Fishing Rhode Island: A South Shore Primer
by Joe Lyons
p the tide, down the tide, all season long, Rhode Island's south shore holds the possibility of trophy fish. But with twenty miles of oceanfront, much of it distinguishable only in its sameness, where should one begin? Which tide and time of year is best? What wind direction? Fortunately, one can never be one hundred percent sure. For most fishermen, finding the fish is almost as rewarding as reeling them in. One thing one can be sure of however, given the lack of structure, these fish will be on the move most of the time. As Conan Doyle’s Holmes was fond of saying, "The game is afoot!"
From Matunuck Beach to Watch Hill Lighthouse, few areas of any substantial structure exist. Though the long stretches of pristine beaches are pleasing to look that, and attract hordes of clam cake munching tourists, they hold few ambush opportunities for Mr. Linesides. With average tides running around three and a half feet, the pronounced cuts, bars and drop-offs do not develop along the beachfront to the same degree that they develop along the Cape’s beaches. Due to these facts, one will notice few surfcasters sporting Rhode Island license plates will be found fishing with sand beneath their toes. Indeed, perhaps the only time one will see fishermen lined up along the beachfront is migration time. Traditional Rhode Island surf fishing is done from a stone platform. It’s no coincidence that most of the premier surf fishing locations in the "Ocean State" support some type of rocky structure. A quick look a map of Rhode Island's coastline will reveal that at each end of every stretch of beachfront, their lies a productive fishing locale. Three of these areas are Fresh Pond Rocks, Weekapaug Breachway, and the famous Watch Hill Lighthouse.
When To Go? The Darker The Better!
As with any type of shore fishing, wind and tide conditions will factor in greatly. Any of these three spots will produce fish given favorable conditions. Along this area of the Rhode Island coast, the fish begin to set up residency around the first week in June. Though these areas will produce earlier the season, it can be a "catch-as-catch-can" prospect. Expect a temporary slowdown in early August through early September. Things pick up in early autumn however, as the cool nights stir the instinctual need for fish to "bulk up" for the long trip south. Expect the night tides to produce into early November and the day fishing to hold up till Thanksgiving. Wind conditions of light South, West, or Southwest around 10 mph (with light south being a personal favorite) - are all considered favorable. Surf conditions on the order of one to four feet are preferred with two to three feet being about perfect. Moonless tides in the dead of night with favorable winds produce the best, with dusk and dawn productive as well.
For surf fishing, a stout spinning or conventional stick spooled with 20 - 25 pound monofilament or 30 pound Power Pro, is about as close to ultra light as you should dare to go. A good pair of waders, or hip boots and splash pants, equipped with Korkers and leak proof, foul weather top and hat (as you will be in some "splashy" situations) is essential. For fly-fishing, a 10-12 Wt. rod of medium to heavy action, spooled with floating or intermediate line, is the weapon of choice. Regardless of what method you decide to apply, keep in mind that these are rocky locations that require long (three feet) leaders with 50 pound test leader material being the standard for spinning and conventional, and 30 pound test being the benchmark for fly fishing.
For traditional spin or conventional fisherman, Eels are (by far) the preferred item on the menu. For hooks, a #7/0 offset circle hook works especially well, snell the hook onto a three-foot length of 50 pound monofilament. The circle configuration is resistant to hanging up, which allows one to retrieve the eel super slow through the boulder fields. Run the hook under the jaw and out the back of the eel’s head, slightly behind one of the eyes. If you are queasy handling Mr. Wiggly, try a Super Strike Bullet Plug, Gibbs Stubby Needlefish or Danny Plug (small) works well. Be advised however, that eels provide the best opportunity for a trophy. Preferred plug colors are dark green, light green, and black. If you find yourself fishing when the sun comes up, snap on a trusty Kastmaster or Super Strike Popper.
If you're using the long wand, eel patterns, and black deceivers work well. Use big flies tied to quality hooks, as these fish will test your tackle. Again, use as long and as heavy a leader section as you can successfully turn over and present.
First Stop: Watch Hill Light House
Watch Hill, though an old money enclave with rabidly enforced daytime parking restrictions, supports two outstanding fishing spots, Watch Hill Lighthouse and Napatree Point. When you go to Watch Hill, park in the designated areas. (The strip mall parking lot - off hours only -or downtown on the street.)Wherever you park, remember to keep quiet, respect people’s property, and help to keep this beautiful spot on the list of accessible areas. I like to get 100% suited up beforehand so when I park I can quickly grab my gear and be on my way. After parking, walk up the hill, past the Watch Hill Inn’s parking lot to your first side street on your right. A small sign states that non-resident vehicle traffic is prohibited, but pedestrian and bicycles are allowed. The walk is manageable, and less than ten minutes one-way.
I like to fish Watch Hill at the top end of the tide, as it gets pretty bony (Bony: Rhode Island fishing slang: A place with many rocks in the water where one can lose their lure very easily.) once the water starts to ebb. Two hours either side of slack high is good, but the two hours after high is generally better than before. Make sure you are using a tide chart for Watch Hill, not Newport, as there are significant differences in tide times. The near sides, (East) directly under the Lighthouse and out buildings are favorites, with the "Point" a close second.
Metal Lipped Swimmers work big time at Watch Hill! because there is a lighthouse and a constant beam of light, I find that
Tattoos 2.5 ounce swimmers in the lighter colors are a good pick. You'll need the bigger ones to reach the good water.
When fishing eels, try to let them sink as close to the bottom as possible without hanging up. I like to cast, let the eel sink, and count off the seconds (this technique is known as the "count-down method.") so I can get an approximation of how long I can let it sink on each subsequent attempt. I have noticed that many of the stripers that I caught and kept here have had small lobsters among their stomach contents. I have a theory that the fish here are nosing down to feed. Whether or not my theory as to why is correct, is debatable, but I seem to catch a lot more fish when I employ this technique than to when I do not.
Now it seems the tide is down, and it’s time to try our luck at the next spot on the list of our evening’s festivities.
Second Stop: Fresh Pond Rocks
After parking at Ningret Refuge, (at the end of East Beach Road) walk back down the dirt road (not the beach) to Blue Shutters Beach, (in the fall you can park at Blue Shutters, but not in the summer) cut through the parking lot on to the beach and turn right, from there it is about a five-minute walk to Fresh Pond Rocks.
Being the first structure, a lot of bait tends to congregate among the rocks. When the wind is out of a favorable direction (i.e. West/Southwest/South) and fairly light, whitewater makes up along its outer perimeter. The combination of bait and turbulent water creates feeding opportunities for bass and bluefish.
I like to fish Fresh Pond at mid-tide. At high tide, the white water makes up a little too close to shore for optimum fishing. And, if you go at low tide, you'll find that so many rocks are above water, you'll hang up repeatedly. Fishing during the middle stages of the tide places the whitewater right over the drop-off about 50 yards out. This allows the angler with decent casting ability, to cast beyond the rubble field and whitewater, allowing him/her to gain control over the presentation piece and bring it through the "strike zone" perfectly. It should be noted that many capable anglers prefer high tide at Fresh Pond - I suggest that each angler try this spot at different tide stages and determine for themselves what they prefer.
As with any spot, there are tricks one can do to improve productivity. Here, the biggest mistake I have seen people make is the tendency to fish either side - but not the middle. The middle of Fresh Pond Rocks, you see, is a minefield of boulders. Casting a $14.00 swimming plug is not advised, unless of course, you own a tackle company. The fish, however, have no troubles negotiating rocks that are placed in close proximity to one another - to them it's just another day at the office. One night, in October 1994, with a favorable, light southwest wind blowing, I was fishing the minefield from atop my favorite flat-topped rock. Another angler to my left was fishing a swimming plug to the clean, beach side. He watched as I caught three keepers in about half an hour, the biggest of which topped the scales at 28 pounds. I told him the fish were inside the rocks and invited him to fish next to me; he declined, stating he was sure he would lose his plug. I was fishing eels on a single hook and had no such worries.
Another trick one can employ here is mobility. Often times I have seen people come here, pick out a rock and cast straight out, never moving from rock to rock, or fanning out their casts in multiple directions to cover as much water as possible. It's surf casting 101, (I know) but I'm still amazed that someone will go to all the trouble and expense of outfitting themselves with great gear, buy a $25,000 truck to fish out of, drive an hour and half to get to the spot, only to cast at one spot all night long.
Additionally, one should concentrate their offerings to the up-current part of the point and let the current move the bait/plug/fly into the down-current side of the point. What I mean is, if the shoreline current is moving west to east place your presentation to the western side of the structure. Let the current aid you in presentation, fish tend to nose into the current on the down-current sides of structure and wait for the current to provide them with feeding opportunities. Lou Tabory, author of Inshore Fly Fishing, at a lecture I attended recently, described these down-current areas that fish hold in as "feeding lanes." It's a great term - and a very accurate description. A big problem I've noticed since I've started guiding is that many anglers just blind cast - without thinking about where or when they are going cast. A good fisherman makes deliberate presentations.
During the fall season the CRMC (Coastal Resources Management Council) issues permits that allow for four wheel drive vehicles to access the beach either through the sand trail (accessed via Ninigret Refuge parking lot) or in some years, through the Blue Shutters Beach parking lot. Be advised however, that you must possess all permits and have all required equipment on board at all times.
If there is any down side to fishing this spot, it has to be the fact that the presence of so many rocks means you will loose some big fish. Once I caught a large bass here that fought me from rock to rock. By the time I landed the fish she was banged up pretty bad, abrasions were visible up and down the sides of the fish. Another time, I went to pull my leader by the barrel swivel in order to beach a good fish only to have the 50 pound material break; dead center. The bass, which I estimated was in the high 20's calmly, turned and swam, back out to sea. Upon examining the leader material I noticed it was near breaking at several points and that I was lucky even to have seen that fish.
Well, it appears were almost out of fishable water here, time to head south on Route 1 and try our luck drifting into the outgoing tide at Weekapaug Breachway.
Third Spot: Weekapaug Breachway
I like to go to Weekpaug in for the last two hours of the outgoing tide. The water on all but the most neap tides will run fairly strong for approximately 75 minutes beyond low on the chart. I like to fish the near (east) side, but will fish the far (west) side if there is a crowd. As the water exits the "shoot" it turns east (left) and the current parallel’s the shore.
Drifting plugs, flies, or eels are effective as well as chunks and jigs. Cast into the current, open the bail (or free spool), and feed the line out smoothly. The fish most often hit at the end of the drift, just when the momentum from the tide lets up. When they do, close the bail, lower the rod tip, wait for the line to become taught, then set the hook with a couple of good upward thrusts of the rod. A fish hooked in an outgoing breachway current will fight much harder than usual so be patient and keep your head. Pick out a landing spot, and a backup landing spot before you start fishing and let your fellow fisherman know you are fighting a fish with a hearty, "Fish On" call.
While fishing here in a gale in about five years ago - I had to cut a fish loose. The fish was cornered in a rock on the inside of the Breachway; there was just no safe way to get down to land it. It was the right decision, and one that people don’t always make. One time, while I was fishing on the east side of the inlet, a young fisherman got his boot stuck in a rock while trying to land a fish. That happens every now and then, the problem was that every five minutes or so, a rouge wave would come in. I told him to get out his waders and I would help him up to a dry rock. He barely made it up in time. Had he waited another 30 seconds and he would have been looking at a compound fracture. When fishing the stones, especially fishing alone, don’t take chances.
Rhode Island is blessed with good access, a rich tradition of surfcasting, and a large, competitive cadre of participants. So pick a night, plan a trip and try something new, you won’t be disappointed.
Copyright © 2002 - 2013 Joe Lyons, All Rights Reserved
Articles by Joe Lyons
Joe Lyons has been a surfcaster for over twenty years on the rocks and beaches of Rhode Island and Block Island. An accomplished writer he is a regular contributer to several New England and Northeast fishing magazines. In 2002 he put his experience and knowledge to "good use" by becoming a professional surfcasting guide in Rhode Island and Block Island. Among his many clients has been Peter Kaminsky, the well known writer for the New York Times and author of numerous books on fishing and many other subjects.
Joe resides in West Warwick, RI 02893 and can be reached by calling (401) 615-2636 or by the Contact Us page on Surfcasting-RhodeIsland.com where you will find his complete Guiding information.