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Marsi Column, July 11, 2000

Converging On Striped Bass And Blues

While some see just water, Ken Rafferty sees wind and tide. He sees water, too, but can't separate it from elements that dictate what path it will follow.

Rafferty is a charter captain. Based at Three Mile Harbor near the east end of Long Island's South Fork, he uses a fly rod and light spinning gear to catch bluefish and striped bass on Gardiner's Bay. The water is shallow, often four or five feet. It lies flat on good days, but can churn like a blender when the right winds and tides have their way.

During the two days I spent recently on Rafferty's 22-foot, shallow draft Hewes Pathfinder, winds remained calm, sunlight gleamed, puffy cumulous clouds floated by. The water below seemed remarkably clear. Sometimes it flashed aqua-marine, then as pale as a clear sandy bottom. Wind in our faces, planing over bay waters at 30 mph, we could have been just off Key West.

Seize The Moment

Fishing is an act of knowing. After 30 years on Gardiner's Bay, Rafferty
knows how wind and tide interact; how the tide drags you one way while the wind tries to push you another. The trick is to manipulate both forces some they place you where bait fish form tightly packed schools and predators wait to attack.

There's no fighting the tide. One anticipates where it is headed and goes
with the flow. With luck it will take the boat into a place, where, for
just a brief moment, game fish and anglers converge. Often that moment allows one or two chances. Cast your plug to that splash where a bluefish just surfaced. Retrieve your fly quickly enough to elicit a strike. If you do, hell breaks loose - spinning rods double over, fly reels whine with a heaven-sent zzzzzzzzzzzzz. If you don't, it is over in less than a minute. You have drifted away from the zone.

Seeing Is Believing

On calm days, Rafferty cuts the engine, stands on a platform astern and poles his boat through three feet of water. Sometimes, "rogue" bluefish weighing ten or more pounds will be lurking alone in these shallows. If they're hooked, they will jump (they can't dive for deep water.) When they leap, you'll remember forever.

Calm days also allow Capt. Rafferty and his clients to see fish at considerable distances. On the first morning I fished, such conditions prevailed as we bobbed in four or five feet of water, within casting distance of a sandy shoreline. Positioned in the bow, I had just cast a surface plug toward slightly deeper water away from shore when my fishing friend, Russell Dumm, gasped. "Look. there. a fish. coming toward you. keep reeling!"

What Drumm had seen was the darting motion of a 25-inch striped bass. Lounging in shallows between our boat and shore, the bass had heard, seen (or both) the commotion my plug was creating as I jerked it through calm surface water. Like a bullet the fish made a dash for the noisy Creek Chub popper. More than the bass, we could see its dark shadow as it streaked 30 yards over unbroken sand on the bottom. The next several seconds seemed more like 15. I kept jerking the plug. Then came a splash, a brief boil on the surface. The striped bass and I had converged. Once hooked, as they zigzag below, coming closer, striped bass flash like stainless steel knives. Lifted out of the water, they glisten. They maintain, for brief moments, their slick, shiny color. You can sense how they blend with their world. Slipped back in the water, they knife away, once more at home.

Keep Track Of Your Fingers

Bluefish struck more readily on the two days we fished. Their savagery didn't dominate our conversation, but, as is the case every time anglers go after blues, it received its fair share of discussion. We talked of the last joint on Ken's middle finger, permanently crooked at a 90-degree angle. A large bluefish cut him - jumped up and slashed him as he tried to
unhook it. Having to curtail his fishing to visit the hospital irked him more than the wound he had suffered. We talked also of cormorants and gulls having lost legs to bluefish, in the wrong place at the wrong time as blues slashed through bait, chopping everything else in their way. We discussed striped bass and weakfish, how they wait below bluefish as the blues tear through schools of sand eels. While the bluefish wreck havoc, morsels drift down for the taking. Without sand eels, there wouldn't be big fish to catch. The ecosystem appears to be thriving. Wherever I looked, eel schools swarmed through
clear water. Lobstermen and clammers tended traps, dug with rakes. Kayakers ventured into charter boat waters, while, on shore, mothers walked sandy spits, youngsters strapped on their backs.

Those mothers didn't know it, or maybe they did: striped bass gleamed just a few feet from where they were taking their ease.