Good Times at the Grand Slam

Prizes are awarded for a combination of the largest of four species of fish: striped bass, bluefish, fluke, and sea bass
Ray Sperling of Sag Harbor, at right, needed help holding the 49.95-pound striped bass he caught on the charter boat Breakaway on Saturday during the Montauk Grand Slam Fishing Tournament. It was the largest bass landed in the history of the event. Jon M. Diat

In life, sometimes you win. And sometimes you lose.

For the 18th time in a row — since its inception — my friends and I have participated in the Mercury Grand Slam fishing tournament out of Montauk. Held last weekend, the two-day event is presented by the Friends of Erin and the East Hampton Kiwanis Club. Henry Uihlein, whose family has owned Uihlein’s marina on the west side of Montauk Harbor for many years, is the host and it’s always a good time.

The tournament has a local and low-key feel. It’s not fancy, and it doesn’t have high-roller Calcutta side bets as some other tournaments do. Some of these events are real hard core. Money, not the pure joy of fishing or a day on the water, is the real focus. Not here. 

For the Grand Slam (which means prizes are awarded for a combination of the largest of four species of fish: striped bass, bluefish, fluke, and sea bass), laughter and camaraderie are the primary goals, and quite frankly, mandatory. In short, it is a slice of what Montauk used to be, a laid-back, quiet town, even in summer, where everybody knew everyone. Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple and try to relive it. And Henry does well to keep the tradition alive and retain as much of that old-town character.

My group of five friends fished both Saturday and Sunday under the guidance of the skillful Capt. Richard Etzel of the charter boat Breakaway. I’ve known Rick for several decades. He has worn two hats, that of commercial fisherman and charter boat owner, and is a seasoned veteran of the waters that surround Montauk and distant environs. He is one of the finest fishermen I have ever known.

Rick and I attended the same high school back in northern Nassau County, but he graduated about eight years earlier, so we didn’t know each other growing up. Still, I feel like I’ve known him my entire life. He has a wonderful family and his friendship is true. You can never know enough good people.

The fishing was not exceptional last weekend. Fluke were hard to locate, as they have been most of the season, but the sea bass action was consistent from Gurney’s all the way eastward to Block Island. Our largest sea bass was a shade over four pounds. Not huge but a rather decent-size fish. Tracking down a bluefish, normally a pretty easy thing to do, was a challenge. It took a few hours of time and effort on the troll to land a four-pound fish. 

The lone bright spot was the striped bass fishing. It was exceptional. While we only focused on stripers for less than an hour over the two-day period, we landed three bass over 35 pounds, including a whopper of 49.95 pounds, the largest bass ever weighed in the history of the tournament. 

Alas, our fish point total did not equate to a victory at the conclusion of the event. We were close, but we were bested in the charter/commercial division by Charlie Etzel, Rick’s brother. We lost to him last year by a single point. Still, we had no complaints as a great time was had by all of us. We have won the title a number of times in the past, and it’s nice to see that another great person took the honors.

In a true sense, there were no losers last weekend. We will smile at the memories of the laughs and good times again and again. 

Back on land, Harvey Bennett at the Tackle Shop in Amagansett was playing homage to the French as Bastille Day was celebrated on Saturday. “We owe a lot to the French people,” said Monsieur Bennett, who flew the French flag proudly outside his shop. “I got a lot of people who stopped by to ask about the flag. I gave them all a history lesson.”

As for the local fishing scene, Bennett remarked that some big bass continue to be pulled out from the ocean surf in Amagansett. “Some fish up to 35 pounds were landed in the past day or two,” he said. “Sharks continue to hang around chasing the schools of bunker close to shore in the same general area, while some weakfish were landed at Hither Hills, too.”

On the bay side, Bennett said that fluke fishing remains solid off Napeague and that porgy fishing is excellent off Gardiner’s Island and the Navy dock in Fort Pond Bay in Montauk. Want to catch a bluefish? Bennett said they were thick at the Ruins at the northernmost tip of Gardiner’s. 

And if you are looking to land one of those big striped bass, Bennett now has live eels for sale. “I call them bass candy,” he said. “If you want to catch a big bass, eels are probably the best bait around.” 

“Weakfish have been good in Noyac Bay, along with porgies,” said Ken Morse at Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor. “If you want fluke, head out east of Gardiner’s Island. And striped bass fishing has been good at Plum Gut and the Race.”

On the offshore scene, the big story from anyone who has been out hunting shark and tuna is the amount of life out there. “Whales, dolphin, turtles, bunker, and sand eels are all over,” said Scott Jeffrey at East End Bait and Tackle in Hampton Bays. “Whales breaching near the boats are a real show to see. There are mako sharks around, but the new 83-inch minimum size limit is a tough one to make. As for bluefin, they have been holding in the area near the Coimbra wreck with some big fish mixed in.”

On the commercial side, the closure of the fluke fishery on Sunday will remain in effect through July 31. Afterward, the daily trip limit is set at 50 pounds.

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