Bad weather couldn't stop this epic Hamptons fishing trip.
Going fishing in a 19-foot boat in 20-m.p.h. wind with an unfavorable incoming tide? Perhaps not be the best idea. But for expert fishermen and star chefs John Besh and Kerry Heffernan, it was a slightly risky trip worth taking. Besh was in New York (where he was honored at the James Beard Foundation's annual fundraiser, Chefs & Champagne) and Heffernan wanted to show him the marine splendor of Sag Harbor. "It was the perfect chance for us to reconnect, and for me to show John how the Hamptons is an amazing marine resource," says Heffernan, who recently opened Seaworthy in Besh's hometown of New Orleans. Here, he recounts the duo's mildly harrowing (but exciting!) adventure.
John left for my house at 5:00 a.m., and we started the morning raking for clams ten yards off my dock. We gathered oysters and caught some massive blue crabs. They were absolute monsters! If I had an 11-inch dinner plate, you could only fit two of them on it they were that big. Meanwhile, the wind was blowing 20-m.p.h. and the direction of the incoming tide was not favorable. I was thinking, we're not getting out. This is going to be an aborted mission, but at least we have a whole little feast here. However, since John (along with his business partner Drew) are both boat owners and fishing pros, we decided to head out on the water anyway. "I’m collecting your phones and wallets," I said, "not because I'm robbing you, but because you’re going to get wet."
The waves were tight and choppy once we got out of the inlet, but it was worth it for the visuals alone. It was unlike anything I've ever seen. We spotted bluefish in this bathtub of a sea, with the birds swarming overhead, diving on baits, making a ruckus. Other than one commercial boat we were the only ones out there. The fish are up on the surface and you can see them corralling, the bait spinning; it was very cool behavior just to watch. Sure enough, within 20 minutes we caught some nice fish for the grill. The wind was howling and we decided to change gears and species. We were looking to drift and bottom fish with bait for fluke, porgy, blue robin or sea bass. Our boat was bouncing along and we could barely get our baits to the bottom. At this point we we're thinking the trip might've been a little foolhardy. We caught some porgy, fluke and sea robin, but the latter two species were too small to keep, so we tossed them back.
At this point the deep water current was pounding us and we weren't catching anything. It was a long-shot, but I had an idea for where we could go. We headed over to a spot near Plum island (movie buffs will recognize it from The Silence of the Lambs). It's right up against the lighthouse and definitely dangerous. If we hit a rock we could sink. There, we used spin rods with surface plugs, which is the most exciting form of spin fishing besides fly fishing because it's so visual. The surface plugs splash and make noise, which looks like an injured baitfish. The fish have to make an aggressive take to get the bait, so you get to see lots of topwater action. Right away we caught some bluefish and striped bass. Even though some of the striped bass were legal size, we decided to let them go because it's a species that's in trouble and needs help—the numbers are diminishing while the catches are not.
Triple hooked up on bluefish!
Triple landed on striper!
After three hours, we were ready to get back. We arrived safely and got to cooking. We simmered whelk in the shell for half an hour in a highly aromatic bouillon. John pulled garlic from the garden and snipped rosemary, thyme, thai basil and fennel tops. We also made delicious porgy crudo with thai basil, lemon verbena and lime juice. For the bluefish, I still had some rhubarb in the garden, so we used the stalks, sliced thinly, as a garnish—it's deliciously crispy like celery, with great tangy flavor.
Ceviche of sustainable porgy and bluefish
Chatting with John and sharing fishing stories—it's always great to see someone else's perspective. My goal was to be able to share this amazing marine resource with John and there was definitely common-ground bonding over respect for land, sea and nature. It's a gift that we are so lucky to be able to enjoy.