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'Do I need life insurance?' A morning as a Peconic fisherman

Tom Gariepy, Lenny Nilson and Kenny Anderson fish

Tom Gariepy, Lenny Nilson and Kenny Anderson fish for bunker at first light near Indian Island in Riverhead. Photo Credit: Mark Harrington

 As the season for menhaden, a bait fish also known as bunker, winds down in the bays of Long Island, the jack-of-all-trades reality of being a bayman was evident on a recent Friday morning on the Peconic River. 

It's just before 5 a.m. when Tom Gariepy arrives at a Riverhead Town boat launch to play his part in one of the last bunker hauls of the season. By midday, he'll be on his second boat on the Great South Bay, hauling 60 crab traps. Earlier this month, he harvested horseshoe crabs by the full moon. 

"Nowadays, you just can't support yourself on one fishery," says Gariepy, 29, of Bluepoint, who fishes for eight or nine different species all year round. "You have to bounce around from fishery to fishery." 

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He backs his trailered sharpie boat into the still, 68-degree water of the Peconic River, parks his pickup on the road and waits for veteran fishermen Lenny Nilson and Kenny Andersen before the three push off in two boats for the waters around Indian Island, in Riverhead.

On the way out, Gariepy sees a giant school of bunker just beyond the launch point, but Nilson has a feeling about the waters to the north and east. Water in the Peconic River, Nilson says, “is like root beer,” from sediment and runoff, and the fish don’t like it. Still, at the eastern end of the river, just inside of Little Peconic Bay, the surface bristles with fish as they speed around Indian Island to the north near Meeting House Creek.

The men set their net around a sizable school of bunker just off the beach at Indian Island, gather the seine-net ends on the shallow waters and begin hauling in by hand. The 30-foot bag at the net's middle point, known as a purse,   gradually fills with shivering silver fish. Gariepy and Andersen, 38, of Sayville, heft the bag end into Nilson’s sharpie by hand.

But it’s not enough.

The boats can hold around 4,000 pounds of fish each. This haul is 1,000 pounds. After scouting the quiet waters of Jamesport, they head back to the Peconic.

Bunker are an essential fish in the food chain, preyed on by everything from bluefish and stripers to whales, and harvested by the ton to supply lobstermen, crab trappers and sport fishermen with bait. The bony fish are just over six inches long. 

The bunker quota for this time of year is 40,000 pounds per licensed fisherman per day, but demand is low right now, Nilson says, with a glut of bunker filling the pipeline from Maine to the Carolinas. Nilson, 72, who founded and owned L&L Wholesale Bait of Islip but sold the business eight years ago and its waterfront land this spring, won’t take anywhere near the limit today. He fishes for bunker to supply his former business during the spring season, but these days he spends the off season watching his grandchildren. Between the two boats they’ll bring home around 5,000 pounds. 

Gariepy has a long day ahead, finishing the morning on the Great South Bay. It’s considered a necessity for full-time commercial fishermen  to have multiple licenses and harvest multiple species, given season closures, migrating fish populations and restrictive quotas. Gariepy also fishes for horseshoe crabs, eels, shiners, clams and conch. 

As the men return to the Peconic after a disappointing haul at Meeting House Creek, Nilson points out a “wall of water” up ahead, and soon a steady spring rain drenches them. They pilot through it and set their nets where Gariepy saw a giant school an hour earlier. Soon, both boats are half-filled with fish, enough for the day.

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