Shore Albies

Miss them already

THE ROCKS ON THIS JETTY were all once uniform and composed. They say that, long ago, you could drive a car on them, all the way out to the tower, where the greasy cormorants preen their feathers. This is no longer possible. The Long Island Express hit it with 100 mile-an-hour winds and 15-foot swells just a few years after it was built. Then came Hazel, Donna, Esther, Agnes, Gloria, Isabel, Irene, and Sandy—all the nasty girls. The rocks are now jumbled and misshapen. Some have fallen into the water, unattached to the jetty at all. Others wobble in the waves like loose teeth. This is the fate of all ocean jetties.

It is now navigable only by foot, with care and Korkers. It is one of the great fishing jetties in the Northeast. Maybe I say this because it is the closest one to my apartment.

My fly buddies, Dave and Nick, hit it, too. This jetty is Dave's baby. He's been coming out for decades, and has caught all sorts of fish from it: stripers, blues, bonito, albies, fluke, skate, weakfish, blackfish, dogfish, and even a 30-pound black drum. Nick is just a northeast saltwater fiend. I once asked him a question about trout fishing and he answered, quite plausibly, "What is that?"

Spin guys hit it, too. This is one of the few places in the Northeast where spin and fly fishermen coexist peaceably. There is the tall, dour German who casts only when necessary and speaks only when spoken to; the Russians with their shaved heads and cauliflowered ears; and the young tugboat captain who works two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off so he can fish a lot. He occasionally has to leave the jetty early to take his mother to an Islanders game.

I was out at the tip, all by myself. Not everyone makes the walk all the way out, and I don't blame them. The rocks are dangerous. Every few years, someone dies out here. If you happened to fall in on a strong outgoing tide, there's little chance you'd make it back. At the end, you feel like you are standing in the middle of the ocean. Before you, the horizon leads to Portugal.

I'd been searching for false albacore for two weeks. I wanted to catch one without the aid of a boat, and it had been three seasons since I'd done that. Getting one from the shore makes you feel like you've earned both the fish and the good luck. In my pursuit, I'd made the two-hour drive to the inlet near the East End that's famous for its albie blitzes, enduring dark highways, bad coffee, mediocre sports-talk radio, and hours of staring into the water at untroubled bait. In three trips, I'd seen a total of one quick blitz. I was walking at the time, and had made the crucial mistake of not being prepared. I was reeled up, leaving no line out in my stripping basket, when I saw the fish. They were long gone before I could make a cast.

I'd tried some new spots on the North Shore. One was the former estate of a merchant prince, now owned by the state. The water and beach were beautiful, and bait was around. But the blitzes were well out of range. I started to become obsessed, targeting albies to the exclusion of all other species. One morning I saw a spin guy wrestle a big striper from the hissing surf, looking like a man pulling a large suitcase from an airport baggage carousel. But I paid it little mind. Sure, I was physically present at home and at work, but my thoughts were on the water. I took much pleasure in the thinking and planning that went into these trips, what Dave and I called "the scheming," which always resumed the very moment I left the water. I enjoyed it so much that I began to wonder if I "relished the fantasy more than the finished work," as Kesey once wrote.

I didn't. I just wanted a shore-caught albie.

That day on the jetty was sunny and mild. One of the joys of fishing the "hardtail" portion of the fall run is the weather. The water is still warm. Wearing shorts is still sometimes the sensible thing to do. The wind was coming from the northwest—Longfellow's "Keewaydin." The sea was Caribbean green, as clear and clean-looking as I'd ever seen it. I'd heard rumblings on my offline social network of some possible albie sightings in the area. I was thrilled to be alone at the tip, to not have to worry about hooking a spin guy on my backcast.

I looked out over the ocean, smoothed by the wind and the tide, scanning for feeding fish or the birds that chase them. Nothing was happening, but I worked out a few casts anyway. Which was a good thing, because my line, perhaps not totally dry from the day before, was kinkier than Rick James. I looped it under my boot, pulled to straighten it, and put some in my stripping basket. Then I sat on a rock and waited.

Soon I began to daydream, something I regrettably don't do much of anymore. I fell into such a trance that nearly an hour went by with no recollection of what I thought or did other than sit and stare. I may have fallen asleep.

I was yanked back to the present by some commotion off the tip. Albies were flinging themselves out of the water chasing silversides. Everything next happened quickly. I stood and made a cast, did a series of hand-over-hand strips, and was tight. The fish broke off because I didn't let go of my line in time, so I tied on another fly and scanned the water. Mini-eruptions were happening all around me, but they were all out of range. Birds wheeled about, trying to get a bead on the albie mayhem. Everything around seemed locked in on them.

Another pod came in close. I flipped out my fly, hooked one, and was quickly into my backing. Reeling in, I scanned the area for a suitable landing spot, found a rock close to the water, and tailed the fish, briefly admired its green-blue gleam and the vermicular lines on its back before letting it go. I felt utterly alive. The highs during the fall run come in such small but powerful doses.

I went out again the next three days, seeing and catching just enough fish to stoke, but not fully satisfy, the craving. Family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers all looked at me funny. I wondered if I appeared admirable or pathetic to them.

Like all of my addictions, I took this one too far. I went out on a day when I should have had my ass parked in a chair, working. It was late October. I'd heard of reports of albies at Harkers, in North Carolina, which usually signaled the end of the run here. At the jetty, the incoming tide was heavy, spuming rough white surf over my favorite fishing rocks. There were no birds and no fish. After 20 minutes of fruitless casting, I sat on a rock and stared out at the sea, trying to recapture something that I knew was already gone.


MONTE BURKE'S latest book is Saban, The Making of a Coach.

photo by David Skok