To date the majority of my fishing experience in the New York City area has been freshwater fishing and casting from the piers while crabbing on Long Island. But I’ve been wanting for years to go out on one of those charter boats for striped bass out of Sheepshead Bay while they’re running in the spring and fall and on the urging of my wife, who’s two weeks from due with our first child, I finally made the trip last Wednesday night aboard the Sea Queen VII.
I’d heard about the Sea Queen from an old acquaintance who, after thoroughly researching all the different rates, confirmed it as the best deal for the cost (45 bucks per person for the night). The boat left at 7:00pm and I was a little worried about traffic on Ocean Avenue and the Belt Parkway so I left at 4:45 or so; turns out I overshot a bit as I got there around 5:15. Captain Steve was at the dock and the boat was just coming in from the day trip, so I made sure with him that my online payment went through and then went to the bagel shop across the street and got a pastrami and sauerkraut on pumpernickel and a coffee while I waited. I noticed at the counter they were selling Dramamine for seasickness at $1 a pouch, but didn’t bother.
The day crew was sill cleaning the boat when I boarded, so I took my seat in the cabin while the crew talked about the day trip and speculated that the stripers would really be running that night. I’m pretty sure the “No Smoking in the Cabin” sign was either a formality or just for customers, as I was the only one not smoking in the cabin.
For a good 30 minutes I was the only non-crew member on board, then a guy in glasses and a baseball cap took his seat on deck and looked stoically out at the water. As far as I could tell, he didn’t get up from his seat until we got back. The next guy on was wearing a full Puma jogging suit and had a perfectly gelled part in his hair. He walked with an exaggerated swagger, and sat down next to me in the cabin. As soon as the next guy walked in he yelled in a thick Slavic accent, “Ahmed! I fished wit’ you lastime, remember?” Ahmed nodded at him, and then I recognized him – Ahmed was the guy I’d seen in the picture from two nights ago on the Sea Queen website with a 41-pound striper, the biggest of the season. I congratulated him. “Eh,” he replied, “I catch more tonight, I think.”
I watched as about 20 more people got onboard, while the crew tried to court people onto the boat on the boardwalk as they walked by. There ended up about 40 people in all as we disembarked. A crew member set me up with a baitcast rod and reel that looked about 50 years old, and the guy in the Puma jogging suit sat down next to me.
“I from Albania, my friend,” he said. “What country you from?”
“Um, Kansas,” I replied.
“Kansas? Where that at?”
“About as far away as Albania.”
As we got further out, I looked back and saw the sun falling on Coney Island, the Wonder Wheel and the parachute jump silhouetted by that big yellow ball, and the Verrazano Bridge looming ubiquitously behind it all. And the guy in the Yankees cap was just sitting there looking at it. I guess he didn’t really come to fish.
My Albanian friend leaned on the railing. “These waves, my friend. I don’ like.” I was starting to agree with him.
The boat stopped, and one of the crew guys gave each of us a cupful of worms. But they weren’t like any worms I’d ever seen – more like 4-8-inch millipedes, with a gaping mouth at one end that made them look like lampreys. “Just hook one through the mouth and let the rest dangle,” the crewman told me and the gaggle of college kids from Montauk that had gathered on the other side of me and were all looking into their cups with varying degrees of fear in their eyes. One of them poked inside the cup and pulled his hand back like he’d just been stung. “Just grab one, they don’t bite,” the crewman said, then pulled a handful out of his bucket and put one on each of their hooks. “See?”
Then for the first of many times that night the ship’s horn rang, followed by the clamor of baited hooks being thrown into the water all at once. I about lost my balance getting my line in the water, the boat was rocking so much. And for the first of many times that night:
A guy on the other side of the boat brought in the first striper of the night, a “short” that didn’t meet the 28-inch length minimum, and then an eastern European lady at the front of the boat brought in the first keeper of the day. And so it went for the next hour, fish on, fish on, boat horn, lines in, move the boat, horn, line out, fish on, fish on, “FISH ON!” I finally had one of my own at the end of my line, and after a couple minutes of fighting I brought in my first, a 25-incher that the crewman didn’t even bother himself with but I had to admire for a minute before putting it back in the water.
Then the horn sounded, and I ran to the bathroom and puked up about one tenth of my body weight in coffee, pastrami, and gastric acid. I must have heaved about ten times, but serendipitously my stomach was completely empty at the same time the horn sounded for the next round. I went back to my place next to my Albanian friend and looked over to see another guy puking off the side of the boat.
Then my Albanian friend shouted, “Fish on!” as his rod almost bent over double. “Holy sheet! Is big!” he yelled. My line went tight as well, then I realized it was because it was caught on his. This was obviously a keeper on his line, and I knew it was my job to get my line the fuck off his. The fish came to the surface thrashing, and I had the precarious job of grabbing his line long enough to untangle my hook from it but not long enough for the striper to break it. I was in top form though, doing my job in less than 5 seconds flat, and he landed his keeper for the night.
The run kept going strong for another hour – I caught another short, the guys at the front of the boat caught maybe 10 keepers, and then it was over. Between boat positionings, I noticed the eastern European lady and her husband would go into the cabin and have kumquats and shots of Patrón. They never looked sick, and they both pulled in their 2-fish limit of keepers and plenty of shorts. Don’t know about the tequila, but I’m totally bringing the kumquats for the next trip. And the Dramamine.