Among saltwater anglers you’ll never hear a peep about Rhode Island’s diminutive size.
The smaller, the better, they say, and anglers in Little Rhody are used to outstanding and diverse fishing opportunities without driving from pillar to post.
South County is one of the prettiest parts of the Ocean State, but you won’t find it on a map. It’s a colloquial reference that has been argued about for more than a century. The official name of the southwestern part of Rhode Island is Washington County, and it includes the towns of Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Narragansett, North Kingstown, Richmond, South Kingstown, Westerly, and West Greenwich. In general terms, it stretches from the Connecticut border east to Greenwich Bay.
If you drive along U.S. Highway 1, South County spans only 27 miles from Westerly to East Greenwich. Condensed into this short area are reefs, river estuaries, beaches, salt ponds, rock gardens, and rocks and ledges. As if that terrain weren’t enough, anglers can consistently catch five species of fish from shore. Striped bass, bluefish, bonito, false albacore, and squeteague are common targets, and shad, skipjack, mahimahi, and school tuna come close enough inshore that boat anglers can rejoice. Deep Hole in Matunuck is typically the first area to host striped bass in the spring, and the South County beaches are where the final migrating fish are caught. South County is tough to beat.
One of the best parts of fishing South County is that the fishing is equally good by boots, by kayak, and by boat. Because of the open ocean exposure the water is very clear and clean, save for the occasional offshore weeds blown in after a storm. Be sure to wear a pair of cleated soles or boots, such as Korkers, if you fish the rocks; if you fish the salt ponds, be sure to account for the tide variations as the tide comes in quickly on the beach but takes a while to fill up the ponds. The same holds true on the ebb.
On the west side of the state, in Westerly, are Napatree Point and Watch Hill. Napatree Point is a peninsula that is connected to Watch Hill and the mainland by Napatree Beach. Just north of the point are Little Narragansett Bay and the Pawcatuck River. In this tiny little area is a highly concentrated amount of very different water—an estuary system, a bay, a beach, and a point—all of which rolls around to a rock garden. The area is productive all year long for a broad variety of fish. In the spring striped bass chase the herring, alewives, and silversides that move into the bay and then into the river. When squid move onto the Watch Hill Reef, the bass push out and the entire area fills up with bluefish. In the summer and early fall, bonito and false albacore run all around the area. Anglers commonly hook all four species in one day. Napatree Point is close to Connecticut waters, so if you fish from a boat, be sure to comply with Connecticut rules and regulations for all fish caught.
Around the corner is Watch Hill, arguably one of Rhode Island’s most recognized fishing locations. Watch Hill is about as pretty a place to fish as exists on the Eastern Seaboard. Wading anglers follow the path off Bluff Avenue and find a mix of beach, rocks, and ledges. Water moves very quickly here, and there is so much structure for bass to run down bait that when the fish are in you never know if you’re going to hook a 15-inch fish or a 15-pounder. The rocks are slippery and Korkers are a must, but Watch Hill is worth the effort.
The Watch Hill Reef has a tremendous amount of texture, derived from depth changes, rocks, and reefs. When the squid are in and the tide is running, striped bass and bluefish are seemingly everywhere at once. They are low in the water column, on the surface, and in all points in between. Boaters get above the tide line and stem the tide, with the best presentations resembling an up-and-across trout cast with an up-current series of mends. Hold on to your rod grip, because when your fly swings down below your boat and a fish hits you’ll have the current working against you. Many anglers like extra-fast-sinking lines for this area, and use very stout tippets—30- or 40-pound-text—so they can land more bass in the rugged hydraulics. Later in the season, bonito and albies show up to feast on glass minnows that drop out of the Pawcatuck River, and on silversides, bay anchovies, and other juvenile baitfish. The reef is a good place to catch multiple species of fish in one day.
If you like beaches, salts ponds, and break walls, you can enjoy fishing three popular haunts between Watch Hill and point Judith. Running from west to east, Weekapaug, Quonochontaug, and Ninigret each offer such features and get the most attention from fly fishers. The beauty of these three venues is that you can fish them from shore, from a kayak, or from a boat. They are productive from the early season when the first bass of the year arrive, through the summer bluefish and shad blitzes, on to the bonito and albacore mayhem, and finishing with the final fall striper run. Early- and late-season fishing is excellent during the day, and midseason night fishing is ideal. The spring full moons are a great time to fish in Ninigret Pond because of the outstanding cinder worm hatch. And if you’d like to run the beach in a 4X4, you can. At the east end of East Beach Road is 3-mile-long East Beach.
The outer beach is open from April 15 through October 31, from 7am until 11pm. Over-sand permits cost $50 for residents and $100 for non-residents, and can be obtained din person at Burlingame State Park or through the state park website, www.riparks.com/eastbeach.htm.
The ponds are virtual baitfish factories, which is what primes the beaches and the break walls at their mouths. In these ponds are nearly every type of bait imaginable, from early-season herring and alewives to silversides, sand eels, shrimp, cinder worms, bay anchovies, eels, mullet, and crabs.
On the east side of the breachway, off Charlestown Beach Rod in Charlestown, is a beach that is owned by the town and open to the public. In the early and late season you can park fro free, but during the day in the rest of the season you have to pay. Fly casting this beach can be tricky because it attracts so many families for summer fun on the sand, but the night fishing can be good. There is an easterly current swing as the tide drops, and you’ll find bonito and albies running along the drop-off. Around the stand of 5 Cottages is an ocean hole and a rocky point that is a productive area to prospect.
While most people know of Point Judith as the spot to catch the Block Island ferry, it’s a working harbor that has some great fishing. In-season boat traffic can be heavy, largely because of the public ramp that is located off the Galilee Escape Road. Kayaks are good for early- and late-season fishing, but leave ‘em home when the boats are running. Point Judith Pond is big and runs far upriver. Aside from the main channel, the ponds are soft and shallow. With so much bait around there is usually some species of fish to catch.
There are four walls in front of the pond that get a lot of attention: the West Wall, the Short Wall, the Center Wall, and the East Wall. The West Wall is well known for early striped bass, and for being a great place to catch bonito and albies from shore. A tremendous current line runs close to the West Wall, and the bottom drops off very quickly, creating a hard edge perfect for pelagic species, particularly with copious amounts of bait dropping out of the harbor. It’s an easy jetty to walk out on, and there is ample room for anglers using any and all methods.
Be advised, though, that the West Wall has a lot of obstructions, including numerous lobster pots and lines, and commercial fish traps (false albacore are used commercially for pet food and fertilizer). Hooking a fish isn’t necessarily the hard part, but landing it with all of the buoys, lines, and cages is challenging. Increase tippet size so you can lean on the fish during that first run and steer your catch away from all the obstructions.
The Short Wall is adjacent to Sand Hill Cove. In the spring and fall enormous numbers of mullet, silversides, sand eels, bay anchovies, and peanut bunker fill the area. To the east are Seaweed Beach and some rocky areas, ideal for bait. The rocks create a perfect place for spring and fall bass and summer and fall bluefish. Floating and intermediate lines are best.
The Center Wall is nearly a perfect barrier. All species of fish filter in and out between the walls, and when the bait is in it attracts all kinds of predators. One year, while looking for bass, bonito, and bluefish, I caught none. But I had a heyday with shad to about 4 pounds.
Finally, the East Wall fishes best early or late in the season. Some of the first bluefish arrive here in the late spring and early summer and it’s a quiet spot for night fishing. Of particular note is the fall fishing, as the area between Point Judith and the East Wall is the southern corner for fish heading from Rhode Island to points south. The wall runs on a southwest line from shore, so odds are you’ll get seas and wind in your face. Look for bonito and false albacore.
If you like rocky points, offshore bars, big boulders, and a sweeping current, head to the Point Judith Lighthouse. This is the point where South County makes a turn to the north, resulting in a complex mix of current. Exposure is significant, and all winds except those from the northwest affect the seas. That chaos makes for really good fishing, and when the bait is in you’ll see some of the biggest fish of the year come off this point. Watch the rocks—they’re slippery when wet.
Just north of the point Judith Lighthouse are a few miles of rocks and ledges that define classic striper water, with an access point at Bass Rock Road. The boulders and ledge just offshore and the erratic coastline offer plenty of holding water and areas for stripers to pin baitfish. The best places are those that offer moving water. Any break in the terrain is an opportunity for a bass. With the exception of the weeds associated with summer or following a storm, the water clarity is good. That means you can see fish swimming past or coming up to your fly. (One time while I was sharpening a hook point, I watched a tremendous bass approach and grab the tail of a small bass that my friend was fighting.) A stripping basket is really helpful to keep your line organized, and you’ll need to routinely check your tippets and hook points to make sure they’re in good working order. In June you may find stripers right up in the rocks trying to root out the lobsters that have shed their exoskeletons.
In the fall, albies run the current seams. They’re easiest to reach by boat, but shore anglers occasionally hook up. They move in against the current, usually on the dropping tide, and you’ll notice them because of the water they kick up and displace.
Once you’ve gotten an adrenaline rush from fishing the rocks and need a little quiet time, head north to the Narrow River, aka the Pettaquamscutt. Spring draws an excellent run of herring and alewives looking to get into the freshwater pond at the upstream end.
In addition to striped bass, shad, squeteague, and bluefish cruise the river. Albies show up in the fall, particularly where the river meets Narragansett Beach. At the mouth you can expect substantial turbulence on a dropping tide and wind from the south. All of that turbulence is good because it concentrates the silversides, sand eels, bay anchovies, crabs, and worms-and in turn the game fish that eat them.
You’ll see lots of folks from many different regions fishing in South County. Charles George, owner of The Bedford Sportsman, in Bedford, New York, just outside Manhattan, is a South County regular. “Being a stone’s throw from the city, I have a pick between urban New York Harbor, Long Island, New Jersey, or the Connecticut coast,” he explains. “Whenever I have the opportunity I head to South County, Rhode Island, because it’s not only a beautiful place to fish but there are so many different conditions and a lot of different fish to catch. In my opinion it’s a hard place to beat.”
South County is a good place to eat fish and seafood, but there are two local favorites you should try. The first is Rhode Island clear chowder. Many Yankees argue that this is the true chowder, made from salt pork, onions, potatoes, ground clams, and clam juice only; unlike traditional New England clam chowder, it has no cream or butter, and unlike Manhattan clam chowder, it has no tomato sauce. The second is a stack of cornmeal johnnycakes for breakfast. You will enjoy their crispness with a cup of coffee after a long night of fishing for big striped bass.
Abrames’s Razzle Dazzle (Originated by Kenney Abrames)
Hook: Eagle Claw 254 NA 1X short, size 5/0-2/0
Thread: WhiteDanville 3/0
Tail: 2 strands of blue Mylar, 1 olive saddle hackle, 2 strands of light-green Mylar, 1 long white saddle hackle, 1 long silver-doctor-blue saddle hackle, 2 strands of red Mylar, 1 yellow saddle hackle, 2 strands of gold Mylar, 3 long white saddle hackles, and white bucktail, respectively
Body: Silver Mylar piping
Throat: Long white bucktail on the bottom and on both sides
Wing: Silver doctor blue saddle hackle tied flat over an olive saddle hackle
Topping: 7 to 14 strands of peacock herl, just beyond the wing