A Manhattan Fly-Fishing Adventure
New York, New York—the place so nice they named it twice. 
It’s also home to some of the best saltwater fly fishing on the 
Atlantic Coast. Use these flies to catch fish while enjoying one 
of the most magnificent cities in the world.
by Henry Cowen

When most people think of New York City, the first thing that comes to mind is world-class theater, museums galore, great restaurants, and the world’s financial center. Most people, however, do not realize that Manhattan and its neighboring boroughs are also a wonderful outdoor playground. It’s true!

ImageThe five boroughs that make up New York City are surrounded by water that offers great fishing for striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, and Atlantic bonito. Where else can you catch a Northeast grand slam in the morning, go for a world-class lunch (a slice of pizza or corned beef sandwich) in the afternoon, and enjoy a Broadway show in the evening? Each of the five boroughs—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx—have world-class fly fishing available by either boat or from shore. Best of all, this fishing can last for the better part of nine months if you’re willing to put up with a bit of frosty weather.
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To make the New York City metropolitan area easy to understand, let’s break the fishery into three distinct sections: Staten Island/New York Harbor, Jamaica Bay/Breezy Point, and Long Island Sound. While all three areas are relatively close together, the fisheries vary greatly. This is particularly true when discussing the best times of the year to fish and the various types of structure you will encounter: beaches, estuaries, rips, or flats.

Staten Island and New York Harbor  
This area contains the boroughs of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. For Staten Island, you will fish the area around South Beach (near the base of the Verrazano Bridge) all the way up to Great Kills Park. South Beach is your typical ocean beach, and while there are no jetties, this two-mile-long stretch is dotted with pilings. Every spring and fall, a huge migration of striped bass exits and reenters the Hudson River. These fish are seeking the Atlantic Ocean, and make their way out of the harbor under the Verrazano Bridge. At some point they will look for food along South Beach, but like most ocean beaches, this area is a hit-or-miss proposition.

ImageThe beaches located in Great Kills Park look more “fishy” because they have better structure that holds bait longer. The sandbars and depressions along this short half-mile stretch always seem to have striped bass, bluefish, and even an occasional weakfish cruising around them. Fish Great Kills using either a boat or waders. Striped bass start appearing in early April, and they are found throughout most of October and sometimes into November. The fishing in this area is particularly hot in the early spring, with the first bass caught on the outer beach in late March or early April. The back of Great Kills Harbor, however, gets most of the attention and brings together a serious slew of boat, kayak, and wading fishermen searching for that first 10-fish day.

Capt. Joe Mustari, of Mazman Charters, calls Great Kills Harbor his home port. Using a 23-foot-long foot Ken Craft center-console boat, Captain “Maz” starts guiding by the second week of April. When asked about the early season, back-of-the-harbor fishery, he says, “I kind of feel like I am cheating a little. My customers pay me to take them out fishing and I never even get the boat up on plane during April and sometimes into early May. Fortunately, there are so many bass around that no one ever complains.” When asked about the average weight of the striped bass, Maz replies, “They can range in size from schoolies [three to six pounds apiece] on up to teen-size bass.”

ImageCaptain Maz says imitating the forage fish is the key to success. In the early spring, Great Kills sees some large bunker as well as spearing and small, three- to four-inch-long herrings. The water is gin clear at that time of year, and using a fly that matches the size of the baby herrings makes a real difference; Maz likes both chartreuse-over-white and olive-over-white Clouser Minnows tied on size 2/0 hooks. Once the big fish move into Raritan Bay, however, it’s all about 10-inch-long and larger bunker flies. Maz generally uses a monster fly he calls the 3-D Bunker, which he credits New Jersey’s Bob Popovics for showing him how to tie. In April 2002, angler Rick Fink was fishing with Captain Mustari in Raritan Bay when he caught a 36-pound-6-ounce striper that set a 20-pound-test line class world record. That fish ate a Magnum Baitfish, which is an eight-inch-long bunker imitation.

By June and July, the bait changes and the stripers gorge on three- to four-inch-long anchovies, two- to six-inch-long sand eels, spearing, baby bunker, and small squids. Captain Maz likes fishing squid flies in the rips around Staten Island, Sandy Hook, and Coney Island.

“I love any of Jonny King’s [a hot New York fly designer] squid flies, as they are beautiful patterns,” Maz said, “but I just hate to lose them to the big bluefish we have at that time of year. For purposes of ease of tying and breathing ability in the water, I usually toss a size 2/0 Cowen’s Squidward. The other fly that is extremely important that time of year is a size 3/0 chartreuse-over-white Half-n-Half; I like to tie them six inches long. My Half-n-Half incorporates both gold and silver flash. And, I use my FisHair Clouser to imitate the sand eels.”

By August and September, the prevalent bait around New York City changes to peanut bunker, tinker mackerel, finger mullet, anchovies, butterfish, spearing, and bay anchovies. The hard-tail gamefish also show up around this time: bonito, false albacore, baby blue fin tuna, and skipjack. Look for these fish either inshore or slightly offshore between Rockaways (Queens) and New Jersey. Staten Island gives you good access to fish in either direction. During the late summer, Captain Maz fishes with a Surf Candy or Albie Anchovy, and there are times when you can fish a small Crease Fly on top to any members of the tuna family.

ImageBy October, as the fall migration begins along the entire East Coast, a major change in the prevalent bait also occurs: sand eels, large bunker, and Atlantic herrings arrive and mix with all the bait that is already in the waters around New York. This is when you’ll see enormous schools of fish surface-feeding on either small or large bait. Once the adult herrings arrive, you’ll have a good shot at catching a striped bass weighing more than 20 pounds. As wave after wave of migrating striped bass swim through, anglers fishing with either a boat or waders cash in on some of the best fishing the city has to offer; the key is carrying a variety of large bunker and herring patterns, as well as medium-size Half-n-Halfs and Clouser Minnows. The fast action continues through December when hordes of smaller stripers make their way down the coast and continue south toward Chesapeake Bay or turn west and head up the Hudson River.

Jamaica Bay and Breezy Point

Jamaica Bay is located in both Brooklyn and Queens. The eastern part of the bay stretches from JFK International Airport and runs through Howard Beach (Queens) on the north. At Pennsylvania Avenue, Jamaica Bay becomes part of Brooklyn and runs west to Sheepshead Bay, where it empties into the inlet at Breezy Point and the Atlantic Ocean. The southern piece of land that separates the bay from the ocean is all part of the Rockaways, which is in Queens.

ImageThe fishing in Jamaica Bay can be dynamite throughout the entire season. At some point the striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, weakfish, and bonito head to the beaches along the Rockaways and eventually to Breezy Point, and will venture into Jamaica Bay as far back as the airport. The fishery inside Jamaica Bay is diverse, and depending upon the time of year, you can sight-fish on the flats or throw sinking lines against the bridge abutments.

Capt. Bryan Goulart is one of Jamaica Bay’s most popular guides. He and a network of other capable fly and light-tackle guides put anglers onto some of the best fishing New York City has to offer. Captain Goulart said, “The fishery located in and around New York [specifically Jamaica Bay] can have fly anglers catching teen-sized striped bass in the morning, and then going out for a gourmet Manhattan lunch in the afternoon and catching a Broadway show in the evening. Our playground is second to none.”

Most of the fly fishing around Jamaica Bay and Breezy Point is similar to Staten Island; the big difference is that Jamaica Bay offers protection from the wind when conditions do not permit fishing more open water. Goulart really likes the early spring run of striped bass found in the back of the bay near the airport. This area is home to many types of baitfish and crustaceans, and the striped bass—and in some years the weakfish—stack up in the bay.

ImageCaptain Goulart is a fan of both large flies when the bass are feeding on mature bunker, squids, herrings, and ocean sand eels, as well as smaller patterns when they are homing in on grass shrimps, finger mullet, silversides, small sand eels, and bay anchovies. Striped bass can be notoriously size-selective when it comes to eating feathers, and Goulart says, “Depending on when you come to play in New York City, make sure you have an assortment of different sizes of flies.”

If you can’t make it to Montauk, which is at the tip of Long Island and has some of New York’s best false albacore fishing, the Breezy Point Jetty is a great secondary fishery for these speedsters. The false albacore run usually starts around the third week of August and lasts through the middle of October. Once the albies leave, a huge migration of striped bass begins. Acres of school-size stripers shows up around Breezy Point. Do not, however, be fooled by all the 3- to 10-pound fish; there will be plenty of bass migrating through that will tip the scales into the mid to upper 20-pound range. In November 2007, Staten Island’s Joan Sharrot crushed the women’s 20-pound class tippet world record with a 27-pound striped bass.
 
Western Long Island Sound
The western end of Long Island Sound gives both boat and shorebound anglers opportunities to fish the migrations of striped bass leaving and reentering the Hudson River. These migrations are second in size only to those found in Chesapeake Bay. Queens not only offers water access to the Atlantic Ocean, but it also sits at the western end of Long Island Sound; anglers living in Queens are envied by New York’s other fishermen.

ImageThe Bronx also offers access to Long Island Sound. An area known as City Island, which is located in the Bronx, gives fly rodders their first and last opportunities of the season to catch the striper migration. These same opportunities exist in the area known as Little Neck Bay. A large percentage of the striped bass coming out of the Hudson River passes by City Island and Little Neck Bay, and while bluefish, weakfish, and the occasional false albacore are caught in this area, the striped bass receive almost all the attention.

Capt. Lou Fitzner operates one of the few fly and light-tackle guide services on the western part of Long Island Sound. Fitzner keeps his boat in Rye, New York, which is located in Westchester County just north of New York’s city limits. While everyone looks forward to the early and late-season striper migrations, the superb angling for bluefish is underappreciated. From June through August, western Long Island Sound is home to some of the biggest, baddest bluefish in the ocean. These bruisers range in size from five pounds to the high teens, and most are caught using topwater flies. I asked Captain Lou what pattern he prefers to get the blues to eat off the surface, and he said, “While poppers and Crease Flies take their share of fish, nothing beats a Gurgler.”

Long Island Sound is best known for its early- and late-season runs of striped bass. The areas around Whitestone (in Queens) and City Island (in the Bronx) tend to get the best populations of bass during the months of March and April, and again in November and December. Long before most of New York’s fishermen start hearing consistent reports of fish being caught during the early part of the striper season—from the end of March through April—the guys on Long Island Sound have already been catching fish for a few weeks. This same situation occurs in reverse at the end of the striper season.

If you fish Long Island Sound out of a boat, use an 8-weight rod with both an intermediate-sinking line and a 300-grain integrated sinking-tip line; if you wade, you’ll need only an intermediate-sinking line and stripping basket. I also asked Captain Lou to choose his favorite flies for feeding Long Island Sound’s striped bass.

“Day in and day out,” he replied, “I am a big fan of flies that imitate sand eels, silversides, and anchovies.”

His two favorites patterns are a sand eel tied with Ultra Hair and is similar to Dave Skok’s white Bait Mushy, and a silverside/anchovy/mullet imitation that I tie using rabbit, Polar Fibre, and EZ Body tubing.

Now you know about the waters and fly-fishing opportunities around New York. The city isn’t only about culture, shopping, and food; it is also offers great fishing that compares to any destination in the Northeast. Want to compare it to Cape Cod, Montauk, or Watch Hill? Faugettaboutit!

Henry Cowen grew up fishing around New York and New Jersey. Today, Henry lives in Georgia. In addition to writing for this magazine, he is also a regular contributor to our sister publication, American Angler.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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