Toadfish in Outer Space
Sharks are hot. As in the past few summers, shark sightings seem to be capturing a lot of headlines and attention of late. Ever since Steven Spielberg put the toothy fish on the silver screen several decades ago, the mystique and fascination continues to grow. Shark Week, now in its 30th year on the Discovery Channel, garners a whopping share of viewers every time it makes its summer run, just as people are flocking to ocean beaches.
While sharks will make the big splash and are treated with Hollywood TMZ-like glitz, I believe credit should also be given to those fish that work behind the scenes and try to keep a low profile. These fish will never receive the marquee prominence that a great white shark (Tom Cruise?) gets.
A case in point is the lowly oyster toadfish. No pack of paparazzi or high-powered agents follow this humble, stubby, slow-swimming fish. Just one look at the rather unsightly creature captured from mucky waters usually results in a quick “Throw it back!” yelp from the angler who catches one. No amount of time in the makeup chair is going to improve its outward appearance. The oyster toadfish has been typecast.
Small in size — rarely growing larger than 16 inches — oyster toadfish are generally found in shallow-water coves and muddy backwater creeks gently resting in camouflage mode waiting to inhale their next meal, usually another small fish or crab that comes too close. I used to catch a few on hook and line as a kid off Long Wharf in Sag Harbor and I still get a few every summer in my crab traps deep in the back cove.
A very slow grower, oyster toadfish are also edible, but I’ve never seen one in a fish market, as there is just no focused commercial effort to harvest them. However, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation actually stipulates that anglers can retain three oyster toadfish per day over 10 inches, and only between July 16 and May 14, a most unusual time frame to be sure.
Modest as it might be, the oyster toadfish did receive some rather high-profile media attention 20 years ago when NASA sent one into space to investigate the effects of microgravity on otolithic organs. That’s as big a story as there ever was on the toadfish. It’s no Neil Armstrong.
Since its ride into outer space, it has remained outside the spotlight. Some fish are like that. Not everyone can be a shark.
Back on the local fishing scene, not surprisingly there were no oyster toadfish reports. “Nobody fishes for them,” remarked Harvey Bennett, the owner of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett. “They are around, but they are always an accidental catch.”
Bennett was enthused that small bluefish, better known as snappers, are getting larger and keeping kids happy. “Catching snappers is a great way for any child to start fishing,” he said. “There are also some tinker mackerel around with them. Lots of happy faces.”
Bennett said that larger bluefish are around Accabonac Harbor, as well as at the Ruins at the northern tip of Gardiner’s Island. “Also, fluking is still good at Napeague, but there are some bigger fish now showing up at the Ruins,” he said. “Blowfish can be taken in Three Mile Harbor as well as in Fort Pond Bay in Montauk, along with large porgies. And don’t forget the freshwater scene. Some really big largemouth bass have been taken at Fort Pond in Montauk.”
“While the weather has been hot of late, the fishing is holding up,” said Sebastian Gorgone of Mrs. Sam’s Bait and Tackle in East Hampton. “Porgy and sea bass are good at Gardiner’s Island, while blowfish are in Three Mile Harbor.”
Gorgone smiled retelling a story about a couple of anglers reeling in small striped bass that were bitten in half while fishing from shore near the Montauk Lighthouse. “Still some pretty big sandbar tiger sharks around and they obviously love to eat bass, too,” he said. “The same group of people returned the next day with heavier tackle and shark rigs and caught a few of them. Some were over six feet.”
“Fishing has been good,” agreed Ken Morse at Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor. “If you want bluefish, they are pretty thick on the incoming tide at Jessup’s Neck,” he said. “Porgies are everywhere and there have been a lot of kingfish lately, too. Fluking has not been great, but sea bass are strong on the north side of Plum Island.” For blue-claw crab aficionados, Morse said that the crabs are large and plentiful in Mecox Bay.
Back in Montauk, fluke fishing remains steady in all of the usual summertime haunts, but larger fish have shown up in the deeper water near the Frisbee and Cartwright grounds, located south and west of the lighthouse.
“Lots of bluefish on the north side from shore,” said Paul Apostolides of Paulie’s Tackle Shop in downtown Montauk. “Also, lots of schoolie-sized bass are on the ocean beach, but not many keepers.” Apostolides acknowledged that larger bass are around in good numbers for boaters off the lighthouse. “The fish are there, but they seem to be biting on certain parts of the tide now, unlike the way it was a few weeks ago.”
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