Swimming with the fishes--sharks included--takes on new meaning for one angler in Montauk, New York.
“I don’t advise peeing in your wet suit,” shouted Paul Melnyk. “You’ll get a mean rash.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I hollered into the wind.
Truth was, whizzing in my neoprene suit was the least of my worries. I was standing at the edge of the roiling Atlantic in Montauk, New York. Clouds covered the sliver of a moon, and the chilly October night was as black as the bottom of a well. In a few minutes I would follow Melnyk into the ocean.
We planned to lie on our backs, buoyant in our wet suits, and kick our way 300 yards offshore. Once there, we would ride the current that ran parallel to the beach, casting live eels for striped bass. After we were carried for a half mile or so, we would kick back to where we started and begin the drift again. Melnyk, a Montauk local who invented this form of angling, calls it skishing (a cross between skiing and fishing, since he often gets towed by large stripers).
Behind a large dune, we huddled to zip our wet suits and run through our equipment. “If a shark grabs me, I expect you to fight him off with your knife,” said Melnyk, trying to loosen up the situation. His levity was lost on me. I knew enough about the area to realize that the threat of sharks was no joke. A little more than a decade back, a Montauk charter boat had landed a monstrous great white (17 feet, 3,427 pounds) that had been snacking on a dead whale not far from Montauk Point, and just that summer a 14-foot mako had been pilfering stripers from the ends of fishermen’s lines and ramming boats near Cape Cod. Up and down the east coast, 2001 had been the summer of the shark.
There were also rip currents, some of which ran at 10 knots. If we got caught in the wrong place, we would be shot out into the ocean as if on a water-park ride.
“Let’s do this before I chicken out,” I said.
Paul Melnyk discovered his unorthodox but deadly style of fishing by chance. Since the ’50s, Montauk anglers had donned wet suits and like frogmen swam out to large rocks that, at low tide, still lay 2 or 3 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Once on these perches the rock hoppers, as they’re known, fished water that was unreachable by shore-bound surf casters. One night in 1996, Melnyk was on Weakfish Rock, a large boulder that has a flat top the size of a kitchen table and sits some 200 yards off the point, when a wave washed him off. It happens often, but this time Melnyk was fighting a 30-pound striped bass, and it started towing him to sea. With no chance of hopping back on the rock, he decided to fight the fish in its element. His 6mm wet suit gave him plenty of buoyancy, and if he placed the rod between his legs and floated on his back “like an otter eating an abalone,” he could actually put some leverage on the fish. Five minutes later he landed his prize. He was hooked.
Out in Montauk, hard-core surf casters weren’t too fond of Melnyk’s skishing technique. Most anglers thought it was cheating; others thought it was plain stupid. It didn’t help that the Coast Guard twice scrambled to “rescue” Melnyk while he was happily fishing off of the point. And one early copycat did get swept out to sea in a rip. About a quarter mile offshore, the unlucky fellow, thinking fast, dropped his lure to the bottom, where it snagged and prevented him from drifting to the Azores. He was eventually plucked from the ocean by a commercial fishing vessel.
The brouhaha reached a climax during a local surf-fishing tournament in the fall of 1997. There were no rules forbidding skishing, but the tournament committee met and decided Melnyk held an unfair advantage over other casters. Melnyk filed a grievance but lost.
The feud was still flickering between Melnyk and other locals when I met up with him on a crisp, clear Monday. At the time, the idea of swimming in the ocean in the dead of night with a batch of eels and a surf rod seemed like good fun.