On City Island, a Place for Telling Fish Stories
Late August was bluefish time in the waters of Long Island Sound around City Island in the Bronx. But the talk among the men hanging out at Jack’s Bait and Tackle, on City Island Avenue, kept coming back to stripers.
“I’m telling you, next year, the record gets broken — we’re going to see an 80-pound fish,” said the store owner, John DeCuffa. It was a significant prediction, given that the world record, 78 pounds 8 ounces, from 1982 still stands.
On a weekday in late summer, the guys in the shop were still buzzing about several very big bass caught during July, including a 75-pound-4-ounce striper caught by Peter Vican, who weighed the fish on July 19 at the Snug Harbor Marina in Wakefield, R.I. Another large striper, weighing 52 pounds, was weighed in Aug. 21 at Jack’s.
“That fish was not supposed to be here,” DeCuffa said in his video blog review of the 52-pounder. “But there’s still plenty of bait, plenty of bunker out there, and you might have a shot at a big bass even when you’re fishing the bluefish tournament,” which was Aug. 22 and 23.
Around City Island, the major game fish species in summer are smaller striped bass (known as schoolies), bluefish, fluke, blackfish (also called tautog) and porgies (scup), with the occasional sand shark. The bigger striped bass — fish 15 pounds and larger — usually move to deeper water in the warmest weeks.
“This year, we had the best striped-bass fishing in 30 years,” says Gary Buono, a lean, tan man in his 40s who fishes various Long Island shores and who stopped in at Jack’s to catch up on fishing reports. “You’d see 80 keeper bass on a party boat” during the peak season for stripers, in May through June, he said. The bigger bass move back through the sound in the fall during their southerly migration.
DeCuffa, who lives in Carmel with his wife and three teenage children, is a natural showman on camera. His blog, jacksbait.blogspot.com, is a promotional element that would have been beyond everyone’s imagination when DeCuffa’s maternal grandfather, Jack Rumpf, started the bait-and-tackle store in 1945 after returning from service in the Marine Corps during World War II. Garrulous and barrel-chested, DeCuffa (referred to as Big John) took over as the store’s owner after Rumpf died in 1992.
Now 45, DeCuffa has worked in the shop since he was 10, and kept the original name in honor of his grandfather. He has one full-time employee, Ricky Ortega, although his eldest son, John Jr., and his wife, Carol, often work in the shop.
“This is one of the oldest, if not the oldest business on City Island that’s still in the original family,” DeCuffa said. “All the other business have changed hands.” He grew up on City Island, a fifth-generation “clam digger,” and said he planned to return after his youngest son finished high school.
Jack’s is a social hangout, much like a barbershop, but with a huge stainless-steel refrigerator full of frozen bait behind the counter, a big sloshing tank of live eels and baitfish to the side, and long glass display cases stocked with fishing reels that gleam like miniature luxury cars. When regulars walk in to the long, narrow shop and shake hands with DeCuffa, the fishing talk starts another round.
Two huge stripers, icons of the conversation, hang on the walls in Jack’s. One, caught in 2005, was more than 62 pounds, the largest landed in the waters around City Island. The other, a 58-pounder, was caught in 1979. Photographs cover a section of wall just to the left of a shelf full of spools of fishing line, providing an abridged history of catches taken to Jack’s, a lot of them big bluefish. DeCuffa said he had files full of so many photographs that he could “totally collage all four walls.”
In 1960, Rumpf started selling bait wholesale as part of the business. DeCuffa has continued that, although he did not say which side of the business — bait or tackle — is more profitable. (He also owns a marina next door to the shop.)
But bait, obviously, is not as easy to handle as hardware. Perishables like clams, worms and crabs have a limited shelf life, something that DeCuffa keeps in mind when delivering bait by truck to Brooklyn, Long Island and upstate New York. Being dependent on optimum angling conditions, he and Ortega end up discarding a lot of fresh bait on rainy days, when many anglers stay home.
The live eels sell for $1.50 each. Live bloodworms are $8 a dozen, or $70 a case.
Hector Valdez, a tall Manhattanite with a shaved head, a mustache and a tattoo of a striped bass on one calf, walked into Jack’s to buy frozen bunker tied up in white plastic bags. “When I was 15 years old, my father used to drop me off here,” Valdez said. “I first brought my son in when he was in diapers, and now he’s 14. I’ve had a boat in Big John’s marina for 18 years.”
Vinnie Serratore, a Bronx resident who is a regular customer, shows the same kind of customer loyalty. He pays to have a spinning rod tip replaced with a gift certificate from the store. “Everybody I know, they know I come to Jack’s,” he said.
Serratore said he fished often on party boats. “Night fishing has been phenomenal this year,” he said. “As soon as the sun goes down, boom.”
Anglers who venture out in Jack’s rental skiffs focus on the rock-strewn waters around Hart Island, the Execution Rocks lighthouse and the unnamed hunks of rock to the east of Davids Island. But DeCuffa, who puts in 15-hour days April through October, says he does not have time to get on the water.
“I don’t ever get to fish here myself,” DeCuffa said. “Once a year, around Christmastime, I go down to the Florida Keys. Yellowtail, grouper, snapper — that’s my thing.”
By SCOTT BOWEN