By Zach Harvey
There are still straggler striped bass lingering around Cape Ann, but weather through the week has made it very challenging to get out after them. It’s been the same deal with codfish, which have been pretty reliable on the close-range hard bottom (60’ to 90’ depths), as well as the more distant 200’ to 240’ depths in areas like Tillies Bank and parts of Stellwagen. While the close-to-home action has been a pretty straightforward affair, bait or jigs taking a pick of mostly market-sized fish in areas where structure and bait overlap, the latter fishery has seen some bigger codfish as well as occasional shots of haddock and pollock in numbers and sizes that have been increasing by the week. Jigs have done most of the work when there’s bait on the fishfinder screen, while bait rigs have, at times, outshined the steel on the softer open bottom where haddock hang.
The tuna fishing continues, but the catching has remained somewhere between discouraging, embarrassingly bad, and nonexistent. In fairness, I have spoken to several folks who’ve actually run through breaking school tuna out around the B Buoy and the Dumping Grounds east of Boston — which would technically go under the “improvement” heading over what was going on a week ago. The giant fleet remains wildly spread out from Isles of Shoals to Jeffrey’s Ledge, Stellwagen, Cape Cod Bay, Chatham, and so on, and bites (in the individual sense of that word) have remained scarce everywhere. If a bite does actually materialize in the waning weeks of autumn east of Chatham, the attendant fleet will be something no one’s seen since the final hours off the coast of northern France before the D-Day Invasion.
Pete Santini at Fishing Finatics noted there are still some sizeable bodies of mackerel around out front — notably around Graves Light — and added that he’s pleased to see this bait sticking around. When the weather allows the maneuver, some enterprising stripermen have been taking the run outside to load the live-wells with live macks, then running them back into the harbor, there to drift or slow-troll them in the tide-swept shallows around the islands — Long, Deer, Spectacle, and Lovell in particular.
Peter Belsan, of Belsan’s Bait and Tackle in Scituate, said the strong (onshore) easterlies have kept most of the boats tight to their respective pilings through the week. Nevertheless, a couple of the surf guys have come back to the shop lugging cow bass they caught in leeward estuarine waters, eeling at night. The numbers of fish, though, appear to have gone by, blues never really showed this season, and the football bluefins remain a wild-card. Cod, said Belsan, are still about the only game in town. Before the weather came on, his regulars were chipping away at market-sized (7- to 10-pound, average) fish on various hangs, among them Scarletts Ledge (a bit east of Rexhamme), Stone Ledge (off Scituate), and Flat Ledge (SE of Minot’s Light).
Alan at Red Top said a new shot of striped bass lit up the canal mid-week, taking mackerel-pattern plugs on Wednesday, then an array of topwaters and swimmers as they chased some mystery bait on Thursday. These fish have run an average somewhere in the mid-teens, and represent a much-needed shot in the arm for what had previously been a pretty dismal showing, all things considered, for our mighty fall run. Elsewhere, some of the boat folks connected between Sandwich and Barnstable Harbor, but the outer Cape has been a non-starter to date. There have been precious few bluefish around. The sea bass are scattered all over the place, including the canal, and on broken bottom throughout Buzzards Bay. The problem, as the season has worn on, is that the preponderance of the available sea biscuits are on the smaller side — the better ones headed for deeper water, along with the porgies, at this stage of the game.
Paul Newmeier at Blackbeard’s was staring into the middle distance when the ringing phone snapped him back to consciousness early Thursday afternoon. He confirmed that the fishing situation along the back side of the Cape, especially from Chatham around to Race Point, Provincetown, during this fall’s migratory push is as grim as it has been right along this season: All the seals you could ever want to see, and just about zero in the striper or bluefish or baitfish department. All over-sand vehicles have also been denied access to all the beach designated as Cape Cod National Seashore — a measure that has cost the fishery a discouraging number of participants, and the local fishing businesses a substantial amount of traditional revenue. Prior to the worst of the recent weather, boats working the 40’ to 50’ contours around Billingsgate were scratching some respectable bass, mostly trolling umbrella rigs or snapping jigs/rinds on long wires. The tuna fishery that has been so explosive in other recent seasons east of Chatham has come up well short of the hype, in part because the school tuna that underwrote the initial “jig-and-pop” revolution 5 or so years ago have either been caught or continued to grow in the intervening years (the survivors are now 500-plus pounds and have outgrown much of the tackle that was engineered to catch them as youngsters), with not much coming up behind that huge class. In fairness, there have been fits and starts of schoolie tuna action up around Crab Ledge, and a somewhat less inconsistent but still very slow pick of fish a long shot down around the Regal Sword. Peaked Hill, the Race, the bay have doled out epic skunking after epic skunking to the giant fleet, and the last string of catches worthy of the title “bite” out on Georges Bank was a month or more ago. All fingers are crossed for November off Chatham. There are a few tautog around on some of the shallow reefs and rubble-heaps along the south Cape beaches and in Buzzards Bay, while the scup and sea bass are moving for deeper water.
Several of my sources have confirmed that it’s been pretty slim pickings from the West End of the canal along Buzzards Bay and the Elizabeths — at least in the striped bass department. There are some black sea bass around, though your best bet will be to focus your energy around the deeper hangs and the lesser-known areas of gnarly bottom; the big-name areas, especially those in 30 or less feet of water, have sublegals or stragglers. Scup, too, are moving off, though you can find some big concentrations of jumbos if you poke around the tougher real estate around the old Buzzards Bay Tower, Nomans, and other hangs south of the Vineyard. The blackfishing is still a shoal-water deal for the most part between Westport and New Bedford, but that will shift as waters cool. There have been some bonito around between Westport and Newport, Rhode Island, but don’t think that every fishable scenario is going to have a thunderhead of birds working over it or a half-acre of porpoising tunoids. Go where there’s bait, cast to the fringes, and don’t get too upset if you wind up fast to a 10-pound bonito, a 12-pound bluefish, or a 25-pound lineside. A couple of the charter boats have echoed some variation of the following notion: The only thing that has come to fruition in this year’s legendary “fall-run” fishery is the inconsistency of its angling opportunities.
While so many other stretches of the New England coast have bemoaned the quality of their striper fishing this year, folks in the Ocean State have had little to complain about — though, in all fairness, we are now in full-on autumn fishing patterns, and if the last bunch of migratory pushes hold one clue about what will happen next, you’d be wise to take advantage of every fishable second over the next couple weeks. As of Thursday afternoon (October 10, 2013), there were mullet of all sizes, bay anchovies, and all kinds of other forage parading along the Newport oceanfront. Through the week, folks who found the right sets of bait and birds and predators were treated to some sizzling sessions involving a mixed bag of bass to around 30 pounds, bluefish or varying proportions, and an occasional plus-size green bonito. The only conspicuous autumn absence remains the false albacore, which by most accounts have been a no-show this season (barring isolated one-day events up and down the line).
The word from Saltwater Edge was of mixed bass and blues for pluggers, trollers, and eelers working around various bait schools between roughly Brenton Reef and Baileys at various points — much of the action limited to shorebound fishing after the easterly wind came up in the second half of the week. The bonito have been tooling by, generally about 10 yards out of casting range for the rock-hoppers, a lucky few of whom have nevertheless managed to stick quality specimens on the first two cranks of personal-best casts with various tins including Point Jude Lure Po-jee’s. There were documented catches made along Ledge Road and out in front of First Beach. Bear in mind that if there are still any tunoids around when the easterlies finally lay down, you may have to fish “blind,” casting to the outskirts of the balls of bay anchovies and ripping lures home — a hundred casts per strike. Same general strategy — less the retrieve speed — will apply to bass and blue hunting as well: Hit the outsides of the coves from the mouth of the Sakonnet to Jamestown, sampling bait schools until you find one with some right-size predators in tow. The Edge did get direct word of at least one fish in the 30-pound-plus bracket, though details surrounding the catch were sparse (and for good reason). Shop staff maintains there has been some good fishing along the Narragansett shoreline, too, though the hard easterlies tend to murk and weed the east-facing stones up in memorable ways.
There are still some scup, including legitimate 2- and 3-pounders on various pieces of broken bottom out front around the mouth of the bay, and the tautog fishing’s picking up by the week in the shoal-water spots from Narragansett eastward to the Massachusetts border, with some very good fishing as of press time in middle and lower Narragansett Bay, where folks who have practiced the art of jigging for blackfish in very shallow water are contacting some bruisers quietly. The sea bass are still around, but the biggest ones are thinning out on most of the shallow real estate, headed for deeper water, leaving a bumper crop of foot-longs and minis behind to clean off hooks.
The more known rocks, wrecks and rubble-heaps along the Gansett rocks have been getting an early shot of whopping fishing pressure, and surrendering some respectable catches of mostly run-of-the-mill leatherlips in the 16” to 20” range, while weather and the ever-present economic factors have prevented much serious scouting out on the big tog-factory hangs in deeper water. There have been sporadic catches of better bass and blues all along Narragansett and the South County beaches as a slow-but-steady trickle of very good reports keep lines in the water and lines in the water keep migratory bass and bluefish honest.
Block Island, said Snug Harbor Marina’s Matt Conti, has been hit-or-miss for the striper faithful: The misses have been painful, but some of the hits — the trips that hit the fish, the bait, the tides, and the lay of submerged stones off the SW Corner just right — have been epic. On the balance, the good ones have been sufficiently good to keep boats moving between the fronts. The scup fishing and sea bassing has begun to taper off in the easier and better-known areas along the south shore and over at the island, as both species begin to move toward the deeper water and thicker concentrations. Make no mistake: The best of the fall sinker bouncing is still ahead, but weather will no doubt be a factor.
On the offshore front, sharking has continued around the Mud Hole and down into the Gully, a stretch of water that has coughed up quite a few decent makos this autumn. One homebound-from-the-canyons report put a body of 100-pound school bluefins somewhere in the vicinity of the Mud Hole, but Conti was not altogether convinced about the validity of that intel. The big news — albeit from last weekend’s weather window — was of a wide-open bite east of Veatch Canyon but not quite to Hydrographer, where a pretty little plot of blue water assembled a modest fleet between Saturday and Monday. Those on the scene returned to port with some big yellowfins, including at least one borderline Allison that dressed out around 100 pounds (whole weight probably somewhere around 125 — a nice fish for this era of canyon fishing). Quite a few boats had swords and most, for whatever reasons, managed to locate a bigeye. That action was on the troll and the overnight chunk bites, and it was also a week ago. Whatever lies ahead, it’s going to be the return to search mode for the next bunch of guys who can squeeze themselves into the next weather window.
Reliable word has it The Race has wound up pretty quiet in the striper department of late, and the bluefish activity appears not to be too far behind it — though it’s still the fall run, it’s still the front half of October, and a great deal can still come and go again before this calendar year’s angling opportunities dwindle into the deep winter freeze. The scup seem to be evacuating the near-shore rockpiles, wrecks, and ridges, and piling up again in some solid concentrations out in the later spots south of Fishers and west of The Race. The sea bass fishing in what has been a banner year is in a transition similar to the one sea bass specialists are facing at this point; it’s the specialists who are now catching the lion’s share of the big, black-with-blue-and-white-trim humpheads, and they’re accomplishing that end as they always have, fishing the little wrecks no one else knows about and the deep-water rockpiles they found by mistake en route to the Sluiceway one June years ago. They’re also using larger hooks, experimenting with various cull-on-the-bottom baits, and nursing their pet spots along via a stealthy, stick-and-move approach, taking a reasonable number of fish when a place is free of prying eyes, then hitting the next place (the tautog sharpies fish the same way, always leaving some fish on each piece).
Speaking of, tautog season opened yesterday, Thursday, October 10 (2013). The season kicked off in classic fashion with some afternoon gales. The charter boats that got out on the eastern Sound worked various hangs from Fishers Sound to the Connecticut River, struggling to put together whatever fish they managed in less-than-ideal conditions.
Pat Abate himself at River’s End Tackle noted the bunker seem to be dropping out of the various estuaries this week. “Thirty and 40- and 50-fish pods of them backstroking along totally unmolested without a care in the world,” he said with a grim laugh. The fact that bunker can leave the relative safety of brackish water in the second week of October without dashing right into the piscine equivalent of a wood chipper is a pretty good indicator of just how bleak the striper situation has become in Long Island Sound among many other places. Abate did add that there are still numbers of cooperative bass and blues in the Connecticut River. The only reliably good reports, per his assessment, have come from Montauk. The guys in boats have been diamond-jigging in the Lighthouse Rips for two weeks now, a sign that sand eels are still the primary menu item for bass there. Yesterday, some fish chased bodies of bay anchovies around to the south side beaches, where surfmen managed some fish in stiff easterly breezes.
Block Island has run hot and cold — wide-open when it’s on, stone-dead when it’s off, the bite apparently rigged to some kind of light switch, while Watch Hill (the Light and the Reefs) has had a relatively steady supply of mostly smaller fish. Scup are forming up into some bigger schools on deeper pieces of hard bottom, and the sea bass seem to be heading outside again — the spots from 60’ on out are now the starting point. On the tautog front, there are some fish around up in the rocks, and Abate believes it’s the weather that will ultimately determine the duration of the good fishing — the more blowouts, the longer it will take for the masses to clean off the known hangs within civilized range of port.
There are bunker in some harbors on both sides of the Sound, and the harbors with the bait also have — for the most part — a mix of bass and blues in mixed sizes (a good ratio of keeper bass, according to one source). Per the norm, it will likely be a couple weeks before the action gets into more reliable patterns out front — before the diamond-jigging bonanzas of big blues, schoolies and occasional heavier bass around the local reefs. Water temperatures were well into the 60s mid-week, one reason it will still be some time before the tautog fishery fully takes shape. Some intrepid ‘tog fans are already rock-hopping spots in very shallow water, working small jigs for the first fish of their final fishery. The scup are still around; they’re big — 2 pounds-plus — and they’re filling in on the deeper rockpiles and wrecks in increasing numbers as waters cool.
The party boat Middlebank lost most of the later week to wind and weather, but Captains Lauren and Tim Griffin are eager to get back out on them from Saturday onward. Recent pool fish (for largest fish by weight) on their porgy trips have been claimed by a variety of local gamesters including some bass, blues (one of which narrowly beat out a hefty fluke last weekend), and, on Tuesday’s trip, an 11-pound weakfish — a nice surprise for one young angler.