Tide Made for Christmas Shellfish Nirvana

It was a classic “blowout tide,” as old-timers around here would say
Oysters were on the Christmas menu in the Diat household, along with hard and soft-shell clams. Jon M. Diat

Last Wednesday afternoon was a clammer’s dream. Coming off a new moon and enforced by a cold, strong northwesterly wind, the tide that day would be extremely low. It was a classic “blowout tide” as old-timers around here would say. 

Since I was a little kid, I was always fascinated by such extreme low tides. To me, it offered a unique window to explore a new part of the beach that was rarely, if ever, seen. Even today, I still get anxious and will even alter my plans to take advantage of such an event. And on this particular day, it was no different. It was time to get the hip boots and clam rake out of the garage.

But there was also another reason to hit the beach. As tradition dictates in my household, freshly dug hard and soft-shell clams were on the menu, as they had been for many years for Christmas. The timing was right and my outing was a great success. The clams were plentiful and fat from the cold water. While I will never refuse a clam taken in the summer months, there is just no comparison to the taste of one freshly dug up from the sandy and muddy waters during the icy winter months. I am as happy as a clam, as they say.

But the surprising bonus that day was the capture of about four dozen perfectly sized wild oysters that clung tightly together to some nearby rocks. The most logical reason for the rebound of wild oyster stock in recent years is the successful efforts of numerous local homeowners raising oyster spat from their docks. The picking was easy, too. With about a bushel of bay scallops still residing in the floating lobster crate at my dock, and my diverse haul on a great low tide that afternoon, I most certainly entered shellfish nirvana for the holiday season.

Having the option to pursue clams or oysters in the winter is a great diversion, too, as there are only a few types of fish available for those with a rod and reel. The season for black sea bass, which were around in great numbers and large sizes this year, closes on Dec. 31, so codfish will pretty much be the lone game in town. How good it will be is anybody’s guess. In general, the colder the winter, the better the action. Time will tell. But the current bitter cold snap should help boost those odds. 

Over all, the 2017 fishing season was a rather mixed bag, depending on who you asked. While very few would agree that the much-anticipated fall surfcasting season was anything but mediocre at best, striped bass feeding in the deeper waters off Montauk and other areas was excellent most of the year through the middle of October. And many of these fish were very large too. At times, it was staggering to see how many fish over 30 pounds were landed with such regularity. 

It was also encouraging to see more recreational anglers and professional captains urge their fares to release many of these fish, as most are female breeders that are core to ensuring that future generations of bass will be around. Truth to that was witnessed late this fall as a slew of small, undersize fish, some not even 10 inches in length, were landed from the ocean wash; the signs are promising that we’ll see a steady supply of action over the coming years.

Fluke-fishing fans lamented a poor start to the season (I was skunked on my first three trips in May), but a massive run of large doormats commenced around Labor Day south of Montauk, quickly making it a season to remember. The list of fish taken over 10 pounds was epic and lasted until the season closed a few weeks later. Such an event will likely be hard to replicate.

For those in the pursuit of various pelagics much farther offshore, the season was a downer by most accounts. The bite for bluefin and yellowfin tuna was inconsistent all season, and many turned their attention to the outstanding run of thresher sharks that were literally only a few miles off the beach in numbers never seen before. Feasting on massive schools of bunker, threshers and other sharks were also regularly landed by surfcasters. 

And there were very few complaints about the bay scallop season, which got underway in early November. Despite a void of the tasty bivalves in Lake Montauk and Napeague Harbor, the waters from Three Mile Harbor all the way westward to Flanders were flush with a crop that will be hard to top anytime soon. The prices at local fish markets were some of the lowest in a number of years and just about every restaurant had them on their menu on a daily basis. Lots of good eats that many have enjoyed for the past two months.

But the good news ends there, as most areas saw a meager number of juvenile scallops that would be ready for harvest next November. Why was there a poor spawn this late spring? Nobody knows. But what is most certain is that scallops and Mother Nature are a very fickle combination. 

Here’s to calm seas, tight lines, and best wishes in 2018.