Beantown Bonanza

Big ships? No problem for Boston Harbor anglers—and the fish they seek.

You won’t believe the incredible urban angling that exists within the shadow of downtown Boston.

Text & Photography by Tom Richardson

Boston-area anglers have it pretty good these days. Not only is the harbor cleaner than it has been at any point in the last 100 years, the fishing for many species has improved dramatically. And there are even a few new faces in town.

Naturally, striped bass are the headline act, and fishing for them gets under way in early May. “The big bass move in when the alewives an herring get here, which is typically around Mother’s Day,” says Everett tackle shop owner and all-around Beantown angling guru Pete Santini. “After that it gets better and better, especially when the mackerel show up. Prime time runs from the second week in June through mid-July.”

Striped bass are the headline act in the harbor.

Stripers On First

Santini and other local sharpies usually rely on live mackerel or menhaden (a.k.a., bunker) when targeting trophy bass. Good spots to fill a live well with macks include the G “5” buoy out by Graves Light and the “BG” buoy. Martins Ledge, Three-and-a-Half-Fathom Ledge and the G “2” can off Nahant’s Bass Point are other spots to look for bait.

To catch the macks, Santini recommends a Sabiki rig weighted with a three-ounce metal jig. You can pinpoint the mackerel schools by slow-trolling the rig 10 to 30 feet below the surface until you hook up, or by using a depthsounder. Either way, once you locate a school, you can either drift and jig vertically or continue to troll the area.

With a good supply of live bait, be it mackerel or menhaden, you can fish them just about anywhere in and around the harbor, which is loaded with prime striper structure, including rock piles, drop-offs and ledges. A dependable spot for big fish is Broad Sound, near the harbor’s northern entrance, which comprises a series of humps that rise from 70 feet of water to around 40 feet.

To fish this area, Santini slow-trolls his baits on leadcore line. He hooks the bait crosswise through its nostrils on a 3/0 3X-strong treble hook tied to five feet of 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. He then lets out three or more colors of leadcore line, depending on the water depth and the strength of the current. An alternative method is to use 60-pound-test braided line and place an egg sinker or two above the leader to get the bait deep.

Mackerel are available just outside the harbor.

Live-Bait System

With the bait swimming just above bottom, Santini employs what he calls the “Santini Striper System.” First, he sets the reel drag just heavy enough to keep line from flowing off the reel then places the rod in a holder while he trolls at around two knots (the slower the better). When a fish picks up the bait and begins taking line, he waits a full five seconds before engaging the drag and letting the rod double over. Only then does he start to fight the fish.

Of course, Broad Sound isn’t the only place that holds big bass. Other spots to slow-troll live baits include the northern tip of Long Island, the “Narrows” between Lovells and Gallops Islands, the stretch of water from Winthrop Head past the Five Sisters breakwall to Cherry Island Bar, and the waters off Point Allerton in Hull. These are shallower areas—8 to 30 feet—so you don’t need as much weight or leadcore line to get the bait down to where the fish are holding.

Bluefish are a Boston fan favorite.

More Harbor Hot Spots

The tip of the Long Island Pier, the rocks surrounding Spectacle Island and Peddocks Island, the rocky bar off Nixes Mate, Faun Bar, and the area around the Fore River Bridge in Quincy also produce fish for both trollers and those who like to cast live baits among the rocks as they drift. With the latter technique, suspending the bait below a balloon can help keep it above the weeds and rocks.

For those who prefer light tackle, tossing plugs and big flies into rocky spots in 5 to 15 feet of water can produce fish as well, particularly on an early-morning rising tide. Proven lures include soft-plastics such as the Slug-Go, Hogy and Got Stryper; the Savage Manic Prey in blue or green mackerel; the Storm Wildeye Swim Shad, the Rebel Pop-R, the Tactical Angler popper and the Cordell Pencil Popper.

Yet another top Boston bass lure is the Santini Tube, which is typically slow-trolled on leadcore or wire line, with a live seaworm or two placed on the hook. This lure is very effective when fished over structure or along steep drop-offs in 10 to 25 feet of water.

Boston’s winter flounder fishery is world-class.

Blues & Blackbacks

If it’s dependable midsummer action you seek, Boston’s bruiser bluefish have you covered. Finding them is usually a matter of heading to the Graves or the RW “B” Buoy and trolling a mackerel-pattern Rapala X-Rap on three colors of leadcore line or 150 feet of wire line. Naturally, you’ll want to use a wire leader ahead of the plug to prevent cut-offs.

Perhaps the biggest Boston Harbor success story involves winter flounder, which have made a huge comeback in the last 20 years. The fishing is so good for this species that Santini holds an annual flounder tourney in July that routinely yields fish over 20 inches.

Winter flounder, or “blackbacks,” can be found over muddy bottom in 15 to 25 feet of water from May through mid-July. Good flounder spots in the harbor include the Deer Island Flats off Winthrop, Portuguese Cove, Quincy Bay, Georges Island and the backside of Long Island. Once the water temperature hits the 50-degree mark in the harbor, it’s game on!

All you need to score is a light rod and reel spooled with 20-pound-test braided line and a standard two-hook winter flounder rig. Buy a flat of seaworms and a bunch of two- to four-ounce bank sinkers and you’re in business.

Once you find a good flounder “hole,” you can load up on fish in short order by making repeated drifts. Best conditions include a warm, sunny day and a light breeze. If your drift is too fast, making it hard to keep your rig on the bottom, consider using a drift sock or anchoring. Also, if you don’t get a bite within 10 minutes, keep trying different depths and different spots until you start to score.

Pete Santini nets a Boston blackback.

Sea Bass Surprise

While flounder fishing, you’re also likely to hook a black sea bass or two, which are becoming more common in the harbor. These fish must be 16 inches to keep, and can be targeted over rock piles and other structure. Proven sea bass spots include the C-Street Pier and the western side of Peddocks Island. To catch them, simply use a small bucktail jig rigged with a seaworm or squid strip and bounce it along the bottom.

Another relative newcomer to the Boston fishing scene is summer flounder (a.k.a., fluke), which can be reliably found in and around sandy inlets, such as the Pines River off Revere. Fishing for these great-eating bottom fish takes off in late July and August with the arrival of snapper bluefish. While the Pines has been a perennial hot spot, Santini surmises that other sandy areas with good current flow are likely to harbor fluke. “I’m sure there are fish in other spots; it’s just that people don’t bother to target them.”

It seems that there’s no shortage of species to tangle with in and around Boston Harbor these days, and the best part is that you don’t have to own a big boat to find some action.

Live bunker can be
slow-trolled for big bass.