Treasures of Mashomack

A unique open truck ride deep inside the vast untouched land that is the Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island
Open fields that used to be farmed, dense stands of trees, eagles and ospreys nesting, creeks, salt marshes, and kettle ponds aplenty at the Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island give a glimpse of what this area must have looked like hundreds of years ago. Carissa Katz

I’ve always been fascinated by the mystique and history of Gardiner’s Island. The island has been owned by the Gardiner family and their descendants since 1639, when Lion Gardiner purchased it from the Montaukett chief Wyandanch.

As a young child, I was told by my parents that Captain Kidd buried his treasure near Bostwick Point on the west side of the island in 1699, having stopped there while sailing to Boston to answer charges of piracy. That information alone was enough for me to scour the beach repeatedly at low tide to see if any of that loot had washed up on our shoreline. 

When I trudged along the uneven rocks, heavily covered in slippery green and brown seaweed, I would periodically find a broken piece of glass, a bottle, or a shard of porcelain china. Foolishly, it led me to believe that I had actually found part of that long-lost stash. Needless to say, my folks did not tell me that the treasure chest containing gold and silver was dug up shortly after Kidd’s departure and before he was hanged by public execution in England in 1701. 

While I have fished around the island itself my whole life — as recently as last Friday — I have never set foot on it. And I probably never will. Much like a row of military soldiers standing rigidly in line at attention, there are perhaps hundreds of “no trespassing” signs surrounding the 3,300-acre island, planted deeply in the sand and rock above the high-tide mark warning those who might be tempted to set foot on the island that they are not welcome to do so. 

On top of that, a caretaker conducts routine patrols of the island in a pickup truck. I’m not certain if this person packs a firearm, but I’m not willing to find out. To me, Gardiner’s Island, notwithstanding the recent controversy over who can set foot on Cartwright Island, just off the southernmost tip of Gardiner’s, is like Alcatraz Island prison in reverse. You can never get on it. 

But a few weeks ago, I was fortunate to join a group of about a dozen intrepid explorers for a unique open truck ride deep inside the vast untouched land that is the Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island. Comprising over 2,000 acres, it was purchased for $10 million in 1980 by the Nature Conservancy, a rather pricey sum back then. 

While Gardiner’s Island looms about five miles to the east of Mashomack, both pristine pieces of natural land may as well be entwined, as this backwoods tour gave me a real taste of what life must be like on Gardiner’s Island — open fields that used to be farmed, dense stands of trees, eagles and ospreys nesting, creeks, salt marshes, and kettle ponds aplenty. It was an experience that visually captured what the wilderness may have looked like when the early settlers arrived several centuries ago. It was truly amazing.

Sure, the mosquitoes were pretty dense and annoying when we made some stops for pictures, and you had to check for ticks now and then. That’s normal in such surroundings. Late in the excursion, we had to clear the trunk of a large fallen tree from the little-used road upon which we traveled. 

The added time spent clearing our path ate into the last glint of natural light that evening. Time was running short. This was not your typical ride at Disney World. 

Our path cleared, it was dark by then, and we needed to return to the visitors center where we had started. But Cindy Belt, our guide behind the wheel of that well-used Ford truck, who has been with the Mashomack Preserve for over 25 years, ably handled the overly bumpy and hilly road back to the center with care and without the use of headlights, so as not to disturb any wildlife. Off-road driving is clearly one of her skill sets. 

Mashomack will offer a similar truck tour in the fall to take in the changing colors. I plan to do it again. 

While I have not been on Gardiner’s, in many ways I feel I have. Mashomack afforded the experience I would have expected on Gardiner’s Island. There may be no longstanding tale of pirates and buried treasure to enhance the lore of Mashomack, but the real treasure there lies clearly above the ground for all to enjoy, pirates be damned.

Speaking of pirates and plunder, Harvey Bennett, the owner of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett for nearly 40 years, could be perfectly cast as a renegade scallywag if he wore an eye patch to complement the red bandanna that hid part of his long ponytail on Monday afternoon.

“I would have loved to have been a pirate,” he proclaimed. Bennett was also enthused that, while Labor Day is finally upon us, the best fishing of the season lies ahead.

“Don’t get me wrong, the summer is great out here,” he said after helping a family of five look for rods, reels, and bait to catch baby bluefish, also known as snappers. “Right now, you can name just about any species, and you have a chance to catch it. Everything from fluke, false albacore to porgies, striped bass, bluefish. The list goes on and on. And the crowds of August are in the rearview mirror. The best time of the year is upon us.”

Bennett was especially happy about the good run of striped bass along the ocean beaches, as well as the outstanding porgy fishing that continues from Gardiner’s Bay all the way eastward to Block Island. “Right now, you can literally drop a sandworm or piece of clam just about anywhere and you are bound to hit a porgy on the head. Fishing has been that good.” 

Bennett also noted that bottlefish, a.k.a. blowfish, have returned on the scene as well, and that false albacore have been sighted on the east side of Gardiner’s Island. “Folks are waiting on the albies,” he finally added.

David Blinken, the fly-fishing guide from North Flats charters of East Hampton, reported that fishing for bluefish and striped bass has been good of late, but, he too is anxiously awaiting the arrival of false albacore. “I’m looking forward to a great September, as there is plenty of bait in the water,” he said. “The albies are starting to show up too.”

“Snappers and porgies are everywhere,” said a smiling Sebastian Gorgone at Mrs. Sam’s Bait and Tackle in East Hampton. “It’s hard not to find them.” Gorgone also said that some stripers can be had off the ocean beach, and that sea bass are on the backside of Gardiner’s Island.

“Porgy fishing remains very good in all the usual spots in the bay, with bigger fish out near Plum Island mixed in with some nice sea bass,” said Ken Morse of Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor. Morse, too, is looking forward to an increase in action along the surf line. “There is a lot of bait in the water, so I hope we have a good, extended season this fall.”

Out in Montauk, fluke have begun to make their annual migration to deeper water as most fishing is taking place south and west of the lighthouse, all the way to the windmills southeast of Block Island. The season for fluke, also known as summer flounder, comes to an end on Sept. 30.

As for striped bass, they continue to provide action, but you better check the tides first. “The bass fishing has been red hot on certain tides and nonexistent on other tides,” remarked Capt. Art Cortes of the charter boat Halfback.

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Chris Miller of Westlake Marina in Montauk, a free-dive, spearfishing aficionado, nailed this 108-pound bigeye tuna recently. It was a personal best bigeye for Miller. Westlake Marina