The wind blows the tops off the waves as they hit the reef, hump up and crash onto the rocky shore at the foot of Montauk Point Lighthouse. All you hear is wind and moving water. The temperature is in the 30s, the wind is gusting to 25 knots or more out of the north-northeast, and the rain backhands your face. Dawn is late.
Welcome to November in Montauk, New York, one of the storied waypoints for southbound striped bass and other migrants.
Mike Sandhaas and Mike Tripptree are down in the rocks, casting smack into the wet, gray mess. A big, sloppy wave rolls in, and I watch as they turn their heads and tuck their chins as the spray comes over the top. A small American flag tied to Sandhaas’ plug bag flaps in the chilly breeze.
New York City firefighters and fishing partners for more than 20 years, they fish their way around the point and into Turtle Cove, working as a team.
They cast with precision in the rough conditions, covering each section of white water thoroughly with bucktails and plugs before moving to the next. They are on the hunt. And they move easily and deliberatively over the slick terrain, with confidence and more speed than I would have guessed of men in their 50s. Despite the wind, drizzle and cold, their fishing remains focused and controlled.
They laugh easily at the raw morning, where our only companions are seals, gannets, gulls and rafts of sea ducks.
“Now that was combat fishing,” says Sandhaas, who is known as “Sandy” in the firehouse. “The light looked good, but the water just isn’t clear enough. It got cloudy and brown. That’s a killer.”
We grab some egg sandwiches, coffee and “the papers,” and retreat to the house the men are renting to warm up, dry out and regroup. Things are slow, and Sandhaas and Tripptree have been putting in their time scouting and figuring out their next move.
“It’s like a chess game going on out here,” says Sandhaas, 52, who has been fishing Montauk for 35 years. “Hunt and peck, hunt and peck. We jump around pretty good. And we can cover a lot of ground just with a few good phone calls.” And, he adds, “We like to have one or two moves in advance.”
We’ll see what the afternoon brings.
Sandhaas and Tripptree aren’t high-profile fishermen. They don’t write blogs or books, and they don’t have a television show. They certainly didn’t seek this story.
They are capable, hard-working surf fishermen, straight-ahead guys who are good company on a cold, windy beach as the sun goes down, chili warms on a Coleman stove and a bottle is passed. There’s nothing pretentious or phony about them.
“We’re simple guys,” says Sandhaas, a lifelong angler who lives in Amity Harbor, New York, on Long Island. Most of his fishing buddies are firefighters. “We’re all cut from the same cloth. We’re all knuckleheads.”
Sandhaas is compact and strong, with a round, weathered face. He’s smart, talks fast and thinks fast, always has a plan. He is the oldest of six siblings — five younger sisters. “One bathroom and one phone,” says Sandhaas, who used to get up at 4:30 a.m., take a shower and go back to bed. “I grew up with five sisters, so I had to get out of the house. Fishing was my sanctuary.”
Tripptree is taller, several years older and laughs easily. A Long Island native, he comes from a family of city firefighters. His brother was a city firefighter. His uncle was a chief, and his five cousins were firefighters, as well. He got the fishing bug in a big way after joining the department. Both are modest, self-effacing fishermen, comfortable flying under the radar and quietly going about the business of catching.
“We don’t really consider ourselves sharpies,” says Tripptree of Long Beach, New York, who is 59 and retired. “There’s still so much to learn out here.”
Both men share a love of Montauk. “It’s magical,” says Sandhaas. “Every time we come out, I say, ‘Mikey, how can it get any better? How are we going to beat this?’ But we always do.”
Fish hard, fish smart
Sandhaas and Tripptree are part of a long line of Montauk fishermen who collectively have earned a reputation throughout the region as aggressive, Type-A surf nuts. Tough and competitive. Not surprisingly, New York City firefighters are near the top of that list, in part because their jobs are structured so they can take a few days off in a row after working a stretch of long hours. It’s hard to beat time on the water.
The pair fish hard, and they fish smart. Each cast is crisp. Nothing sloppy. I fished with them for two days, and they never stopped scouting: moving, casting, glassing, reading the water for signs of life. They like to catch — and they’re not afraid to work for their fish.
They’re sure-footed on the rocks, their moves planned and purposeful. I never saw them get careless or lackadaisical, even with the fishing slow. Not with a cast, a knot or how they handle their gear.
They make a good team, having fought fires together for 20 years.
“Mike and I are like bread and butter,” says Sandhaas. “We always fished together. We just clicked. We fish very similar. Mike’s a strategist. He knows when, where and how. We have a lot of respect for each other.”
Tripptree returns the compliment. “Mikey is crazy,” he says. “He can do almost anything.”
And like all good surf anglers, they’re self-contained. They carry just enough gear, but not so much that they can’t move quickly and easily. Their lure bags are well-thought-out. They have a day bag and a night bag.
“I try and keep things simple,” says Tripptree. “The older I get, the less I need.”
They buy good equipment because it works and it lasts, not for the name or because it’s trendy. “We’re not into beauty contests,” says Sandhaas.
They carry spares where it makes sense. Nothing’s done by accident. Every lure and piece of gear has been considered and measured against the alternatives. They keep their trucks and fishing equipment well organized — a place for everything and everything in its place. Just like in the firehouse. (Sandhaas is assigned to Engine Company 265/Ladder Company 121 in Battalion 47 in Rockaway Beach, Queens, which is where Tripptree worked.)
It’s hard not to see some of Ladder Company 121 in the men’s approach to fishing, from how they plan and strategize a morning’s outing to the way they organize and maintain their gear. And you see it in how they carry themselves, too, whether it’s on the slick rocks or a steeply shelved beach. Alert, eyes wide open.
“There are definite parallels,” Sandhaas says. “If you find yourself in a dangerous situation, you always want to have an exit strategy. Buddy fishing.”
End of the day, fishing is fishing and firefighting is serious business. “Things happen so fast. You have to be on your toes,” says Sandhaas, who is the aide to the battalion chief, which means he works closely with the chief to develop the “big picture” view of a fire as soon they arrive. “Everything is 100 percent dynamic. No two fires are the same. You really have to be sharp with what you’re looking at. You’re always sizing up, always analyzing.”
Nothing is as it seems
There is a 9/11 firefighters flag pin laminated onto Sandhaas’ custom 10-foot surf rod just above the black grip wrap, and a “343” medallion is similarly affixed to his boat pole, a reference to the number of firefighters lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
A local priest blessed the pin and gave it to Sandhaas while he worked recovery on the north pile a few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. “Don’t ask me what day it was,” Sandhaas says. “But the priest was right on the pile. It’s all blurry.”
The two medallions are not just ways of remembering — how could Sandhaas forget? — but also serve as a kind of visual homily to the firefighters who died that day.
“It’s my own personal tribute to the guys who fell,” says Sandhaas, who essentially had the rod built around the flag pin by rod maker Steve Petri, who took the small medallion apart and shaped it to the rod. “My own little memorial. It’s respectful. I get to fish with them.”
Sandhaas likes to refer to himself as a “simple” guy, but you wonder just how simple life can be after spending weeks on the pile, sifting through the rubble, working the bucket brigade and searching the ruins of neighboring buildings for victims.
Sandhaas lost maybe two dozen friends and acquaintances that day, men he’d known from the fire academy, other firehouses, some as far back as high school.
“Too many,” he says, his voice tapering off. “Way too many.”
He doesn’t wear this stuff on his sleeve. What he told me came out in small bits of conversation over three interviews. He has worked hard to find some semblance of closure.
“If you don’t, it will eat you up,” says Sandhaas, who like others has had to deal with survivor’s guilt. “You try and make sense of it, but you can’t. I don’t know if there is any sense to it. Better to make peace with it. I just try and keep on chugging.”
But it never goes away completely. “There will always be a wound there, but it’s starting to scar up,” he says. Still, he notes, “Every time I smell wet cement, I’m back on the pile. Like one, two, three — I’m there.”
On the last afternoon of the trip, we take a little gamble and hike in about a mile and a half to a lovely cove on the south shore. It’s either going to happen here or it’s not going to happen on this trip.
Although Sandhaas has been fishing Montauk for 35 years, he says it’s only been the last 15 or 20 years that he’s started to figure the place out. “Not that you ever will,” he says.
The front has moved through, and low, gray clouds have given way to big white sails. The wind is offshore, and the waves break crisply off rocky points to the east and west. The water is clean; a mile or more offshore, a small flock of northern gannets have found prey; they descend like white arrows from 40 to 50 feet up in the blue, leaving little eruptions of spray as they disappear beneath the surface to snare a herring. Everything looks good. There is no one else in sight.
Nothing shows on the surface, but we soon find small stripers in the white water off the rocky points. Sandhaas and Tripptree have guessed right.
It’s the end of the season. The wind is at our backs. Our ears are filled with the sound of surf. The rods bend. And everyone is happily lost in the moment.