Photos by James Manning
Imagine you’re in a Hell’s Bay skiff on flat, calm water. The sun is high, and shadows of darting fish are easily perceived along the sandy bottom, floating “with the current, unresisting,” as Hemingway famously wrote. But you’re not in the Florida Keys or the islands. And the fish are not bonefish or permit. They’re striped bass.
You stare to your right at a mansion on the hill, one of the dozens that dot the landscape around Gardiners Bay at the eastern end of Long Island, New York. This has been the land of the rich and famous since Capt. Kidd buried his gold on Gardiners Island in 1699. You’re at the end of Long Island. And you’re sight-fishing.
In the breakers below the mansion, a blonde surfer with years embedded on his face gives you a wave, catches a small swell, then carries the board up the path to the mansion, his mansion, just as that same surfer’s voice floats into your head singing “searching for my lost shaker of salt.” And before you can finish the chorus of “Margaritaville,” you hear a few curse words from your right as the greatest fly caster of all time, Bernard “Lefty” Kreh, dumps his crab pattern in a mess after a gust from the south hits him in the face. You see Joe Blados having a chuckle with Nick Curcione two boats over. To the south, you see John Cole and Peter Matthiessen spot a fish, but they can’t hook up.
Now imagine you’re witnessing this from your poling platform as Jose Wejebe watches your good buddy Bob Popovics place a fly 70 feet out and a cruising striper explodes on it. If you can imagine this with clarity, you’re inside the mind of Capt. Paul Dixon, and this might have been any random Tuesday.
I’ve been doing a lot of imagining during the last year or so, and I’ve had the privilege of spending a bit of time imagining just those moments through Dixon’s eyes — those and any of the days he’s had on the flats of Gardiners Bay, in the blitzes at Montauk Point, or chasing bonefish and tarpon in the Keys. Dixon’s sporting life involves some of the most fascinating, lauded and celebrated guides, pros and sports who have cast a line in the salt during the last 50 years.
“[When people say] you’re a legend, all that means is you’re the oldest guy in the room,” Dixon declares with a smile and a headshake. Now in his 60s, he’s remembering days that for most of us would’ve been the most memorable of our fishing lives, and he’s had his share of them.
“Time does fly, even though it’s a cliché,” Dixon says. As his story unfolds and I come to realize just how instrumental Dixon has been to Northeast saltwater fly-fishing, it easy to believe that he must have gone through this life more than once.
Paul Dixon’s grandfather swept the floors of Henry Ford’s offices in Detroit. The elder Dixon was determined to make a name for himself in something, and according to family legend, he told Ford that he would be the first one to sell Ford cars west of the Mississippi. After enough prodding and some financing, Dixon’s grandfather in 1915 opened the first Ford dealership in California and grew a generational business from there.
As a teenager, Dixon was fascinated by the outdoors, and he spent a lot of time chasing fish along the Southern California coast. He got a summer job at a camp in Idaho, and that’s where he learned to cast a fly. He wanted to bring fly-fishing home to Newport Beach, but opportunities were slim. People such as Harry Kimes and Nick Curcione had begun to explore the Baja peninsula with fly rods, and Dixon tried to emulate them in his early years. Life and bills took over, though, and he had a lot of success in real estate.
A bank client invited Dixon to London, where he attended the premiere of the James Bond film Octopussy in 1983. He shared a toast with Prince Charles and Barbara Broccoli, the film’s producer, and it was at that party that he met his first wife. Her family had ties to Southhampton, New York, and Dixon eventually headed east to explore real estate opportunities and a new family life among the rolling hills and salt air of the East End.
In the fall of 1997, Flip Pallot’s The Walker’s Cay Chronicles was one of ESPN’s most-watched outdoor shows. Pallot’s calm and descriptive voiceovers of beautiful locales had lulled the nation into believing that anyone could stand on the bow of a flats skiff and land a fly on the nose of a tarpon, hook up, then fight the fish while your skiff mate pours the celebratory rum.
“Paul and I were like pinballs bumping into each other,” Pallot recalls. He and Dixon had met through John Abplanalp, who’s family owned Walker’s Cay, the northernmost island in the Abacos.
That fall, Pallot and Dixon were sitting at the Montauk Lake Club with noted fly tyer Bob Popovics, sharing a celebratory bourbon. Pallot had just arrived in Montauk to film an episode of The Walker’s Key Chronicles. “Flip was hesitant at first,” Dixon recalls. This would be the first time the show had come to the Northeast, and Pallot had reservations about Dixon’s method of fishing for stripers from a flats skiff.
Pallot had been driven from the airport to a stretch of beach where Dixon had positioned his skiff. As Pallot got out of the truck, Dixon waved frantically at him. “I was yelling to him, saying, ‘Flip, look!’ ” Dixon recalls. Pallot finally understood. Twenty feet off the beach, a black mass of bait had schooled up, and as if on cue, bass began exploding. Pallot knew he was in the right place.
Living in the Hamptons in the early ’80s, Dixon was pulled back to the ocean and began to fish the salt with a fly rod. He took a part-time job at the Orvis store in Manhattan, which allowed him to fish and meet some out-of-the-ordinary people. “If you were a fly fisherman in Manhattan, you really only had one option, and that was Orvis,” Dixon says. Politicians, celebrities, business magnates and everyone in between frequented the store. Tom Brokaw regularly brought trail mix for Dixon.
It was at Orvis that Dixon met Robert Rubin, who was U.S. Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration. Dixon sold Rubin his first fly rod, and Rubin asked Dixon to give him casting lessons in his backyard. But Dixon convinced Rubin to take casting practice on the water. “I’d say to him, ‘Robert, there’s stripers right here. Let’s go fishing,’ ” Dixon says.
This was in the early 1990s, when the striped bass fishery was coming back after a five-plus-year moratorium. While not new, fly-fishing for striped bass was also starting to take off with the renewed ascent of the species. Dixon had his eye on Montauk. He knew there was a fishery to explore, and he believed he was the man to do it.
Follow @captainpauldixon on Instagram, and you’ll see that Dixon finds fish at Montauk and in the Florida Keys. He keeps his clients happy by putting them on fish. You’ll also see some extraordinary footage of blitzes under the Point. “In the early 1990s, I usually found myself alone with the surf casters,” Dixon says. “Hardly anybody in Montauk was fly-fishing from small boats for stripers. And hardly anybody was fishing the flats.”
In 1994, after much prodding from friends and family, Dixon opened an Orvis store called Dixon’s Sporting Life in East Hampton, the only shop geared toward saltwater fly-fishing on the east end of the island. “I had gotten my guide license and a skiff in ’93, and I was determined to make it work,” Dixon says.
On a fateful morning shortly after he opened his store, Dixon watched a car pull up in front. “Three guys got out. They all had tans and shorts, and the beer cans fell out the door as they got out,” Dixon says, laughing.
After some small talk and introductions, Dixon met the leader of the three. He had sun-drenched hair, and he held out his hand. “I’m John Abplanalp,” the man said, “and I’m going to be your new best friend.”
I’ve never invented anything, but I appreciate those who have. Abplanalp’s father, Robert, invented the valve for aerosol spray cans. The fame and fortune that came with his invention led to the purchase of Walker’s Cay. The Bahamian resort grew. When John Abplanalp was younger, he had encouraged Flip Pallot to visit Walker’s Cay, and that visit would grow into a partnership that lasted through most of the 1990s and produced the award-winning Walker’s Cay Chronicles.
Abplanalp loved the Hamptons and frequented the area. “We happened to see [a lot] of stripers in Gardiners Bay, but people were never targeting them during the day,” he says. Abplanalp knew there was potential to sight-fish for bass and blues, having spent years exploring around Walker’s Cay. In Dixon, he found a kindred spirit.
Dixon had the same notions about sight-fishing for striped bass, but serious anglers panned the idea until they witnessed what Dixon had seen. “When the bass came back in earnest, they would pour onto the flats almost like rolling tarpon,” he recalls. “And if I caught 10 fish, five of them would have been over 36 inches. Those early years were amazing.”
Poling the flats in New York and New England has its challenges, Dixon says. “It took me years to figure out stuff.” Running flats boats for stripers in the Northeast has caught on in the last 15 years, and some of the trend was due to the work of Dixon and Abplanalp.
Four days of terrible weather in October 1997 had sidelined the Walker’s Cay Chronicles crew. Pallot was irritated, in part because there had been a press release put out that he would be in the area filming, but also because the remnants of a storm made it to the Northeast after their celebratory first-day toast at the Montauk Lake Club. Things began to look up as Dixon readied his fleet for the final few days of shooting. “It’s Columbus Day, so Montauk is full of boats,” he recalls. This further irritated Pallot and the crew. “People were yelling from the shore and from boats. ‘Flip! Flip!’ It was madness.”
Fish began to break the surface under the lighthouse and swing down the beaches. “And sure enough, all the boats began to chase them,” Dixon recalls with a sardonic smile. Pallot and crew pressed Dixon about chasing the fish. “I said, ‘Just wait.’ ” The boats cleared out, but Dixon had his flotilla remain on station.
“We held under the Point, and then an even bigger wave of fish began to break, and now we were all alone,” he says. “Flip got his shots at the fish completely uninterrupted.” In the completed Walker’s Cay Chronicles episode, it looks as if Pallot is the only man on the Point fishing the blitz. And I can imagine Dixon’s satisfied smile, giddy and with a wink at local knowledge, in seeing the plan come to fruition.
From the late 1990s through the early 2000s, Dixon and John Abplanalp arranged The Pirate’s Party. These trips to the Long Island flats brought together some of the biggest names in fly-fishing. “John went to Lefty. I went to Popovics and Curcione, and it became this event that we dubbed The Pirate’s Party,” Dixon recalls.
“Lefty was going out there because nobody gave a damn that he was Lefty,” Curcione says with a chuckle. “Paul brought us all together, and John always facilitated a great time.”
The idea was to bring some awareness to the amazing expanse of flats that Gardiner’s Bay and the Hamptons offered the discerning angler who’s willing to put in the time. Dixon had dialed-in the scene. He was poling these flats and putting up amazing numbers of stripers and bluefish. In addition to Kreh, fly-fishing legends Popovics, Curcione, Jose Wejebe, Joe Blados, Glen Mikkelson and Ed Jaworowski also attended. There were authors John Cole, Jeffrey Cardenas and Peter Matthiessen, and at the end of the bar, ready with a song and a rum, was Jimmy Buffet. These gatherings continued for about five years.
“We’d put everyone up at the Lake Club, and the best years were when Bobby [Popovics] would bring his fra diavolo sauce,” Dixon says.
“The sauce,” Curcione recalls, “the fra diavolo!”
Popovics owns Shady Rest restaurant in Bayville, New Jersey, and his legendary sauce was a crowd-pleaser, with one exception. “Lefty didn’t eat anything with color,” Curcione says. Their running joke never fazed Lefty, and the legend would enjoy his dry spaghetti while everyone else enjoyed the spicy tomato sauce.
“Friendship was what brought us all together,” Popovics says, “and that was due to Paul.”
“Dixon’s lived many lifetimes,” Abplanalp intones. And it seems he is not slowing down.
“I can be tough on people because I want them to catch the fish so bad,” Dixon says as we discuss his extensive client list. He’s booked solid year-round because he still guides in Florida during the winter. From May through August, the flats come alive, and you’ll find Dixon atop his poling platform, calling out shots to celebrities. “To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re worth two cents or two billion dollars,” Dixon says. “All I care about is, can you cast or are you willing to learn?” It’s wonderful to be around his energy, but there’s an intense knowledge that comes with it. It’s as if Dixon knows more than you do and more than he lets on. From September through Thanksgiving, Dixon’s Contender is among the blitzes near the Point. But he’s never one to chase the crowd, and his clients are all the better for it.
“If you share the passion, then you want to share the experience,” Dixon says. It’s this sharing of ideas that has led him to mentor so many young guides in Montauk and Florida. “I’ve trained a lot my competition,” he says good-naturedly. Dixon’s style and enthusiasm, his energy and experience have made him one of the best there is on the Northeast flats.
Dixon guides in Montauk and East Hampton most of the year. He spends the colder months chasing tarpon and bonefish in Florida, tying flies and spending time with his wife, Ellen White, the author of Simply Irresistible. As we close our conversation, Dixon nods. There’s a faraway look in his eyes as he remembers times past, and he seems to look forward to times to come. Dixon this year receives the Izaak Walton Award from the American Museum of Fly Fishing for his extensive conservation work in the Northeast and Southeast. It’s an honor many years in the making, and Dixon’s contributions to saltwater fly-fishing are likely to echo through generations.
To contact Dixon, visit flyfishingmontauk.com.