Block Island striper report: small is the new black

Another year, another seven days to chase linesiders in one of The Last Great Places. What each new season brings is always a mystery until you get out there, and then you can toss all the reports you’ve been hearing because they’re either spot on, nothing like that at all, or varying points of somewhere in between.

In 2017, I’d been hearing credible talk of voluminous schools of sand eels inshore and the Bass-O-Matic running on high. That sounded swell, but there were two x-factors to consider: we were coming out of the new moon into first quarter with a waxing gibbous and its bite-killing light; and the weather. Good news/bad news on both fronts. On the plus side it was cloudy most nights, so moonlight was not a factor. On the down side, it was windy. Like small craft warning windy: 20 knots sustained with higher gusts that pushed the limits of what is reasonable with a fly rod. And wind usually changes everything on the Block.

Like last year, I caught stripers every night. But the bargain of two consecutive years without a skunk was a preponderance of small fish. This was the first time in a decade that I didn’t take a legal bass out here, and I found myself longing for those schools of 15-pounders that would sit off the beach for 90 minutes, having their way with sand eels. I had two double-digit nights, then a six, then three singles, and wrapped it up with another half dozen. But 27″ was the largest bass I could muster.

Sight fishing from the beach during daylight was tough due to wind, but mostly to the clouds that made finding those elusive shadows a chore. What’s more, on the sunny days I spotted very few cruisers. I did get two fish to follow my fly, one of them a good 20-pounder, but in the end they both broke off the chase.

And then there were the Meatballs. I had enough nights where I enjoyed blissful solitude, but there were a few sessions where the Meatballs were out in force and in rare form. I’m usually the quiet sort on the water, but at one point on a certain night I was blasted so often by so many hundreds of lumens that I finally turned and barked, “Please stop shining that light on me NOW!” They left shortly after. I had a cigar to celebrate.

And that’s the thing about Block. Even when it’s bad, it can be very, very good.

I had high hopes for this fish — he went on the reel — but the tape measure didn’t lie and he came up an inch short. I mostly stuck with my usual eclectic mix of Big Eelies. This fish thought the Crazy Menhaden color scheme looked tasty. Kind of a neat stained glass effect going on in the water around him, too.

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Unless there’s a specific hot spot, I always try to mix it up on the Block. I fished the east side and west side beaches, southeast side, off some jetties, in the Great Salt Pond, and — regrettably — the North Rip. I say this only because the Rip had been producing a consistent good bite if you had a spinning rod. The night I slogged out there was about the worst night for fly fishing you could imagine. The wind was rain jacket whipping-fast, and I had to cast my line backhand over my right shoulder (I’m a lefty) to shoot it into the rip, then feed line into the left to right current. So far so good. But, rats. Mung. Every cast. I took this shot when I got back to the truck. Yes, it was that hot and that humid and that foul. I love the Block, but walking a mile and a half in the sand for nothing will make anyone dour.

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I discovered that striped bass have great camo against the sand and rocks — even when they’re dead.

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A public service message brought to you by the National Spell Check Society.

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On the last night I caught bass two ways. First, off the beach, where I found a school of hungry fish feeding in the moonlight; then, inside the Pond on a flat with a team of three flies suspended in the film. (Floating line, of course, for both methods.) My last two fish of the trip came as the flies dead-drifted across the flat. That building pressure I felt let me know a striper was flaring his gills to suck in one of the small sand eel flies, in this case a 3″ Eelie in olive and chartreuse. See you next year, when one of us has put on a few more pounds.

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“Block Island Stripers from the Shore” in the Oct/Nov/Dec 2016 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide

It’s the Destination Issue of MAFFG, and we’re all heading to Block Island! A nifty little primer on the island, its structure, flies, gear, and more. While this past year was (ahem) a bit of an off-year for stripers on the fly from the shore, the Block remains one of my favorite places to fish — and write about.

While I truly love answering your questions, let me head you off at the pass: no, I don’t know where you can find a copy of MAFFG. You can try contacting them through their Facebook page. And of course, let them know you enjoy my writing.

Hot off the presses.

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Block Island report: Three steps forward, one giant leap back

Block Island used to be the the place I’d go to restore my faith in the ocean. The late spring striper fishing in Connecticut would inevitably fade, and mainland Rhode Island would become a crap shoot. But Block Island would be as reliable as sunrise in the east.

Over the course of a week, I could expect between 60 and 100 bass, with a healthy percentage of legal fish in the mix. Many were the years when my largest striper would be a summer resident of the Block. And while there might be a night of skunking, the Island would always quickly repay me with an off-the-charts outing. (I still fondly recall the night in the mid-two thousand oughts when my friend John and I encountered a school of 15-25 pound bass within casting range. John took a striper on 11 consecutive casts — work that out in your head — and I managed the largest fish of the night with a junior cow that went nearly 40 inches. I don’t think the drags on our reels were ever the same after that.)

Then came 2011. I landed eight stripers over the course of a week. Incredibly, 2012 was worse: four bass over seven nights. 2013 was much better, albeit spotty, 2014 better still and more consistent, and then last year I surpassed the 75 fish mark without a single skunk.

Sadly, the resurgence was short-lived. A paltry ten bass this year, four in one night. (This  indicates a dearth of schools of feeding bass. Instead, you get lone wolves, which means you need to be in the right place at the right time. Certainly some of that is calculable, but much of it is left to the whims of chance.) I had to work my butt off for those stripers, too — a typical night had me bouncing around the island hitting multiple spots. On of my two single-fish nights, my striper came on the last cast. I saw less than a dozen sand eels all week. The family goes to the beach nearly every day, yet I could only find one bass cruising the shore break. Even more telling was the hardcore-wetsuit-plugger who relayed his tale of woe. Fishing on his favorite boulders from the southeast to southwest sides, he managed a single bass over four nights.

My local spies tell me that the beach bite never materialized this year (the second half of June/first half of July is typically prime time), and the boat bite has likewise been poor. The big question is: why? For one, no bait, indicated by a paucity of shore birds scavenging the beach on the receding tides. Some locals are pointing to the wholesale wanton slaughter of larger bass at the Ledge over the last half-decade as a contributing factor. Meanwhile, Cape Cod has been en fuego this year. Could it be that for some reason, large numbers of bass ignored the right turn to the Block and continued on to the cozy confines of Chatham?

One thing is certain. A new normal for fly fishing Block Island from the shore has been established. And it is:  you pays your money and you takes your chances.

Good times on the first night. This fish was part of the only school (if you can call a half dozen bass a school) of actively feeding fish I found all week. What he lacked in size — this is a 24-incher — he made up for in ferocity. My presentation was short strips across a slow current, and he hammered the fly with such power that I put him on the reel. The Big Eelie in various color schemes accounted for all my bass. One constant on Block Island remains: the remarkable clarity of the water. 

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Iron meets water and air. Oxidation ensues. Taken on the northwest side.

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Darkness falls across the land. (And sea.) I took this shot while perched on a rock as the waves rolled in at my feet. I was sure I was going to score a 15-pounder here — there was a nice rip line moving across the current — but I blanked. A bit of a tricky wade as this flat is a weed-covered boulder field, so I was thankful to make it back to shore on the incoming tide.

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I saw you, feeding noisily near that boulder pile. The best striper of the trip, and my only keepah. I had to reposition myself to properly present to this fish. On the second cast, bang! What? I couldn’t believe I missed him. So I ripped my line in to make another cast. In the moment it took to raise the rod tip, slack formed in the line. When I lifted the line off the water, the fish was on. To reiterate: I’d rather be lucky than good.

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Block Island All-Nighter VIII: All by my(our)self

This year’s Block Island All-Nighter played out a little differently than in years past. Once I found out I would be flying solo, I decided to ask my 11 year-old, Cam, if he would like to go. He was all over it. I think he liked the idea of heading off for an overnight as much as he did the chance to go fishing. But I really didn’t care what his motivations were. It would be nice to have his company.

The last two BIANs were busts. My intel on the Island had warned me of epically slow fishing in the last week — “Be prepared to tour the Island to find fish” was the mandate. For a time, it looked like BIAN VIII would crap out. Then, a trickle of fish. And suddenly, the heavens opened and the light — hell, it was more of a beacon — of good bass fortune shined upon us. Here’s a little timeline and some photos from our adventure.

6pm-8:30pm: Take the six o’clock boat over to the Island. The surface is flat as a dinner plate. Speaking of dinner, no better way to start a BIAN off than with the fried scallop platter from Finn’s, washed down with an IPA draft.

My stash for the evening. You’re thinking, “Steve, why would you bring so many cigars?” Just in case. Someone might ask for one. Someone might deserve one for sharing the water. Or, on a dead-calm night like this one, I might forget my bug spray and be inundated by millions of biting no-see-ums. There’s no mention of cigars as bug repellant in the Boy Scout Manual. But this ex-scout was indeed prepared.

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No Fisherman’s IPA this year, so we went with Loose Cannon. Another hop bomb with some nice fruity notes.

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8:30pm-11pm: We arrive at the spot. It is mobbed. Like, we get the last place to park mobbed. Not to worry, I tell Cam. It’ll empty out in short order. Witnessed: The largest, longest school of sand eels I’ve seen on the Block since 2007. The bait was smaller than normal for this time of year: matchstick to 2″ long. But scads of them. And then some. The water looked like it had a moving, breathing oil spill beneath its surface. Cam fishing with a 1/2 oz. bucktail jig bangs up some fluke. Dad goes touchless. We walk to another spot. Dad’s proven fish-producing spot. There, Cam, you see? A couple bass rising. We display our wares to them. Nothing. Hmm. Not usually how things play out on the Block. We borrowed some bug spray for Cam, but he’s still getting pummeled. Cam announces he’s tired and is ready for nap #1. We start the long walk back to the truck. Looks like it’s going to be one of those nights.

11pm-1am: The stars! What a galaxy we live in. The air so calm I can blow smoke rings. The ocean is still mirror flat. So flat that I can easily see those rise rings thirty feet off shore. Multiple active feeders. I tell Cam his nap plans have been placed in a holding pattern. I’m going to cast to some fish. They seem oblivious to my fly. No wonder. There are enough sand eels here to feed every striper in Rhode Island. I connect with a few, and let Cam reel in a couple. At midnight he decides to call it. I keep fishing and catch a half-dozen or so more. This is already better than most of the last two years.

And I have no idea what’s coming.

Tight lines with the long rod. Cam has a knack for getting stripers in quick. No wonder. Look at the angle of the rod. I may have reinforced fighting the fish off the reel and the butt, but he basically taught himself. 

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One of Cam’s prizes. Most of the bass from the first part of the evening were in the 18″-24″ range. Block Island remains the only place I’ll put a sub-double-digit pounds striper on the reel.

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1am-3am: I’m walking along the beach, trying to decide where to fish, when the decision is made for me. A squadron of seagulls are milling about the water’s edge, chattering excitedly. Bass have the sand eels trapped and are picking them off with gusto. The gulls are cleaning up the leftovers. All I need to do is choose a rise ring, lay my fly over it, then start stripping. Sometimes the fly barely has a chance to get wet before the glassy surface is shattered and I’m on. It is a school of good stripers, ten-to-fifteen pound range, and every one of them came tonight to eat. For the better part of 90 minutes, the action is non-stop. It’s like striper fantasy camp. It’s so intense that I wonder how much longer it — or I — can go on. One fish obliterates the fly — this one’s over 30 inches — and as it rolls on the surface it spooks what look like another dozen stripers the same size.

Best of all, what I predicted earlier has come to pass. There isn’t another soul on the beach.

A 15 pound Block striper, classic big shoulders, belly full of bait. I know, fish on sand is not ideal. I risked this one for a photo; all her sisters were lipped and released within safe confines of the ocean.

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The white cavern, the last thing a sand eel sees before it disappears into the void.

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3am-6:30am: This time of year, the first glimmer of light appears in the east around 3:45am. I fished hard in those first forty-five minutes because I could sense I was running out of steam. I continued to walk along the beach, targeting active feeders. The bass seemed to get more aggressive as the sun’s disc neared the horizon; several times I had fish on as soon as the fly hit the water. By five I was done. I chatted up a a few anglers on the walk out, and presented a fly to a gentleman who proudly told me that today was his 81st birthday. After rinsing down our equipment, we headed into town to wait for Ernie’s to open. Breakfast is going to be glorious.

The pre-dawn crescent moon accompanied by the morning star. If you look closely just to the left of center, you can a see the remnants of a rise ring.

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Geez Louise. I gotta be more careful with that belt sander.

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6:30am-8am: Breakfast. Three pancakes for Cam. Pancakes and eggs for dad. Bacon for both. Off to the dock. Delirious from lack of sleep. Or all those stripers.

I can’t remember which.

Cindy Loo-Who has been punching my car ticket for decades now. Our meetings are always bittersweet: “Hello, old friend,” combined with the melancholy of leaving my favorite Island.

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