Author Archives: jpapciak

Men’s Lives – Revisited

Many readers here have a strong interest in striper nostalgia, whether it be old lures, antique surfcasting tackle, photographs, or even just stories from the “Golden Age” of striper fishing.

But also buried somewhere in there is the unpleasant truth that most fishermen of the time (recreational and commercial) believed the supply of fish was limitless. There was no shame in killing more fish than one knew what to do with. While many of the surfcaster “high-liners” of the time were selling fish to keep themselves solvent during their fishing binges, others opted to give away fish to the whole neighborhood before even thinking of letting anything swim away.

By most accounts, full time commercials were doing serious damage as well.

Out of all the so-called “excessive” fishing practices of past generations, none stirs emotions quite like ocean haul seining or “beach netting.” And if there was an ironic twist here, no other user group can claim as rich a heritage in local fishing than the people who practiced haul seining on Long Island – the East Hampton Baymen.

Readers with an interest in seeing this history through the eyes of a Bayman during the “golden days” have a rare opportunity, thanks to a revival of the theatric adaptation of Men’s Lives, now playing at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island.

The play, first run in 1992, is based on the 1986 book by Peter Matthiessen. The opening scene finds a younger Matthiessen, alone in the Amagansett dunes, almost haunted by the memories of an extended family of East Hampton Baymen.

Thus begins a story of Montauket Indians, early settlers, the rise and fall of whaling, harpooning swordfish, and finally the beginning of the end of the Bayman’s way of life. The fatal blow reportedly comes at the hands of surfcasters, in the form of a bill to ban beach haul seining in New York.

Those who read or watched “The Perfect Storm” will see familiar characters and themes, though playwright Joe Pintauro, with a superb cast of Broadway/Off Broadway caliber actors, delivers a much more powerful account of a fishing family coming to terms with the notion that they are the last of their kind.

Current surfcasters will be amused – if not insulted – at the portrayal of the arrogant “sportie” surfcaster from Westchester, who shows up on a local beach with a boom box and live eels.

“If you are fishing for sport, why make it so easy by using live eels?” jabs one of the Baymen?

To which our surfcaster, an advertising executive, brags at how he doesn’t actually eat fish himself, he just sells them to restaurants to pay for his Montauk hotel bills.

Playright Joe Pintauro and this cast might have you leaving the theater feeling the Baymen were done some seruious wrong by the surfcasters and Albany. But there are no piles of dead fish on the beach, there is no sesne of fish once in good supply that disappeared, and there is no sense of surfcasters and conservationists who weren’t buying the “they come and go in cycles” argument, and were downright terrified at the thought of the striper being completely wiped out.

Likewise, while the outlaw of haul seining was a defining moment locally, this specific net ban does little to explain how so many other traditional fishing and clamming occupations have disappeared, up and down the coast. Only when we comprehend the macroeconomic “big picture” do we have a chance at salvaging the rish history that the Baymen represent.

“I hope that play didn’t make you feel guilty, especially you being a surfcaster,” my wife commented over a drink at a nearby Sag Harbor pub.

She continued, “My family was all farmers, and your family coal miners, we don’t do that now, we can’t do that now, even if we wanted to.”

And while I wholeheartedly agreed with her, its clear I could have seen myself following my grandfather into haul seining long before ever thinking of setting foot in an anthracite coal mine in Pennsylvania. Even with the widescale hardship and coal miner’s Black Lung that helped kill my grandfather at 39, the quote “It’s not coal ye’re burnin’, it’s men’s lives,” just doesn’t stir emotions like when applied to fishing.

I am sure each of you has your own family story of hardship and change.

Sometimes change is good. But sometimes change, like a total loss of the Baymen and Watermen from our community, risks pushing us all further from that connection to the water that we all agree is so important.

Perhaps more on this in a future blog post.

For those who love stories of fishing, and historical accounts of “how it was” on the striper coast – whatever your own views – you’d be hard pressed to find something as powerful as this theatric adaptation of Men’s Lives.

Men’s Lives runs until July 29 at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island.


Any epilogue to Men’s Lives would note that the predicted demise of the Baymen, and beach netting, did not come to pass, not entirely anyway. See this related blog post from last year.

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The Changing Face of Montauk…And Other Musings (Part Two)

In “Part One” I outlined some of the more obvious changes happening in this tourist-fishing town, knowing full well I’d get a mixed response. And I did. But what I didn’t do a particularly good job at was explaining (in my opinion) how this very recent round of changes was nothing compared to the more dramatic changes that have been observed over a much longer period of time.

So here goes:

I guess all this complaining about “change” should rightfully start with the Montaukets, right? These were the only real “locals,” after all.

Today’s locals cry about having to deal with bankers and trust fund citiots (Urban Dictionary: More commonly from New York City, citiots venture out to their summer homes in the Hamptons from Memorial Day to Labor Day. They usually have fancy cars and are usually wealthy. They drive like they own the place, and they walk around town and in stores like they own them too. Citiots are very snobbish. See also snob)

But the Montaukets certainly had it much worse. Try as they might to live a peaceful life in the land of wampum and plenty, those Pequots from up in southern New England (no doubt future Red Sox fans) seemed hell bent on making life miserable for the Montaukets. What do you think those Montaukets thought, seeing those bass rolling on the south side in 1500? All the seafood, deer and turkey, only an arrow shot away?

White settlers eventually invaded the place, these strange looking white men (that’s you and me, Bub) would eventually would change the place forever. Anyway, somewhere along the way these settlers managed to buy almost 9,000 acres of what we now recognize as most of Montauk.

By  the 1700s, Montauk was used for livestock (watch your step). It was finally “rediscovered” by Arthur Benson of Brooklyn, who bought all of Montauk for $151,000 in 1879. He didn’t buy the property from Barbara Corcoran or Sotheby’s,  no, he bought it during an auction, from the steps of the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse.


But at least Benson was a sportsman at heart, his only intention was to use the place for hunting and fishing, for his sons and friends. Not a bad guy to have been friendly with at the time. So there, the Brooklyn-Montauk fishing connection actually goes way back. I always got along great with the Brooklyn crowd anyway.


Next turn at trying to screw the place up came from Carl Fisher, who reportedly acquired most of the land from Benson’s heirs  (so that’s a $151,000 purchase flipped for $2,500,000 in 1925). Most of you know how this story ended – probably the only good thing to come from the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, which clearly prevented Fisher from realizing his dream of an exclusive resort here.

Since then, Montauk has seen vast amounts of development, but has resisted just enough wholesale change to keep the place special. We all piss and moan at the changes, but thankfully, there are/were enough people in the right places  (some no longer with us) with the means and talent for making important things happen, often behind the scenes.

Quite striking when you really think about it. How many acres are still undeveloped? How many acres survived the threat of a mass housing development, or even a golf course? How many times was a big sale threatening to go through, or a development being contemplated, until one or more tenacious people stepped in and convinced the town/county/state to buy the land instead? All that state and county land? Shadmoor? Amsterdam?

These could have been gated communities, or an amusement park, or a private club? Instead, there is land. You can practically live out of your truck for a few days, and fish non-stop. You probably won’t get bothered as long as you don’t screw it up for yourself: you know, get drunk, pee in front of others, leave a mess, or complain too much about your “rights” while you blast all the other people who want use the land and beach for what they enjoy too. You can still drive on the beach too, and if on East Hampton or County property, stop to build yourself a fire. Maybe even spike a rod and cook something you just killed (or bought at the IGA)…you know, live out your true inner caveman.

Try that in New Jersey.

More to write on this…maybe an “Occasional Series?”

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The Changing Face of Montauk…And Other Musings (Part One)

At one stage of my life, my interest in Montauk was limited to rips, rocky shores and surfcasting. My plans were based on NOAA forecasts and tides, maybe tweaked with up-to-the-minute fishing reports. Most trips were 24 to 72 hour fishing binges, with sleep limited to a couple hours here and there, always in the truck. Showers consisted of a gallon of cold water poured over my head, and food meant a cold slice of pizza, or a soggy hero. Contact with loved ones was limited to how much change I had for the payphone.

Marriage and family changed all of that. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I wanted to carry on fishing like this (and stay married), I was going to have to find a way to bring the family along. This meant making the whole experience much more inviting to the diverse interests of women and children.

Most of the surfcasters like me – who decided they had a long-term interest in a single place – found ways to make this work. Many invested in a condo or time-share, others found the funds for a slide-on or RV with every imaginable creature comfort! Still others bought property and/or moved to the east end of Long Island, full-time.

Today, for many readers, I am sure Montauk means much more than just fishing.  I pick on “Montauk” but I am sure the same type of observations I am about to make can be noted for other Northeast surfcasting/tourist destinations. For those among us, what is happening in and around town is just as important as what is happening on the beaches.

Good or bad, Montauk remains a working fishing village with a significant portion of its survival reliant on the weather, and pegged to the whims of regional tourists.

I write this knowing I can easily draw a chorus of “things ain’t like they used to be.”  I could be writing this in 1960 and yearn for the good old 40s. Someone a generation from now will no doubt yearn for how good it was in 2020. Many readers might have personal stories of a Montauk that used to be, but some sound like the cranky old fart  who tells us how he used to walk to school barefoot in the snow, uphill, both ways.  Likewise, I also risk painting a picture of how rich city money found its way to Montauk – and stole that salt-of-the-earth fabric that made Montauk such a wonderful place to begin with.

America prefers a story told this way, with an easy-to-follow plot, and where you can quickly tell the good guys from the bad. This is how Hollywood taught us, and even journalists jump for a story where everything is black and white. Seldom is it ever so.

The recent Montauk “changes” themselves are easy to identify, but in reality, the driving forcesappear to be coming from a number of different directions. I pen this as a “Part One,” knowing I might need more space to complete some thoughts. We’ll see. Remember, this is just one person’s view…and some mighty touchy subject matter here…so just don’t get your knickers in a twist.

The most easily documented change in Montauk comes from trends in real estate. We all have our stories of property that couldda wouldda shouldda been purchased for a song back in the 80s or even 90s, on Block Island, Nantucket, Cape Cod, take your pick. No different here. But what was particularly telling in Montauk was the more recent invasion of larger agencies buying out / pushing out the mom and pop one-location businesses that used to dominate this very local market.   There was a time, not so long ago actually, when the bigger agencies seemed uninterested in the hamlet – when they seemed to prefer the choicer listings in East Hampton and Southampton.   Today, all the big agencies are here, and a Montauk oceanfront parcel is likely to be mentioned in everything from the East Hampton Star to the Wall Street Journal.

Go ahead, curse the bankers if it makes you feel any better, lump in some celebrities if you must.  But ongoing inspection of real estate transfers over the past ten years will find a fair number of enterprising Montauk locals doing their own fair share of house flipping, thank you very much.

True, more celebrity and corporate types have found their way to Montauk – a well-known name buying a property in Montauk is hardly news-worthy anymore – but the rocky shores have hosted the likes of Dick Cavett, Paul Simon, Andy Wharhol, Jacqueline Onassis, the Rolling Stones and countless others, looong before many readers here ever beached their first Montauk striper (myself included).

If you are hauling your wife and kids out to Montauk again this year (as will I be), you will encounter the most striking changes in the options for eats and drinks.

Trends?  Less fried fisherman’s platter joints and bars with stale beer smells, and more Asian-fusion, gourmet wraps and other globally-inspired offerings. At the risk of over-simplifying the trends, “soul surfer chic” best sums up what has been happening in eating and drinking these days. Don’t worry, you’ll still have enough drink-til-you -puke bars, where it is still possible to get a front row seat for an authentic bar room brawl.  (I won’t mention any here by name, but scan the police blotter section of the local newspaper if you must have details.)

Perhaps the Montauk trend in eats and drinks only mirrors what is happening in other parts of the country –establishments known best for fried food and mass-produced domestic beer are fast falling out of favor, are they not?

A growing number of tourists, it seems, do have an interest in surfing and fishing – if only the image. Put a little more bluntly, there is no shortage of recent establishments that have somehow worked “surfing” into the theme. Hey now, we fisherman can’t curse the surfers –nothing prevents any one of us from jumping into the market with a “Surfcasting Shack,”– and there is ample opportunity as almost every long-established place of business is either for sale right now, or has recently changed hands. And we can’t associate all these changes to “outside money” either, since enough of this is being driven by local entrepreneurs. The bottom line is that (a) it’s going to be harder and harder to find affordable places to eat and drink this year, but (b) it seems more and more tourists (and some locals) want it that way.

Don’t worry, as of now, Rick’s Crabby Cowboy and John’s Drive-In remain open for business.

Is Montauk really becoming a place where celebrities and hedge fund managers are having all the fun, and where the good old hard-working locals are being pushed out? This is where it gets most confusing.

The math clearly evades me  – the cost of living must be driving the “community fabric” – fisherman, teachers, administrators, policemen and others  – out of town. Quite frankly, I do not know how anyone in one of these occupations can make it work, not when a deli sandwich costs $10, a gallon of gas $5 and a “starter home” is listed at $750,000.

Here’s the real hard part – I seldom go for long without running into/ hearing of a successful local businessman or tradesman, who has found a way to devote a good portion of play time to Florida, Costa Rica, or some other exotic South Pacific surfing/fishing destination. I asked a waitress why a particularly popular restaurant was closing so early last fall. The place was mobbed, with an hour wait at peak. He could easily have filled the seats, at least on weekends, all winter long. “He just wants to spend more quality time with his family…skiiing, fishing…” I was told.  OK. So, I’ll spare you the stories of months of sailing or extended surfing quests.  But just how much of this ability to take extended time is afforded by the influx of that “evil” city money?

My current inability to negotiate my own “bi-coastal” living arrangement is reason enough why I am still very much on the outside, looking in.

More to write on this…maybe.


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Do You See What I See? …Do They?

Charlie Witek’s article about Gamefish in the most recent issue of SJ was filled with facts, but one tidbit that I felt was almost lost in the margins was this notion that the fate of the fish – and maybe even our own fate – might one day ride with politicians and others of influence who don’t fish and couldn’t tell a striped bass from a flounder.

It brought me back to a discussion I had years ago with Richard Brodsky, a New York State Assemblyman who served from 1993 to 2002 as Chairman of the New York Committee on Environmental Conservation. If you had a battle in fisheries management in New York during this time, and had a bill, chances are you needed to convince the likes of people like him in order for the bill to have a fighting chance. The conversation took place around 2000, a cocktail party meet and greet type setting. He asked me what I fished for. “Striped Bass, mostly surfcasting” I said. A few minutes later our conversation turned to fly fishing, and I might have mentioned Montauk. Then it hit him and his eyes grew wide, “You mean you fly fish… in salt water?…From the beach? Oh my god I didn’t think there was such a thing! And you actually can catch fish this way?” Continue reading

"The Walk"

Why is it we generally want what we can’t (easily) have?

Whether we *need* it or not is another story.

New Jersey reportedly has about 130 miles of coastline, Long Island has about 118. But if you double that to include bays and inlets, points and coves, you might still be underestimating the total surface area that a surfcaster can access.

Let’s make it easy and call it 500 miles of fish-able coast, a conservative estimate for just these two states. So why all of the fuss over those relatively few miles that cannot be easily accessed?

New Jersey has the infamous Sandy Hook north rips, situated at the northern extreme, and the Cape May Inlet at the other. The former requires a hell walk through agonizingly soft sand in waders. Cape May requires either a Coast Guard pass (if attempted from the south), or a 1+ mile walk from the other direction. I’ve enjoyed the fruits of both locations, but I’ve been obsessing over better ways to access these spots for years.

Then we have the islands to the north: Block, Cutty, Vineyard and Nantucket Continue reading

The Surfcasting Community (Doing Good Stuff)

(This is not meant to be a guilt trip, not directly anyway.)

 What is most interesting to me is that surfcasters, as a whole, tend to have a fairly strong sense of “community.” It’s probably true that this trait helped lure me in in the first place.

 Community? I am talking about the willingness of people to come together, on their own, to share ideas and enthusiasm about the sport, and at times to do something good for others.

 There is no shortage of surfcasting clubs in the Northeast. I once thought the internet chat boards might render the surfcasting club obsolete. But they have continued on. There is clearly an understanding of the limit to what can be shared over the internet, especially if it involves hard-earned local knowledge. Clubs also generally excel in the “social department.” Some dabble in environmental causes (like beach clean-ups) or general philanthropy. A few have gotten involved in general conservation issues, but those surfcasters who feel a strong need to get involved in “bigger picture” issues often have to look beyond. And many do.

 Then you have the local association Continue reading

Kids and Fishing – Yesterday and Today

I was a certified water rat if ever there was one. I still remember my first official “deep sea” fishing trip with my father. I was five. He actually pulled me out of kindergarten that April morning to go Mackerel fishing on the Shamrock, out of Point Pleasant, NJ. We filled up a garbage can full of fish. My guess is we kept about 10% of that, and fed the family and neighborhood with the rest. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t crazy about the way it tasted, but I told him it was good. So he gave me more.

It was more than just fishing – the anticipation, the smell of the salt, the waves, the old crusty characters on some of these boats, all the weird things we hooked on these trips.  I couldn’t get enough. One of the very first times I got into “serious” trouble at home was a year or two after, when I, along with another kid from the neighborhood, hatched a plan to ride our bikes a couple miles from home to a lake, to try some of our own fishing. I still remember my mother pulling up and tooting the horn. She had her hair up in rollers and she was still in her nightgown. I got a verbal assault, but for reasons I never understood, she let me continue fishing. Continue reading

What Else?

You’ve all heard the saying – something like “10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish.”
I was never sure on the percentages, but I do think this phenomenon plays out quite dramatically in our local surf community.

Pathological liars aside, I personally never found that the so-called “lucky minority” – the ones that always seem to be catching fish – had any super human powers, nor did they have King Neptune on speed dial.

The “lucky minority,” in general, were simply willing and able to spend *much* more time on the water than your average Joe.

I know what some of you are thinking – “Sure, I agree that more time on the water means more fish, but I just can’t fish six or seven nights a week.”

Even if you could, this has the potential to end badly. How many of us know of a fishermen or two who were racking up some incredible numbers, in their day, but burned out and no longer fish at all? Continue reading

Show observations and interactions

Winter Shows

Ever since cod and whiting disappeared from the NY Bight (a looong time ago), my interest in local winter fishing has been nil. Now, if I want to feel the tug on the end of the line, it’s either a few hours on the highway… or take to the friendly skies. The next best thing remains the fishing shows, and I am sure many of you are doing these as well.

We all have our reasons for going, but it’s different going to a show when (a) you have too much tackle already, and your wife has threatened to kill you if you bring just one more ”fish thing” home, and (b) you already have strong opinions on most products as it is – see (a) because you own most of it already.

But I am still entertained by a few of the characters, and I always hold out hope for that one rare find.

What is most interesting now is how some venders or representatives connect with the customers.

Many local types still have the personality of a bitpull – friendly to a familiar face – but almost barking at mere mortals who are always assumed to know so much less than the “top dog.” Continue reading