A Tradition Is Broken

The ritual of a saltwater plunge
Orson Frisbee held an 11-pound, 8-ounce fluke caught on the Lazybones out of Montauk. Kathy Vesgessi

For as long as I can remember, a strong tradition has surrounded the Memorial Day weekend in my family. It’s a pretty basic one actually: You had to put on your finest swim trunks and go for a swim (usually a very brief one) in the still chilly waters. 

While it is still technically spring according to the calendar, the Memorial Day holiday generally heralds the start of the summer season in my eyes. With that thought in mind, no matter the weather, it was mandatory that the ritual of a saltwater plunge be upheld.

I’m not sure how or why this all started in our family, but even as a very young child, I remember my mother saying we had to partake in such a swim at some point over the three-day weekend. We were not the only ones; there were other kids in the neighborhood who practiced this same tradition. It seemed that my brain was programmed automatically to do this. And bad karma would haunt me if I didn’t.

Last Friday afternoon offered the first opportunity for the annual dip. While not a hot day by any means, the sun was strong as I watched two young kids cautiously enter the waters of Shelter Island Sound at my neighbor’s house next door. Standing up to their knees in the clear water, they moved very slowly together as they waded deeper, until they were up to their waists, arms raised above their heads. The voices of the boy and girl could be easily heard as they chided each other to see who was brave enough to get completely wet first. They stood motionless for five minutes contemplating their next move. 

Finally, and now holding hands, they decided to dive in together. Their plunge took only a split second, but they accomplished their mission with high-pitched screams. Then, rather than run out of the 60-degree water and dry off, they surprisingly remained in the drink for 20 more minutes. Water fights were frequent and their laugher and giggles traveled along the shoreline as they experienced their first swimming adventure of the season. Young innocence at its finest.

Was I tempted to join them? No. I was more than comfortable sitting in my Adirondack chair on the patio enjoying their fun. Besides, Saturday was expected to be a much warmer day for that first swim.

They next day brought out the expected heavy sunshine blended with some dense, early season humidity. Fishing on my neighbor’s boat was on the agenda for the afternoon, accompanied by five young children, most of whom had never caught a fish before. Thankfully, the fishing did not disappoint. The kids enjoyed catching and releasing a mix of porgies and sea robins as we returned to the dock by 4 p.m. As we tied up the boat, the hot, sticky weather felt worse than it had when we left the dock. The stench of skimmer clam bait on my hands reminded me that now was the perfect time to take my traditional swim and clean up too. 

Opening the door to my house, I was greeted by a welcoming blast of air-conditioned air. The Arctic-like environment felt great and provided complete and instant relief. Sadly, the comfortable interior temperature also dissuaded me from a plunge. I opted to take a shower instead, which turned out to be a poor decision, as strong northeast winds and a very cold rain dampened any thought of a Sunday swim and conditions on Monday were not exactly summer-like either. Alas, my traditional swim never occurred.

The streak had to end at some point. It was a good run that lasted over five decades. Not bad. I will attempt my dip next year. I just hope the boy and girl I witnessed on Friday taking their first swim will continue the same Memorial Day tradition for many years.

As per the fishing scene, the mixed bag of weather either helped or hindered the catch.

“Sunday was a total blowout,” said Harvey Bennett, proprietor of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett. “But on the other days, the fishing was excellent on many fronts. Bass fishing has been really good on the ocean beaches with fish up to 20 pounds mixed in with some weakfish, while fluke can be had off Accabonac, Napeague, and Clearwater. Big bluefish are in thick at Sammy’s Beach and the porgy fishing in Cherry Harbor has been excellent most days.”

Sunday’s lousy weather allowed Bennett to watch the Indianapolis 500. “I love Indy car racing and always wanted to go there to see it live,” he added from his store, where numerous autographed pictures of race car drivers can be seen on the well-weathered walls. 

“Striped bass fishing has been excellent,” said Ken Morse of Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor. “And some real big fish will likely be seen with the full moon on Tuesday.” The late May moon usually sees a number of stripers landed in the 30-to-50-pound range. Morse said that fluke fishing has been good at Cedar Point and Greenlawns, while porgy fishing remains solid in Noyac Bay and other local spots. Mixed in with the scup are a few weakfish.

“Big bluefish are still hanging around,” said Sebastian Gorgone of Mrs. Sam’s Bait and Tackle in East Hampton, shortly before departing for France on Saturday evening for a much-anticipated 10-day cruise. “Porgies are really good in Cherry Harbor and the bass fishing in the bays and from the ocean beaches has been pretty consistent.”

Those who like to pursue their fish via light tackle or fly-casting also reported some good action of late. “Fishing has been very good on really big bluefish,” said Capt. Ken Rafferty, a light-tackle fishing guide based in East Hampton. “On Saturday we went into the Peconics and caught and released a load of 15-to-20-pound bluefish. It’s been a good start to the season so far.”

At Montauk, the striped bass action continues to heat up along the beaches and in the rips, while bluefish are starting to make their appearance known. For those focused on fluke, catches continued on the upswing. A few of the larger party boats, including the Miss Montauk II and the Ebb Tide, even braved it out in Sunday’s messy seas and still caught some nice flatties. The fish are there.

“The fluke are starting to spread out from up to the north all the way to the south side,” said Capt. Michael Vegessi of the Montauk-based Lazybones. “The best fishing is still on the south side with some bigger fish, but it’s good to see many areas beginning to produce.” It will only get better, too. The Bones sets sail every day at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.

We welcome your fishing tips, observations, and photographs at fish@ ehstar.com. You can find the “On the Water” column on Twitter at @ehstar­fishing.