Pictured above: Holding the boat in position on the flat side of a rip is usually the most productive way to fish it. Photo by Adam Eldridge
A rip is an area of turbulent water formed when a current meets an obstruction, such as a reef, shoal, or even a wreck. When a tidal current passes over a shoal, it moves from deep water to shallow, and then to deep again. The depth might change from 50 or 60 feet to as little as 5 feet, and then back to 50 or 60 feet. Going over the shoal is a whole lot of water all trying to flow through a small area. So, the shallower it gets, the faster the water moves. Then, when the bottom drops off (on the far side of the shoal), the water slows down again. Fellow physics nerds will recognize this as an example of the Bernoulli Principle and the Venturi Effect, which explain fluid dynamics, but the bottom line is that when the fast-moving water flowing over the shoal runs into the slow-moving water on the far side, it creates turbulence. Often, what you see is a distinct line where an area of smooth water meets a section of rough water.
In rips, the upwelling of nutrients from the bottom makes the area over the shoal a particularly rich environment. And, because larger gamefish fish can navigate the turbulent water of the rip more easily than smaller baitfish, rips are prime fishing areas. Predators like stripers set up ambush positions in an eddy or break in the current where they wait for their food to come to them. As baitfish are swept along by the current, they get disoriented in the turbulence of the rip and become easy prey for gamefish.
When fishing a rip, the goal is to position the boat just above (up-current from) the rip so you can cast lures into the strike zone. One way to fish it is by cutting the motor above the rip and allowing the boat to drift through. This sometimes works well, but in many cases, it greatly reduces the amount of time in “the zone,” and requires you to spend much of your time repositioning the boat and running it across the rip, possibly spooking the fish.
Most of the time, it is preferable to use the motor to hold the boat in position against the current above the rip. This means pointing the bow into the current and adjusting the throttle and helm to hold a relatively constant distance from the rip. You will notice, especially as you try to hold position, that the strength of the current varies with the distance from the rip. The closer you get to it, the faster the water flows. So, as you allow the boat to settle back toward the rip, you must use a little more power to keep from being swept across. Try to find a position that is close enough to allow you to cast into the strike zone, but not so close that you spook fish with the motor noise and prop wash.
On many rips, the current doesn’t only push you across the rip, it also pushes you along the rip. Middle Ground in Vineyard Sound is a perfect example. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that Vineyard Sound and Middle Ground run west to east, that toward the Cape and the Elizabeth Islands is north and toward the Vineyard is south. On an incoming tide, the current runs west to east. As it flows across Middle Ground, the water pours over the shoal to the north. As the rip forms, the smooth water is on the south side and the rough water is on the north. As you fish the rip, the current not only pushes you north – across the rip – it also pushes you east, along the rip.
I maneuver the boat in a way that resists the northward push, maintaining constant distance from the rip line, yet I allow the boat to slide to the east, along the rip. This has several advantages. The obvious one is that I am constantly moving along the rip, constantly casting to new water, prospecting for fish. I’m not committed to holding in one spot, flogging that water if it’s unproductive or hogging the fish if it is productive. I slide along, allowing other boats to do the same, all working together, all sharing the fish.
Keeping with the example of Middle Ground on the incoming tide, it is possible to resist both the northward push of the current (across the rip) and the eastward push (along the rip), and hold the boat in one position. To accomplish this, I must adjust my steering to point the bow a little more to the west and increase the throttle. In a case where you know the fish are concentrated in one spot, it can be tempting to do this, and on days when boat traffic is light and the fish are aggressive, it can be fine to do. But, there are several disadvantages. Chiefly, it takes more power to hold in one spot than it does to simply slide along at a constant distance above the rip. That means more motor noise and more prop wash, which means I am more likely to spook fish. (It also means more fuel consumption.) On a crowded day, you might see a whole line of boats sliding along the rip and one guy holding position. You can imagine how that gums up the works. It’s like a moving walkway in the airport terminal, where everyone is walking along, but that one guy is just standing there. Don’t be that guy.
Also, because I had to point the bow of the boat more toward the west, only the anglers on the starboard side of the boat will be in good position to cast to the rip. That might be fine if I have only one or two passengers, but I often have three or four, and I don’t want them all on one side of the boat. And, casting from that side of the boat means I am casting into the current and my lure is being swept toward me, which is not my preference. This requires a faster retrieve so that the lure is in the water for less time, and it’s harder for an angler to maintain contact with the lure and feel bites.
At some point, you will drift off the rip and need to reposition, so cross back over the rip at low speed. Don’t go roaring across and spook all the fish. If you want to motor back up-current before you resume fishing, run parallel to the rip, but do it well away from it. Don’t run straight up the rip and scatter all the fish you’re trying to catch. Since it’s smoother on the uptide side, it makes sense to cross the rip first, at low speed, and get well up-tide before throttling up and turning parallel until you get to where you want to start the next drift.
It takes some practice to get used to adjusting the throttle and helm to maintain position above a rip. By the very nature of this kind of fishing, you have the boat in gear while anglers are casting, so you should recognize the inherent hazards. For example, if you slide back into the rip, it can get rough as you drift through the waves. That’s usually not so bad since everyone can see it coming and prepare. However, if you feel the boat starting to slide back into the rip and you hit the throttle to hold position, you might give it a little too much and cause the boat to suddenly lurch forward. That could be very dangerous when anglers are all at the gunnel and their hands are busy fishing instead of holding on. Just be careful and communicate. Make sure everyone hears you warn them that you’re going to throttle up. If you are going to leave the helm to land a fish, take the motor out of gear.
Etiquette Of Fishing The Rip
When fishing is good, and even sometimes when it’s not so good, there may be many boats lined up along a rip. If everyone works together, it should be fine. It’s important to be respectful and considerate of other people fishing near you.
As you approach, keep well away from the rip, preferably on the up-tide side. The closer you get to it, the slower you need to go. As you are motoring toward it, take notice of other boats already fishing the area, and try not to crowd them. I like to imagine a circle with a radius equal to my casting distance around the boat, and a similar circle around every other boat. The absolute closest I get to another boat (or want them to get to me) is where those circles touch, and that’s pushing it. So, you usually should be at least two cast-lengths away from another boat, but further is better.
Don’t shoehorn yourself in between two other boats, and don’t jump in front of another boat’s drift. Find a place along the rip where you can position yourself a polite distance away. If there is a line of boats already in position and already closely spaced, go all the way to the up-tide end and get in line to drift through the area. Follow the same rules when repositioning. Give other boats plenty of room and move away from the rip before throttling up.
The strength of the current varies with the phase of the moon and tide stage, so it is always changing. Depending on the strength of the current, fish may hold on the uptide side of the shoal, the downtide side, or even right on top of the shoal. Most of the time, the bites seem to come near the seam between smooth and rough water. While it often pays to experiment, it makes sense to start there.
With the boat positioned up-current of the seam and roughly perpendicular to the rip, cast parallel to the rip. Retrieve speed can vary from a dead drift, with or without twitches, to ripping the lure across the surface. Most of the time, I start with a medium-slow retrieve with twitches, and then experiment from there. Often, the best cast is one that lands the lure slightly above the seam and allows the current to sweep it along the seam or one or two waves into the rough as you retrieve. With a topwater plug, I try to dance the lure on the face of the first or second wave. Many bites come as the lure turns. I don’t claim to know what fish are thinking, but perhaps the change in direction, like the darting motion imparted by rod twitches, simulates the evasive maneuvers a baitfish employs when it sees a predator. Sensing it must act before the prey escapes, the predator is triggered to strike.
If the strike zone is a band of water running along the length of the rip, then casting and retrieving parallel to that band will keep your lure in the strike zone far longer than casting perpendicular and retrieving across the band. That’s just geometry. But, also, retrieving parallel to the rip better mimics the natural behavior of baitfish. Swimming straight up into a heavy current doesn’t seem like something a baitfish does. Sometimes, I joke about a baitfish strong enough to buck the current being a little intimidating to a predator that’s looking for easier prey, but maybe there’s something to that.
It can also be effective to drop lures straight back and simply twitch them in the current. I suspect this works best when the lures are positioned where the water gets slower but more turbulent. Still, with this method, the lure is more or less holding in one spot, whereas casting and retrieving moves the lure through more water and presumably shows it to more fish.
When an angler hooks a fish, you will need to decide whether to hold your position and have the angler fight the fish through the current to the boat. If the fish isn’t too big and the current isn’t too strong (and if the angler can land the fish without your help), it’s preferable to stay above the rip to avoid spooking fish. However, if this is not possible because the fish is too big or the current is too strong, or if you need to leave the helm to help land the fish, then take the motor out of gear and drift back while fighting the fish. Don’t shut the motor off – just leave it idling in neutral. Once you have landed the fish, motor back up across the rip to continue fishing.
In rips, the predominant forage is often squid. Lures in white, amber, pink, or even orange or brown imitate squid well. I use a variety of lures including flies, soft plastics, topwater plugs, subsurface plugs, and bucktails. In weedy conditions, I use single-hook lures over plugs with multiple treble hooks. The exception is a topwater plug, which can sometimes stay out of the weeds, even with trebles.