It begins with a splash. The ocean’s waters may ripple, and amidst the pounding Atlantic surf there is, at first, a delicate disturbance on the surface. In moments, though, the surface becomes a frothing scrum, with predators mercilessly slaughtering prey. There is a sound of a crowd, a massive swarm, cheering a game-winning touchdown pass. This is the result of a feeding frenzy. Thousands—perhaps millions—of animals fight for freedom or food in the dance of life and survival.
Calling it a natural miracle, a wonder, is not an overstatement. Some say it is the largest migratory spectacle on Earth, dwarfing celebrated journeys like the exodus of African plains animals returning after spring rains have fallen. The show is enhanced by Long Island’s geography, its fish shape jutting into the ocean like an arm reaching for a piece of forbidden fruit. When the winds are right, it will happen.
As the waters cool, fish begin their treacherous trip to warmer waters. The bays empty of the small baitfish or juvenile members of predatory species and they all head into the open ocean. And they all have to eat. Montauk Point is like a Las Vegas buffet.
This is truly “The End”—at least for millions of baitfish.
As the schools of striped bass, bluefish, tuna and albacore and other game fish rampage south, they follow the scent of the bait right to the shores of Long Island. And when they come close to the beaches, the predators face the biggest challenge of the migration: thousands of fishermen, standing on shore with rod and reel.
On a windy October day in Montauk, every other car or truck that drives by has a fishing rod mounted on the roof or sticking out the window. They head to the beaches in hopes of finding some action, which can range from slow to legendary to life-threatening.
The Fall Run has started.
About 200 feet away from Paulie’s Tackle of Montauk is a seedy little motel called the Ronjo. It bills itself as a “Hawaiian paradise by the sea.” The only thing that is remotely Hawaiian, though, is the garish totem pole that sits in front of the motel. It is a favorite spot for the fall fisherman. Its efficiency rooms are adequate enough for some sleep and warmth for those who do not stay in campers or cars in the parking lot next to the Montauk Lighthouse. But hardcore fishermen don’t care about luxury, or even necessities like food or sleep.
The motel is a short walk from some of the sandy town beaches, and that is where the action has been the past couple of days. Millions of sand eels have been trapped against the beach, providing a gut-busting feast for hungry bass. But the wind is blowing west, and in Montauk that’s not so good. The water has been stirred up to a chocolate-milk color.
The customers coming into Paulie’s are looking for good news. In Montauk, life in the fall seems to be scheduled around prevailing winds and tides. If they are both favorable to fishing, there are a lot of sick days registered in town.
Paulie Apostolides is a welcoming tackle-shop owner. He’s friendly to both locals and newcomers, of whom there are plenty in the fall. There is complimentary coffee, and a small sitting area is set up outside. The sun is shining today, so the gabbers and gadflies will find their perches there. On a nasty day, though, they probably won’t be around, because in the game of surfcasting, a nasty fall storm can be the ticket to a great day of fishing.
Apostolides is spooling up a reel for someone and talking about the past day’s action.
“There were tons of sand eels in the wash, and there were fish all over them,” he says.
But, so far, the fishing isn’t so great this year. And whenever that comes up in town among fishermen, there is a bevy of excuses. The stock is getting depleted. The water is still too warm. Wind is wrong. The weird summer weather has pushed this year’s Fall Run off schedule. A perfunctory promise of better fishing is always levied.
“Wind is supposed to go south after midnight, though,” says Apostolides. “They should be on the beach big-time in the morning.”
“Should” is a pretty popular word in the world of fishing.
Apostolides has sun-weathered skin and a gravelly voice, made more so by the Marlboros he smokes. The world of bait-and-tackle shops is not lucrative. It is a passion and devotion. A good tackle shop does more than sell hooks and frozen bunker. It is a sitting place, a clubhouse, a stage for fish stories. It’s also a place for information. The recon a fisherman can do at Paulie’s is second only to going fishing and finding out firsthand what’s going on.
“The geography of Montauk makes it the best place to be, if you’re a surfcaster,” says Apostolides. “It is the staging area for this massive migration. It has structure for baitfish. The bass are hungry.”
Apostolides took over Paulie’s—formerly Vinny’s—from his brother-in-law Vinny a few years ago, after the former returned to a more conventional way of life. He says owning the shop is the realization of a dream.