The Ghosts of Sakonnet

The 3 Sisters—all that remains of the West Island Club. Photo/Tom Richardson.

On a quiet, foggy morning you might just hear them, or glimpse an ethereal figure in the half-light. Was that the shout of Dr. William Pepper struggling with a mighty fish at the Hopper? Could that be the ample form of Judge Daniel Fearing preparing to take his restorative dive from atop the western rocks? You peer into the gloom, certain you saw something, heard something, amid the cacophony of croaking gulls. But then, yes, there they are—a group of 3 lanky men standing tall on the island’s northern shore.

The fog lifts; you were mistaken. The ghostly trio is in fact 3 stone columns—all that remains of the West Island Club, once the most celebrated of the bass-fishing clubs that flourished in the mid- to late-1800s.

Pilgrimage of Sorts

Detail of West Island off Sakonnet Point.

I went there, to Little Compton, Rhode Island, to see if I could summon the ghosts of the West Island Club and perhaps pluck a striped bass from among the same rocks fished by my piscatorial forebears. My guide was Charlie Soares, a legendary outdoor writer and fishing guide. A native of New Bedford, Soares has hunted and fished the fields, woods and waters of eastern Rhode Island since he was a boy. Beginning in 1959, he and a friend pretty much taught themselves how to fish the sometimes treacherous waters off Sakonnet Point, as the locals weren’t always keen to help “outsiders,” especially a couple of poor kids from New Bedford.

“They called us the 10-cent millionaires,” laughs Charlie, recalling the reaction of some of the snootier Sakonnet Point residents when they saw Soares and his friend returning to shore, their small wooden skiff laden with huge striped bass.

I was hoping for a few big stripers of my own (or at least one) as we launched Soares’s boat at the ramp and idled out of Sakonnet harbor, rounded the breakwater and turned south toward the Sakonnet Lighthouse. In a few minutes we were trolling tube lures along a submerged ledge that lies just northwest of West Island. Behind us rose the imposing wall of granite from which the fearless Dan Fearing, a wealthy resident of nearby Newport and chronicler of the Club’s bylaws and constitution, would take his chilly dives into the Atlantic.

Lobster Baits & Tube Lures

One can’t help but wonder what Fearing and other old-time fishermen would have thought of trolling long pieces of surgical tubing adorned with live seaworms for striped bass. Their astonishment would no doubt have matched the reaction of many modern anglers upon learning that the bass bait of choice in the 1800s was lobster.

Chart showing Newport and Sakonnet Point.

While it’s not likely that lobster will return to vogue anytime soon as a striper bait, the tube lures and other modern inventions are doing well enough. In fact, after a few passes in front of the ledge we had our first striper of the day—a healthy 32-incher that we decided to keep for dinner. (Was that a congratulatory halloo I heard from the rocks of West Island?)

After making a few more passes along the ledge, Soares brought us around the backside of the island, past tiny Key Rock and into the protected cove behind East Island. “This is where the club members would anchor after they sailed over from Newport,” my guide explained, adding that it was easier to reach the island by water in the 1800s than travel by coach down through Tiverton and Little Compton. “They would bring their boats in around the back of East Island and land at the wharf, which was located over there.”

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