Springtime Fly Fishing for Striped Bass in Rhode Island

“It’s always exciting when the tax man comes.” said no one ever; but if you enjoy fly fishing for striped bass April 15th is the common return date for striped bass to Rhode Island waters. This marks the opportunity for anglers in the region to put away their fly tying vices after a long winter of tying, dust off their rods, and go fly fishing for striped bass.

harold gibbs

Fly Fishing for Striped Bass History

When most people think of fly fishing they imagine the streams of Montana or the pristine flats of the Bahamas. While it is true that these places get the recognition they do for a reason, some of the best fly fishing can be done right here in southern New England. Sure you won’t find the beautiful rocky mountain vistas or the seemingly endless expanses of wadeable grass flats, but what you will find are the fish. The exact date of when fly fishing for striped bass began is somewhat of a mystery but using records from Harold Gibbs we can guess that it was sometime between 1935 and 1940. Harold Gibbs, a Rhode Island native, is considered by many to be the “father” of fly fishing for striped bass. Growing up in Barrington, Gibbs spent much of his youth outdoors, hunting, trapping, and fishing. Gibbs, an avid outdoorsman, and self-taught scientist dedicated much of his life to studying and protecting the waters of the Narragansett Bay. Gibbs was never formally educated in the sciences however he took it upon himself to learn all he could about the ecology of the Narragansett Bay. Over the years Gibbs acquired a particular interest in studying shellfish, eventually building his own laboratory on the Palmer River to study and breed quahogs. From 1939 to 1946 Harold Gibbs served as the Rhode Island Administrator of Fish and Game where he spent much of his time fighting for conservation. Gibbs was recognized for his efforts in supporting the first anti-pollution act in Rhode Island as well as the discoveries he made in shellfish aquaculture. During his time as administrator of fish and game, Gibbs was able to attract anglers from all over the country to southern New England by promoting sport fishing in the region. As the story goes, Gibbs, unable to travel to Canada to pursue Salmon due to the gas rationing that came with WWII, decided to try his luck with a fly rod in the Palmer River behind his Barrington home.

Gibbs was never formally educated in the sciences however he took it upon himself to learn all he could about the ecology of the Narragansett Bay. Over the years Gibbs acquired a particular interest in studying shellfish, eventually building his own laboratory on the Palmer River to study and breed quahogs. From 1939 to 1946 Harold Gibbs served as the Rhode Island Administrator of Fish and Game where he spent much of his time fighting for conservation. Gibbs was recognized for his efforts in supporting the first anti-pollution act in Rhode Island as well as the discoveries he made in shellfish aquaculture. During his time as administrator of fish and game, Gibbs was able to attract anglers from all over the country to southern New England by promoting sport fishing in the region. As the story goes, Gibbs, unable to travel to Canada to pursue Salmon due to the gas rationing that came with WWII, decided to try his luck with a fly rod in the Palmer River behind his Barrington home.

From what we now know it turns out Gibbs was very successful in these early days of fly fishing for striped bass, recording a total of 300 stripers landed on the fly in 1943. In that same year, Gibbs wrote “This taking of striped bass on a fly rod and with streamer flies is really grand sport, and more fisherman should know about it.” in a letter to Ollie Rodman, a well-known angling author. Not only was Gibbs a tremendous fisherman, but also an ambassador for the sport and the region. Many people know Ted Williams for his outstanding accomplishments on the baseball field, however; his success was not limited to only the diamond. Williams took great interest in the sport of fly fishing and it was Gibbs who he looked to as an expert on fly fishing for striped bass. At one point Williams even made the trip to Rhode Island to fish for stripers with Gibbs in the waters of Barrington.

Fly Fishing for Striped Bass Tactics

The Palmer River presents a fishing scenario similar to the one that can be found in many other tidal estuaries in the region. By definition, an estuary is “a water passage where the tide meets a river current”. Estuaries are great places to target striped bass for several reasons, the primary reason being that in the spring, the warmest water is typically found in estuaries. Estuaries tend to be more shallow than the bodies of water that they open up into and they also tend to have dark bottoms. This allows sunlight to warm these bodies of water much quicker than the rest of the surrounding water which results in an influx of life into these estuaries. During the springtime, estuaries attract silversides, herring, shrimp, and mummichogs all looking to mate in their waters. Shrimp are generally the first bait to arrive, you’ll find them in large numbers during late April and May when the water has just begun to warm up. Shrimp are the primary food source for the first stripers that arrive; you’ll find them picking off shrimp in slower moving water usually where there is an abundance of eelgrass. Silversides start showing up in these tidal estuaries shortly after the shrimp. Silversides spend the winter in deeper water outside of the estuary however they return to the estuary for the spring and summer months to spawn. While in the estuary, Silversides are found in large groups consisting of similar sized fish. Look for these congregations of fish to be in shallow water; Silversides tend to stay close to the water’s edge out of the tidal flow of the estuary. This small baitfish ranges in size from about three to six inches and are easily imitated by using a Ray’s Fly. If you come across stripers feeding on Silversides your best bet is to cast your fly just outside of the school. What this does is it gives the appearance of a baitfish that has become injured or separated from the rest of the school, allowing the stripers to key in on your fly. When the bait is thick as Silversides generally are, casting directly into the bait is unproductive because your fly simply becomes mixed in with the hundreds of other bait that are there to be eaten. Arguably the most important bait, if you’re looking to catch big striped bass, is herring. Herring begin entering the tidal waters in mid-April and continue to do so through early May. These large baitfish, ranging from six to twelve inches in length, continue their runs up into freshwater lakes and rivers to spawn. The herring often wait at the entrance of these freshwater rivers for a full moon high tide to raise the water level enough for them to swim upstream. This behavior creates the perfect opportunity for big stripers to ambush the herring. Both the Barrington and Palmer Rivers have strong herring runs which make them productive early season Striper spots.

Harold Gibbs

Harold’s Meadow is in the upper left corner

Grinnell Point is a classic striped bass fishing spot located on the Palmer River and across from Harold’s Meadow. It’s close proximity to the exact spot where Harold Gibbs first began casting his fly rod for striped bass gives it a nostalgic feel. Many times in the past I had driven over the bridge from Barrington into Warren, glancing over to see someone out at the point casting a fly rod but I had never ventured out there myself. With reports of stripers in the river, I decided to try my luck. I found parking in a neighborhood just over the bridge in Warren and with a short walk down the bike path and across the marsh I was right where I needed to be. Although there is water right at the end of the point, you’ll want a good pair of waders and boots that will allow you to fish the water further from the point. Although it was early spring and the fish that were around were likely only school sized bass, I elected to use a 9wt rod over my usual 8wt. While it is more fun to play smaller fish on an 8wt, the 9wt makes it easier to cut through some of the wind that we frequently experience during spring. When fished on a dropping tide, the best tide to fish Grinnell point on, the spot fishes similarly to a trout stream. Sure it is exciting to cast your fly into a school of stripers busting the surface and then strip it back through anticipating a hit, but that scenario only occurs a small percentage of the time. The fact of the matter is, striped bass are lazy, especially the big ones, they would much rather have food come to them then have to chase their food. This is one of the reasons that Grinnell point works so well for catching stripers. As the tide drops the topography of the river bottom creates perfect spots for bass to hold and wait for bait to pass by as it is pulled out by the tide. I tied on a Ray’s fly and then a second one as a dropper; Ray’s flies often fish well when you fish more than one at a time. The goal in this situation is to fish to the fish, so having two flies on allowed me to cover two different levels of the water column at once. As I waded out, I began making short casts becoming increasingly longer with each cast. Each time I would cast directly out in front of me, perpendicular to the direction of the current, allowing the fly to swing with the current until it was directly below me in the river. As I waded further out into the river I began to focus my efforts towards a rock pile situated about 50 yards out from the point. The way that the rock pile is positioned in the water creates stronger riffles on both sides of the rock with an area of calmer water directly behind the rocks. striped bass often use these areas of contrasting water to ambush bait and this case was no exception. I made a cast just above the rock pile, allowing my fly to swing down stream just outside of the riffle. As my fly neared the end of its swing the line went tight.

Fly Fishing for Striped Bass Tackle

In the spring an 8 or 9wt fly rod will suffice for just about any fishing situation you’ll encounter. There may be some days when the 9wt makes cutting through strong wind an easier task, however, it is usually the calmer days that produce fish during spring. When it comes to choosing a fly line for stripers you really can’t go wrong with a weight-forward floating line. Intermediate lines are great because they make it possible to cover a lot of water however, they do not offer the same control that a floating line does. When fishing current it is essential that the fly is presented in a manner that is natural. In order to achieve this, it is essential that you are able to mend the line when necessary. Making a proper mend is difficult with an intermediate line because the line will become submerged rather than remaining on the surface as a floating line will. Both lines will give you advantages indifferent situations, however; if you’re looking to go the more economical route a floating line is your best bet. In situations where you need to get your fly down lower in the water column, you can experiment with different sink tips or by adding split shot to your leader. Airflo offers a floating line that is tailored to the needs of fly fishing for stripers in cold water. As for a leader, an 8-foot knotless tapered with a 12 to 15 pound-test tippet will make for easy turn over on those windy spring days allowing you to get the job done. There’s no need to carry around a fly box with every striper pattern in the book during the spring as most of the bait that you’ll find in the water can be imitated with just a handful of flies. The goal is to keep things as simple as possible, as Gibbs himself once told a friend, “A striper will hit any fly as long as it’s white.”. When fishing for stripers in the spring I like to carry an assortment of Ray’s flies, Lefty’s Deceivers (white), small Clouser Minnows, and shrimp flies. When prospecting for fish it can be helpful to fish two or three of these flies at a time on a dropper rig. This will allow you to determine which fly the fish are taking at that particular time without having to spend time changing flies multiple times. It can also be beneficial to add a cinder worm pattern to your arsenal in the event that you happen upon a worm hatch.

 The beauty of the internet is that you can access a plethora of information, allowing you to spend hours reading up on where to catch the most fish and how to do it, but in the end the only bit of information at remains absolutely true is that you can’t catch fish sitting in front of a keyboard. You just have to get out there!

 

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