I'm not a fisherman, but I've had some memorable piscine experiences. Three in particular stand out.
The first came in 1981 in Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, where I watched an endless flow of red-hued salmon swimming upriver to their spawning grounds. The wide, shallow river was filled literally bank-to-bank with fish more than two-feet long. We watched for half an hour and the parade never let up for a moment.
The second came in 1998. I was snorkeling in the crystalline, turquoise waters of the Caribbean near St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands) when I found myself completely surrounded by a vast school of small, silvery fish just an inch or two long. They sparkled in the sunlight, darting away from me in perfect unison as I swam, always keeping precisely the same distance of about a foot away from every part of my body. While this experience is common in tropical waters, the expanse of that school of fish was unlike anything I've ever seen before or since - it extended as far as I could see in all directions.
And the third? Well, it happened just a few days ago right here on Little Neck Bay. It was a beautiful Indian summer afternoon with hardly any breeze. The water should have been completely calm and as flat as a sheet of glass. But viewed from the elevation of Shore Road in Douglaston the entire bay, shore-to-shore, was pockmarked by roughly circular disturbances both large and small.
I knew what these were because I'd been seeing them for the past several months. Each patch of disturbed water was a swirling school of Menhaden - or, as they are more commonly known, bunker. Week after week their abundance has been increasing until, on this day, I was witnessing the most astounding vision of biological fecundity I could imagine.
From Douglaston to Bayside and from Alley Creek to well beyond the Point, there were an uncountable number of patches of "boiling" water, each containing dozens, scores, hundreds or thousands of fish more than a foot in length.
I set out in my kayak from Arleigh Beach and within a few paddle strokes I was in the middle of the first "boil." This was a small one - just 10 feet in diameter. A few dozen bunker were swimming just below the surface of the water in a clockwise circle, their bright yellow tail fins sticking up an inch or so into the air. As I glided through their midst they parted briefly, then reassembled right behind me.
Another few strokes and I was in a much larger "boil" - this one maybe 30 feet in diameter. I made a sharp movement with my paddle and, perhaps, 100 fish shot away with enough of a splash to soak my face. Five more strokes in a straight line and I was in another boil, this one a little smaller and moving counter-clockwise.
And so on and so on, for the entire hour I spent on the water that day. The boils were everywhere - right next to the shoreline and in the middle of the bay, underneath the Douglaston dock and around moored boats, in the open water and in the creeks and in the tide pools. The biggest boil I floated through was well over 100 feet in diameter and in the middle of the salt marsh at the head of Udalls Cove near Virginia Point.
I've lived in Douglaston and Little Neck for 57 years and have never seen anything like this. I've spoken to dozens of people - sailors, fishermen, old-timers who have been around even longer than me - and nobody can remember anything like this year's bunker phenomenon ever. On Sept. 29, at the eighth annual National Estuaries Day festival at the Alley Pond Environmental Center, the hundreds of visitors who walked to the end of the new boardwalk were able to watch hundreds of fish circling right below the observation platform at the opening of the combined sewer outfall. Nobody at APEC can remember that ever happening.
Wildlife populations can rise and fall dramatically over periods of just a few years. For any number of reasons, this year's incredible concentration of bunker in Little Neck Bay may be just a fluke (pun intended). But it may also be the result of more sensible fishing practices in places as far away as Virginia as well as improved sewage management right here at home. Whatever the reason, it is good news for us. It turns out that all those Menhaden help clear the water of our bay. More about all this in the second part of this series.