I don’t know if there’s a best sand eel fly, but the sand eel pattern in which I have the highest confidence is Ken Abrames’ Big Eelie. And right now’s the perfect time to be tying them up. My Rhode Island spies tell me that sand eels are out in good numbers. Surfcaster extraordinaire Dennis Zambrotta, author of Surfcasting Around The Block, tells me that unless you had a sand eel teaser rigged next to your plug the other night, you didn’t hook up. (This was at an undisclosed oceanfront location in SoCo.) One of the things I love about the Big Eelie is that it lends itself supremely well to different color combinations. I tie all manner of variants (do a search on this site for recipes, and I’ll even start you off with one, the L&L Big Eelie). And of course, the original colors (white/yellow/olive/blue) remain deadly as ever!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
It happens, if you’re lucky, once a season. It does not define you as angler. It makes no promise of future success. Like all glory, it is fleeting. But oh, does it make you feel like the king of the world. It is the moment after a wildly successful session when someone breathlessly approaches you with the words, “Excuse me, I’ve got to ask. What fly were you using?”
The first time I fished the Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie was a humid, overcast June night on Block Island. A substantial school of bass in the ten-to-fifteen pound range was feeding on sand eels near the surface. They had the bait pinned in a three-foot deep trough between the beach and a sand bar that dropped off into deeper water. For the better part of three hours, I took bass after well-fed, rotund bass. They relished the fly, even after it was reduced to two saddles and some frayed bucktail. As I began the walk to my Jeep, the angler to my right hurriedly reeled in his line and chased me down the beach, eager to pop the question.
As its name suggests, this fly takes the color scheme of Ken Abrames’ Crazy Menhaden and applies it to the template of the Big Eelie. Together, they create an insanely potent brew of form and function.
Tail: (All saddles pencil thin) Pink saddle, under two strands each of red and copper flash, under yellow saddle, under chartreuse saddle, under blue saddle
Body: Gold braid
Tying notes: As with all Big Eelies, make the saddles thin. Tie them in flat. I like this fly about four and one-half inches long. Treat the marabou as a veil, not an opaque blob.
Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie Rogues’ Gallery:
(Please forgive the fish-unfriendly photo. This was the only striper I beached to shoot. I lipped the rest).