Rhode Island Fly Fishing
Rhode Island fly fishing is made up mostly of saltwater fishing opportunities for striped bass and bluefish. Rhode Island is legendary for its surf and estuary fishing. Narragansett Bay is a major feature of the state’s topography. Block Island, known for its beaches, lies approximately 12 miles (19 km) off the southern coast of the mainland. Within the Bay, there are over 30 islands. The largest is Aquidneck Island, shared by the municipalities of Newport, Middletown, and Portsmouth. Among the other islands in the Bay are Hope, Prudence, and Despair.
I’ve logged a lot of hours fishing the salt waters of California and Rhode Island, and comparing their inshore fisheries is like comparing apples and oranges. Now aside from the question of size (Rhode Island has about 400 miles of coastline compared with California’s thousand-mile stretch), on paper you might get the impression that the similarities outrank the differences. Like California, Rhode Island has sandy shorelines facing the open ocean. Some of its southern beaches, like those around Charlestown and parts of Westerly, typify these classic surf locales. Not far from here (as the locals are fond of saying, nothing is far in Rhode Island) you can find rocky outcroppings like Watch Hill and the headlands around Newport and Jamestown, which remind me of some of the areas in central California around Monterey. Both states have sizable bays, and perhaps best of all there is plenty of public access to the shore. But the similarities end here.
Ocean of Plenty
Rhode Island has an estuarine environment that you don’t find on the West Coast. The famed ecorich salt ponds like Winnapaug, Quonochontaug and Ninigret along Rhode Island’s southwest shore are a literal fly-fisher’s horn of plenty.
Similar to these are a host of shallow-water flats found all along this small state’s coastline that are about as pristine as any in the tropics. You can sight-fish in many of these areas, and except that your prime target is striped bass, you could easily imagine yourself in the Keys or the Bahamas. However, stripers are not the only headliners that cruise Rhode Island waters. Bluefish, bonito, weakfish, fluke, false albacore and even bluefin tuna can all be taken on fly within this tiny state’s borders.
So how good is this fishery? When I told Lefty Kreh that I was going to move back to the Northeast, the first thing he said was, “You want to be in Rhode Island.” Unfortunately that didn’t work out, so I did the next best thing: I settled in Connecticut about a 40-minute drive from the border. When someone like Lefty, who has been fortunate enough to have fished the world’s best locations, tries to make at least one yearly trip to Rhode Island, that says a great deal about the quality of the fishing.
Almost in the next breath Lefty told me to get in touch with Capt. Jim White. Jim and his son Justin, who is also a captain here, are both Rhode Island natives with a very successful charter operation based in East Greenwich. Narragansett Bay is their home water, and after fishing with them in this area for the past five seasons I can honestly report that I’ve enjoyed some of the best fly-fishing of my life. Offshore is a shark fishery that’s virtually untapped by fly-fishers, not to mention the bluefin tuna that frequent these waters. In fact, at times these tuna venture very close to shore. This past season, right outside the Newport Bridge, White encountered some schools that tore up all the tackle he had on board. On another trip I even got shots at a few that were so close to the beach, I could have cast on the sand.
Of course, Rhode Island’s inshore fishery is the most accessible, and fly-fishers will find enough diversity in species, locale and technique to satisfy just about every preference. For newcomers to this area, I recommend rigging three complete outfits: one with a floating line, a second with an intermediate and a third with a fast-sinking line, regardless of the size of the rods. Obviously when you’re shorebound, carrying this much gear is impractical, so quick-change lines like shooting heads are the best alternative. This is not to imply that you can’t focus on one particular technique. For example, if you decide to concentrate exclusively on surface action with poppers and sliders, you can stick to a floating line. But this selectivity has inherent limitations. Unless you are a hard-core devotee of one specific method, it makes sense to be prepared for changing conditions, which you’ll definitely encounter in Rhode Island waters.
I remember a very productive day of fishing the rips off Watch Hill. We were hooking stripers on almost every drift over Sugar Reef, using fast-sinking lines to connect with them since they were feeding on squid about 15 feet deep.
Suddenly, without warning, birds started working the surface. My friend who was running the boat picked up an outfit with a floating line and a popper and was into a fish on the first cast. He fought it boat-side, released it, repositioned the skiff, made a second cast and hooked another bass. Fishing topwater didn’t account for the most fish that day, but those violent strikes provided the most exciting action. We would have missed it if we’d had only fast-sinking lines.
‘Tis the Season
True to the character of saltwater fishing in New England, the Rhode Island fishery is really a three-season affair. Depending on weather, spring fishing can begin around mid-May, and, though there are no precise demarcation dates, the summer season is generally acknowledged to start near the end of June. The fall fishery that has gained legendary status is associated with the tourist exodus and the beginning of the school year after Labor Day weekend. This season is also very weather-contingent, usually coming to a close around mid-November.
Spring is the ideal time for light-tackle and sight-fishing opportunities. The ocean is still cold, but inshore tidal creeks, salt ponds and back bays are beginning to warm. This warming means that food sources like crabs, marine worms, shrimp, eels and juvenile sand eels show up, and stripers and weakfish follow in hot pursuit. A few seasons back I even enjoyed a mixed bag of schoolie bass and fluke while working a chartreuse-and-white Clouser on the sandy flats in Little Narragansett Bay behind Napatree Beach. Initially most fly-fishermen regarded fluke as bycatch, but after experiencing their readiness to take flies, increasing numbers of fly-anglers set their sights on them. The weakfish are a lot harder to target than stripers in these waters, but the ones you do connect with often prove to be quality specimens. During the first two weeks of June last year, White and some of his friends caught quite a few 10-pound-class weakies in the East Greenwich area.
Much of the spring action continues on into the warmer months, with the added spice of greater concentrations of bluefish. In the past, summer striper fishing traditionally was a nighttime affair, but over the past several years, this has not necessarily been the case for fly-fishers. Many of the bigger bass, in the 20-plus-pound class, are taken at night and mostly on bait, but in these clean, clear waters there is plenty of daytime action to keep you busy. The tides are always important, but they are especially critical during the day, and the key is to try to fish moving water.
As is true for most of the Northeast, autumn is the time to be out fishing here. Seasonal migrations and feeding blitzes occur in both spring and fall, but are more intense during the latter. Maybe it’s because nature programmed predator species to bulk up for the lean winter months ahead, but whatever the biological trigger, anyone who has wet a line in the Northeast in the fall knows the action can be phenomenal. Montauk, which lies just across Long Island Sound, reputedly is the place to be at this time of year. However, this is a relatively small area, which means crowds of people whether you’re on the beach or on a boat. From the standpoint of solitude, I prefer Rhode Island. In my experience the hordes of blitzing, bruiser-class bluefish are as great there as you’ll find anywhere, and the boat traffic is usually nowhere near as heavy as in more popular locales. Last fall Justin and I found acres of surface-busting blues off Prudence Island and had them practically all to ourselves for almost two hours. On a beautiful day in mid-October, Iain Sorrel, Jim and I took 67 stripers. The largest was a 22-pounder, and we had at least a half-dozen in the mid- to high teens. We took most of these fish in less than 15 feet of water on everything from Crease flies to Clousers. We didn’t count the bluefish, but they were plentiful and ravaged a considerable amount of flies.
And you can’t forget the tuna. The false albacore action this past fall was not as good as I’ve seen, but on some days fair numbers of them showed near the Newport Bridge, and we even got into bonito. As with the bluefish and striper blitzes, the days I did find them, the boat traffic remained relatively light. Bonito tend to be far spookier than albies and as a result are often more highly sought after by fly-fishermen here. Anglers in Rhode Island regularly encounter them when conditions are right, and with these fish the more shots you get, the better your chances.
For such a small state, the fly-fishing opportunities seem almost boundless. When I’m in the throes of a New England winter, I usually dream about next season’s fishing, and you can bet that I constantly think about taking that short road trip to the Ocean State.
How To Get There
Rhode Island is an easy trip from anywhere in New England, even from New York. This state was the cradle of the industrial revolution in the United States and has one of the strongest maritime traditions in America.Once the playground of the ultrarich, Newport boasts many homes from the Gilded Age, which are some of the most massive ever built, including the Vanderbilt’s Breakers, Chateau-Sur-Mer, the Elms and others. In addition to the nonfishing-related activities, there are a host of guides and fly shops in the area to help you on that end.
What to Bring
Since the fishing is seasonal, so is the gear. To simulate the prey in the spring, you’ll need to carry an assortment of crab and shrimp patterns, in addition to the standard array of small (1- to 2-inch) Clousers and Deceivers, in your fly box. Six- to 8-weight outfits nicely accommodate this early-season fishery. For the shallows, floating and intermediate lines are the right choice, but if you want to drag the bottom for fluke, have a fast-sinking line on hand.
In the summer you’ll need to gear up a bit and move to 9- and 10-weight outfits. If you’d like to target the summer weakfish, plan on fishing at sunset and during the evening hours when they tend to congregate in the shallows over sandbars and in the back bays. Intermediate lines work best here, but during daylight hours they slide into water 12 to 35 feet deep, so you’ll also need a sinking line. For the weakfish, I recommend weighted flies like Jiggies and Half and Halfs. Stripers and blues head in during the summer as well, and it’s now time to move to larger flies.
When blues feed along with stripers, which happens frequently in these waters, you have to compromise. If you want to save flies and at least stand a chance of landing a big bluefish, you will definitely need a wire trace. However, I don’t believe I get as many strikes with the other fish when I use wire. In fact this past season, even the bluefish shied away from wire leaders. You’ll get more strikes with straight mono, but if blues are around you’re likely to get bitten off.
In late summer and early fall, albies, bonito and tuna start to show up. The two principal lines for this fishery are clear intermediates and fast sinkers. The intermediate works best when the fish feed on the surface, and some anglers use this line exclusively. But you’re missing a large window of opportunity if you forgo fast-sinking lines. These species spend most of their time cruising the depths. Even when busting bait on top, they usually dive down in search of other bait schools. You can pick up a lot of fish with a fast-sinking line, and 9- and 10-weight outfits are ideal for this situation. Some anglers choose to go much lighter, but all that does is exhaust the fish. If the bluefin move in, you’ll want substantially heavier rods. In fact, for the sake of the fish, you’ll want nothing but 12-weight or heavier rods, and you’ll use intermediate or sinking lines. The best patterns are larger baitfish flies to simulate the bunker or small bluefish they feed on.
Atlantic silversides are probably the most common forage along the Atlantic coast…
Up the tide, down the tide, all season long, Rhode Island’s south shore holds the possibility of trophy fish. But with twenty miles of oceanfront, much of it distinguishable only in its sameness, wher
Anglers who enjoy light tackle owe it to themselves to try a fly rod. It is the ultimate in light tackle.
by Ken Abrames
or’east Saltwater magazine is all about saltwater fishing with articles for the saltwater fisherman. Offshore fishing news and conditions are covered daily. Salt water fishing boats, equipment and updates
By Ken Nieuwenhuis
At the southernmost most portion of Rhode Island’s rocky eastward shore, lies the pink-granite landscape of Narragansett. Blessed with superb access and an entrenched tradition of trophy bass fishing,
Rhode Island fly fishermen greet October with open arms and tight drags. For just as the fiery colors on the hardwood trees peak during the month, so does the fishing ;by Ray Bondorew
The month of September signals change for both the Summer season and the angling in southern New England. ; by Ray Bondorew
by Lou Tabory
Salt Pond, the tidal estuary that sprawls from its upper reaches in Wakefield to its confluence with the ocean at the Harbor of Galilee, is a resource underutilized by all but a few sharpies.
The major environments that shore fishermen frequent include: sand beaches, sand bars, breachways, jetties, inlets, breaways and rocky shore and cliff fishing.
It was late October. I awoke at 11pm and headed down to the surf. I was armed with only my eels and my excitement, just as I had done all summer…
Large striped bass don’t come easily when you are fly-fishing. In fact, it can be pretty hard to land and or even find fish much more than 10-pounds on a regular basis ; by Capt. Jim White
Bass, blues, albies, and bonito head the long list of tempting species in the smallest state of the Union.
by Captain Ed Noll; If you’re impressed with 12 pound blues I want you to head out to Washington Ledge during July and August and see what many Rhode Islanders think slammers should look like.
The Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association is a non-profit organization, created to provide a forum for recreational saltwater anglers…
from Fly Fish Rhode Island
430 Branch Ave. Providence RI; 401 751 4827
1077 Aquidneck Ave Middletown, RI 02842; 1-866-SWE-ORDER