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Snappers Aren't What They Used to Be...
Originally published in the New York Times on 9/24/72

Philip Dougherty's story -- Remembering Philip Dougherty

I'm afraid I've got bobbitis, again. Bobbitis, if you don't know, is an affliction of the snapper season. It comes from watching a bob bouncing on the water all day long. When you try to go to sleep at night, all you can see behind your closed lids is that bouncing bob. That's bobbitis.

Well, the snappers are running again, but compared to when snappers were really running, they're just walking. Why is it that outside of moon travel, nothing seems as good as it was?

The first day we went out - just for the morning - the three of us caught about ten altogether. The second time I caught the only fish, seven of them.

You know, when I think back, that's nothing. In the old days when I was a kid 20 - 30 snappers was considered a good catch.

When those baby bluefish stared running in Reynolds Channel in the thirties, every dock along the bay would be jammed with shoulder-to-shoulder fishermen, from the pier running out from Lauder's Restaurant (gone now), to Bright Eye (now the Long Island Sea Clam Company), to Scotty's (still Scotty's).

In those days nobody used anything but the old bamboo pole and bob - and as I remember it, those hooks flew around the Lauder's dock (by far the most popular spot) in such a way as to be worth your eyeballs to see it.

Crowd is Smaller Now

Well, last Saturday, the only snapper fishermen I saw were on the new Town of Hempstead fishing pier just outside of the Point on the other side of the bridge. And that's where we were.

There were never more than 20 people fishing there and there wasn't a bamboo pole in sight. Today's dude doesn't go for the traditional equipment. He likes a spinner rig. Many of them don't even go for the bob (or bobber or float) - they just cast and reel, cast and reel.

If you're seriously after snappers, you use spearing - a streamlined, transparent little thing with a fashionable silver stripe along its side much like a sports car.

Well, the only way less enterprising fisherfolk can get spearing today is frozen in a little box (half the size of Bird's Eye peas) going for 75 cents. And the worst part about it is that frozen spearing just aren't worth a darn. When they thaw out, the meat is so soggy it hardly holds a hook.

Now the more enterprising (a select few with whom I associate myself) catch their own bait. About 15 years ago I bought myself a 10-foot dragnet, that-along with a fuse-equipped set o Christmas-tree lights - has to be ranked amongst the wiser purchases of my married life.

So Much for Frozen

If you could see the covetous gazes that frozen-bait fishermen gave my fresh, firm spearing - well, you have no idea.

You understand, of course, that I was no novice when I bought the net. Far from it. As a youth I had been a junior partner of Bobby Meny, entrepreneur and net owner. We did nicely in those 10-cents-a-can days. So well in fact that we were barred from Lauder's dock for underselling Lauder.

But money-making aside, my all time favorite snapper memory goes back at least 10 years. I can't recall what took me there, but there I was with my bamboo pole down at the rock jetty that runs off Bayside Drive and points toward Jones Beach.

It was evening and the sun almost disappeared. And in the whirling waters where the bay currents met those sweeping in from the ocean at jetty's and the water not only twinkled with the phosphorescent jellyfish but also sparkled with leaping hoards of spearing.

The noise they made was the same as a torrential rain might make on the water. And on top of the sound they made was a constant slap, slap, hand-clapping slap - loud and strong - made by the biggest snappers you ever saw, leaping out of the water after them.

One lone man stood at the end of the jetty casting his spinner rig right into the middle of all of this swirling splendor and pulling in the snappers. I waded in up to my hips with my bamboo pole next to the jetty. I just wasn't in the right spot, that's all. I caught one of those fat rascals, but that really didn't matter. Being there and seeing it - that's what mattered.

My god, I said to myself, this is nature in the raw. And for a moment - just a moment - I felt like Freddie Bartholomew in "Captains Courageous." I don't feel that way often.