Block Island Summer Bass Tactics
June 4, 2020
A veteran charter skipper reveals his methods and hot spots for scoring striped bass in the fabled waters off Block Island.By Captain Mitch Chagnon
Roughly nine miles from Point Judith and 23 miles east of Montauk is a nine-by-three-mile pile of sand and rock that seems to exert a magnetic pull on striped bass—and those who pursue them. The place is Block Island, and it’s legendary for producing some of the biggest bass in the world, for boat fishermen and surfcasters alike.
Like its sister islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, “The Block” is a glacial moraine, a remnant of the last ice age. When the glacier that once covered New England retreated some 10,000 years ago, it created Block Island and the surrounding underwater landscape of ledges, rock outcroppings, boulder fields and steep drop-offs.
The rugged bottom serves as ideal habitat for striped bass and the baitfish and crustaceans they eat. The island is literally surrounded by prime striper structure, which is why it’s possible to catch fish virtually anywhere. Further, the cooler ocean waters surrounding the island hold fish throughout the summer, unlike shallower inshore bays and estuaries, which often grow too warm for the comfort level of big stripers.
The first bass typically arrive off Block Island in mid- to late May. By mid-June, fishing is well underway and usually continues strong through the summer. In September and October, the fall migration begins. As the fish build fat reserves, it sparks some of the best fishing of the year, with action often lasting deep into November.
Sand eels and squid are the primary striper forage in May and June. Effective lures at this time include umbrella rigs and parachute jigs, fished on wire or leadcore line. The umbrella rig simulates a school of sand eels, while the parachute is a great squid imitator. And always place a long strip of pork rind on the hook of a parachute jig; it makes a big difference!
By July, bigger prey such as eels and scup are added to the menu. This is when I switch to live-lining or break out the big tube lures and large, shiny spoons. I often fish a spoon in the center of an umbrella rig, or by itself if the fish are big. Favorite spoons include the No. 19 Tony Acetta and the Huntington Drone. Both lures flash and wobble seductively on the troll.
Without question, the most widely used daytime technique for catching large stripers and bluefish around Block Island is wire-line trolling with parachute jigs, tube lures and spoons. If you’re unfamiliar with this method of fishing, I recommend booking a trip with a charter captain so you can see how it’s done. Most coastal tackle shops can set you up with the proper rod-and-reel combo for wire-lining, and you can learn more about the technique by visiting NewEnglandBoating.com.
In wire-line fishing, the proper trolling speed is critical. The slower, the better, and anything over two knots is generally too fast. Also, it’s critical to pay close attention to your depthsounder, as you’ll need to adjust the amount of line let out behind the boat to keep the lure swimming a few feet above the level of the fish or the bottom. In many places, such as along the south side of Block Island, the fish will hug the bottom, so you need to make sure your lure is swimming low and slow.
In a rip situation, such as in the North Rip, the bass may stage higher in the water column. If you mark fish on your depthsounder, note the depth at which they are holding, so you’ll how much line to let out. I like to pull my lures a few feet above the fish, since they will be looking upwards for baitfish being swept past. And remember that bluefish usually stage higher in the water column than stripers, so fish deeper if you want to avoid the choppers.
Jigging & Tubing
When trolling bucktails or parachute jigs, use short, quick sweeps of the rod to impart a pulsing action that imitates a squid and creates vibrations that can elicit an automatic strike response from the bass. Start by holding the rod off to the side and parallel to the water, in the three o’clock position. Let the weight of the lure pull the rod tip to the five o’clock position then give the rod a quick “snap” back to the three o’clock position. Wait to feel the weight of the lure again and repeat. The fish will typically strike as the jig is starting to accelerating.
With other lures, such as tubes and spoons, there’s no need to impart extra action with rod movement. In fact, you can simply leave the rod in a holder as you troll along. Again, remember to keep your lures near the bottom and troll as slowly as possible.
Speaking of tube lures, they can be incredibly effective during the summer, so make sure you have some on board. Longer, more flexible rods are generally preferred for tube trolling, but a standard wire-line setup will suffice.
Tubes come in many colors, but burgundy and black are tops. Lastly, always place a live seaworm or two on the hook for scent appeal. Tubes work best around rocky areas and ledges, and should be trolled slowly and as close to the bottom as possible.
Live-lining eels, scup, mackerel and other small fish is another go-to method for taking big stripers around the island, especially during the dog days of summer. Few can argue with the effectiveness of a live eel fished just before sunset or on a dark night tide, or a live scup fished below a balloon.
Live-lining eels is especially effective at night, and has produced some enormous bass over the years. However, night fishing is best practiced by those who know the local waters intimately, so go with a pro if you’ve never done it before. That said, daytime fishing with live eels can also be productive, especially in deeper, rocky areas.
I prefer eels in the 12- to 14-inch range. In shallow water with light to moderate current, eels can be fished without additional weight. In this case, I use a seven-foot, medium-action, 15- to 30-pound-class spinning or conventional rod, and fill the reel with 15-pound-test mono or 20-pound-test braid. A four- to five-foot, 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader suffices in most cases. If I’m targeting larger fish, I’ll switch to a 30- or 40-pound-test fluoro leader.
I connect the leader to the main line with a 30-pound-test barrel swivel. If the drift is fast, I may attach some split shot or a small (one-ounce) slip sinker above the swivel. For the hook, I use a 4/0 circle model, and hook the eel through the bottom of the chin and out through the upper lip.
In depths over 20 feet and in strong currents, I often switch to a three-way rig weighted with a bank sinker to tend bottom. In this case, I use a slightly beefier rod and a conventional reel spooled with 30-pound braid. My leader is six feet of 30- to 40-pound-test fluorocarbon.
Once I’ve positioned the boat upcurrent of the spot I want to fish, be it a rock pile, boulder, rip or drop-off, I’ll lower the eel to the bottom and drift along with the reel in gear and the rod in the holder. The hook is designed to catch in the corner of the fish’s jaw after the fish inhales the bait and runs off with it, so I usually wait for the rod to double over before removing it from the holder. If I don’t get a hit after drifting through the prime zone, I circle back and make another drift.
I discovered the effectiveness of live-lining scup off Block Island a few years ago when I ran out of eels, and I still use them. Scup are readily available around the island, and can be easily caught over hard bottom on small pieces of squid or sabiki rigs. I prefer my scup to be as small as possible, but still meet the 10-inch minimum size limit.
I typically fish scup on a seven-foot, medium-action spinning outfit filled with 30-pound braid and a five-foot, 30-pound-test fluoro leader. After hooking the scup on a 4/0 circle hook just behind the dorsal fin, I attach a balloon about 14 inches above the bait and lob it into some rocky structure.
Block Hot Spots
A big advantage of fishing Block Island is that you can always find a lee shore to fish, no matter what the wind direction. For example, when the wind is cranking out of the southwest or northwest, you can tuck in behind the east side of the island. In fact, one of the most productive spots is the boulder-studded area below Southeast Light. It’s a short run from Old Harbor, and consistently produces big fish throughout the season on both trolling gear and live baits.
The entire southern side of the island is also littered with fish-holding boulders, ledges and drop-offs, and trolling wire line along the 30-foot contour line will usually yield good results. You never know where along the shoreline you’ll find the fish, however, so you might have to cover some ground. Once you get a strike, mark the spot on your chart plotter so you can fish it thoroughly.
Trolling bucktails, tube lures, spoons or umbrella rigs on wire line is your best bet here, although chucking live baits, big soft-plastics and plugs into the shallower spots in 10 to 15 feet of water can be productive, too, as long as sea conditions allow.
Livin’ on the Ledge
Every destination has its premier spot, and Southwest Ledge fills the bill on Block Island. This series of ledges and rock piles extends from the southwest corner of the island out to the R “2” buoy. Live-lining eels, trolling umbrellas, bucktailing and yo-yo jigging are the best techniques here, as the depth ranges from 25 to 45 feet.
Southwest Ledge does present certain challenges, however. For example, the current can run as fast as two knots, so be prepared for sloppy conditions. A stiff southwest wind against an outgoing tide will kick up big seas, even on a calm day, so make sure your crew is up to the task.
One other note: Southwest Ledge extends into federal waters, where striper fishing is not allowed. Be mindful of where you’re fishing, as the Coast Guard often patrols these waters, and may check your catch. If you are found to be in possession of a striper in federal waters, you may face a stiff fine, even if the fish was caught within the state boundary (three miles from shore).
Yet another hot spot is the North Rip, which extends from the pointed northern tip of the island. Current means everything here, and the outgoing tide is favored. Boat traffic can be heavy, as many local charter boats make this a daily stop.
If you are new to fishing big ocean rips, use caution and be respectful of other boats working the North Rip. This is not a place you want to fish in the dark, the fog or a northeast wind. Pick your day and your conditions wisely before heading to this spot.
Trolling and live-lining are the favored techniques on the North Rip. However, because of the strong current you will have to fish your live baits off a three-way rig with up to eight ounces of weight. The results, however, can be worth it.
Block Island Fishing Resources
If you plan to fish Block Island, you will need a Rhode Island saltwater fishing license, available online for $7 (resident) or $10 (non-resident) at saltwater.ri.gov. A license is not needed if you plan to fish on a charter boat or if you hold a saltwater license from a neighboring state.
Block Island Fishworks (401) 466-5392
G Willie Makit (401) 466-5151
Rooster (401) 439-5386
Block Island Sportfishing (401) 487-2425
BAIT & TACKLE
Block Island Fishworks (401) 466-5392