As September blends into the month of October each year, the calendar's best – and most intense – fly fishing action starts to occur. But not on a genteel Western or Adirondack trout stream mind you.
Instead, we're talking the crashing spray of saltwater off the eastern tip of Long Island where migrating striped bass, hungry bluefish and sounding false albacore all conspire to test the patience of anglers, the limits of fly fishing tackle and the seaworthiness of fishing rigs.
With waves crashing, gulls screaming and modern sea captain guides jockeying to position their boat in the swells – sometimes with angry yells and gestures – this isn't your grandfather's serene tale of A River Runs Through It.
Instead, it's the sport’s most extreme fly fishing action of the year, a dose of pure bucket-list excitement and adrenaline for those who love casting a fly line into the aquatic version of a street fight.
Welcome to autumn's blitzes in the turbulent waters off of Montauk, N.Y.
"Montauk, well, it's sort of extreme fly fishing," longtime New York City television media guru and avid fly fishing enthusiast Jason Puris once told me.
"You've got a lot of small boats, tons of fish, tough weather, big personalities and people crowding around trying to catch these fish. It's a complete opposite of standing in a river trying to catch a fish."In short, on the fall run's best days, it's nothing short of a saltwater version of angling insanity.
So intense and vibrant is the experience that Peter Kamisky, a well known journalist and essay writer who has appeared with regularity in the New York Times while writing about fishing, the outdoors and food, actually penned a book about the annual frenzy at Montauk.
In his tome The Moon Pulled Up An Acre of Bass: A Flyfisher's Odyssey at Montauk Point, Kamisky writes: "Ever since the delicious afternoon that I caught three dozen striped bass over 30 inches with Paul Dixon, I have wanted to fly fish the whole month of October from beginning to end."And so one year, Kamisky did just that, moving for a few weeks to the New England coastal hamlet, fishing as often as the weather would allow, all the while cooking his way through the experience with some epic cuisine.
The result was a classic tome, one of those angling volumes that I find myself going back to again and again each year, savoring the meaty descriptions of autumn fly fishing off Montauk and the riot of word-inspired images that Kamisky's writing so aptly conjures up.
In the end, his book accomplished the task of chronicling the life of a salty fly angler – who along with friends – is bent on savoring all of the bounty that an autumn migration in New England has to offer.For the fly angler, that stretch of the Atlantic coastline has a lot to offer, especially for those who enjoy the "big pull," the phenomenon of a striped bass putting a deep bend into a heavy graphite fly rod as the fish on the other end reacts to the sting of a saltwater hook and heads for the ocean floor's bottom.
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
"It's a phenomenon," said guide Amanda Switzer in an interview about the fall blitzes of striped bass at Montauk.
When everything conspires together at the right time – the predatory game fish and the various types of baitfish – the result can be a surface feeding frenzy of several acres that literally has to be seen to be fully believed.
"It's so bizarre that it's happening," said Switzer. "You're drawn into nature at this amazing gathering, almost like a magnet."
While just about any fly line pulling striper will do, the goal of most anglers during the autumn blitzes is the catch-and-release of a grip-and-grin size cow, a female striped bass weighing 10, 15, 20 and even 30-plus pounds.
At this time of the year, knowing full well that winter is forthcoming, these big stripers pack away the groceries at a frightening rate, ensuring that the annual melee at Montauk happens at the end of every warm September, through the glorious days of October, and sometimes, even into the chilly days of November.
Add in hungry bluefish with their slashing, razor-sharp teeth and the deep-diving false albacore that are more than willing to attack flies resembling bay anchovies and other baitfish of the region and what you end up with is a big game fishing adventure on light tackle that is virtually unparalleled anywhere else in North America.
Interested in giving it a go? Then follow these tips by Switzer.
First, if you're going to go to Montauk, do all that you can to find a good guide with an open date, keeping in mind that prized slots on the October calendar almost have to be willed to an angler.
That's because outings with the best guides like Switzer, Paul Dixon and others at Montauk are often booked up months and even years in advance.
Second, bring the right equipment.
"You want to get these fish in really quick, so I primarily use a 10-weight," said Switzer. "As for fly lines, intermediate lines, sinking lines, floating lines, they all work at various times and depending on how you want to fish."
If you are limited to one set-up, however, a 10-weight fly rod and an intermediate line loaded up onto a good saltwater fly reel – with a good drag system and a hefty supply of backing – is tough to beat.
Third, bring reasonable casting skills even though Switzer says that most casts to blitzing stripers, bluefish and false albacore usually aren't too far away.
Why? Because even at short to moderate distances, the rocking and rolling nature of a wave-tossed fishing boat, the ever present coastal breeze and the pure sensory overload of screaming birds and blitzing fish can all conspire to make casting a fly line a reasonably difficult chore that should be well rehearsed before an angler gets to Montauk.
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
Switzer says that an angler might also want to pack nerves of steel as they cast into a writhing mass of predatory game fish savaging its way through a school of baitfish.
"The toughest part of fishing the blitz is sometimes just getting it (the fly) to the striped bass," said Switzer.
"Oftentimes, there are bluefish on the perimeter of the blitz and when people cast into the middle and strip their line out, a bluefish will try to take your fly. Having good line control and keeping your nerves under control is important."
If it sounds like Switzer knows what she is talking about, she certainly does. Once a novelty as a pioneering female guide in what has traditionally been a male dominated profession, Switzer is today one of the sport's best guides and most recognizable figures.
With notoriety coming through her own guiding experiences, through various television show and magazine story appearances and through the affordable but high quality Rise Fishing Company fly rods that she helped to develop with fellow fly guide Steve Bechard, the truth is that Switzer could spend the fall fishing just about anywhere she wants to.
But for her, there's simply no better place to be as a fly angler than in the glory of a New England autumn off the Long Island coastline at Montauk with a 10-weight fly rod in hand as stripers boil on the surface in front of her.
"I don't know if it's an addiction or not, but you want to be a part of it," she said.
Experience Montauk and its famed autumn striped bass blitzes just once in an angling lifetime and the guess here is that you'll soon fully agree.