As many of you know, I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to Dennis Zambotta’s followup to “Surfcasting Around The Block.” I’d started writing back in December, then got sidetracked. First draft is done. Now comes the hard part — the editing, polishing, re-writing. So for now other creative projects will have to wait. For what it’s worth, I’m excited about what I’ve written so far.
As more and more fly fishing magazines wither and die, I find myself looking for new ways to contribute to the ancient art of print. (I have some exciting ideas that I may announce in 2021.) Sometimes those opportunities materialize seemingly out of nowhere. Like when Toby Lapinski asked me to contribute to The Fisherman magazine (new articles coming in 2021). Or when Dennis Zambrotta asked me to write a fly fishing chapter for his followup to Surfcasting Around The Block. As it turns out, I may be writing a couple pieces. I love Block. I love Dennis’ first book. And I’m loving writing for the followup. (Here’s the original post in case you missed it.)
I love all striped bass, but there is something wondrous about holding one in the sacred waters of Block Island.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.