November 5, 2018
Expert anglers reveal their top strategies for catching striped bass and bluefish in one of the most productive—and challenging—hot spots in the Northeast.
By Captain Tom Migdalski
When it comes to fish-holding features, rips rank among the best. And thanks to its swift tidal currents, the Northeast has plenty of them—although none compare to the three-mile stretch of hyper-turbulent water between New York’s Fishers Island and Little Gull Island known as the Race.
Arguably the mother of all rips, the Race is infamous for its ferocious currents and tall, standing waves created by a bottleneck of landmasses and a steeply sloping bottom that rises abruptly from over 300 feet to less than 30 feet in some spots. The combination of current and topography attracts predators, which hold near the craggy bottom, waiting for food to be swept past.
Stripers and bluefish are the main targets of Race fishermen, with the former arriving in late May, the latter a few weeks later. Cow and schoolie stripers are at their peak concentrations in June and linger through October, feasting on shoals of herring, squid, silversides, sand eels and butterfish.
Finding the Race is easy. A prominent “rip line” forms at the crest of the reef, with a section of smooth water on the upcurrent side. At slack water, however, the rip line disappears for about an hour, and on windless days conditions can be remarkably tranquil. But don’t be fooled; the Race has many faces and moods—some extremely sinister. Use caution, especially in a wind-opposing-tide scenario.
Squidding & Bucktailing
The two most popular methods of fishing the deep, turbulent waters in the middle of the Race are jigging big (8- to 12-ounce) diamond jigs and drifting bucktails. With the first approach, run up-tide of the rip line while watching your depthsounder. When the sloping bottom reaches a depth of between 160 and 190 feet, throw the engine into neutral and free-spool your jig rapidly to the bottom. Once it hits bottom, take 8 to 10 quick turns on the reel. Free-spool the jig back down and crank it up again. Remember that bluefish and bass often strike a jig as it falls, so if your line stops abruptly or you feel a bump on the drop, engage the reel and lift sharply on the rod to set the hook.
Repeat this speed-jigging, or “squidding,” process until you near the rip line then reel in and motor back upcurrent about a quarter-mile and make another drift. If you’re new to the game, simply follow the fleet, marking productive spots when you hook up so you can repeat the drift.
Bucktail jigs are fished on a three-way rig, where a heavy bank sinker, tied to a three-way swivel, is used as the primary weight. The jig itself trails behind the sinker on a six-foot leader. To fish bucktails, run upcurrent of the rip line to the same spot you would when diamond jigging. Free-spool the rig to the bottom and immediately take a few turns on the reel to prevent a snag. With the current running at or near peak velocity—the best time to fish—it may be necessary to let out more line as you drift along, even though the water gets shallower as you near the rip line. It’ll take some experimentation to figure out the precise amount of line to let out based on the current and the depth at which the fish are holding. Other than depth adjustments, you don’t need to impart any action to the bucktail during the drift.
Because of the Race’s strong current and deep water, bucktailing and jigging have traditionally involved heavy, 6 ½-foot boat rods rigged with workhorse reels like the Penn 4/0 Senator, loaded with 40- to 60-pound mono. Sixteen- to 24-ounce sinkers were necessary to keep the thick mono somewhat vertical.
However, a new era in light-tackle Race fishing is upon us, and one of its pioneers is Kerry Douton, owner of J&B Tackle and captain of the well-known charter boat Dot-E-Deeout of Niantic. “The invention of super braid line has allowed us to lighten up tremendously on tackle and still effectively fish deep water,” says Douton. “Thanks to the thin line, we’re able to fish with weights as light as eight ounces. This allows us to use much lighter rods and smaller reels—and have a lot more fun in the process.”
Douton’s three-way rigs consist of a 1 ¼-ounce bucktail jig with an 8/0 hook, which is bigger than the hook normally found on small bucktails. “I use a white Smilin’ Bill leadhead,” explains Douton, “These jigs normally come with a 6/0 hook, but we order them with bigger hooks, which hold better on large bluefish and bass. You can go with a bigger bucktail, but if you go too heavy, you lose its action when the current slows. Remember, it’s the sinker that gets the rig to the bottom, not the jig.”
Douton tips his jig hook with a strip of red, yellow or white pork rind, which flutters seductively in the current and simulates a baitfish’s beating tail or a squid’s pulsing tentacles. Other anglers use a strip of felt soaked in a fish-attracting scent.
Race Rods & Reels
To fish light bucktail rigs, Douton recommends high-speed conventional reels without a levelwind. He maintains that levelwinds restrict the speed of the drop, allowing a belly to form in the line before the rig can reach bottom. He prefers reels made by Penn and Shimano in sizes equivalent to a 2/0 to 3/0. He fills the reels with 30- to 40-pound Dacron backing then “top-shots” them with 150 yards of 30-pound braid. He matches his reels to 6 ½- to 7-foot, medium-heavy freshwater “muskie” rods in the 17- to 40-pound-class and 14- to 30-pound-class range.
My personal favorite Race outfit is a Shimano Torium 16 reel paired with a 6 ½-foot Lamiglas Tri-Flex graphite medium-fast-action, 15- to 30-pound-class rod (model BL6630C). This outfit performs well with any amount of weight and can handle the largest fish in the Race. I fill half the reel with 50-pound braided Dacron backing and a top shot of 40-pound-test PowerPro braid.
While the majority of anglers prefer to fish the Race’s deep spots, there’s another option that’s tailor-made for those in small to midsize boats. On the perimeter of the rip is a series of islands and reefs in 5 to 20 feet of water that offer some of the best light-tackle action in southern New England.
The prime structure runs from Race Point on Fishers Island to the Sluiceway east of Plum Island. Between these two points are the reef off Fishers Island, Race Rock, Little Gull Island, Great Gull Island and the boulder-studded shallows over to Old Silas Rock.
If new to this area, explore it at low tide, on a day that offers bright sun, gentle winds and light current. Wear polarized sunglasses, which are invaluable for spotting the rocks. Mark their location for future reference.
“The ‘perimeter’ waters can be very productive,” confirms Captain Dixon Merkt, a former guide who has long fished the area’s myriad rocks, islands and rips. “And it gets even more exciting as the season progresses!”
The shallow-water action starts with bass in May and June, with bluefish moving in by July. Bonito begin to show in mid-August, followed by false albacore. In September and October, the Race holds bass, blues, and albies, plus a few Spanish mackerel.
“You can catch fish at midday, especially bluefish and false albacore,” says Merkt. “However, if you want bass, fish a half-hour before sunrise. The single most important consideration is the tide. Either tide—they can both be good. The fish and birds start feeding when the water begins to move.
“Learn to read the water,” continues Merkt. “Look for ‘nervous’ water created by the current flowing over submerged structure. Start fishing upcurrent and drift through the nervous water. If you see feeding birds, get upcurrent of them and set up a drift that will take you through them.
“It’s best to cut the engine, unless you’re drifting into an area where it should be left running for safety. Engine noise can put the fish down. That’s particularly true with bass. And always have an anchor handy; if your engine quits it will keep you from drifting into the rocks or out to sea.”
Aside from the number and variety of species, one of the main draws of this area is the eagerness of the fish to strike a surface lure. The fish are seldom fussy, and almost any medium-size plug will draw strikes.
In addition to plugs, Merkt favors one all-purpose metal lure for light-tackle fishing. “The Deadly Dick,” he says, “is effective on all species. It works very well on false albacore and bonito in early autumn. Three-quarters of an ounce is about as heavy as I go.”
Live eels can also be effective when fished around shallow structure. While eels are great for taking trophy fish at night, they can be effective on larger school bass at dawn and dusk. And don’t hesitate to sling eels at mid-day. Cast them around the rocks in shallow water or drop them into the deep eddies on the downcurrent side of prominent structure, such as Race Rock.
An appropriate spinning outfit for the light-tackle approach starts with a 7- to 7 ½-foot, medium-action rod, which is light enough to cast small floating lures and soft-plastics, yet has the backbone to handle most of the fish you’ll encounter. Match the rod with a medium spinning reel filled with 15- to 20-pound-test mono or 30-pound-test braid. The leader can be 18 to 24 inches of 30- to 50-pound-test mono or fluorocarbon.
Whether it’s big bass and blues in the extreme depths and currents of the Race or a variety of light-tackle targets along the shallower margins, the rips and rocks of eastern Long Island Sound stand ready to please all types of anglers. Pick your days and conditions carefully, and you’ll soon see why this stretch of water has long been considered one of the fishiest spots in the Northeast.