I walked into the house long after dark. The kitchen table was littered with tippet and fly boxes, and a few empty cans local IPAs sat next to a laptop. The cozy house, not five minutes from the marina, was illuminated by the warm, yellow glow of a small light above the sink. Bill and Tim hunched over the laptop, studying tomorrow’s weather forecast. Clouds had moved in a few hours prior, and the feeling of fall was in the night air. A cool, crisp wind was coming off the Atlantic, stirred up by passing Hurricane Sam some 500 miles offshore. After another beer, we concluded that we should dodge the worst of an incoming storm. According to some of the local lore, the so far unseasonably warm temperatures were responsible for the poor fishing this season. Or perhaps it was the construction taking place on the coastline. Or maybe it was just bad luck… We’ll never know. Over the course of the next three days, we heard it all. Despite the slow fishing and incoming foul weather, we were heading out first thing in the morning. After all, we were in Montauk, NY, and the fishing could turn on any day now.
“Be at the boat, quarter to six,” said our guide, Tim O’Rourke, as he finished his beer.
This was my first time fishing the iconic Montauk Blitz. Every Autumn, anglers flock to eastern Long Island to fish the epic fall run of striper, blue fish, and false albacore. Conventional and fly fisherman alike have been gathering up here for decades, eager to cast into a frenzied bait ball beneath the shadow of the Montauk Point Lighthouse.
I was lucky enough to tag along with Tim O’Rourke and Bill Dawson. Tim is a local guide and a Sage Elite Pro who knows these waters intimately. In his 30 years in Montauk, he spent time as a commercial fisherman and angler before starting his guide business. Bill is the mid-Atlantic Sales Representative for Sage, RIO & Redington with decades of experience fishing around the world. He first fished the fall run in Montauk in 2000. I was the only greenhorn of the bunch.
Tim was already at the docks when Bill and I arrived. We were joined by Stuart Levine, owner of Ramsey Outdoor in New Jersey and no stranger to the fall run. The four of us quietly loaded up the boat with a few 9-weight Sage rods and our foul weather gear. In the shelter of the harbor, Tim and Bill rigged up the rods and tied on a couple of RIO’s “Nice Glass” striper and bluefish flies as a light mist began to fall. Tim fired up the engine, its low hum reverberating off nearby hulls. As he pulled out of his slip, it was clear that we were the only ones heading out.
Our boat, a 23-foot Jones Brothers, silently cut through the inky black water. We laughed as the rain turned into a downpour… at least we had the water to ourselves. We went to one of Tim’s sheltered fishing spots to wet a line and monitor the weather. As Bill got some line out, an unrelenting wind picked up, cutting across the water and pushing the boat toward shore. Tim repeatedly repositioned us, allowing Bill and Stuart to get lines in the water. Bill punched his line through the wind with ease, but the fish weren’t having it. It was one of those days where the rain feels like it's coming from every direction – even the fish kept to themselves, and I don’t blame them. After more than two hours battling the elements, we came up empty. We slogged back to the harbor, hung up our rods, and decided to grab a couple well-deserved beers and a hot lunch at a local haunt, the Shagwong.
Pictures spanning the last five decades lined the place like wallpaper, a visual chronicle of Montauk’s rich history of fishing. Tim explained that commercial and recreational fishing are central to Montauk’s heritage in the Hamptons. Photographs showed smiling fishermen holding sushi-grade tuna, undoubtedly on its way to the markets in Manhattan where it was sold to buyers in the far east. As a teenager, Tim worked a night shift driving truckloads of fish across Long Island to lower Manhattan. He’s been in and out of the business ever since.
As I looked upon those photos, Tim and Bill regaled me with stories of fall runs where dozens of boats bobbed up and down in the turbulent waters off Montauk Point, filled with fly fisherman from around the country. Guides from Montauk and all over the northeast would run trips for clients eager to get on a fish of a lifetime. While not too much has changed, those young guides are now a bit older and a bit wiser. After all, they’re the ones who established this place as a fly fishing destination. You might even find some of them sitting at one of the bars down by the docks. If you do, chat them up… you’ll undoubtedly learn a thing or two.
The wind and rain persisted for another 24 hours. To avoid the dangerous conditions on the Atlantic, we kept to the calm waters on Fort Pond Bay. Before the sun went down, Bill landed a few stripers on a chartreuse & white Clouser Minnow and I even found a blue fish at the end of my line. It felt like our luck was starting to turn – we even had fair weather on the horizon. I was scheduled to leave the next morning, but Tim’s excitement and rumors of good fishing convinced me otherwise. I decided to stick around for one final morning.
We hit the water early, but this time we weren’t the only ones. As we turned east out of the marina, I could see the lights from other boats heading in the same direction. We sped toward Montauk Point, where the glow of surf fishermen’s headlamps dotted the shoreline. We arrived at the Point – a natural feeding area for striper, blue fish, and albie – and joined the half-dozen other fishing boats. A few lucky clients were already hooked up. This was it. Bill grabbed a rod, stood at the bow, and began stripping out line.
“Hang on, Billy!” shouted Tim, as the engines roared. He’d been watching the sea birds, who were picking off baitfish from the surface fifty yards away. We battled through the rip, and Tim cut the engines as we approached. Bill’s Clouser hit the water and no sooner did his line go taut. Fish on. He wrestled a blue fish to the side of the boat – it’s sharp teeth cutting through the line before we could land it. All smiles on our end… Now we were cooking. We spent the entire morning repeating the process – looking for birds and finding more fish. Tim and Bill made it look easy, but even in ideal conditions, Montauk can be a frustrating place for fly fishing. There is usually a fair amount of wind and the water in the rips is always rough, especially at Montauk Point. Watching an experienced guide and angler working in harmony with one another is akin to a finely choreographed dance. After a couple more fish, we brought in our lines and made way for the marina. Tim had a charter later that morning and it was time for Bill and I to make ourselves scarce. Before I knew it, Montauk was in the rearview.
The fly fishing community in Montauk is a small one, perhaps representative of the number of actual full time residents here. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in passion, knowledge, and experience. Before I arrived in Long Island, stories of “The Blitz” were filled with details about the fishing itself. However, I’d argue that fishing is only half of the story… the other half being the people. Guys like Paul Dixon, Merritt White, Andrew Derr, Vinny Catalano [no relation], David Blinken, or Jim Levison – a renowned photographer and angler who has captured arguably The Blitz’s most iconic images. They’ve carried the torch of these deeply rooted traditions for decades. They are the stewards of this fishery – both its most vocal proponents and, at times, harshest critics. If future generations can shoulder the responsibility, Montauk will be in good hands, with plenty of fabled stories of Fall Run’s in our future.
I was 2 hours into my drive when my phone rang – it was Tim. Apparently The Blitz was on. I desperately wanted to turn around, but instead decided to save my return trip for next year. I’ll let the other guys have their turn.