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Long Island's plethora of outdoors opportunities is impressive

As we drifted a strong current in Shinnecock Bay, bouncing jigs along the bottom, a small school of albacore started jumping near our boat chasing baitfish. Our host for the morning and one of the conference organizers, Chris Paparo of Calverton, became extremely animated.

“Cast your bait beyond the leaping fish and reel your jig in as fast as you can along the surface,” he shouted to the writers on board. The New York State Outdoor Writers Association was mixing some business with pleasure as members performed outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing to gather story material on an area not often associated with the outdoors – Long Island.

The 51st Annual NYSOWA conference was held in Southampton with a base of operation at Stony Brook University and its School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences for graduate and undergraduate studies. It had been 44 years since the group visited Long Island and it was high time for an encore performance.

Leon Archer of Fulton had a hot hand catching sea robins casting from the bow on Paparo’s 21-foot Release boat, and it was fitting that one of his casts was perfect as the albacore took a leap nearby. His bait was immediately grabbed by the “albie” and off to the races it went. Back and forth, out and in, to the back of the boat and under the motor as the fish dictated where he would swim. Ten minutes later, Paparo grabbed his tail and hauled the prize into the boat. It would be a sushi treat for later in the day.

The morning outing was supposed to be in the feisty Atlantic Ocean, bottom angling for black sea bass and scup on one of the new artificial reefs recently created by the state. In what was being called the largest artificial reef expansion in New York history, the state announced that it will enhance a dozen different artificial reef sites, beginning with Fire Island, Hempstead, Moriches, Rockaway, Shinnecock and Smithtown this year. Demolition materials from the Tappan Zee Bridge and retired steel vessels from the Erie Canal were included in some of the reef sites. Due to wind and waves, we were unable to make it through the Shinnecock Inlet and onto the big water. However, it was the perfect case of making lemonade when you are given a bag of lemons.

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The lighthouse at Montauk Point off Long Island. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

We also tried to hit Peconic Bay on the north side through a canal system, but a hard northeast wind hampered our adventure by creating 3 to 4 foot waves. One of the first big waves came over the bow and drenched Archer and his wife, Sue, making a quick decision for the captain relatively easy.

As we fished Shinnecock Bay, we were surrounded by bird life. Paparo became excited as different bird species that were a bit unusual for the time of year flew nearby. Black skimmers, common eiders, royal terns (bearing unique tags on their legs Paparo had already discovered came from Virginia), oyster catchers and loons in winter plumage, to name a few. On an adjacent sand bar, three harbor seals basked in the sun as they curled up like bananas with the receding tide. They were close enough to be photographed. We were surrounded by Suffolk County outdoor treasures, being shared by our media colleagues from downstate.

Paparo found his dream job and he’s passionate about it. He’s the Manager of Marine Sciences Center and the Field Station Naturalist for SoMAS. The main campus is at Port Jefferson on the north shore of the island. The program is ranked in the Top 10 in the country for graduate marine sciences. Paparo shared a piece of his world and it was amazing.

When we first arrived in town, dumb luck took us to Coopers Beach in the Village of Southampton. Within a minute of pulling up to an overlook, we could see whales “lunge feeding” on menhaden and blowing water in the distance. Our plans were to get up close and personal with humpbacks and minke whales with an outside chance of a fin whale, and maybe even a rare right whale. Long Island has a long history involving whales. Bottlenose dolphins and common dolphins are possible options and little did we know that the best area to see all of these was just off Coopers Beach. Due to big waves, though, whale viewing from a boat was not part of the short NYSOWA agenda.

Less than an hour away from the conference was Montauk Point and its storied lighthouse. October is normally the start of striped bass action at the Point, but the boats were still off shore a bit, and surf casters were not having as much luck as they would have liked. A strong wind was needed to push the baitfish closer to shore and when that happens, the area will really buzz with angler activity. To give you an idea on travel time from Western New York to Montauk Point, it was right around 500 miles. It was worth the trip, a different kind of outdoor world we didn’t realize was there.

It seemed at every turn we were mixing business with outdoor pleasure. The Saturday evening awards banquet was held at the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club in Manorville. Prior to the 1970s, the property was part of the Donahue-Woolworth Estate. This 400-acre retreat offers members a 40-acre lake and plenty of shooting sports options with ranges for archery, pistol, trap, skeet, 5-stand and sporting clays. Its youth conservation program was featured in the Oct. 5 issue of N.Y. Outdoor News and the club was the first in the U.S. to receive the Federal EPA’s Certificate of Recognition for its Environmental Stewardship Plan. What an evening, all held in the club’s famous “Elephant Room.”

Laura Klahre, beekeeper and owner of Blossom Meadow, gave us some insight into another business venture that she and her husband Adam are involved with. Coffee Pot Cellars, located on the North Fork of the island, affords various programs designed to make this world a better place to live. Their popular “Merlot for Monarchs” is designed to raise funds to help monarch butterflies along, growing and donating one milkweed plant for every bottle sold. They were at 545 in just two months.

“The monarch butterfly population has declined by 80 percent,” said Klahre, “and over 1.3 billion more milkweed plants are needed for the species to bounce back.” As she educated our group on the need for more milkweed plants, she passed along intimate knowledge on pollination. The most efficient pollinators are native bees, not honey bees. And moths are very efficient pollinators at night, too. However, the bright lights have been distracting the insects from doing their job and she’s been pushing for a dimmer streetlight that isn’t as much of an attraction/distraction with the local township.

We’re just scratching the surface of all of the outdoor opportunities we experienced. The Long Island Aquarium is a must-see if you make it to the island, especially the tank holding some impressive sharks. You can even pay extra to get into the water with them using a special cage and scuba gear. That was a little too close for comfort.

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