Category Archives: Mates Blog

Bucktailing on Western L.I. Sound

by Captain Sal Tardella  with Bonnie Tardella

Bucktail lures have been used for a very long time-possibly invented by local Native American fishermen right here in the Northeast.  They’re made with real deer tails, and we all know that Indians didn’t waste anything in nature.  Today commercially-manufactured bucktails are attached to metal “jig heads” and they vary in weight and shape and size and color.  My personal preference is a white quarter-ounce lima-bean jig hooked up to a chartreuse or white Mr. Twister lure. (I attach the Mr. Twister in the same manner used to secure a live worm to the line, “weaving” it onto the hook and making sure there are no kinks in the Twister’s body so it can glide unencumbered.)

With the bucktail and Mr. Twister, I use 8-10 lb. test monofilament line, tying the lure directly onto a 20-lb test fluorocarbon leader.  The leader is almost invisible under water, and it really helps avoid losing a fish that seeks his freedom by retreating to a piling or a rock formation.

Blues, striped bass, weakfish and fluke find the undulations of a bucktail irresistible, and these relatively-inexpensive lures are an excellent choice when fishing around structure, such as pilings, reefs, rock piles, or nearby a rip-environments especially sought by bass and blues.  Because they have only a single hook, bucktails are more benign than treble-style lures; they can be extracted more quickly, resulting in less damage during catch and release.  But it’s a good thing they don’t cost too much, because we lose a lot of those little suckers over the course of a season.  A bucktail may be easy to release from a fish’s mouth, but it’s almost impossible to dislodge when wedged among rocks-and if a bluefish hits, chances are pretty good that he’ll take the whole shebang–leader notwithstanding–because even little blues have very sharp teeth.

Among my favorite Norwalk haunts for bucktailing is the south side of Copp’s Island; it’s loaded with boulders and grass, both of which attract bait that in turn attracts the predators we look for. A bit eastward is another good spot, Goose Island-easily recognized by its proximity to Peck’s Ledge Light.  We often work the entire south side of Goose, ending at the western end of the island where there’s a tidal rip that often holds bass and blues of all sizes.  (I try to work this area only from half to full tide because there are some rocks there that only expose themselves at very low tide.) Between Goose and Copps there’s a sand bar that produces a swift current during a dropping tide.  Another ideal site is the northwest side of Cockenoe Island, east of Goose and Peck’s Ledge-at full tide, dropping.  There’s a lot of grass and rocks there-as well as the beginning of the reef, which is 8-9 feet at high tide and drops to 3-4 at low.  This spot has several tidal eddies, which “ball up” the bait, making them more attractive.  Stripers usually feed in the grassy areas leading to the rocks.

The Norwalk Islands include Sheffield, Shea, Chimmons, Copps, Betts, Grassy, Goose, Cockenoe, and Sprite. Besides the named islands, there are countless boulder groups and sea grass growth throughout the area.  Middle Passage runs between Shea and Chimmons and Copps; it’s safely navigable during half tide to high. If you’re going to take a short cut through Middle Passage at low tide, you’d best be very familiar with the exact location of its rocks.  It’s those very same rocks that make Middle Passage so productive during fluking season (late May through August.)  Fluke are also attracted to the unique conditions found at Peck’s Ledge Light–lots of sandy bottom.  When fishing for fluke, if the tide isn’t too strong and winds aren’t too high, we like to use a 3/8″ ounce bucktail with squid and spearing combo.  Snappers are great, too, when available.  Sea robin bellies-cut in pennant shape-are also a delicacy to the fluke.

Throughout the fishing season we generally find silversides, bunker, sand eels, snapper blues-and occasionally a cinder worm hatch in the Islands-all great attractants for blues and stripers.

Just as a warning: when fishing the Norwalk Islands boaters should be very alert during new-moon and full-moon phases.   These lunar stages create extremely low tides, leading to hazardous conditions when rocks normally covered by deep water become exposed and threaten engine and hull.

With bucktailing, success depends almost solely upon presentation.   I instruct my passengers to cast as close as possible to a visible structure, to let the lure sink to the bottom and then immediately begin a controlled retrieval, utilizing a slow upward stroke to simulate a wounded baitfish.  (Gamefish will generally hit when the lure is in its downward “sinking” phase.)  As soon as you feel a strike, set the hook with a sharp upward motion.  I instruct those aboard ‘My Bonnie” to never allow any slack in the line nor drop the tip of their rods.  And I remind them not to reel against the drag.  Reeling in while the fish is peeling out is ineffectual and could result in a curling of the line and a lot of problems with future casts.  Instead, let the fish run until he stops for a breather; then reel hard until he begins to run again. My mantra is “Keep his head up!” (for as long as it takes.)  If you follow these rules and don’t get too excited, you’ll doubtless win the man-against-fish tug-of-war.

Bucktailing is not the easiest fishing technique to master, so practice a bit until it feels natural and you can properly manipulate the lure down through the water. When used artfully, the simple buckie can be very productive.  My super-sized tackle box is filled with just about every fish-attracting gewgaw, but if I were stranded on an island with just one lure at my disposal, I’d want it to be a bucktail.

Fresh Bunker for Bait; Frozen Bunker for Chum

                         Captain Sal Tardella with Bonnie Tardella

Menhaden, a/k/a  “bunker” in this neck of the woods, is the quintessential bait for catching larger bluefish and striped bass in Long Island Sound.  If you’re truly serious about catching fish, I suggest you set your alarm clock for 4:00am, get to bed early, and be out the door no later than 4:30.  Then rev up the engine, and aim your boat toward a harbor where you’ve heard that bunker are in residence.  It’s important to get an early start, since once the sun comes up, it’s much more difficult to spot bunker schools.

For snagging, use a fairly rigid rod that’s been rigged with a strong treble hook and 25-lb. test line.  (If bluefish are in the area, you should also use a wire leader for fairly obvious reasons.)  As soon as you spot signs of an active school, quietly sidle up to it-as close as possible; turn off the engine and cast into the body of fish, letting your hook sink to the bottom before beginning to snag and reel.  (Make sure your hooks are super sharp or you’ll lose half of what you manage to snag.) AND BE VERY CAREFUL WITH THAT TREBLE HOOK!  A lot of anglers have been injured when a bunker snaps off the hook and that wayward hook lodges itself in someone’s face or another body part.

How many bunker should you keep?  Waste not, want not.  You can stop snagging when you have about three whole bunker for each angler who’ll be aboard for the day’s trip.  (I usually get about 4-6 bait chunks from one fish, depending on its size.)  For the bait to remain fresh and firm it must be kept dry and stored on ice in your cooler.  A tightly-sealed one-gallon plastic bag will hold four whole fish.  Note: Leave the bunker intact until you’re ready to bait your hooks; then cut up only as much as you’ll need.

Now go find the scaly slammers.

Chum’s the word for a successful day of bottom fishing. To increase your odds, you might want to try using frozen ground bunker “logs”. They’re quite potent and very easy to work with.  We take one aboard right out of the freezer.  On the way to the fishing grounds we place the log into a 5-gallon bucket, along with some sea water, to start the thawing process.  We’re not finished yet.  After we reach our destination we add to the bucket a few ounces of concentrated bunker oil (available in one-gallon containers that don’t require refrigeration.)   We then fill the bucket about three-fourths to the top with more water, and this delectable cocktail should last for the span of one tide.

When we’re ready to drop our lines we begin to ladle out the bunker brew.  (Warning: Avoid getting any of the stuff into your shoes!  A few drops of that mix will produce a smell that you’ll never get rid of; I know because it’s happened to me, and no combination of deodorizers, scented powders or Odor-Eater inserts will eliminate the foul smell of death residing inside your shoes for the rest of their lives.)

Now keep an eye on the movement of the slick, and when it disappears from view, ladle out some more of the concoction, maintaining a steady stream.  Within 10-15 minutes it should begin to do its job.  You’ll know it’s working when you get your first few hits.  Then, if the action gets heavy, chum more sparingly.  One more hint: Don’t “over-chum”.  If you do, the fish will simply lay back, sampling the floating hors d’oeuvre buffet with no need to advance toward the main course dangling from your hook.

Although it’s not a pure science, years of experience have shown that chumming works.  We’ve often shared a mid-Sound reef with several other boats anchored within 50 to 60 yards of our location.  If the other guys aren’t chumming, we out-fish them at a ratio of about 5:1.  They can be in the right spot at the right time-using the right tackle and the right bait-but it’s our chum slick that entices the fish, and those big blues and stripers will hit our lines after following the alluring scent of a well-placed chum trail which is simply irresistible.

Sept 2006