Photos by Grant Monahan
They say the blitzes in Montauk, New York, have gone away with the tides. The acres of frothing stripers that once rounded the point — seemingly on a daily basis during autumn just a few years ago — are now a fading memory. With them have gone the Internet heroes: the GoPro-wearing YouTubers, the Instagramers, the cellphone junkies looking for the sugar high of a fish on every cast. They have wheeled away like a flock of restless gulls, setting up in places like the Cape Cod Canal or some other hot spot where fishing for “large” is currently “epic.”
But still standing along Montauk’s rocky shores and sandy beaches are the keepers of the old guard: the surfmen. They vary in age. Some have faces chiseled and furrowed from season after season of wind and waves and salt. Others are fresh-faced and eager. All have eyes that belie secrets: starry bass-filled nights, or the heartbreak of a parted line or straightened hook and something unmentionable forever lost.
They are mostly solitary. You may find them perched on boulders with white water creaming all around. They fire out cast after cast. The cleats of their boots stand in the same footsteps worn smooth from decades of anglers who came before them. Other times they walk past, silent and ghostlike, heading out as darkness descends. Their rods hang over their shoulders like weaponry. They don full wetsuits or waders with foul-weather tops cinched tight. They wear military-style belts with gaffs, pliers and knives secured to them. They look as ready to battle with the elements as with fish. Yet it’s the less tangible opponent — fatigue, loneliness, boredom or lack of confidence — that often proves most formidable.
True surfmen know failure. They often cast from muscle memory alone. They think of the 30-pounder that crushed a bucktail next to a particular outcrop a decade ago, or the savage blowup on a pencil popper from an immense fish that never came back. Maybe this time it will. They rotate their go-to lures: battered swimmers, needlefish, darters.
And just often enough, they are rewarded. Knees bend, a rod lurches seaward, and the drag yields yards of line. A bass is landed. The fish may be released, or it may be kept. Watch a surfman handle his catch, and there is little wasted motion. Look closely, and you may see his default thousand-yard stare replaced by an expression best described as reaffirmation.
Then he casts again. All surfmen have one thing in common: They are relentless. They cast and hope. Cast and hope.