Fly Fishing Nantucket Island
Nantucket Island has been closely linked with fishing for a couple of centuries. And although the sought after species have changed, the thrill of the chase still takes place in the waters off this historic island in the spring, summer and fall. Like most of the East Coast as far south as New York, the major geologic force that shaped Nantucket was glacial. The topography of the island and surrounding ocean is very similar that of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Long Island – formed by the scouring effect of the glacier’s advance and the detritus left behind as the Wisconsin glaciation period ended around 20 thousand years ago. This underwater landscape, plus the proximity of the Gulf Stream has created a unique fishery for Northeast anglers.
Striper fishing on Nantucket starts in May and really heats up in early June. The fish move north along the East Coast as the daylight period lengthens and water temperatures rise. They follow the migrations of forage fish and by mid to late May the seasonal concentration of baitfish is usually sufficient, providing ample food for the abundant summer striper population. Fish may be taken casting from the Great Point beach into the edges of Point Rip or over submerged debris from an old wreck on the Point’s west side called “The Gauls”. Stripping a fly along the rock jetties that protect Nantucket Harbor can produce strikes where fish are searching for bait pulled from the rocks by wave action. However, two other methods are common on the island that provide anglers with types of striper fishing, found few other places in the East.
I’ve used these methods with Capts. Jeff and Lynne Heyer, owners of Cross Rip Outfitters, a number of times over the years. They carry on a seafaring tradition that goes back several generations. Lynne’s ancestors came to the island in 1690 and she’s related to Owen Chase, the first mate on the whaling ship Essex whose encounter with a sperm whale was Herman Melville’s inspiration for Moby Dick. The Heyers use flats boats to fish for cruising stripers on the white sand flats off of Eel Point. Catching stripers is fun anywhere, but sight casting to hungry 30+ inch fish is guaranteed to provide you with 100% of your daily adrenaline requirement. Big fish come onto these flats to hunt the bait that inhabits the grasses found in the shallow water. Lynne poled us over the flats on a rising tide and I was amazed at the clarity of the water and how well you could spot the dark shape of the stripers against the white sand bottom. Lynne says: “Fly fishing for these stripers on the flats is very similar to bonefish, tarpon and permit fishing in warm water. It’s all sight casting and you have to be prepared to make accurate 40 foot shot with one backcast.” She should know. Lynne and Jeff guide out of Islamarada during February, March and April. The caster stands on the bow, holding the fly and a few loops of line, ready to make a quick cast when a fish is spotted. Just as in warm water sight fishing, you have plenty of time to anticipate your cast when you and your guide see the fish early or you may have a good excuse for standing on your line when that fish appears right off the casting deck. Early June through mid September is the best time for striper fishing here on the flats as most of the fish tend to arrive from the south in the spring and head back towards the Chesapeake in early fall.
Shane Amos, a guide from Cross Rip Outfitters, introduced me to another method that reminded me of my freshwater roots in the West. He took me, one morning, to Coskata Pond, a large salt-water pond connected by a long narrow channel to the head of Nantucket Harbor. On a falling tide the stripers move into this channel to hunt baby herring, sand eels and silver sides carried out by the tide. We fished the channel with Clousers as you would a river for trout, casting our flies in places fish would normally hold in a current – behind rocks, in seams, under banks and below riffles. It was very similar to fishing the Madison in size and the constant 15-knot breeze, however, the fish weighed 25 to 30 pounds and there were no flotillas of drift boats. The channel is several hundred yards in length and all of it is quite wadable if you’re careful since the tide creates a 3 to 4 knot current. Where the channel enters the head of the harbor other bass tend to stack up waiting for the bait brought to them on the strong outgoing push. At least a 9-wt. rod is suggested, along with adherence to the tide charts. The time of day is not critical, but fishing the tide in this area certainly is.
Bluefish arrive in early to mid May and are typically found in deeper water, _ to _ of mile off shore. I have taken a number however, beach fishing, casting in the edges of the rip on the tip of Great Point. Our greatest success with blues though, usually comes off Cisco Beach on South Shore, west of the Miacomet Rip.
As with blues anywhere, look for the “slicks” formed by the surfactant qualities of the fish oil floating on the surface where chopper bluefish have been feeding on a school of baitfish below. It is also said the Bluefish themselves emit an oil when exited. Whatever the source, these slicks can range from the size of a dining room table to over an acre depending on the size of the school of prey and the number of bluefish feeding. Experienced fisherman can locate feeding blues by smell if the wind is right. My impression is a sort of fruity smell, similar to watermelon. Birds feeding on baitfish pushed to the surface or on the crumbs left over from the dining blues may be a clue to target species below. In fact, there are usually two layers of fish feeding on a large school of bait. Near the surface will be smaller fish, ripping through the prey, creating several types of havoc. Surface flies usually work quite well here to catch fish in the 7 to 10 pound range. Many times though, you have a better shot at bigger fish if you can get a large streamer down deep quickly. The big slammers can be found below the pod of bait where they burn fewer calories cleaning up the pieces that sink down to them from the frenzy above and finishing off the wounded baitfish. If you don’t see fish working, you can do what many Natucketeers do when prospecting for fish. With a spinning rod cast a large, hookless plug near the slick an d retrieve with lots of action. Many times, if you can create an obvious presence in the water, several bluefish will attack the plug and chase it back towards the boat. When the fish are in range, have your partner crank the plug in as fast as possible while you cast your fly just behind it to intercept the path of the bluefish. This bait and switch can work extremely well and can bring many more fish to the surface.
Jeff recommends a ten weight for blues. The flies are big, many times the wind is blowing 10-20 knots and if you tie into a 17 pounder, you’re be glad not to be under-gunned. Although wire leader is certainly fine, the Heyers don’t feel that it critical.
Atlantic bonito usually show up in Nantucket waters about the third week of July and will sometimes stay through the month of September. According to Lynne: “Weather and the Albie arrival usually have something to do with their departure.” As is the case with many high-energy fish, bonito need to eat almost constantly to support their high metabolism. That’s good news for us. Jeff says that light colored flies; white deceivers, bunny flies, squid patterns and small epoxies work well. These 5-8 pound fish exhibit a behavior common with many saltwater species called “shoaling”. Where schooling fish tend to travel through the water as a single unit with synchronous movements, shoaling fish swim in groups of hundreds of individuals distributed over a large area, moving independently. They do however, tend to exhibit similar behavior and are often found feeding aggressively on the surface in Miacomet Rip and channels east of Muskeget Island.
Albie fishing on Nantucket begins in late summer and runs through early fall as the fish gorge on bait, putting on weight for their migration south. The average size of the false albacore here is 6 to 10 lbs. As Jeff told me, “Not as big as the fish off Harker’s, but we fish for them a month earlier and they’re still quite a hand full on a 9-wt. In fact, this season one of our captains boated an awesome 16 pounder! Most albies don’t stick around the island long enough to get that big.”
By the time this same population of fish reachs North Carolina they may have almost doubled in weight. In describing fishing for false albacore to a non-fishing friend I once said: “Imagine hailing a cab and have the cabbie grab you by the wrist going forty miles a hour.”
There are many popular spots to look for blitzing tuna but one of my favorites is found between Madaket Harbor and Tuckernuck Island fishing the edges of the rips that form in the pass. Besides these spots, Great Point and The Gauls can be fantastic depending on wind and tide direction. The fish here are typically feeding on menhaden, bay anchovies and butterfish so Jeff suggests olive and chartruese epoxy minnows for durability as well as Rhody Chovies and Crease flies. The key here, as in any false albacore fishing is not so much fly selection, but finding a pod of fish busting on the surface. Years ago, the first time that my wife saw this happen she said: “It looks just like water dropped on a hot skillet.” She cast her fly precisely into the center of the action, hooked a nice fish, pinned her fly line and raised her rod tip to set the hook as you would on a brown trout sipping a trico. After she and the albie parted company, Jeff said: “ Lisa, next time, you may want to keep your tip down, strip strike and let that fish have just a little bit of line.” This was the first albie fishing that she had done and I had characteristically neglected to warn her that it was a bit different from 5-wt. trout fishing.
Interestingly, although albies are not usually considered shallow water fish, we’ve caught them in water only 3-4 feet deep off the Nantucket Sound side of Coatue. This is one of the great things about the Nantucket fishery. Although Great Point is certainly a popular and sometimes crowded spot for surf casting, the fishing pressure on Nantucket is generally much lighter than similar areas of the East Coast. A fly fisherman can be quite successful driving or walking along the accessible beaches in the early morning. Watch for fish chasing bait into the shallow water or cast to structure that looks attractive. An olive and white Clouser fished this way produced 4 stripers 2 bluefish and a false albacore in two hours of fishing last fall for a friend of mine.
One thing that keeps fishing pressure light is the misconception that Nantucket is so expensive. It is, if your looking to buy a home with an ocean view, but a fishing excursion can be done quite reasonably. You can reach the island by air or by ferry and once on island, you can walk most anywhere in Nantucket town. If you’ve booked a guide, you’ll be picked up and dropped off where you’re staying so you really don’t need a car. Cross Rip Outfitters offers both half day and full day trips on their flats boats and their 23’ Robalo as well as beach guiding. If you plan to fish on your own, plan on renting a car upon arrival. It is very expensive (about $300) to take your own car across on the ferry and you will have to purchase a beach permit ($85.) if you intend to drive along the shore. Jeep rental is around $100 and beach permits are already stuck on the bumper. If you do fish on your own, it’s a good idea to check in with the shop. Advise is free on what and where is hot and the Heyers have the latest info. from their captains and beach guides.
Boats have been leaving Nantucket to ply the ocean for hundreds of years. The harbor and the town’s skyline have changed very little in that time. As you return after a day’s fishing, it’s easy to imagine seeing that welcome sight through the eyes of a whaler returning home from a distant voyage. If you’ve lucky enough to hook a 12 pound albie, a blitzing blue or sow striper on the flats, you’ll smile every time you hear the phrase – “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”
Dusty Wissmath founded and directs Dusty Wissmath’s Fly Fishing School and Guide Service based at the Whitetail Resort. He began fly fishing at age 8 and has been instructing and guiding in the Rocky Mountain West and on the East Coast since 1973. Dusty is a Federation of Fly Fishers Certified Casting Instructor and a member of the Scott Fly Rod Co., Ross Reels and Hyde