Party-boat fishing is a fast, chaotic and uniquely American experience

Part coach, part floor boss, part cheerleader, Capt. Greg Dubrule patrols the perimeter of the upper deck of the Black Hawk, looking down on roughly 65 anglers standing shoulder to shoulder as they bounce 16-ounce sinkers and fresh clam baits along the bottom.

From his elevated position on the 75-foot head boat, Dubrule cajoles, instructs, encourages and sends the occasional good-natured zinger to the bait dunkers below as they swing porgies and black sea bass over the rail and an occasional summer flounder into the net. Here’s a sampling of advice the good captain dispensed on one drift:

You can't catch them like that, buddy. You neet bait.

“You can’t catch them like that, buddy. You need bait.”

And …

“There you go. You got him. I felt that up here.”

And …

“Be a catcher, not a rod holder.”

And …

“Set the hook and wind, boys. Don’t just jerk it. You have to be on that reel instantly. We’re here to catch them. Catch ’em up, boys. Catch ’em up. Set the hook and wind.”

“Got one, Cap,” says a middle-aged fisherman on the starboard bow as he cranks up a porgy. “Now I can go home to my wife.”

“Good,” Dubrule replies. “Now get 30 more.”

Hero or bum

Welcome to another day at the office with Capt. Dubrule, his black Lab Flounder and the six mates sailing aboard the 8-year-old Black Hawk, which steams daily out of Niantic, Connecticut. Today the twin 750-hp Detroit Diesels rumble to life around 6:58 a.m.; 11 minutes and two short blasts from the boat’s horn later, we’re leaving the dock for the 24-mile run to Montauk, New York, where the bottom fishing has been very good. It’s a longer run than he’s had to make in previous years, but with the local grounds being slow, Dubrule steams to where the fishing is best.

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A veteran charter skipper with 47 years on southern New England waters, Dubrule is all too familiar with the daily challenge of running a head boat. “We have to make fishermen out of tourists, and we only have a couple of hours to do it,” says Dubrule, 65, who for years ran the popular charter boat Seaweed Too. “But we’ll get there.”

And the skipper knows well the yardstick by which his customers will measure him at the end of the day. “We’re judged on your ability,” says Dubrule, who has done everything from lobstering to offshore fishing. “If you catch, I’m a hero. If you don’t, I’m a bum.”

But Dubrule has always had a knack for catching, be it giant bluefin tuna, striped bass or the lowly porgy. “I’ve always said the fishing part of it is easy. The hard part,” he adds, “is putting people on the boat.”

Americana

Head-boat fishing is a quintessential American experience in which people with widely varying piscatorial skills and backgrounds fish side by side, everyone intent on bringing home for dinner a fresh fish they’ve caught themselves.

The Black Hawk is a bustling melting pot: young and old; male and female; black, white, Hispanic, Asian; families and those fishing alone; novices and sharpies, guys who fish 40 days or more a year on the boat and catch like crazy. They come from New York City and Philadelphia, Virginia and North Carolina, from across New England and just up the road. It’s fun, egalitarian and affordable — $75 a person and another $7 if you rent a rod and reel.

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The action on this warm and sunny day in late July is fast and at times chaotic, with lots of fish, the usual tangles, and rod tips, hooks and sinkers going this way and that. To document a lively day on a head boat, we turned photographer Sam Dole loose with four Polaroid cameras and about 25 packets of instant film supplied by the German company Impossible, which makes instant film and refurbishes Polaroid cameras (the-impossible-project.com).

“The goal was to capture the timeless quality of this type of fishing,” says Dole, 25, who lives in New York City. “Polaroid film is a great way of documenting memories and relating to memories. It creates a universal experience and an excitement from having the actual physical picture created right on the spot.”

Dubrule sets the tone on the Black Hawk: fun, kid-friendly, buttoned up in the shippy manner that you want to see on a boat carrying 60-plus people. The pilothouse is open to anyone with a question for the captain or who just wants to look around. “You have to be a showman,” Dubrule says. “The days of not talking to the customers are gone. You have a much more intelligent fisherman today, more informed.”

Family

Dubrule and his crew work hard to ensure their paying passengers catch their fair share and have a good time. “I have the best mates in the business,” says Dubrule, adding that he aims for a 10-to-1 ratio of anglers to mates. “The personalization is what makes us different”

En route to Montauk, Fred Bednarcyzk and his two children, 6 and 8, duck into the wheelhouse to say hello to the captain. “The mates are amazing,” says Bednarcyzk, a Connecticut paramedic. “They treat the kids great. Everyone is treated as family. My kids talk about it all winter long until spring.”

Caught one!

The deckhands are patient, and they move quickly around the busy boat, netting fish, clearing lines, answering questions, sorting out snafus. “We really do have a good operation,” says the captain. “We’re family-run. We put our best foot forward all the time. It shows in what we catch and how much we catch.”
“He does what it takes to catch fish,” says Bruce Witik, 62, of Harwinton, Connecticut, an experienced angler who fishes regularly on the Black Hawk. “And he’ll stay out if he has to. I’ve been out on days when we’re supposed to be in at 3 and we’ll be out until 5.”

Michael Morgan, another regular, agrees. “Hands down, this boat is the best,” says Morgan, of Stamford, Connecticut, who fishes maybe 40 times a season with Dubrule. “The customer-service experience is superior. They make an effort, even with people who can’t fish. There’s no coincidence that this boat is consistently full. They take care of their customers.”

Punch from the past

Opinionated, outspoken and competitive, Dubrule is anything but a wallflower. “Corporate America, I am not,” he says. Neither is he an aging dinosaur pining for the good old days, although one incident from the past is worth mentioning.

Back in 1983, the then 33-year-old captain put himself on the map when he harpooned a 3,500-pound great white shark and dragged it back to port. Jaws author Peter Benchley was among those critical of the kill; Dubrule fired back, implying that Benchley’s complaints were akin to the pot calling the kettle black, given the impact that Jaws had on the rise of shark fishing. Dubrule donated the shark to a university for research and still brings the 16-foot fiberglass mount to outdoor shows, where it continues to attract gawkers.

“The shark is like the mafia,” Dubrule says. “It hasn’t lost its punch.”

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In addition to putting fish in the boat, Dubrule is a natural front man. He’s comfortable speaking to a crowd, be it at a show or standing on a picnic table at 6:30 in the morning, addressing five dozen very distant relatives of Izaak Walton. “Obviously, we’re going to have a full boat,” he says. “And we’re going to have some tangles. But we’re one big happy family, so please don’t get aggravated. I know everybody thinks they’re a fisherman, but some people catch better than others.” The mates check everyone’s tackle and offer practical advice on the day’s quarry.

“Everybody understands it at the dock,” Dubrule says. “That’s the problem. But between the dock and the boat, some people have a lobotomy.”

Zeitgeist

On the way to the grounds, Dubrule mutters under his breath about the building northwest wind; fast drifts are tough for novices. At one point, he plays the role of a science teacher, trying in vain to explain the dynamics of set and drift to his customers and what it means to have 30-some lines streaming off opposite sides of the boat at the same time.

And when someone on the port rail invariably snags the line of someone on the starboard side and a confounding mash-up of hooks, line and sinkers occurs, Dubrule sputters quietly to himself, out of earshot of the customers below. “What a cluster,” he says, watching as a mate works quickly to clear the lines and get the parties back fishing. “What a mess.”

It’s all part of the zeitgeist of party-boat fishing. The pilgrims smile, whoop and wrinkle their brows in concentration, jerking their rods to set the hook, trying to distinguish between a bite and their sinker bounding along the bottom. Lines regularly become crossed, reels jam, and plenty of nice fish come over the rail. Everybody appears to be having a having a good time.

As expected, the wind builds with the change of tide — breezing up to maybe 24 knots — and then backs off around 12:45 and eases more as the afternoon unfolds. We fish in a bit of a lee off Montauk Point, with the wind and flood offsetting one another and making for nice, comfortable drifts. It’s a gorgeous day, and the fishing is good.

Cleaning fish off the back

Witik cranks in 15 porgies, one sea bass and a keeper fluke on single drift. “Right now it’s too hectic,” he says to a mate. “I almost like it when it’s slower.”

Dubrule eventually gives the signal, the last lines are brought in, the pool-winning fish (a fluke) is determined, and we head back to Niantic on a fair tide. Two mates scale and gut the catch while the others fillet all the way back to the dock. In the wheelhouse the captain, Witik and a newcomer play liar’s poker, laugh, relax and tease one another. Flounder sleeps with her head over the bottom of the raised pilothouse door frame.

Below, tired fishermen sit in small groups and talk or close their eyes and enjoy the sun. Seas are calm, the sky blue. A smattering of cumulus clouds drifts across the north sky, and a dozen or more gulls hang like kites off the stern, dipping for skins and scraps.

“This is kind of a unique operation,” says Dubrule. “I do it for the love of the game. I don’t do it for the money. A lot of people do it just for the money, and it shows. I’d do it for nothing. They just don’t know it.”

What You See Is What You Get

A colorful day hauling up bottom fish aboard a busy head boat provides a quintessential American experience, which Sam Dole captured on Polaroid instant film.

By William Sisson

We photographed this feature with instant film and Polaroid cameras because we believed it would be the most revealing and fun way to capture the unique slice of Americana represented by fishing off a busy head boat on a summer day.

A Polaroid shot is a “universal symbol of a fleeting memory,” says photographer Sam Dole, who documented the outing with about 200 frames. “It’s what we remember from when we were growing up.”

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Dole has been a Polaroid shooter since he was a teen, when he used to bring an instant camera to school every day. “I was in love with the instant gratification,” says Dole, 25, a commercial and fine art photographer who lives in New York City. Point the camera, click the button, and it spits out a photograph you can share immediately. No cropping, no darkroom magic, no touching up. “What you see is what you get, yet with a unique twist no other camera can capture.”

Taking photos with a Polaroid camera can be challenging. The shooter gets just one chance to document a moment and get it right — compose the picture, get the horizon straight, shoot the action.

Polaroid cameras have a fixed lens, fixed perspective and fixed aspect ratio (you can’t change the print size). There’s not a lot of control over light, the sonar autofocus isn’t always spot on, and the color can be uneven if any of the 5,000 chemical interactions in the developing process go awry. But Dole says he likes the challenge of working with those limitations. The snapshots here aren’t “artsy-fartsy,” but rather an honest record of a day’s fishing on the 75-foot Black Hawk.

Polaroid stopped producing instant film and cameras in 2008, the year that the German company Impossible (sponsor of the film for this shoot) bought the last Polaroid film factory and reintroduced instant film with new chemistry at a limited number of outlets (the-impossible-project.com). At one time, Polaroid fans could find instant cameras at yard sales, but they are harder to come across now that collectors are scarfing them up.

Dole earned his BFA in photography from New York’s School of Visual Arts, where he received the Rhodes Award for outstanding achievement in photography. He specializes in non-conventional and alternative photography, including Polaroid. You can follow his work on Instagram at @hello_i_am_sam_dole.

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