September 23, 2020
A season-long smorgasbord of game and food fish awaits the angler in and around the beautiful and bountiful Norwalk Islands in southwestern Connecticut.
By Captain Tom Migdalski; Photos by Tom Richardson
“The Norwalk Islands represent some of the best fishing structure in Long Island Sound.”
So states Captain Chris Elser, a man who has fished this glacial archipelago off southwestern Connecticut for over 30 years. “Glance at a chart and you’ll notice many areas with extremely tight contour lines indicating abrupt depth changes,” Elser adds. “That translates to prime holding areas for bait and game fish.”
Today, a few of the Norwalk Islands are privately owned, some are held by the cities of Norwalk and Westport, while still others are part of a national wildlife refuge. But for anglers, it doesn’t really matter, as the waters surrounding them are open to the public and comprise a vast network of fish-attracting channels, bars, boulders, reefs and rips.
Fishing among the islands heats up when surface temperatures push past 50 degrees and the big stripers move in, followed closely by other species. “The large migratory bass typically arrive by early May,” says Elser, “but I’ve had excellent fishing with 20-pound fish as early as the second week of April. These fish are chasing schools of bunker. As the season progresses, sand eels move into the island chain. The two- to four-inch baitfish are necessary for consistent shallow-water striper and bluefish action, and they also affect the fluke fishery. Fluke move in among the islands in mid- to late May, and they feed heavily on sand eels.”
While all of the islands hold fish, Cockenoe (pronounced “ko-kee-nee”) is a good place to start, given its easternmost position in the chain. Because of its rugged shoreline and proximity to the Saugatuck River, Cockenoe consistently produces good catches of blackfish, porgies, striped bass, bluefish, weakfish and flounder.
Use caution when fishing this area, however, as the water is extremely shallow and rocky. Don’t attempt to run between Cockenoe Harbor and the Saugatuck at low tide, or you’ll soon find yourself in a foot or less of water. Instead, stick to the deeper water amid the boulders and reefs of Georges Rocks and Cockenoe Shoal, marked by Buoy G “1” and the R “24” bell. Both spots are good places to cast, troll or drift natural baits, including live bunker.
Hot Off the Shelf
“To the south and east of the buoys,” says Elser, “the depth drops sharply from 8 to 40 feet. This shelf is a good place to hunt for many species, especially blues and bass, as the current flows over the shallows. It’s also an excellent spot for blackfish and sea bass. These two species are also abundant around Greens Ledge, Great Reef and the boulder fields near Chimon and Goose Islands.”
Chimon and Sheffield Islands form the core of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses 145 acres of the Connecticut shoreline. At 70 acres, Chimon is home to the largest heron rookery in the state, as well as other nesting shorebirds. For this reason, access to much of Chimon and Sheffield is prohibited during nesting season (April 15 to August 15). However, Grassy Island, Shea Island and the beach on the west side of Chimon are open to the public from sunrise to sunset.
The Sound-side edges of the islands offer many prime spots for live-lining eels and bunker, chunking, slow-trolling and plugging for bass, weakfish and blues. “You can work these shallows from almost any boat,” says Captain Ian Devlin, another local guide who has spent his life plying these waters, “but the fish are easily spooked, so your best approach is with a pushpole or trolling motor.”
Devlin likes to work rocky outcroppings or crescent-shaped bights where deep water abuts the shallows. He drifts through the prime zone while blind-casting until he finds the fish then circles back upwind to repeat the drift. Devlin also looks for concentrations of sand eels, silversides and herring, and pays close attention to working birds. His favorite lures for fishing the shallows include big Zara Spooks and Slug-Gos, which he works with a side-to-side sweeping motion to give them a lifelike action.
“If you prefer trolling,” says Elser, “the Norwalk Islands are ideal for tube-and-worming. Look for rips and reefs that run north-south then troll parallel to and slightly upcurrent of the structure. “I have my best success with red and bubblegum tubes trolled on No. 27 colored leadcore line. Given average tide and sea conditions, I deploy one color [10 yards] of leadcore for every four feet of depth. Since I almost always troll tubes at depths of 18 to 35 feet, which is a good general depth zone for big bass in general, I feed out anywhere from four to eight colors of line.
“It’s important to troll the tubes no faster than two knots, to give the lure the best action and achieve the proper depth. Try to stay near the reef, but don’t allow the lures to hit the high bumps. It’s a fine line between fishing in the strike zone and getting hung up.”
Blackfish and fluke also gather around many of the islands, with the south side of Copps Island being especially productive. This includes Copps Rocks, which extend about a half-mile east of the island toward Buoy R “26.” Shea Island’s eastern shoreline is also strewn with rocks that provide excellent habitat for bass, blues and blackfish, especially in October.
Copps Rocks, Beers Rocks and Goose Island are known for attracting bonito and false albacore starting in September and running through October. Indeed, fall offers a good shot at the coveted “Northeast Grand Slam,” or catching a bonito, false albacore, striped bass and bluefish in the same day. Proven lures for the albies and bones include four- to six-inch white or pearl soft-plastics like the Slug-Go or Zoom Fluke, or small, metal lures such as the Deadly Dick.
The shoreline of Grassy Island is mostly gravel and fine sand, and provides several sheltered boat-landing areas. While you may find some bass here, the area appeals more to bluefish, weakfish, flounder and porgies.
If the action is spotty among the islands, which is often the case in midsummer, head for the deeper, cooler waters of the open Sound. About ¾-mile south of Sheffield Island are the submerged tugboat Celtic and the barge Cape Race. The wrecks appear on charts as a 32-foot high spot surrounded by 70 feet of water, and provide prime structure for blackfish, sea bass and porgies. The edges of the wrecks are often patrolled by big fluke.
The rocky bottom surrounding Buoy “28C,” about two miles south of Greens Ledge on the western end of the islands, is a great spot for a number of species. Explore the area 100 yards south of the buoy in about 45 feet of water. Blackfish are numerous here, especially in the 30- to 60-foot depths, through Thanksgiving. Start in the shallower spots and work your way deeper until you find fish.
Buoy “11B” (marked as Eatons Neck Point), about a mile southeast of R “28C” and three miles south of Sheffield Island, marks a high spot in 15 to 30 feet of water that serves as a perennial hot spot for stripers and bluefish in the fall. If the fish aren’t holding here, work nearby areas along the sloping reef drop-off in 35 to 90 feet.
Mid- to late fall usually sees a hot bite on the mid-Sound reefs. Look for bird and bait activity from Buoy “11B” west to “28C,” then triangulate toward Eatons Neck Point. This area holds lots of baitfish and provides excellent diamond-jigging action.
Just over a mile south-southwest of “11B” is the Obstruction Buoy. The rip here, along with the rips that make up along “11B” and “28C,” are the best spots south of the Norwalk Islands for trolling lures, drifting live baits and chunks, and diamond-jigging for striped bass and bluefish in autumn. During periods of slow current, try anchoring in the rocky areas and fishing green crabs for big fall blackfish. They catch some big ones off Norwalk!
Norwalk Fishing Resources
Bait & Tackle
Capt. Ian Devlin (203) 451-9400
Capt. Chris Elser (203) 216-7907
Saugatuck River state ramp
Compo Beach & Marina town ramp
Veterans Memorial Park
Calf Pasture Beach
A saltwater fishing license is required to fish the coastal waters of Connecticut. Purchase one online at ctwildlifelicense.com. Anglers who hold a saltwater license from New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, or Maine are exempt from having to purchase a Connecticut license.