Fourth of July Follies, or: Don’t Drunk Dinghy

This past Fourth of July was a memorable one. For starters, I’d been battling a waxing gibbous moon for days — and it was only getting brighter. But on this night, heavy cloud cover was forecast over Block Island. I couldn’t wait to hit the beach to celebrate my independence from that bite-killing light.

Now, if you watched the old Hee-Haw TV show, you probably know the “Gloom, Despair, and Agony Oh Me” sketch — in particular the line, “if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” I was thinking of this as I realized a most cruel twist of fate: there was a large group of people partying right where I wanted to fish. Three large families. Bonfire, music, fireworks shooting over the ocean, general drunken loudness, and specifically cackling moms after one too many hard lemonades. Sure, it’s fun, but dammit, why at this mark on the only night I’ve got significant overcast and the tide is perfect?

Since the three families weren’t practicing anything that remotely resembled social distancing, I decided to head to what I thought was a safe distance from the mayhem. Despite the racket and light show, the bite was on. I began taking bass after bass. Little did I know the real hijinks were about to start.

It began rather innocently. One of the kids noticed me amid the glowing spray of a fountain firework. She must have been around eight. Little Miss Precocious addressed me from the shore.

Who is that?

(Silence from me)

Who’s standing in the water!?!

(Maybe if I ignore her, she’ll go away.)

What are you doing there?!?

(Aren’t the parents seeing or hearing this? I’d never have let my kids wander down the beach at night unsupervised like that. Oh, wait. Right. They’re all drunk.)

Why won’t you answer me!!!!!?!

OK. I’ll play.

I turned around and faced her. “Well, hello there! I’m Mr. Culton. Who are you?

(Long pause while she processes, not being sure what to make of this new data…)

(still sounding unsure) …Samantha…

And with that, she turned and scampered back to the festivities.

That alone would make for a good enough story. But wait. Here comes the best part. A few minutes later, the dads decided that what with the receding tide (and their increasing intoxication) they should drag their dinghies a little further down to the water line. Except one of them forgot a cardinal rule of boating: always make sure your anchor line is secure. Five minutes later, I’m aware of a large oval shape drifting past me. About the same time, drunk dad recognizes his mistake, and runs helter skelter into the surf to retrieve his watercraft. After a sudden moment of realization, he delivers the punch line:

“Oh, (expletive)! I forgot my phone’s in my pocket!

The moral of the story is that drunks and boating just don’t mix. And, after all, what is a man profited if he should gain some beach but lose his phone?

A near-legal 4th of July bass. I think he looks a little surprised, which I get, because I didn’t expect the action to be as good as it was. As tradition dictates, my Fourth of July fly is the Olive Fireworm Big Eelie Variant.

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Tying the Gurgling Sand Eel

By popular demand, I present the recipe for the Gurgling Sand Eel — a kind of love child of Ken Abrames, Jack Gartside, and Kelly Galloup.

Here’s the backstory. A couple years ago, the guys at Block Island Fishworks (either Hank or Eliot, I can’t remember, but I think it was Eliot) showed me a prototype of an articulated sand eel Gurgler at the Edison Fly Fishing Show. I was given one, fished it that summer, and I resolved to tie a few of my own.

Here’s the prototype from Fishworks. Their shank is a little shorter, and the stinger hook smaller. I used a longer shank and a bigger stinger hoping that they would discourage dink hookups; I’m pleased to say that that was the result during this summer’s field testing. They use a strategically placed double layer of foam; I went for the simplicity of one (although Jack Gartside’s Sand Eel Gurgler uses the double layer). I deemed the eyes unnecessary. And since I like the action of saddle hackles — think Abrames’ Big Eelie — I incorporated them into my variant.

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The Gurgling Sand Eel

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Thread: 6/0, tyer’s choice of color
Stinger hook: Eagle Claw 253 1/0 or Gamakatsu SC15 2/0
Tail: 30 hairs bucktail; next, a 4″ pencil-thin saddle; next, 4 strands Flashabou; next, two 4″ pencil-thin saddles; next, 6 strands Krystal Flash. Tyer’s choice of colors.
Body: Pearl braid
Front shank: Fish Skull 35mm articulated shank
Underbody: Medium Polar Chenille
Shell: 3mm fly foam trimmed 1/4″-5/8″ wide, tyer’s choice of color

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Tying notes: Tie the stinger assembly first. If you want to reinforce the thread wraps on the articulated shank, you can add cement. Start the shell just behind the eye, and bind down well. Attach the Polar Chenille near the butt end, and wind forward. Pull the foam over the top of the shank and secure with three wraps of thread just behind the eye.  Bring the thread underneath the lip and whip finish. Trim lip.

Yup. It works. I think the articulation adds another layer of action when you fish this with short, jerky strips. Bonus: it also works on the dead drift or on long pauses between strip sequences.

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Block Island Report: If you can say, “It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht,” then you’re not catching stripers.

Those of us who grew up with off-the-boat Scots grandparents know the song “Wee Deoch an Doris” well. For the uninitiated, as you have not heard it, I shall proceed to translate and offer context. The song is about having one more drink before you head home. “If you can say it’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht” (if you can say it’s a good bright moonlit night), then you’re a’ richt, ye ken (not nearly as intoxicated as you may think). So, have another.

That also made me think of Chip Diller getting his paddling in the Omega initiation scene from Animal House.  I might as well have been saying “Thank you sir, may I have another,” to the moon this past week, because when it was out and braw and bricht I took a right spanking.

To misquote Starbuck, moonlight feels wrong. I lost the moon lottery big time — quarter going into full is by far my least favorite time to fish for stripers at night.

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I won’t bore you with the minutia, but here’s the story in numbers: Seven nights. Three skunks, including two in a row. The last time I took such a beating was 2012 or 2013. For context, I had one skunk in my last 15 Block outings over the past two years. I ran into an angler — I’ll call him “J” — whose response to me telling him that I hated fishing under the full moon was, and I quote, “you’re crazy.” Now, I appreciate J’s enthusiasm and confidence. And I desperately wanted to be proven wrong. But the fact is, whether flat or surf or dredging deep bottom, I scored a big, fat zero — not even a courtesy tap — on every night the moon was out.

To continue the kvetching, size — or lack of it — continued to be an issue. Used to be that I could count on Block to produce a high percentage of legal fish. Heck, in 2018, a third of the bass I landed were over 28″. This year, not a one. OK, so there were no micros in the mix, and a 24″ Block bass battles like a 30″er from the Hous…but the continued lack of bigger striped bass from the shore is disturbing, although not surprising.

Was it all misery? Heck, no! I had four fun-filled nights, three with double-digit numbers. I played around with my fishing schedule and was able to beat the moonlight — even this old dog can adjust. One night the weather gods appointed a magnificent cloud bank to shroud the Island. The stripers said yes. And I got in some seriously wonderful trout fishing for stripers.

I’ll tell you more about it soon.

Block Island All-Nighter X: The X Factor

You never know what you’re going to get on a Block Island All-Nighter. My tenth reminded me that I’m not young anymore. The spirit is willing, but after nine straight hours and no sleep, the body protests. The last time I did this was 2015 — I had to look it up — but the conditions were perfect in terms of tide (high at dusk), moon (new) and weather (consistent SW flow), so going was almost an imperative on principle alone. Besides, I’d have company, old pal Peter Jenkins, owner of The Saltwater Edge. So off we went aboard the 7pm ferry.

Logistics were a challenge. Be advised that fewer ferries are running and passenger numbers are limited. We couldn’t get a car reservation, and taxi service on the Island was deemed spotty due to the current situation. That meant renting a Jeep, which worked out just right. Here’s Jenks doing some leader prep as we sail past Crescent Beach. I like a simple 7’6″ straight shot of 25# or 30# mono. Block bass are not leader shy.

Jenks

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Angler traffic was light throughout night, as a few hardy souls came and went. The bass traffic was similar: not here. Then here. Then gone. No large schools or consistent feeding. But the fish that showed came to eat. I had the early hot hand with a half dozen bass by midnight. Then Jenks caught fire. No keepers in the mix — I had bass in the 20″-24″ range with a couple 26″ers thrown in. What the fish lacked in size was made up for in pugnacity. Here’s a scrapper from early on. 

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I’m often asked, “How do you figure out what the bait is?” I suppose by now I qualify as a old salt, and old salts know that this time of year on Block it’s sand eels, sand eels, sand eels. You can feel then plinking and ploinking against your waders if you shuffle your feet. And sometimes the answer can be found in a photograph (look along the lateral line).

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The Big Eelie is a high-confidence pattern for me on Block. I fish it on a floating line on a dead drift, or with very short (6″) erratic, drunken strips. It doesn’t matter what color I choose (and I fish everything from dark to lighter fluorescents to dull hues) — it’s a profile and action pattern. And, as you can see, the bass love it. This used to be a beautiful Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie. Now it’s missing two saddles and most of the marabou collar. I was still catching on it when I switched it out at false dawn for a…wait for it…Big Eelie in RLS False Dawn colors.

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We did some surf fishing on the west side after midnight and again at sunrise. Conditions were about as good as you could hope for: a moving tide, moderate surf, and best of all, no weeds. Fish were present both times: stripers in the dark, and bass, bluefish, and shad in daylight. Here’s one that went bump in the night.

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There comes a point in the wee hours — for me, it’s usually around 2:30-3:00am — where the gas tank nears empty and the boilers almost out of steam. That’s when I take five (literally). It may seem counterintuitive to introduce a central nervous system depressant into the equation, but after closing my eyes I poured a wee drap of Highland whisky (Old Pulteney Navigator, which seemed highly apropos). I re-slogged out to the beach just before false dawn, and wouldn’t you know? I had hits on my first four casts. Never underestimate the mojo of single malt and a cigar! 

WeeDrap

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7:00am. Breakfast at Ernie’s. Hungryman Special: two eggs, two pancakes, bacon, and toast. (Thank you, Jenks, for being such a swell fishing partner.)  It feels amazing to have your first real meal in 12 hours. That hard wood bench on the ferry is going to feel even more amazing. I was lights out before we left the harbor. I don’t remember if I had any dreams, but right now I’m drifting off to a place where that sharp tug tells you the bass has committed to your fly and the ensuing battle is a bulldogging fight that only a Block Island striper can produce.

Ernies

Block Island All-Nighter X preview: not too shabby

I did my tenth Block Island All-Nighter this past Sunday into Monday. My fishing partner was old friend Peter Jenkins from The Saltwater Edge. I’m still in recovery mode (and playing catch-up on a bunch of other projects) so I haven’t had time to do a full write-up. But here are some broad brush strokes.

We flayed the water from 9pm to 6am. The fishing was good enough — 6.5 of 10. No consistent feeding, but stripers did show up in small bunches (and if you were willing to walk to find them). No keepers, a grim reminder that we are in a downturn, but on the flip side no micros: the vast majority of bass were 20-24″ with an occasional 26 mixed in, and those fish are great sport on a fly rod. Sand eels were the bait (and Big Eelies the fly) not present in great numbers but there. And yes, we had a darn good time.

A spunky 22-incher, set against a mosaic tile bottom. We repeatedly marveled at the raw power of these fish. Happy Father’s Day to us!

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“Block Island, RI: One of the Last Great Places” from Eastern Fly Fishing

You’ve got to go way back into the archives for this one: the May/June 2009 issue of Eastern Fly Fishing. Block Island, RI: One of the Last Great Places was written just as I was beginning to gain some publishing traction. You’ll have to settle for a low-res black and white version of the article, but the work stands on its own. It’s a quick primer on fishing the Block from shore, and it’s about all you’ll get out of me in terms of where-to. Thanks to John Kelsey for tying the Orange and Blue Squidazzle! PDF link is below.

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This used to be an L&L Big Eelie. An epic night of big Block bass on sand eels reduced it to a shell of its former self. They were still eating it when I stopped fishing at dawn.

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Thanks Zoomers and some yummy striper morsels

Many thanks to everyone who attended last night’s Zoom (Pro Tips and Q&A). We’ve been averaging around 50 people (which does not suck) and I’m grateful for the enthusiasm you’ve shown — love all the questions! Stay tuned for details on the next Currentseams Zoom.

Absent any striper fishing (what strange times we live in!) I’ve been striper tying. Tasty snacks abound: clam worms, mullet, silversides, sand eels, isopods and grass shrimp. Dig in!

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Bonus fly: Rat a Tat Big Eelie Variant

After tying the original large R.L.S. Rat a Tat flatwing, I couldn’t help but begin to imagine a translation into a Big Eelie. Those of you who are long time readers (and few of you who have stumbled across me on the beaches of Block Island and wondered, “What fly is that guy using?”) know that Ken Abrames’ Big Eelie is a Steve Culton summertime striper staple. (A little alliteration to jump start your post-lunch brain.) You also know I think it’s a profile and action fly, and that while colors may be irrelevant, I nonetheless love to play around with different combinations. I have to admit I’d never think of grouping these colors in a sand eel pattern. But I’ve got a hunch this is one is going to produce a big bass for me. And for you as well!

Rat a Tat Big Eelie

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Hook: Eagle Claw 253 3/0
Thread: Chartreuse 6/0
Platform: 30 hairs black bucktail
Tail: A yellow grizzly saddle, under 2 strands each of gold and red flash, under a chartreuse grizzly saddle, under a turquoise grizzly saddle, under a yellow grizzly saddle.
Body: Gold braid
Collar: 3-4 turns ginger marabou, tied in by the tip.
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Tying notes: Sand eels are a slender bait, so make your saddles about the width of a pencil. You don’t want a flaring broom shape for the platform, so likewise make it slim, and take the bucktail from near the tip of the tail. All the saddles are tied in flat. The marabou adds the magic here, as it veils the body when wet, creating movement and an almost glowing effect. I like to tie this fly about 4  1/2 inches long.

The best sand eel fly is the one that gives you the most confidence. (Like the Bruiser Big Eelie.)

Here’s another sand eel fly pattern that I can’t do without: the Bruiser Big Eelie. Faithful followers know that Ken Abrames’ Big Eelie template is a tried-and-true favorite that lends itself to all kinds of color variations. “Bruiser” because it’s black and blue and purple — and because this fly has accounted for some of my biggest stripers. Perfect for those dark of the moon nights when the bass are looking up and tracking those telltale thin silhouettes across the surface. I’ve been fishing this fly for close to a decade now, and while the Bruiser has appeared elsewhere, I haven’t presented it here until now. Speaking of presentation: swing it, dangle it, dead drift it, and strip it in ultra-short jerky bursts (my favorite).

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Hook: 3/0 Eagle Claw 253
Thread: Black 6/0
Platform: 30 hairs blue bucktail
Tail: First, a purple saddle, second, another purple saddle, third, 2 strands blue flash and 2 strands purple flash, fourth, a black saddle, fifth, a black saddle. (All saddles pencil thin and tied in flatwing style.)
Body: Purple braid
Hackle: 3-4 turns purple marabou, tied in at the tip
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The Bruiser Big Eelie Rogues’ Gallery:
Block Island, 20+ pounds
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Olive Fireworm Big Eelie Fireworks

Flies don’t catch fish — anglers do. Still, I sometimes like to fish by feeling, and the Olive Fireworm Big Eelie is my traditional choice on the 4th of July.

On our nation’s birthday, this 15-pound striper said yes to the Olive Fireworm Big Eelie. What a tremendous battle. I’m always in awe of the power of Block Island bass.

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