“Block Island Stripers From The Shore” first appeared in the October/November/December 2016 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide — sadly, the last issue of this regional gem. I consider Block Island to be sacred fishing ground. Some of my favorite fly fishing memories have been created along its shoreline.
My grandparents had an old map of Block Island in their basement. To my young eyes, it looked like a pirate treasure map from a story book. (I wasn’t too far off – the notorious Captain Kidd was known to frequent the island and its waters.) Then, there was the curious name. Why Block? It was shaped more like a pork chop than a cube. (I would later learn the island was named for Dutch explorer Adrien Block.) It was small enough to be charming (7 miles long and 3 miles wide, situated 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island) yet substantial enough to have been around since the last ice age.
Then there were the magical names of its shoreline and landmarks: Pots and Kettles. Rodman’s Hollow. Black Rock. It all sounded like a fanciful netherworld inhabited by wizards and elves.
The wondrous reality is that from May through November, Block Island is home to Morone saxatillis. And if the year, moon, and tides align, you can reasonably expect an unforgettable encounter with a striped bass on the fly from the shore.
A feisty Block Island school bass taken on a dead drift using a small, sparse sand eel pattern.
Where to fish. Finding a place to fish on Block Island is a good news-good news scenario: many possibilities, ample public access. You can find most of these spots on an online map. Note that there is no camping on Block Island, and no sleeping in vehicles.
Crescent Beach stretches several miles north from the ferry landing in town to Mansion Beach. The sandy bottom makes it a popular place for sight fishing. Some people bring ladders, but most anglers are content to walk and wet wade. Mornings – the beach crowds start building around 11am – and late afternoons are the best times to try your hand at stalking a cruising fish. If you see a substantial number of bass during the day, it usually means they’ll be around at night, too.
You’ll find structure, waves, and current like this along much of the island’s shoreline.
Sandy Point is the spit that juts out from the northern tip of the island. Currents from Long Island Sound and Cow Cove smash together, creating the dangerous – and sometimes deadly – North Rip. This is the place where Block Island angling legend Ben Lubell lost his life in the early 1980s. Take a lesson from Ben, and never wade in the North Rip. Stay out of the water and the wash at Sandy Point.
Those same lethal currents can also make for great fishing, acting as a conveyor belt that delivers helpless bait to waiting mouths. Local historians will tell you that Cow Cove got its name when the island’s first settlers forced their cattle to swim ashore there. Noted author and fly tyer Ken Abrames says with a smile that the name really comes from the size of the stripers that have been taken there over the years.
The Great Salt Pond was once a brackish, landlocked lake. A channel was dug in 1895. The pond offers the fly fisher a rich diversity of angling opportunities, from shallow flats to deep water drop-offs to pinch-points to river-like currents. The channel at the Coast Guard Station, also known as the Cut, is the most popular fishing spot on the island. However, popular doesn’t always mean best, and parking is often limited.
West Side. Charlestown Beach runs along the middle of the west side of the island. When it’s on, gird yourself for a bad case of striper thumb. The largest blitzes I’ve experienced on Block Island – both in numbers and pounds per fish –have taken place along Charlestown Beach. The West Side is also home to Grace’s, Dorie’s, and Cooneymus Coves. All are rocky bars that are in fly rod range at high tide.
South Side. The stretch from Black Rock Beach to Mohegan Bluffs features the kind of rocky structure that stripers like to frequent. However, both surf and prevailing winds can be a challenge to fly casters.
Some final words of advice and caution: never fish an area you’re unfamiliar with at night. Reconnoiter it first in daylight at the same tide you’ll be fishing. Don’t venture out in rough surf. And fish with a friend.
Flies and gear. Sand eels, squid, and silversides are the predominant inshore baits, so bring plenty of flies that match their action and profile. Sand eels start out small – 2” or less in early June – and grow as the summer progresses. I favor sparse, impressionistic patterns like Ken Abrames’ Eelie and Big Eelie. I tie the Big Eelie in a wide range of color combinations, from the original white/yellow/olive/blue to blue/black/purple. I make them about 4 ½” long, and stripers relish them all. It’s hard to go wrong with any simple, slim-profile baitfish pattern.
I’ve caught more Block Island stripers on the Big Eelie than any other pattern. This is the fly’s original color scheme.
It’s not uncommon to find both smaller (2”-3” long) and larger squid in the Great Salt Pond. And while I’ve never done very well using big flies on the Block, I always bring some foot-long eel patterns, because one day I’m going to find that 50-pounder. Crab and shrimp flies designed for bonefish will also work quite well on Block Island’s flats.
Bring your favorite one- or two-handed rod. As with any island, expect windy conditions, and match your rod accordingly. The water I fish is typically 2 to 8 feet deep. A floating line gives me the option of presenting from the surface to the bottom in most places. I always bring my full-sink integrated line in case it’s insanely windy or I want to fish a deep channel.
Waders and studded boots are essential gear for navigating the rocky shores and jetties of Block Island. Lightweight and comfortable boots will make that one-mile slog down the beach a little more endurable. Keep in mind that Block Island is surrounded by cool water for much of the summer; you’re probably going to need a jacket at night. Use a personal flotation device and carry a compass – Block Island can get Transylvania horror movie foggy.
And for those rare nights when the wind lies down and the air is still, make sure you have a generous supply of effective bug spray. The no see-ums on Block Island are torturous.
When to fish. Every year is different, and as east coast striper stocks have ebbed and flowed, so has the fishing on Block Island. In the previous four years I have caught as many as 75 bass over 8 nights, and as few as 4. There’s no way to predict which island you’re going to get.
While you can certainly catch Block Island stripers in daylight, Ray Charles put it rather eloquently when he sang, “night time is the right time.” Because most of the water I fish is shallow, I favor the dark of the moon or cloud-covered nights. Of course, the best time to go fishing is when you can. Catching or merely fishing, Block Island is a unique and beautiful location – and you’ll quickly understand why it was named by the Nature Conservancy as one of the “Last Great Places.”
Why I love fishing at night. This striper was part of a school of 10 to15-pound fish that set up on a shallow cobble-bottomed bar to ambush bait.