Block Island Stripers From The Shore

 

“Block Island Stripers From The Shore” first appeared in the October/November/December 2016 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide — sadly, the last issue of this regional gem. I consider Block Island to be sacred fishing ground. Some of my favorite fly fishing memories have been created along its shoreline.

My grandparents had an old map of Block Island in their basement. To my young eyes, it looked like a pirate treasure map from a story book. (I wasn’t too far off – the notorious Captain Kidd was known to frequent the island and its waters.) Then, there was the curious name. Why Block? It was shaped more like a pork chop than a cube. (I would later learn the island was named for Dutch explorer Adrien Block.) It was small enough to be charming (7 miles long and 3 miles wide, situated 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island) yet substantial enough to have been around since the last ice age.

Then there were the magical names of its shoreline and landmarks: Pots and Kettles. Rodman’s Hollow. Black Rock. It all sounded like a fanciful netherworld inhabited by wizards and elves.

The wondrous reality is that from May through November, Block Island is home to Morone saxatillis. And if the year, moon, and tides align, you can reasonably expect an unforgettable encounter with a striped bass on the fly from the shore.

A feisty Block Island school bass taken on a dead drift using a small, sparse sand eel pattern.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Where to fish. Finding a place to fish on Block Island is a good news-good news scenario: many possibilities, ample public access. You can find most of these spots on an online map. Note that there is no camping on Block Island, and no sleeping in vehicles.

Crescent Beach stretches several miles north from the ferry landing in town to Mansion Beach. The sandy bottom makes it a popular place for sight fishing. Some people bring ladders, but most anglers are content to walk and wet wade. Mornings – the beach crowds start building around 11am – and late afternoons are the best times to try your hand at stalking a cruising fish. If you see a substantial number of bass during the day, it usually means they’ll be around at night, too.

You’ll find structure, waves, and current like this along much of the island’s shoreline.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Sandy Point is the spit that juts out from the northern tip of the island. Currents from Long Island Sound and Cow Cove smash together, creating the dangerous – and sometimes deadly – North Rip. This is the place where Block Island angling legend Ben Lubell lost his life in the early 1980s. Take a lesson from Ben, and never wade in the North Rip. Stay out of the water and the wash at Sandy Point.

Those same lethal currents can also make for great fishing, acting as a conveyor belt that delivers helpless bait to waiting mouths. Local historians will tell you that Cow Cove got its name when the island’s first settlers forced their cattle to swim ashore there. Noted author and fly tyer Ken Abrames says with a smile that the name really comes from the size of the stripers that have been taken there over the years.

The Great Salt Pond was once a brackish, landlocked lake. A channel was dug in 1895. The pond offers the fly fisher a rich diversity of angling opportunities, from shallow flats to deep water drop-offs to pinch-points to river-like currents. The channel at the Coast Guard Station, also known as the Cut, is the most popular fishing spot on the island. However, popular doesn’t always mean best, and parking is often limited.

West Side. Charlestown Beach runs along the middle of the west side of the island. When it’s on, gird yourself for a bad case of striper thumb. The largest blitzes I’ve experienced on Block Island – both in numbers and pounds per fish –have taken place along Charlestown Beach. The West Side is also home to Grace’s, Dorie’s, and Cooneymus Coves. All are rocky bars that are in fly rod range at high tide.

South Side. The stretch from Black Rock Beach to Mohegan Bluffs features the kind of rocky structure that stripers like to frequent. However, both surf and prevailing winds can be a challenge to fly casters.

Some final words of advice and caution: never fish an area you’re unfamiliar with at night. Reconnoiter it first in daylight at the same tide you’ll be fishing. Don’t venture out in rough surf. And fish with a friend.

Flies and gear. Sand eels, squid, and silversides are the predominant inshore baits, so bring plenty of flies that match their action and profile. Sand eels start out small – 2” or less in early June – and grow as the summer progresses. I favor sparse, impressionistic patterns like Ken Abrames’ Eelie and Big Eelie. I tie the Big Eelie in a wide range of color combinations, from the original white/yellow/olive/blue to blue/black/purple. I make them about 4 ½” long, and stripers relish them all. It’s hard to go wrong with any simple, slim-profile baitfish pattern.

I’ve caught more Block Island stripers on the Big Eelie than any other pattern. This is the fly’s original color scheme.

Culton_Block_BigEelie

~

It’s not uncommon to find both smaller (2”-3” long) and larger squid in the Great Salt Pond. And while I’ve never done very well using big flies on the Block, I always bring some foot-long eel patterns, because one day I’m going to find that 50-pounder. Crab and shrimp flies designed for bonefish will also work quite well on Block Island’s flats.

Bring your favorite one- or two-handed rod. As with any island, expect windy conditions, and match your rod accordingly. The water I fish is typically 2 to 8 feet deep. A floating line gives me the option of presenting from the surface to the bottom in most places. I always bring my full-sink integrated line in case it’s insanely windy or I want to fish a deep channel.

Waders and studded boots are essential gear for navigating the rocky shores and jetties of Block Island. Lightweight and comfortable boots will make that one-mile slog down the beach a little more endurable. Keep in mind that Block Island is surrounded by cool water for much of the summer; you’re probably going to need a jacket at night. Use a personal flotation device and carry a compass – Block Island can get Transylvania horror movie foggy.

And for those rare nights when the wind lies down and the air is still, make sure you have a generous supply of effective bug spray. The no see-ums on Block Island are torturous.

When to fish. Every year is different, and as east coast striper stocks have ebbed and flowed, so has the fishing on Block Island. In the previous four years I have caught as many as 75 bass over 8 nights, and as few as 4. There’s no way to predict which island you’re going to get.

While you can certainly catch Block Island stripers in daylight, Ray Charles put it rather eloquently when he sang, “night time is the right time.” Because most of the water I fish is shallow, I favor the dark of the moon or cloud-covered nights. Of course, the best time to go fishing is when you can. Catching or merely fishing, Block Island is a unique and beautiful location – and you’ll quickly understand why it was named by the Nature Conservancy as one of the “Last Great Places.”

Why I love fishing at night. This striper was part of a school of 10 to15-pound fish that set up on a shallow cobble-bottomed bar to ambush bait.

Culton_Block_Striper2

 

 

 

The unimportance of casting

The casting discussions are seemingly endless: distance, tight loops, line speed, hauling, leader turnover, and more distance. Not that I’m surprised. But I do find it fascinating, especially since you rarely see these topics brought up on trout fishing boards.

I never wanted to be a great caster. I did, however, aspire to be a great angler. Maybe some day I’ll get there. In the meantime, I’ll just follow Ray Bergman’s advice on fishing, and let the casting take care of itself.

Striper fly anglers have a unique obsession with casting distance. Funny thing! My biggest striper this spring, best measured with a scale or a yardstick, came on a 30-foot cast that I pooched out in front of me. All I had to do was wait for the current to deliver the fly to her waiting mouth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Upstream, Downstream, Small Stream” by Steve Culton from American Angler

“Upstream, Downstream, Small Stream” first appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of American Angler. The article’s subhead sums it up nicely: “What’s the best tactical approach on a high-gradient mountain stream? Let the brookies be your guide.” I wrote this piece after I became fascinated with how receptive — or unreceptive — wild brook trout were to my offerings, depending on how I was fishing. Many thanks to American Angler for allowing me to share it on currentseams. I’m trying something different this time: Instead of the article text and photos, it’s a pdf link.

UpstreamDownstreamSmallStream

Is there a best way to catch fish like this? Yes. No. Maybe. Read the article and you’ll see what I mean.

Bigbuckbrookie

“Mainly Misunderstood — Five Myths and Realities About Using Floating Lines For Striped Bass” in the current issue of American Angler

Why are floating lines so underused for striped bass fly fishing? Are intermediate lines  truly versatile? These questions and more are answered in “Mainly Misunderstood,” and you can read all about it in the current (May/June 2017) issue of American Angler. If you’re looking to open the door to a whole new world of presentation options, the floating line is the antidote to the mind-numbing metronome of cast-and-strip.

If you want to catch keeper bass like this with flatwings fished on a greased line swing, you’re gonna need a floating line.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

I love fishing floating lines in surf around structure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ten Things You Should Know About Nighttime Fly Fishing For Big Trout

“Ten Things You Should Know About Nighttime Fly Fishing For Big Trout” first appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. It’s part how-to, part humor, and I think you’ll like it. Even though they are no more, many thanks to MAFFG for allowing me to share it on currentseams.

The time between dusk and dawn has always inspired musicians. George Benson stated his affinity for it. Ray Charles declared its righteousness. Beyond poetic musings, nighttime also happens to be an excellent time to go trout fishing. So if, like Bob Seger, the night moves you, here are ten things to consider before you head out into the darkness.

Nighttime is prime time. Anglers who are serious about catching trophy trout know that nighttime is when the big boys and girls come out to play. Archetypical nocturnal creatures, lunker browns go on the prowl once the last light fades. They’ll venture into shallows where you’d never find them at high noon. Their targets include late-falling spinners, rodents going for an unexpected dip, and smaller fish foolish enough to swim in harm’s way. Bonus point: 95% of all other anglers are home in bed.

Someone’s been eating well. This chubby hen clobbered a mouse fly as it swung across the current. Every year, my biggest trout come subsurface – or at night.

Big wild brown hen 8-2015

Know the rules and regulations. Not all states or fishing areas allow night fishing. Be sure to check the regs before you head out.

Safety first! Never, ever fish previously unexplored water at night. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Many locations are a challenging wade in daylight. They’re going to be exponentially harder at night. Avoid them, and stick to areas with moderate-to-easy bottom structure and currents that you know well. Wear a personal floatation device. Tell someone where you’re going to be and when you plan to return. Wear safety glasses. Carry a wading staff, and use it. A smart phone with a compass app is always a good idea. If you’re fishing a tailwater, know the water release schedules and weather reports. And above all, use common sense.

Scout the area you’re going to fish in daylight. Make note of submerged logs, overhanging branches, tall grasses – anything that will eat your fly on your back cast, forward cast, or retrieve. Getting your fly out of a tree in daylight is difficult. At night, it’s nearly impossible. Wade the path you’ll likely be taking and make note of any rocks or structure that could possibly trip you up – as well as ledges that drop off into deep holes.

Nighttime is also the right time for articulated streamers, waking deer hair-head patterns such as Galloup’s Zoo Cougar, or impressionistic creations like this Deep Threat. While black is the most popular color at night, I have had success on olive, white, yellow, and many other colors and combinations.

Deep Threat

Learn how to cast at night. One of the most intimidating aspects of getting into the night fly game is that you generally can’t see what your line is doing. But I believe that casting should be mostly done by feel. So, practice your casting on dry land with your eyes shut or while wearing a blindfold. Feel how – and when – the rod loads. Before long, you’ll develop what athletic trainers call muscle memory. And when you hit the water, you won’t give your casting a second thought.

Night fishing can be unnerving. There’s a reason some people are terrified by dark rooms. Robbed of sight, our other senses – especially touch and hearing – go on high alert. Every noise is amplified. Our audio-fueled imaginations can’t help but generate worst-case scenarios. I still laugh at the time I thought I heard a noise in the woods behind me and turned around to see the glow of another angler’s headlamp. “Wow,” I said. “I didn’t even see you standing there.” It was then that I realized I was talking to a very large firefly hovering in the darkness. After a time, though, you get used to – and even relish – being alone in the dark. You hear nature’s night symphony in magnificent high fidelity. And on cloudless nights on the dark of the moon, the shooting stars are an ethereal treat. One night on a wooded river in eastern Connecticut, I had the strange sensation that I was not alone. I turned upstream. There, just 30 feet away from me, a doe and her three fawns were drinking from the cool, clear waters under the light of the waxing moon.

Beavers are not your friends. If you fish at night as often as I do, you will come to fear and loathe beavers. These highly territorial creatures inform you in no uncertain terms that you are not welcome. Their intimidation game begins with a mighty smack of tail on water. Next comes a warning swim around – or straight at you. Sometimes they submerge mid-swim, initiating a test of wills where you die a thousand deaths while trying to guess their present course. Healthy beavers are merely bullies; generally, if you don’t confront them, they won’t attack. But rabid ones are known to, and if you’ve ever seen what a beaver’s teeth can do to a tree trunk, you know an encounter with a rabid beaver must be avoided at all costs. Give all beavers a wide berth.

Get a headlamp with a red light. Bright white lights with hundreds of candlepower have little place in night fishing. The time it takes for the human eye to adjust from white light to complete darkness is much longer than the period going from red to dark. Then there’s the spook factor. If you were a fish feeding at night, wouldn’t sudden, bright beams of light be cause for alarm? Stay under cover of the night with a red beam.

Find a good mouse pattern and learn how to fish it. Originally popular on bass ponds and western rivers, the mouse fly has now become a staple of night fishing for trout from coast to coast. You don’t need an ultra-realistic pattern with ears and eyes and cute little whiskers – those accoutrements are solely for the benefit of humans. All you need is a pattern that rides on the surface and provides an attractive silhouette to predators. My current favorite mouse fly is Joe Cermele’s Master Splinter. It’s simple to tie (you can find the recipe through an internet search), it floats like a cork, and best of all, trout love it. Trout will take mice on the dead drift, the swing, the dangle, and the strip. Try all of them until you find some customers.

The pitted, scarred foam back of a Master Splinter mouse fly offers mute testimony to the savage nature of large browns.

Chewed Mouse

Know how big trout like to feed. The alpha fish of the pool, large brown trout will often stun their prey before administering the coup de grace. So when you feel that first whack, don’t set the hook. Because it’s counterintuitive, it’s a difficult concept to master. But it’s critical if you want that precious hookup. I’ve had big browns bump the fly a half-dozen times before finally striking with intent to eat. Don’t say no to a trout that has already said yes to your fly. The time to set the hook is when you feel the full weight of the fish on the end of your line. If you’re getting multiple taps and no hookups, it’s probably a more modestly sized trout. Big fish simply don’t miss.

A low-water drop shot nymph rig with sighter

I recently mentioned that in these low, clear water conditions I had temporarily ditched my beloved indicator nymphing for a straight line drop-shot approach. I had many questions about the method, but also about the rig, which is presented below. The template is the same as the one I use in higher water; I’ve simply swapped out some materials to create a leader system that makes strike detection easier and uses thinner diameter nylon.

So, what’s changed?

— The top of the butt section is now Hi-Vis Gold Stren. You can of course use whatever color you like, or even a different material (like Dacron). The yellow jumps out to my eyes, though, and we can all agree that it’s important to be able to see your sighter.

— The bottom of the butt section is P-Line Floroclear (it’s fluorocarbon coated material). I’ve been using P-Line for years in my steelhead leaders. It’s strong as hell and has a thin diameter. Good stuff. I use it on my indicator drop-shot rigs, too.

— I sometimes use 5x instead of 4 lb.  Maxima Ultragreen for the top dropper. It’s strictly a diameter choice I leave up to the angler.

— The drop shot tag goes down a size to 6x. This is to a) insure the weakest link breaks on a shot snag, and b) I typically use smaller patterns for the point fly in the winter, and the 6x is easier to squeeze through the eye of a 16 or 18 hook.

— I’m using round BB shot, no wings. Hopefully that means less bottom hangups.

For your leader constructing pleasure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here’s a pdf: lowwaterdropshotnymphrig

“Building a Better Trout Stream” in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of American Angler

“Building a Better Trout Stream,” written by yours truly, is a neat little conservation piece. It’s about Hatchery Creek, a man-made — yet sustainable — trout stream built in south central Kentucky. Cool stuff, and you can read all about it in the current issue of American Angler.

You can create a perfect little trout stream out of dry land. Find out how on page 8.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Yes, Virginia, there are more projects in the article pipeline. Details on those as they near printing stage in 2017.

I also have a busy appearance schedule this winter, including The Fly Fishing Show in Marlborough, MA. Updates to come in January 2017.