Western Long Island Sound’s Finned Migrations, In Photography
by Owen James Burke
Summers in Western Long Island Sound are hot, stagnant, and oxygen-depleted. Same goes for the water. Apart from a select few hardy species, most of the fish get out of dodge. Most people are just starting to get out on the water. Meanwhile, fishermen are putting their gear away, finding something else to do until temperatures drop and fish make their turn south.
The False Albacore, or Little Tunny (Euthynnus alletteratus) ranges from Brazil to New England, weighs up to about 36 pounds, and is the smallest member of the Scombridae family (tuna, bonitos and mackerels). They don’t fare too well on the table, unless they’re put into a ceviche, but pound for pound, they might put up the best fight of any sportfish on Long Island Sound.
The Blackfish, or Tautog (Tautoga onitis) is a migratory species of wrasse which lives only in the western Atlantic Ocean between Nova Scotia and South Carolina. They bear a firm, white meat not unlike cod, but stocks are in much better shape.
The Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis), is probably the most popular gamefish in Long Island Sound and can grow up to 125 pounds, but any fish weighing over 40 or 50 pounds is considered to be exceptional. The striped bass is an anadromous fish like salmon (meaning they live mostly in saltwater, but spawn in freshwater). Striped bass are more active in cooler waters, usually around 60 degrees fahrenheit, and begin their northward migration in March or April, passing back through Long Island Sound in October and November, or whenever water temperatures have dropped sufficiently.
During colonial times, only royalty were permitted to catch and consume striped bass due to the delicacy of their flaky white meat. In the south, they developed the name “rockfish,” so that anyone stopped with the fish could simply explain, “No, no, this is no striped bass, it’s a rockfish.” The name stuck.
The Bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix), which is found all in temperate waters around the world (Shad in South Africa, Tailor in Australia, generally receives a secondary treatment to Striped Bass as top gamefish, not for its flesh but its forceful fight, passes through just before and after it’s choicer competitor. They’re voracious predators weighing up to 40 pounds (however, one over 20 pounds is considered a trophy), and are often called piranhas by fishermen in Long Island Sound (get your fingers too close to their mouth and you’ll find out why). Stocks are in good shape, and so long as they’re bled and the bloodline (reddish/brown meat) is removed prior to cooked, make excellent table fare. Also, try smoking them.
The Atlantic Menhaden, or (Moss) Bunker (Brevoortia tyrannous) migration has a great effect on the other migrations. Some seasons (for reasons largely unknown but heavily debated) we see very few bunker, and in turn, very few predatory fish. The life of a bunker is one wrought with fear. Chances are, these poor little defenseless herbivores will meet their maker by a bucket-mouthed striped bass, a razor-toothed bluefish, a ruthless gill net, or a treble-hooked snag in the side (fishermen cast big hunks of metal surrounded by hooks into the middle of their schools (or bait balls) and rip hooks into their sides in order to gather bait. In pre-Columbian times, Native Americans used them as fertilizers, and advised the pilgrims to do the same. One way they rarely meet their end, however, is by the grill, so long as invasive/sustainable species chef Bun Lai doesn’t get his hands on them (he swears they make delicious ceviche, which someday, I’ve promised him, I’ll try). Still, it’s been a pretty gruesome history for the bunker, and I’ve always had a soft spot for them.
If you venture just a few mules offshore, you’ll find the largest member of the Scombridae family, the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus), and on occasion you can even spot them along the beach, if you’re lucky. These fish are generally considered to be endangered, likely due to decades of poor fisheries management. Unfortunately, they’re still heavily overfished, mostly due to gill netting in the western Atlantic and purse seining off Europe and in the Mediterranean. Some commercial fishermen are promoting the rod-and-reel fishing in order to save the species — and the sport — but until the nets disappear, it’s a grim outlook for the bluefin tuna.
Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares), yellowfin tuna can weigh anywhere from 10 to over 400 pounds, but an 80-mile run south from Montauk, New York is required to reach them. They are prevalent all throughout the summer, and usually begin their motion south by November, just as their big cousins, the bluefins, begin racing their race toward the equator.