steps by Deena, carrying his homemade rod, and sagaciously assumes the right corner position of the boat. A burgeoning family with a home in Southampton fishing for the first time; these kids always win the pool, without fail. This beat-up boat has a knack of bringing people together from different walks of life, from veteran fishermen to novice vacationing East Enders. There’s no way of knowing how each individual appreciates his or her time on the Star, whether being closer to nature, or gaining a better understanding of the environment, or simply basking in the joy of being out on the water and reeling one in.
The 41-footer shoves-off the dock nestled between Oakland’s restaurant and the Hampton Lady Beach Bar & Grill; and the dark, cold, coffee-infused morning immediately cruises into a glowing, promising day ahead. We’ve been fishing with the Star since the summer of 2003, so as regulars we sport Shinnecock Star sweatshirts for the early morning breeze. When John rings the bell denoting the first attempt to reel in minimum 18” fluke, it’s time to take off the sweatshirts. My brother’s sure he’s going to bring up the pool fish; I think he’s just trying to psyche me out. My mom reaches for another “Dramamine” but suddenly her line gets a hit. It’s a good first drop, I’m thinking, maybe today I could bring dinner home. We’re in shallow water so I can see the bottom and the fish swimming toward the boat. No one catches for about five minutes except for the crab that a woman from Bridgehampton brings up. The bell rings and it’s time to bring our lines up and move to another spot.
The morning rolls on. It’s getting brighter and there’s little action. It’s almost 8:30 and I remark to whoever is listening, “what a beautiful day,” and “how lucky we are to be out on the water.” I have always felt that the fishing experience is more enjoyable when all four of us are on-board. I look around and appreciate our unique family unit, our ability to relish these ideal moments, and suddenly I feel guilty when contrasting the families on board to men who are not able to bring out their families. I wonder if some of the Stars’ regulars come here to escape their families or their jobs.
You can tell when it’s a fluke, but not always if it’s a keeper. I get a hit on my line and I slowly lift the pole to sense whether the front edge bends a bit, suddenly my rod is shaking up and down and my adrenaline rushes through my body. We’re still in the bay so I don’t have to deal with any ocean chop, I’m reeling and I can begin to make out the shape, it looks like a fluke: the right kind, we’re all yelling “net!” Deena scoops the net under water and lifts it up, it’s obviously a short, sometimes called a “postage stamp.” My brother and I urge her to measure it. Truth is we’re hoping for a repeat-customers’ edge. No go. It’s 16” and tossed back. My brother says, “It looked bigger in the water.” Close, but no cigar.
I’m happy for my dad whose expensive gear from Scott’s East End Bait & Tackle hasn’t gone to waste. He’s caught two keeper fluke, though neither is in contention for the pool. I’ve caught one that’s also on ice. My mom brought up four shorts making her the high-hook for the family, yet none of them pass the 18” threshold. My brother looks like he may make good on his playfully arrogant guarantee from the morning, one of his two keepers has a shot at the pool. Deena will weigh the two potentially pool-winning fish at the dock when we head in.
It’s 11:10 and John is in a good mood today so he’s given us an extra ten minutes to fish. My dad grumbles in my ear that he stayed out a while longer so customers wouldn’t go home upset since it has been a slow day. Perhaps, by catching the midday tide, there could be a few late surprise catches. John was right, there were three fish caught including one keeper during today’s extra stop at the “west cut,” near the Ponquogue Bridge. It’s all about the tide.
We’re pulling into the slip and John makes his customary bump into the tie-up poll that must have a proper name. The goateed man’s brother from Hampton Bays has the other potential pool fish. It looks like he could use the money and the lift of winning. I sort of hope he wins, but not at the risk of a miffed brother and truth is even though he usually beats me, I hope he takes home the money in the Shinnecock Star mug. Deena takes out the two fluke, not exactly doormats but real solid fish, and it seems that the man from Hampton Bays will pull it out. My brother doesn’t seem bothered. We’re just happy to be out on the Star and spending time on the water. We’ll be back soon, to see the regulars again, as well as new faces on board. We bid Deena goodbye and wave at John who half-turns his head and gives us a thumbs up. Classic.