She might be considered a sharpie, too, especially compared to some of the googans who hit the beach. “Googan” is a term bestowed upon the weekend crowds or amateur surfcasters, who can’t negotiate the surf, get in the way during blitzes, tangle lines, or get their trucks stuck in beach entrances. You don’t want to be known as a googan in these parts.
Yee is also one of the first guys to fish in a wet suit. More than 30 years ago, he and a few other hardy souls figured out that if they could get a little further out, into the vicious current under the lighthouse known as the Montauk Rip, they could find more fish. And they did.
“We used to bang so many big bass, it was ridiculous. We’d swim from rock to rock, let the current do the work for us,” says Yee. “As long as you keep the rod tip straight up and down, you can control the fish.”
He knows every inch of the town and shoreline. He points out Evans Rock, named for a departed surf rat named Whitey Evans. It sits on the north side of the lighthouse, and years ago they could drive their buggies around it at low tide. The beach has receded quite a bit since then, and the rock is now always surrounded by water. A small crew of cormorants are perched on the top, drying their wings and waiting for the fish, just like the humans.
Not Like It Used To Be
Fishing is a pastime tailor-made for comparisons to the days gone by. The ’70s were known as the times of big bass. Really big. And back then, the shores were filled with men and women who not only fished for fun, they fished for cash. The surf and boats killed millions of bass back then, many of which were of spawning age. It was bloodlust, pure and simple. And when money is involved, things can get nasty.
Yee does not apologize for his part in those halcyon days of catching big bass. But he has grown tired of hurting them, and he says that is the main reason he no longer fishes for stripers.
“I got tired ripping their mouths, catching them,” he says. “I wasn’t eating them, they all were getting thrown back, and I have caught so many.”
The truck bounces along the rough shoreline, Yee’s coffee swirling around the cup. It never seems to spill over, though, as if he knows just how far he can push the battle between the rocks, his truck’s suspension and the physics of liquid.
On a long stretch of beach on the south side of town, Yee is cruising the sands. He stops to talk to a group of men from a fishing club. All are in their late 50s or early 60s, well-outfitted for the elements and carrying high-quality tackle, like Van Staal reels, which cost as much as $1,000. Among them is legendary sharpie Vito Orlando. When the two men see each other, Orlando asks Yee how he’s feeling.
“Eh, the doctor is pissed off at me,” he tells Orlando.
“You said you’d stop everything bad after your surgery,” Orlando says. Yee had a bypass a couple of years ago.
Yee answers, but the words are muffled as he lights another smoke.
“Can I have your plugs when you die?” laughs Orlando.
Yee had thousands of fishing plugs until recently, when he sold them. He’s made a career of collecting them from the beaches after they washed up. The rocky terrain can easily cut a line, and a bad knot can win a bass his freedom. They can shake the hooks, too, and the plugs wash up. Yee has also grown a reputation as a beach surgeon, deftly removing hooks from hundreds of fishermen over the years.
“I can tell when someone is walking up to me that they need a hook removed. I look over and before they say anything, I say, ‘Let me guess, your friend got hooked.’”
His price for this service is his pick out of the injured fisherman’s plug bag. One day, a young boy got hooked, and when Yee freed the metal from the kid, the boy’s father gave him a pick out of his son’s bag and his own, too.
At Camp Hero, Yee sees the camper of his fishing partner. He yells, but there is no response. He must be napping, says Yee. Across the parking lot, Don Musso is standing at his camper with a fishing partner. Musso started Super Strike, a company that makes lures used in the surf. Everyone has Super Strike lures in their plug bags. Musso is retired now, the company run by his son, Steven. Musso is fishing, as he has done since the 1960s. He says 2009’s Fall Run is pitiful so far.
And so begins another conversation about why. The fact that charter boats can allow customers two fish each is a cause, he says. The size limit for a keeper bass is 28 inches. A recreational guy on the beach or a private boat is allowed a fish over 29 inches, and can also keep one over 40. That rarely happens, though. Most think the bigger fish, in the 20- to 30-pound classes, are the spawners. They need to be protected. Despite the dismal results off the shore on this day, word about town is the boats killed the fish in the Rip, 30- and 40-pounders. It makes the shore-bound guys frown.
“The fishing is going downhill,” laments Musso. “This is a terrible fall so far.”
But there’s always tomorrow, and if the wind blows right, they’ll be on the beach.