by Russ Stevens
When I moved to Massachusetts in the late 90s, the first place I ventured to wet a line was Plum Island. Acting on a tip I received from a coworker, I arrived at Plum Island Point before dawn on May 18, and took three good fish on my first three casts. Two weeks later, I witnessed one of the most impressive blitzes I’ve ever seen, when a school of mackerel was pinned against the south side of the south jetty. Bass of all sizes kept them there in broad daylight for an entire tide before they were allowed to escape into the relative safety of the open ocean. Plum Island fishing might not always be as easy as it was that day, but even during slower periods, the area offers anglers fishing opportunities rivaling anything in New England.
Located less than five miles south of the New Hampshire border, Plum Island offers boundless shore-fishing opportunities that are a short drive for most anglers in New England. Unlike most fishing points along Boston’s North Shore, access around Plum Island is very angler-friendly. The Merrimack River gives this area life, producing forage, current, structure and tidal flow as it makes its course from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the Atlantic Ocean. The combination of these factors attracts both game fish and anglers in big numbers every season.
When the fishing is at its best, crowds of weekend anglers will provide plenty of competition for the blitzing blues and stripers in Plum Island’s waters. Between mid-June and Labor Day, anglers looking for elbowroom should consider fishing at night or during the week. There are hundreds of productive spots in and around Plum Island and plenty of room to spread out. The following spots offer good starting points that will help you get to know the island and the surrounding waters. Combine these locations with productive times and tides this spring, and you’ll see why fishing Plum Island is such a popular activity.
Old Chain Bridge
Located on Spofford Street, the “Old Chain Bridge” is actually comprised of two separate bridges that connect in the middle of the Merrimack River at Deer Island. There is a parking area on Deer Island that is free of charge and open 24 hours a day that allows access to the eastern portion of the island. The Merrimack is still brackish here, and the water that is accessible from the shore is filled with fish-holding structure and strong currents. The best time to fish on Deer Island is during the spring, when the herring and shad are running and the water is still cold enough to appeal to stripers. The water on the northern side of the island is deeper, making it usually the better side to fish. Large soft-plastic baits are one of many good ways to target these early-season stripers. I would discourage bottom-fishing here because of the strong currents and the abundant debris that covers the bottom. If you want to fish bait, the best bet is to cast upcurrent and let it drift down. Fly-fishermen can go to the far eastern point of the island to find sufficient room for backcasting. This spot is also a very convenient place to launch a kayak. Anglers using a kayak will have access to the highly productive stretch of river around the Route 95 bridge abutments. I have seen some very large bass come out of this spot in the spring as the big fish can lurk here and ambush the bait that is migrating upriver to spawn.
On the southern side of the Merrimack River, between downtown Newburyport and Plum Island, sits an underwater sandbar known as the Joppa Flats. All season long, but especially in the spring and early summer, the warm sheltered water of the Joppa Flats provides a refuge for bait and draws the attention of striped bass, bluefish and fishermen. It’s best to fish the flats at night because stripers will be less cautious in this shallow water under the cover of darkness, but daylight fishing can also be productive, especially early on in the season. Anglers should exercise caution, especially near the edge of the flats where one false step can drop an angler in water over his head. It is also important to note that fog can be very disorienting here, so a good compass or hand-held GPS can be a lifesaver when visibility becomes limited. When fishing the flats at night or in the fog, always wear a headlamp with a green or red light and keep it on constantly. Powerboats will often drift or run up onto the flats at night to fish, and they need to be able to see you.
When fish are actively feeding, you will hear the splashes of marauding stripers all around you. Unweighted soft-plastic baits, needlefish and shallow-diving plugs are usually your best bet. This is a great spot for fly-fishing because the fish will often be in close proximity, eliminating the need for long casts that typically give spin-fishermen a slight advantage. The alewife run in the spring means big baits are often best early, with a gradual shift to smaller stuff to match the silversides, eels and worms that become the dominant forage as the season progresses. Joppa offers a massive fishable area with a soft bottom that fluctuates between mud and soft sand. Parking is free at Joppa Park, but the small lot fills up quickly.
Directly in front of Surfland Bait and Tackle, at land’s end of the Plum Island Turnpike, there is a modest parking area where you can access the Atlantic beachfront. Parking is “restricted” to residents, but it is not heavily enforced early and late in the season. There is a small jetty right in from of the parking area, and there are miles of open beach in either direction to explore. I include this area in this article mostly because it is convenient and a great place to try if you are working with limited time.
Plum Island River Causeway
As you drive over the Plum Island River on Plum Island Turnpike, there are two parking areas, one on either side of the bridge. In the spring, I usually take my first fish of the year from this location. You can walk out on the marsh grass to the edge of the river and enjoy fast action on mostly small fish. By launching a kayak here, you can access miles of first-rate estuary fishing by riding the tide all the way down to Plum Island Sound and back again. Try to target the last two or three hours of the rising tide.
The River Mouth
Just east of Joppa Flats, the Merrimack narrows considerably and meets the ocean. This entire stretch between the Captain’s Party Boat docks and the south jetty can be productive, but there are two specific spots that stand out. The stretch between the party boats and the “sandbar,” as it is locally known, is renowned for producing fish and the shore will often be lined with fishermen standing shoulder-to-shoulder during daylight hours, especially when word circulates that the bite is hot. As the river narrows, it deepens and the tidal flow accelerates, producing a potentially dangerous current, especially on the outgoing tide. Bass will position themselves all along this stretch, waiting for bait to be swept out. As the river rounds a bend, it creates a sandbar that is a popular fishing spot.
Because the water leaving the river in spring is warmer than the ocean it’s dumping into, the mouth of the Merrimack can be an extremely productive spot, sometimes reaching “fish-on-every-cast” status. I fish this area exclusively in the night or at dawn to avoid both the large crowds and the schoolies that seem to be more prevalent during daylight hours. This area changes ever year, as the sandy bottom is always in flux. Usually, it is possible to wade out and reach the drop-off easily, and you can venture farther out as the tide drops and retreat as the tide comes in. This is a very dangerous area because the sandy bottom can drop off suddenly and, during the spring, the incoming water can be much colder than the warmed water leaving the river. There is great access for fishermen at this area, with a large parking lot that is open 24 hours per day and free until June 15. A short walk over the dunes will put you in great fishing position.
As you walk east from the sandbar, you will see the south jetty about about a half-mile down the beach where the Merrimack meets the Atlantic Ocean. Any location on the north side of the jetty is a great spot to try. Fishing techniques along the north side of the jetty are similar to what you encounter in the Cape Cod Canal because of the raging current, 30-plus-foot depths and relatively narrow width of the river. I usually begin by jigging the bottom unless the fish are showing on top, and I prefer the second half of the dropping tide. If you can time this tide with sunrise or sunset, you maximize your chances of seeing some decent fish.
The eastern tip of the jetty requires a harrowing, difficult climb. This jetty is unimproved and has not been designed for easy access. The rocks are jagged and covered with algae and barnacles, making them extremely treacherous. A bad fall here can ruin your season, and maybe your life, so exercise caution, and don’t go to the tip of the jetty unless you are prepared to handle the conditions. Once at the tip of the jetty, you will have access to a current-laden boulder field that would make even the most seasoned surfcaster salivate. The combination of the surf pounding in from the ocean and the outgoing tide stir this water up like a washing machine, and stripers will wait at the mouth of the river for disoriented bait to be swept into their strike zone. Don’t ignore the south side of the jetty, as it is your best bet if you happen to catch the incoming tide. The beach just south of the jetty is safe, comfortable and usually not that crowded because of the 20-minute walk from the parking lot it necessitates. The entire area surrounding the jetty offers first-rate fishing. If you apply your good sense and lessons learned from other waters, you should be able to catch fish.
Watch Chris Megan and Carlton Schumacher catch schoolie stripers off the mouth of the Merrimack
in this Season 7 On The Water TV episode.
While the northern half of Plum Island is densely developed with both year-round and seasonal houses, the southern six-mile stretch of the island is comprised of one of the most beautiful natural areas in the state of Massachusetts: Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. The gate for incoming traffic closes at sunset, but visitors can leave the refuge 24 hours a day. Simply put: if you want to fish at night, get there before sunset and you are good to go. It should be noted that a refuge permit is required for night fishing. There is some beach buggy access allowed in the reserve, but the season is constantly changing due to the piping plover nesting restrictions.
As you drive through the main gate (there is a very reasonable $5 honor-system entry fee, or year-round passes are available for $20), you will step into an unspoiled barrier island habitat that is teeming with both land and marine wildlife. In 1942, the Federal Government annexed the southern half of the island as part of an effort to preserve wild areas nationwide, mostly in an effort to protect migratory birds. Houses that existed on this stretch of the island were bought from their owners or allowed to remain until their current owners passed away or sold them to the Federal Government. As of this writing, only one house remains on the island from this bygone era and it is very well hidden.
Beach conditions in the Parker River Wildlife Refuge vary significantly from year to year depending on ocean currents and winter storms. There are six designated areas where a fisherman can park and access the beach using a short boardwalk that leads over the dunes and to the ocean. Each of the aforementioned six parking areas is likely to hold fish. I have always preferred areas 5 and 6 because they are the farthest areas from the main gate and, therefore, tend to offer a better chance at a solitary fishing experience. Different fishermen swear by different parking areas, but it is likely that all hold large numbers of fish. My favorite spot in the reservation is undoubtedly Sandy Point State Reservation, which is located at the very southern tip of the island, bordering Plum Island Sound. If you look directly across Plum Island Sound (to the south), you will see Crane Beach, which is another legendary surfcasting spot on the North Shore. This whole area can be productive, but an area known as Emerson Rocks sticks out for a number of reasons. The first reason is that it is the only naturally occurring rocky structure along the whole island, which naturally attracts fish. Also, the currents moving south along the beach from the Merrimack meet both the pounding surf and the tidal flow coming out of Plum Island Sound. This three-way convergence of current can lead to some explosive action. Wading out among the rocks as far as you are comfortable and casting east is your best option because the water that is within casting distance from dry land is very shallow. Another great spot to try sits just south of Emerson Rocks, and is at the very southern tip of the island. Cast south from this spot toward the channel marker and you can reach the deep channel for boat traffic exiting Plum Island Sound. This whole area offers great fishing, so don’t hesitate to look for your own spots. Mackerel show up in large numbers here in late October to feast on migrating peanut bunker. The bass will be following them closely, and the abundance of warm water from both the Merrimack River and Plum Island Sound means that they will stay well into November as long as the bait is around.
In addition to fishing, Plum Island is well worth a visit just for a walk, in the winter, spring, summer or fall. Bird life is abundant, especially raptors. In addition to red-tailed hawks, kestrels and harriers, the Plum Island area is home to nesting bald eagles. Once, during September, my wife and I witnessed a tree swallow flock that I will never forget. On this particular day, the air was filled with clouds of these small birds as they rounded up nearly every mosquito in their cross hairs. I have never seen so many birds in one place at one time. It was an unbelievable and beautiful sight to behold as the tables were turned on the scourge of Plum Island. Suffice it to say that I will remember that day fondly for the rest of my life.
The quality of surf fishing on and around Plum Island cannot be exaggerated. The combination of great access, parking and great water make it one of the most productive areas to fish from the beach in New England. Crowds can complicate the fishing, but there is always enough room if people cooperate and the Refuge will always provide a decent level of solitude. If you have never visited the area, put it on your short list of new places to try this season.
Plum Island Area Tackle Shops
28 Plum Island Boulevard, Plum Island (978) 462-4202
At the heart of Plum Island’s fishing community lies the nearly fifty-year-old shop Surfland Bait and Tackle. Surfland stocks everything from live eels to lobster pots and is one of the premier rod and reel repair stores in the region. It is worth stopping in the shop just to look through over 100 photos of 50-plus-pound stripers – proof of how productive the waters around Plum Island can be. The staff at Surfland can also help you find fish, and sell you anything you need to catch them.
Bridge Road Bait and Tackle
134 Bridge Road, Salisbury (978) 465-3221
Located just north of the Route 1 drawbridge that spans the Merrimack, Bridge Road Bait is a great spot to pick up gear before you launch at Cashman Ramp, or fish Plum Island by shore. Bridge Road Bait and Tackle stocks a large supply of live and fresh bait, as well as a variety of lures, tackle and local information.
Hudson’s Outboard, Inc
50 Bridge Road, Salisbury (978) 462-8192
The Hudson family has been servicing the boating and fishing community since 1932. Hudson’s has the largest combined fishing tackle, service, sales and ships store in the North Shore area. Hudson’s features a first-rate tackle store in addition to a full line of fishing boats, parts and service. Look for the giant Great White Shark, and you’ll find Hudson’s.
Crossroads Bait & Tackle
32 Old Elm Street, Salisbury (978) 499-8999
Owned by the Hogg family, has the right bait and tackle for all saltwater and freshwater fish in season. Crossroads is just a minute away from great fishing along the Merrimack River and is a great place to stop before launching a boat or fishing from shore. Crossroads also operates a charter service with first-rate knowledge of the Merrimack River and surrounding waters.
First Light Anglers
21 Main Street, Rowley (978) 948-7004
First Light Anglers is a tackle and fly shop stocking everything from freshwater fishing tackle for trout to saltwater fly-fishing gear for tuna. Co-owners Derek Spingler and Nat Moody are two of the most respected charter captains in New England, and their years of combined experience and top-shelf inventory will help to put you on fish.