When I was a kid, I would wander the beaches on Long Island, trying to figure out what constituted productive water. It was tough to divine the signs that would reveal whether there were fish under the surface, unless a school broke into a feeding frenzy. That was rare, though.
One of the most important lessons I learned was that professional seiners staked their livelihoods on finding schools of fish. Any time I saw a motorized seining boat towed by a four-wheel drive pickup on the beach, followed by a second truck, I ran as fast as I could to keep up with them.
I must have been quite a runner, because I ended up fishing next to John “Red” White’s Sagaponack-based crew on many late summer and early autumn afternoons. Once they arrived at the proper spot, they took to their boat and stretched their net behind the breaking surf. Next, they slowly brought the two ends of the net back in with winches attached to the two vehicles. I sometimes caught stray blues surfcasting next to them, but the real excitement was when the net emerged from the backwash and all the fish were revealed. White and his guys would sort the marketable species like striped bass, weakfish and bluefish and heave them into the backs of the trucks.
They left less-desirable species lying on the beach, where they were quickly gathered by anyone lucky enough to be wandering by. I sometimes found blowfish and porgies and would happily take them home for the next day’s breakfast. However, the most prized were the Windowpane Flounder, better known as “sundials.” Back in the 60s and 70s, there wasn’t any market for them, but those of us in the know would scoop them up and bring them to the kitchen.
The summer I turned 18, we had a big bonfire party on the beach. The next morning, my brother and I went to clean up what we’d missed the night before. A seining truck was just finishing sorting its catch. Philip and I dashed down to the site, and as we were already armed with trash bags, we filled one of them with a couple dozen flounder. When we returned to the house, where our overnight guests were just waking up, we were greeted as conquering heroes when we started to fry the fillets.
Peter Matthiessen wrote an excellent book on the baymen who drove the beaches looking for fish titled, “Men’s Lives.” It offers an intimate look at this tradition and the men who practiced it. It’s been a slowly dying lifestyle, as new restrictions have made it hard for haul seiners make a living, but there was a time when they were a common sight along the south shore of Long Island.
Peter Cammann has been writing fishing stories for more than 30 years. He is the author of three books: “Fishing Vermont’s Streams and Lakes,” “Ultralight Spin Fishing,” and a novel titled “SlipNot,” all of which are available on amazon.com.