Fly Fishing Rhode Island Salt Ponds
Behind the pristine barrier beaches that make up Rhode Island’s southern shore, lie salt ponds. The ponds are tidally influenced via stone-reinforced, inlet-openings, known locally as, breachways. In addition to providing habitat for the resident fin and shellfish populations, salt ponds act as nurseries for a variety of baitfish and act as a buffer to the mainland when severe storms strike. Not surprisingly, breachways are great places to fish.
The back ponds of breachways are very rich ecosystems comprising of everything from isopods, plankton and fin fish larvae, to trophy-sized gamefish. I seen some marvelous feats of nature while fishing breachways from an incoming school of alewives to a midnight nun of effervescent squid to late season bass & bluefish blitzes for which no fisherman was present to capitalize. The cycles of marine life; of hatches and swarms, and the cycles of migration are well-represented at our salt ponds. I feel that the angler, you and I, are best served by being students of nature.
At the three respective Rhode Island Breachways: Charlestown, Quonochontaug and Weekapaug, the last two hours of the dropping tide is generally considered the best time to fish. A couple of things occur during falling tides that contribute to this fact. First, as the tide approaches low, the volume of water flowing out increases: more water exits towards the end of the tide. At a breachway, the water also accelerates due to the constriction of the walled inlet. Small or immature baitfish can’t effectively swim against the current, and get swept out the end. But stripers, with their wide tails and foremost swimming ability, can easily hold in a breachway current and wait for the tide to bring them dinner. For this reason, the breachway ends are the favored location in the tailing hours of a dropping tide. Conventional fishermen capitalize by taking up position there while drifting live bait or artificials to the waiting predators. The participants often take turns along the breachway ends by using a technique known as The Rotation. The Rotation, a choreographed, cast-drift-and-move technique, allows each fisherman repeating turns at the coveted, breachway end.
Unfortunately, The Rotation does not accommodate fly fishers. I’ve seen fly fisherman get everything from dirty looks to threats from the regulars for monopolizing the breachway ends. In a general sense, regardless of who is there first, breachway culture dictates that one person should not have the breachway’s best spot all to themselves. As an outnumbered fly fisherman, this means you will be expected to exit when others are present. Indeed, not sharing the end spots with others has evolved into the most basic transgression of breachway etiquette. You will not find too many friends along the stones if you fail to realize this.
There is an up side to being banished though…. One learns to improvise. There are a lot of, what I term off-time and off-tide, opportunities at the breachways. Though the last two hours of an outgoing tide are considered prime, collectively this period makes up only four hours a day. At these off times you’ll find yourself with little company. It’s a big breachway and there are lots of ways to fish it. With a little innovation, one can have a successful breachway outing at many different times, and under a variety of conditions. While I won’t get too much into the specifics relating to each area, I will point out some commonalities of time and structure that apply to all.
First light, or grey-dawn, at any of the breachways is an almost sure-fire bet. Fish that have been holding in the upper reaches of the back-pond tend to forage along the rocks at first light in all but the strongest stages of the incoming tide. For fly-fishers looking to capitalize, dawn is prime time. Of course, one must ensure that one is actually fishing at first light, not arriving at first light. I like to arrive while it is still dark and suit up. In the summer months this can mean being at the breachway as early as 3:30 A.M. Good flies for first light include deceivers in white or chartreuse, sliders, poppers and Clouser Minnows.
Beginning in August and often continuing until late autumn, bonito and false albacore are known to make forays into the breachways while in pursuit of silversides or menhaden. Again, the best bet is early morning. For many New England salty fly fishermen, hooking into one of these tuna cousins represents the ultimate shore-fishing experience. In Rhode Island, a hardcore flyfishing elite has evolved with “Albies and Bones” as their primary quest. These anglers will take up position while it is still dark, casting brightly colored epoxy patterns to the marauding gamesters at dawn’s first twinkling. The action can last anywhere from fifteen minutes to over an hour. In October and November the scene repeats, but with blues and bass as the primary target. The beauty of early morning fishing from atop your breachway perch is that you do not need to be able to throw the whole fly-line. Even someone with mediocre casting ability can hook up with a good fish. For the fish are, literally, right in front of you at first light.
Fishing The Surf Side Of The Breachways
The surf sides of a breachway, those that face the beachfront, are among the most under rated pieces of structure in shore fishing. This has a lot more to do with the perception of the fishermen than lack of fish. Most fishermen simply overlook or elect not to attempt it, given the abundance of alternatives in such close proximity. Others take a tunnel-vision approach, with the breachway end as the lone objective. I’ve seen fishermen arrive at the breachway and turn tail if the end is not available. A pity for them, but if you know what you are doing and when to do it, a breachway’s sides can offer one the opportunity to put on a clinic in alternative methods of breachway fishing.
When planning to fish a breachway sides, just apply some of the basic jetty-fishing principles, with a few tailored alterations to capitalize on the dynamics of water exchange. Like in jetty fishing, move along the rocks until you find yourself parallel to the incoming waves and cast your fly into the trough, like you would at any such structure. The trough of the first wave is the best place to start. Vary this technique with carefully timed presentations, after the wave has broken, to the whitewater. Try to avoid getting the fly tumbled in the wave and losing contact with the fly. Range along the breachway sides and repeat the technique against the incoming swells. Good flies for breachway sides include high profile and dark-colored patterns that present a sizeable and dark silhouette against the backdrop of the whitewater. A ten-weight rod for pulling power, and sinking line to “bite” the water, are good choices along breachway sides.
Also, particularly on incoming tides, look for the lines of effusion that indicate water exchange. These tidal streams run parallel to the beach, appearing a lighter color and with different surface texture, from the surrounding water. They then sweep up along the breachway sides, and into the breachway proper. Gamefish will often hold along the edges of these, rivers-in-the-surf, to pick off incoming bait just like they will on an outgoing tide.
Fishing The Corners
The corners formed by the meeting of beach and breachway are often highly productive. Breachway corners have an alias also: The Pocket. Know that when you hear a local say, “I picked up a few fish in the pocket,” it is the corners he is referring to. (It should be noted that there is more than one type of pocket. The phrase phrase, pocket can also mean the point where a sandbar and beach create corner on the shoreline, so just make sure that your local was at a breachway.) Stripers and bluefish, particularly during the fall migration will corral bait into the corners. The reason is simple; it’s usually the first structure the bait encounters as they are pursued along the beachfront, and perfect fish trap for predators. At Charlestown, and especially the west side of Weekapaug Beach, this is feeding technique is repeated with astonishing frequency each November. Depending on feeding behavior, it may be better to descend from the breachway and fish the corner, from the beach. For flies, Clouser minnows in chartreuse and white are good choices. Bounce the fly along the bottom with a jig-like stripping action. An eight-ten-weight rod with intermediate or sinking line is a good pick for these areas.
Fishing The Back Ponds
The breachway back ponds also provide opportunities. Early in the year, roughly mid-May, the ponds support crab and worm hatches. “Fishing The Hatch” as it is called locally, can be both frustrating and rewarding, as sometimes the fish are extremely fickle when confronted with the hordes of bait. Worm flies about two inches in length, and in colors of light red to a brownish red, are typically fished on a 7-8 weight rod with floating or intermediated line. Tie or purchase a variety of patterns. If you are in a hatch and the fish refuse to cooperate, try changing flies often. Worm hatches typically occur later in the day, after the sun has warmed the relatively shallow water of the salt ponds. A tin boat or kayak, are the best methods of pursuit, but the hatches can be effectively fished on foot as well.
At night, in June and again in October through early November, the back ponds support good night fishing for larger fish. Eel patterns or black Deceivers on intermediate line, fished with a slow steady retrieve, can and do produce some larger fish. Spend a few moments observing the water, if any fish are about, the swirls and slurps should be evident.
The methods described represent only a minor sampling of techniques for creative breachway fly-fishing. There are many others: I.E. There are several local sharpies that fish the breachways at night, very late in the season (closer to winter than fall, really) that do very well. The success of these few late season anglers made more sense after I thought about for a while.
Late Season Opportunities
I’ve noticed that New England salt-water flyrodders begin their season too early and quit too early. I’m guilty of it also. Not too long ago, while doing a photo shoot at the Charlestown Breachway on a cold-but-sunny, late-November day, I – with camera, but sans fishing rod was witness to a terrific blitz at the breachway end for which no fisherman was present. I should have known to never underestimate the length of the season at a breachway. The water in even the biggest salt pond is quite shallow and warms easily in the sun. If there are any fish in general vicinity it makes sense they would congregate around the warm water outflow even on cold days, when everyone thinks the season has ended.