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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Celebrating summer

July is a darn good month to be an angler in these parts. I just returned from a week on Block Island, and while the fishing wasn’t great (spotty action and smaller fish) I did get into bass every night. Detailed report and pics to come.

I’m really looking forward to getting back to the Farmington, in particular to swinging some wets. The spring’s cool temps and voluminous water supply should make for some terrific wet fly outings over the next several weeks. Speaking of wet flies, there’s one more opening in Sunday’s UpCountry Wet Flies 101 class. Jump on it and become the envy of all your trout angling friends. You can’t sign up with me; you have to do it through the store here.

Speaking of jumping on things, if you’re planning on booking a lesson/outing/trip with me, best to inquire now. My days are filling up (two gigs next week) and I am going to jealously guard my personal fishing time. You know where to find me.

Client John with a fine example of what is possible on the Farmington River at noon on a sunny day in July.

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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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Things to do in your Jeep during an electrical storm

I had a brilliant plan for last night’s striper expedition. Really. It would have been perfect. Unfortunately, Mother Nature decided to fire up some major thunder and lightning action just as I pulled into the spot. Not wanting to be a statistic, I cooled my heels in the truck with a Liga Privada No. 9 Double Corona (a cigar of immense depth and power) while the storm raged overhead. I turned on the Mets game, and since they were murdering the Cubs, it made the 90 minutes of prime lost tide slightly more bearable. I decided to amuse myself by trying some artsy no-flash-in-the-dark selfies. Here’s a trippy Jimi Hendrix acid light show rendering of your humble scribe:

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As soon as the storm passed, I raced to the beach where I managed two stripers in the last gasp of the outgoing tide.

A reminder that no fish is worth chasing in an electrical storm. Please get off the water and take cover when you hear thunder.

 

Block Island All-Nighter IX: It’s Father’s Day…and I got my cake!

We dip into the obscure 80s movie vault for that opening. But if you remember the first segment of Creepshow, you know from whence I quote. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The first day of summer comes riding in on a white charger to banish the memories of the miserable spring that was striper fishing from the shore in Connecticut.

This was my first-ever solo BIAN (Block Island All-Nighter, for the uninitiated). A couple last-minute cancellations saw to that, and I couldn’t take Cam this year because he’s recuperating from an injury. You never know what you’re going to get on the BIAN. But there’s only one way to find out.

Getting ready. Big Eelies are a high-confidence pattern for me on the Block in June and July. The bass don’t have a color preference — it’s a profile and presentation fly — so I like to play around with different palettes. Crazy Menhaden colors on the paper, False Dawn on the cork. The entire top row left of the box is assorted other Big Eelies.

Block Island All-Nighter Flies Big Eelies

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I was sitting in my Jeep in the ferry lot. It was tropical for a June in Point Judith, so I had the door open. A squadron of passing gulls (if you’ll pardon the expression) evacuated their bowels over my position; most of it ended up on the truck, but a good tablespoonful got me square on the left leg. I took this as a sign. Yep. It was going to be a good night’s fishing.

Block Island All-Nighter bird poop

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Over the course of the night, I bounced around to several spots and found sand eels and stripers everywhere. I started fishing at 8:30; by midnight I had caught more bass than I had the entire spring in Connecticut. Plus, it was Father’s Day. That called for a celebration. A wee drap of Highland Park 12 year-old paired with a Gispert Churchill. (Sold separately.)

Block Island All-Nighter Wee Drop

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My first encounter of the night was with bluefish — it did not end favorably for my leader or my fly. After that, it was bass after bass after bass. The vast majority were scrappy pugs in the 20-24″ class, but there were a few keepers in the mix. It took me until June 22 this year (my longest stretch since I started fishing for stripers) to catch a legal fish. He she is, about to dash off to freedom. Note the curious observer to the right of her gill plate.

Block Island All-Nighter first keeper

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My best fish of the night, twenty pounds, just shy of 37″. She surprised me when I started hand stripping her in. The next thing I knew, line was hurtling through my fingertips and noisily chattering off the reel. The power of these larger bass is almost irrational, although they have a distinctive flight pattern: head for deeper water, and, failing at that, swim at attack speed in a broad half-moon arc. I’m trying to be as photo-friendly as I can with fish these days, and that translates to keeping them in the water as much as possible, even if it means not getting a classic hero shot. I encourage you to do the same.

Block Island All-Nighter 20 pounds

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Stripers often feed like like trout taking emergers or sipping spinners. I witnessed both rise forms. Here’s the back end of a spinner sip. Look in the foreground for worried water and a caddis-like leap by a sand eel. That spot erupted moments after I took this photo.

Block Island All-Nighter tailer

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The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad. But I did not have another for dessert. That was reserved for Ernie’s. Scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes and toast, my first real food since those sublime fried scallops at Finn’s twelve hours earlier. 

Block Island All-Nighter Beer 

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You know the fishing is good when your fly ends up like this. In it’s heyday it was an L&L Big Eelie. Now it’s a testament to the potential of primal carnage and a top-ten-ever night of fly fishing for striped bass.

Block Island All-Nighter destroyed fly

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BIAN IX is awarded the official Currentseams seal of approval.

Block Island All-Nighter striper thumb