Washed by waters from Long Island Sound, Block Island Sound and thea Atlantic Ocean, Montauk, New York, has been a fishermen’s mecca since before recorded history. Striped bass congregate in deep water just off this eastern tip of Long Island throughout the summer, long after they’ve left hot spots farther west. But fishing Montauk’s 60-foot-deep waters and strong currents requires heavy lead and stout tackle — or so we’ve been told.
Not so, says Scott Leonard, an avid Montauk fisherman who manages the tackle store at Star Island Yacht Club (starislandyc.com). In fact, Leonard catches more fish because he lightens up his rig. “If you’re using 40- or 50-pound-test, some days you need 8 or 10 ounces of lead just to get that line down,” he says. With 20-pound Ande monofilament on a Daiwa Saltiga 30: “I need only 1½ ounces of lead, seldom more than 2 ounces, to hold the bottom. Last year I had 40 fish over 40 pounds, and four over 50 pounds.”
From Leonard’s deepwater drifts to sight-casting in knee‑deep water on inshore flats, big striped bass are routinely taken on tackle as light as 10 pounds. To find out how, I fished with three striped bass light-tackle experts and found techniques as varied as I’ve encountered for any game fish species.
Going Bananas Off Montauk
“Don’t feel like you need to pin that bait to the bottom,” Leonard says. “The live baits we use naturally swim down. Some guys fish live eels here with no lead at all.” Leonard prefers a banana-shaped lead drail with a swivel at each end. “That banana drail hits the bottom and bounces back up,” he says. “To the fish, it looks like that bait is trying to get away. They get aggressive. They hit harder.”
Leonard ties his main line to one side of the drail and an 8-foot leader with a Gamakatsu 6/0 circle Octopus hook on the other. He prefers 60-pound smoked Jinkai monofilament leaders as opposed to fluorocarbon because “it gives the bait more freedom to move.”
Leonard’s technique is simple. We drifted through an area where bottom structure runs across the current, alternately free-spooling until the lead touched bottom, and then thumbing the spool for a bit so the lead bounced along near the bottom. “Watch the recorder,” he says. “When it comes up six or eight feet, right where it drops back down you’re going to get hit.” Like many fish, striped bass shelter themselves from the current, awaiting dinner as it sweeps by.
“The ideal drift is 2½ knots, 3 knots at the most,” Leonard says. “If I’m drifting too fast, I’ll kick a motor in and out of reverse to slow down.” When the drift is too slow, he bumps a motor ahead. We also awaited a late-afternoon flood tide when water flows to the north up toward Long Island Sound. “The incoming tide seems to flow better across the structure here,” Leonard says.
Leonard prefers 10- to 12-inch croakers imported from Virginia. “You want a larger bait to go after these trophy fish,” he says. “Don’t close off the mouth. Hook them in one nostril and out the other.” When he expects only keepers, he’ll switch from circle to treble hook.
Local bunker (menhaden) can be hard to come by in Montauk and are typically too large. They’re also hard to keep alive in wells. Porgies (scup) carry a minimum-size restriction of 10½ inches in New York. Spots, also brought in from Virginia, are too small for Leonard’s liking at four to six inches. But he’s always open to experimentation. “Sometimes they won’t eat, and then you put an eel on and catch one on every drift,” he says.
Flat Out in Shinnecock
“Striped bass might be the ultimate game fish,” says Bryce Poyer, even after a pro-fishing career that began aboard world-traveling sport-fishing battlewagons. “You can use just about any technique you can conceive. Dead bait, live bait, plugs, jigs, lures, chunking, chumming, fly-fishing, deep water or shallow; you can find places just here on Long Island to do any of these.”
Poyer’s tackle store, White Water Outfitters (www.whitewateroutfitters.net) in Hampton Bays, Long Island, overlooks the man-made canal that channels water from between Long Island’s north and south fork down into Shinnecock Bay. “We’ve usually got the cleanest water of all the south-shore bays,” Poyer says, which increases chances to sight fish atop shallow flats.
“When the fish are up on the flats, that’s when they’re on guard the most,” Poyer says. “You don’t want to use pencil poppers or anything that makes a big splash. The more subtle, the better.” We were throwing surface lures like Heddon Spooks and Bomber Badonk-A-Donks — small lures that cast most effectively with very light tackle.
“Don’t blind-cast,” he says. “You want a sunny, windless day when you can see the fish.” Good sunglasses are essential to see beneath the greenish water here — three-foot visibility is “clear” water in these latitudes. “When it’s calm, you might see them push a V-wake,” Poyer says. “Occasionally they’re actually tailing in very shallow water.”
“If you see their tail but not their dorsal, they’re not just foraging, they’re actually after something, maybe trying to corral a calico crab,” Poyer says, noting that fish like this aren’t likely to be drawn away from the prey but suggests casting to others likely nearby.
“They’re usually in small schools, maybe 10 fish at the most,” Poyer says. We were casting beyond seen fish and reeling back toward them to avoid spooking them. “You don’t want to get closer than about three feet,” he warns. “They tend to be aggressive enough up on the flats that they’ll charge a lure 10 or 12 feet in front of them.”
Striped bass are cautious fish, so Poyer says a slow, steady retrieve is best. “Sometimes you want to leave it in place but impart as much action as you can with the rod tip.”
Poyer says tides are important, but only because of the role they play in temperature and water clarity. “The fish get up on top of the flats only when it’s exactly right,” he says. In the springtime, they tend to bite there on the very beginning of the outgoing tide, when the water is warmest but still clear. “In July, it’s the opposite,” he says. “By then, the water temperature has risen 25 degrees. They look for the cooler, clearer water of the incoming tide.”