The keepers come out at night on the Rhode Island coast
I was all alone, fishing one of Rhode Island’s breachways on a dark fall night with a dropping tide. Casting a white-colored Daiwa SP Minnow across the current, I slowly turned the reel handle, letting the current impart the action. I could feel the pulsating wiggle of the plug through the braided line when, suddenly, a blast of a hit boiled just below the surface about ten yards from where I was standing.
The plug stopped dead and the rod arched. Within seconds, the drag screamed as the big fish bolted down-current. Typical of a breachway fight, a lot of line peeled off the reel into the moving water before I began making headway with the fish. Soon, I had a 40-inch striper at my feet, one of many similar-sized fish I landed last fall from shore. The common thread between these larger striped bass was that they were all taken in the dark.
There is a two-fold fishing game that plays out in Rhode Island every fall. By day, you’ll find abundant schoolie stripers and occasional small keeper-sized bass blitzing on small baitfish, such as bay anchovies and peanut bunker. This action attracts numbers of fishermen, who get excited about seeing fish breaking along with birds diving. Most fishermen crave this exciting “fall run” action that often results in catching big numbers of fish. But, the mayhem almost always dissipates with the setting sun.
The number of fishermen dwindles as darkness arrives, and most daytime casters never experience the decent fall fishing we have for bigger fish. The scene in the nighttime surf is much more subtle, as large fish come close to shore to prey on less abundant but bigger bait, such as menhaden, mullet, squid, and herring.
The nighttime game is very different from what happens in the daylight. The most productive lures in the daytime are small—small jigs, plastics, metals, poppers, and swimming plugs—because they imitate small bait. However, when chasing a large keeper at night, the key is to go large. Big plugs, big lures, and even big eels (live or rigged) imitate big bait and provide a good shot at a big fish.
In the fall surf, the best locations for hunting fish at night also differ from the best daytime spots. In the daytime, blitzes of schoolies can occur just about anywhere schools of small bait show up. Even long stretches of sandy beach, absent of any structure, can be red-hot in the daytime hours as schools of bait migrate along their featureless shores. However, after dark, larger fish will hang around places with structure or moving water. Large baitfish are also drawn to these haunts, which are advantageous ambush spots for fishermen as big, wary stripers roam these locations to feed.
Nighttime Surfcasting Lures
If you are into fishing with artificials, pack large plugs that imitate a variety of big baits for fishing after dark. Keep in mind the types of spots you will be fishing when you stock your surf bag. There are three basic artificials that are necessities when fishing at night for large fish along the Rhode Island shoreline. These lures will cover most of the water column in just about all shore locations, and include swimmers, skinny surface lures, and big jigs.
In addition, I sometimes fish a teaser ahead of my plug or jig. I use either a homemade black Deceiver fly teaser or a Red Gill teaser. These are knotted on a 7- or 8-inch piece of mono and tied on the top swivel of a 30-inch leader made with 30- or 40-pound-test mono. The teaser simply gives you one more option, and that increases the chances of scoring a big fish. And, sometimes it is the teaser that accounts for that large, fussy fish bucking the big-bait trend and looking for something small to eat.
One of my favorite plugs to use at night is a plastic swimmer. While a variety of companies make them, I especially like the Daiwa SP Minnow in a light color. They are dead ringers for thin-profiled bait, such as mullet and herring, and they cast surprisingly well for their size. They sport the looks and the movement to get wary big fish to hit. These plastic swimmers are also very versatile—they work well in a variety of waters from breachway flows to rocky areas. I upgrade the split rings and hooks, opting for heavy-duty split rings and 4x VMC trebles (size 1/0). Some fishermen, especially those working the ends of the breachway flows, might opt for larger, metal-lipped wood swimmers, although you will sacrifice some action with the wood. Plastic swimmers have a tight wiggling movement, while big wood swimmers have a wide, lazy roll. Many fishermen like to free-line these wooden plugs way out in the breachway flows and then hold them there in the current before retrieving.
Next on my hit parade of fall lures is an elongated surface lure. Both skinny soft-plastic lures (Slug-Gos and Hogys) along with needlefish plugs fit this bill. I like to use these lures in shallow water, over sandbars and along shallow, rocky shorelines. They don’t work well in fast-rushing water that you might find in a breachway. My strategy with skinny lures is to go with the better-casting needlefish plug if the wind is in my face, and use skinny plastic if the wind is at my back. The plastic has better movement but is near impossible to cast any distance with a wind in your teeth. Once again, I like to use light-colored skinny lures, with white being my best color. I have no preference in needlefish plugs since I make my own. Work these skinny surface lures with a lot of short pumps of the rod tip and a slow to moderate retrieve to give them action. They can be worked on the surface or just below.
Jigs round out the big-fish offerings. I like to use a large bucktail jig spiced with a pork-rind strip. This is a good imitator of squid, a bait we sometimes see at night in the deep-water breachway flows. I know other fishermen who will go with a big plastic body on a large jighead instead of the bucktail jig. This also works but does not hold bottom in a swift current like a bucktail. Jigs are one of the only lures that will get down along the bottom in deep, moving water. The larger fish, at times, will hang right along the bottom, and a jig is one of the only lures that will get down to their level. I stock several sizes of my own homemade bucktail jigs in a “hot lips” style, and my favorite color is all-white tied with red thread. Sizes from 1 to 2 ounces will cover most jigging situations in Rhode Island. The strategy when using a jig in moving water is to cast across the current, let it sink to the bottom, and lift the rod tip up and down as you slowly reel and try to maintain contact with the bottom. Once the jig straightens out in the current, reel it in.
And, there are the eel experts that will tell you there is nothing better to catch a big fish than an eel. Many of these eel slingers will use either live or rigged eels. They can be fished in just about any type of structure, from drifting them in moving water to reeling in close to the surface in rocky areas.
Key in on spots that offer structure and moving water when targeting large stripers in Rhode Island at night. Keep in mind that many locations are also tide dependent. Some of the best spots to fish in RI’s fall surf include the breachways, rocky and sandy bars, boulder fields, ledges, and jetties. My strong suggestion is to have a number of spots in mind before heading out and be prepared to sample multiple areas in order to find a big fish or two.
The south shore oceanfront of Rhode Island has several major outflows or breachways located in public access spots, and they are all good spots to fish at night, though they can get crowded. These include Weekapaug, Quonny, Charlestown, the Galilee Channel and Narrow River. All these outflows have the same makeup, with a coastal pond in the back of them that drains out into the ocean through the breachway, or outflow. Most offer fast, moving water which is sandwiched between jetties at their mouths where they dump into the ocean. While most fishermen will opt to fish these spots at the end points on a dropping tide, the whole breachway can be good. That fast-moving flow in between the jetties can be another hotspot. In addition, the backwaters can be good on the incoming tide. The best lures to use in these flows are swimmers and jigs, though casting and free-lining an eel also works.
I like to use bucktail jigs in these fast-moving currents and work the bottom. Last year I had good success in a three-day period of northeast winds and rough water. I was working the deep-water flows of the Galilee Channel with a 1½-ounce hotlips-style jig tipped with pork rind. It was a case of casting into the fast flow, letting the jig sink, and bouncing it back until the line straightened out. The hits often came without warning as a large bass would slam the offering on the bottom. Be prepared for a fight in this fast water because a large fish will tear down-current on a drag-screaming run. I had several fish in the 20- to 30-pound range last year while using a bucktail jig.
My son, Jon, takes a different, yet effective approach when fishing these breachway flows. He likes to target the first 15 feet of the rocks along the jetty with a swimmer. He will cast down-current and close to the jetty, and retrieve his swimmer almost parallel to the jetty rocks. He’ll then walk down and continue casting, working the whole jetty. He catches lots of keeper fish close to the rocks with this technique, including a big 45-inch fish he landed two years ago.
The sandy beachfront of Rhode Island’s south shore also has its share of rocky outcroppings that attract a lot of fish. Some of the more notable spots are located at Point Judith, Matunuck Point, Green Hill Point, Fresh Pond Rocks, Weekapaug Point, and Watch Hill. These places are loaded with big and small rocks and often generate good surf. Some are shallow, ideal for surf fishermen to wade out in a pair of waders under safe conditions. Wet-suiters are also drawn to these locations, but be sure to use caution in rough water. At night the fish will come in oh so close to shore in these spots, and I have often had them strike right at my feet when standing in water up to my waist. Because of the shallow water and rocks in these spots, you must fish an artificial that stays near the surface. Needlefish plugs and skinny soft-plastic baits are top producers in these locations, with wood surface swimmers a good second choice. Eels are also good.
The rocky shores along the mouth of Narragansett Bay in Newport, Jamestown and Narragansett present an entirely different look. Many of these places feature ledges and big, rocky bluffs that drop away into deep water. These spots can be dangerous, as they feature slippery rocks and rough surf. (If the surf is very rough, they should be avoided.) Fishing from high, dry perches is the safest way to go. Studded wading shoes or Korker sandals are a must in many of these places, and definitely if you are moving along wet rocks. Fish these places by working lures close to shore and in the wash where the bottom drops off. I like to fish these spots with either skinny soft-plastic baits or swimmers. Hits usually come right as you are pulling your offering out of the water. It is best to scout out these spots in the daytime to figure out where to fish.