Capt. Ryan Sansoucy has a love-hate relationship with Rhode Island’s Ninigret Pond. On one hand he has a deep affection for this fertile estuary and its winding creeks and fish-filled flats. On the other, he can’t stand to witness the way some of the locals take the place for granted—or even defile it. “I want people to fall in love with this place,” he tells me as we leave the ramp at Charlestown’s Shelter Cove Marina in his 18′ Hewes flats skiff and make our way through the main channel. As we fished the pond over the next few hours, poking into hidden creeks and coves and poling over the shallows, I began to see why Sansoucy, who has fished the pond since he was 4, has such a deep affection for this hidden gem on the Rhode Island coast.
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Sansoucy’s boat tells you a lot about the pond, namely how shallow it is. The 6” draft of his Florida skiff allows him to access most parts of the 1,711-acre salt pond, which has an average depth of 3′.The shallows are tailor-made for exploration in a small skiff, kayak or canoe, and there’s a convenient kayak-rental shop on the eastern end of the pond. From this spot one can access Ninigret Pond or head east into smaller Green Hill Pond.
Note to paddlers: It’s easy to get lost in the labrynth of backwater creeks that wind through the salt marshes, so packing a handheld GPS is a good idea if you’re not familiar with the area. At the very least you should have a cell phone.
Despite its shallow nature, the pond supports 3 marinas that play host to some unexpectedly large boats. The largest is Ocean House, tucked into the northern end of Tautog Cove. It’s a full-service marina with a launch ramp and slips for boats up to 34′. It is very popular among fishermen.
The critical link between ocean and pond is the Charlestown Breachway. The narrow inlet is lined by riprap and flanked on the eastern bank by Charlestown Breachway State Park. Expect to see fishermen casting from the jetties here, day and night.
Extreme caution is needed when entering or exiting the breachway. When the wind blows against the outgoing tide, the passage can be downright treacherous. A rock ledge runs perpendicular to the mouth of the breachway, just outside the jetties. The ledge is 6′ deep, but on rough days you can tap bottom in the wave troughs. Many boats have lost their lower units trying to get through, according to Sansoucy. He’s had his own share of exciting moments running the breachway, and doesn’t recommend it for the inexperienced.
Once safely outside the jetties, boaters have quick access to Block Island, some 10 miles to the south. Watch Hill, Stonington and Mystic to the west are other easy daytrip options.
Of course, you could simply stay inside the pond and still find plenty to do among the spartina grass and wading birds. Small-boaters and paddlers can anchor on the marshy backside of the barrier beach that separates Block Island Sound from the pond and make the short hike to the ocean side, where they can have a stretch of beach all to themselves for the day. It’s a great way to get away from the more crowded beach spots.
Most of the beach and interior salt marsh are part of the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, the Ninigret State Conservation Area and the South Shore Management Area. Birdwatchers flock to Ningret to view the egrets, herons and other shorebirds that live here throughout the summer. The pond is also a major stopover for migratory species in the spring and fall. With hummocks of swamp maple and oak surrounded by tall marsh grass, the area almost looks like the Everglades.
And like the Everglades, Ninigret plays an important role in the marine ecosystem. The warm, shallow waters are a nursery for juvenile fish, seaworms, shellfish and crabs. In summer, juvenile baitfish, including silversides, menhaden and bay anchovies, as well as eels, live in the ponds, attracting larger fish such as striped bass, bluefish, fluke and weakfish. The eelgrass meadows inside the pond supports bay scallops, quahogs, little necks, blue crabs, eels, pipefish, seahorses and killifish, as well as baby fluke and snapper bluefish.
Like most coastal waterways in the Northeast, Ninigret is threatened by shoreline development and nutrient overloading. Excess nitrogen entering the ponds via septic systems and lawn and farm fertilizers causes an overabundance of algae in the shallow water. The algae blocks sunlight from reaching the eelgrass, and also robs the water of oxygen when it dies and decomposes. Nitrification has led to the die-off of eelgrass beds in many areas of the ponds, leaving a barren bottom that supports little life.
Fortunately, progress is being made to save the salt ponds through education and efforts to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the watershed. Groups such as Save The Bay are working hard to protect all of Rhode lsland’s vital waterways, and deserve the support of all boaters.