01 Jun An Introduction to Plum Island, Massachusetts – Aubrey Theall
I don’t live all that close to the ocean (I’m about 45 minutes west) but if I were pressed to name my “home” waters I would say Plum Island, MA without hesitation. Its where I learned to saltwater fish and likely still where I fish more than anywhere else in a given season. In my opinion, Plum Island is to Massachusetts what Montauk is to New York. Its well known, has great public access and the fishing is very good. These factors mean that it also can be very, very crowded. I’ve been hooked a number of times, have had lines cast over my head, have had my spot mugged so many times I can’t remember, have had lines cast across mine as I fought a fish and had many, many other fishing insults perpetrated against me. I’m not the only one. Just yesterday I was fishing in the river and stopped casting to allow a fellow room to fight a fish, he was so pleased and surprised that he offered me a plug when he landed the fish. I took a pass since I don’t think I should be rewarded for doing what I’m supposed to do anyway, but that gives you an idea of the usual state of affairs around prime time.
All that said, if you fish at the right times it can also be as peaceful a place as you will find. I’ve walked the beach front at Plum Island numerous times at sun rise in total solitude, not another person in sight for miles in either direction while casting to bluefish. Its a great feeling fighting an angry blue all alone on a wide open beach with the dunes rising behind you, the roar of the breaking waves and the sea spray in the air. Fish the wee hours of the morning if you like peace and quiet. The same spots that you couldn’t elbow your way into at 9pm are generally deserted at 4am.
Plum Island is an 11 mile long barrier beach located seaward of Newburyport, Newbury, Ipswich and Rowley MA. It was formed by the outflow of silt from the Merrimack River pushed southward by the north to south Labrador Current. The Merrimack is the drainage of much of the White Mountains, the northern border of Plum Island and it is a dangerous river that is to be respected. Every year it seems several people drown in the Merrimack and most of them are down here at the mouth of the river. One poor young woman drowned just this past week. There is a large, shifting sandbar in the river mouth (it can move from day to day) that has very strong currents and uneven footing. Heavy boat traffic will throw large wakes across the bar at times. The first time you wade onto the bar I’d advise you do it with someone knowledgeable and to exit at slack tide or very early in the rise. The tides in this part of New England are much larger than in southern New England and move fast. The bar attracts attention, though, because its a great place to fish. Most of Plum Island is soft structure so your beach water reading skills can be put to the test. Look at the structure of the bar and you’ll get an idea of where the fish will hold to feed and what kind of lures you should be using to get into those holes and crevices. Work the bottom and you’ll find keeper sized fish among the schoolies and if you’re lucky like this regular you’ll find an even bigger fish.
The mouth of the river is also home to two large jetties, north and south (see picture above). The north jetty (left in the photo) rises from Salisbury Beach and is completely off limits to fishermen. It is regularly swept over by even moderate seas. The south jetty rises on the Plum Island side and is open to fishermen but is one of the more treacherous places I’ve ever fished. I only occasionally venture on to it and with some trepidation. Its only accessible during the bottom stages of the tide (the jetty is seriously degraded and has many low spots that are underwater when the tide is up or in heavier seas with even the tide down). The rocks are covered with the slickest sorts of snot and are jagged, with many holes large enough to swallow a fisherman whole and deep enough that you might not ever wake up if you fell in. Again, though, the fishing is good out here. Use extreme caution if you venture out, don’t even consider it without Korkers and tag along with someone knowledgeable the first time. I have seen many, many people have to be rescued from the jetty over the years and the Coast Guard and Marine Patrol are not going to be very happy with you if they have to pluck yet another fisherman from those rocks.
The northern perhaps quarter of the island is densely developed with cottages, park either at the northern end of the island in the large town lot (at the river mouth) or in the old church lot near Surfland and you can access the beach in front of these homes on foot. The remainder of the island is undeveloped public land that is accessible for a nominal fee (unless you drive through all the way to Sandy Point, which is free) and has a string of parking lots that enable access to the length of the beach (expect some stretches of beach to be closed for piping plover nesting in spring and early summer, however). In the fall months, generally from September 1st to October 31st there is beach buggy access in the reservation for a modest (by beach buggy standards) $50 fee. To the best of my knowledge this is the only oversand vehicle access remaining in New England north of Boston.
The island’s southern terminus is the Ipswich River and the Sandy Point State Reservation, a large sand flat with many tidal pools and a great spot to spin or fly fish and the sand bars can be waded with sight casting to fish possible at times. Although the current isn’t as strong on this end as it is in the Merrimack and the water isn’t as deep, the sand is soft and the bar structure can mean crossing deeper water to get back to shore so wade very carefully. Crane Beach looks back at you from the opposite side of the Ipswich with Cape Ann beyond. There’s only one road in and out of the reservation, a road that is paved for its northern one third or so and then dirt for the remaining two thirds. The one thing you absolutely do not want to do is speed on this road. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way, the speed limit is rabidly enforced. Save your money and spend it at the Saltwater Edge instead. The only real hard structure other than the jetties is located down here, near the southern end of the island, Emerson Rocks. An excellent place to wet a line when the tide is up a bit.
The conventional wisdom is to fish the rivers on the dropping tide and the beach on the rise. This usually holds true but remember that the rules of fishing are more like very loosely enforced guidelines so don’t be afraid to experiment, particularly at night. During the spring months relatively more attention is focused on the Merrimack while in the fall months most of the attention is on the beach. Any part of the long beach front will produce at times, read the water and find the bait and you will find the fish. The river will produce all the way up to the first dam which is in Lawrence. I’ve never been one for urban fishing but if that’s your cup of tea there are trophy bass taken every year far upriver as they chase spawning herring and shad. Sand eels are always a common bait so your sand eel imitators are a good bet but keep an eye on the bait as all kinds will move through at different times and you’ll have to change your strategies as the season progresses. Every year these waters give up 50lb striped bass and there are even a couple of pictures of 60lb fish hanging on the rafters at Surfland from years gone by. While school sized bass are very common and easy to catch here remember that the ocean is full of surprises and consider leaving the schoolie rod at home even if you’ve been on a run of schoolies of late.