By: Joe Lyons
For many, the striped bass features prominently when choosing where to visit.
Up and down the striper coast, vacationers are choosing their destination with an eye towards striper fishing. Their pursuit of the striper has spawned a cottage industry of sorts. Images of the fish appear on T-shirts and hats, tackle shops offer guide services; independent shore guides see a brisk trade on Cape Cod and Block Island. Many of the same communities that once profited from the striper as a commercial fish, now see far greater rewards from the striper’s recreational value. The fish are here, and people are coming to fish.
From Cape Cod’s Monomoy Island to Narragansett Bay, to New Jersey and many places in-between, fishing has become a tourism stimulus of the first order. It is not just expert anglers making the trek either. The vibrant, enthusiastic fishing culture of these communities continually spawn new converts, further highlighting the striped bass’s value as a gamefish. According to the CCA, between 1987 and 1998, the number of angler trips directed towards striped bass has increased five fold and the amount of angler expenditures eight fold.
On the Jersey shore, Jim Freda of Shore Catch Guide Service – a unique charter business that offers beach and boat trips – sees an ever-increasing interest in striped bass angling and even plans his own vacations around fishing. “When I leave home to go fishing now the family, my wife and three children, come with me. We pick a destination that offers fun family things to do during the day and has great striper fishing in the early morning or night.” Many of Shore Catch’s clients pick the Jersey shore with the same idea.
Shore Catch Service has been featured recently on the nationally syndicated television show, Vacations On The Fly. When I told the show’s host Gary Edwards about the popularity of the Northeast as fishing destination – he was not surprised. Gary went on to explain, “The rod manufactures I speak with tell of saltwater fly fishing as the fastest growing segment of their product mix – outpacing freshwater by 40%-50%. From a fly fishing perspective, the saltwater environment can just support so many more anglers – there are more fish, and more places to pursue them.”
On Nantucket Island, Lynne & Jeff Heyer operate Cross Rip Outfitters, a full service tackle shop that also offers guide services. Since 96” when they began offering guiding, they have seen that side of the business increase each year.
According to Lynne about 25% percent of her clients come with the express purpose of fishing. However, she describes roughly half of the shop’ patrons as, “hardcore anglers” who may have come with families, but are no less interested in fishing than the former group. Cross Rip offers guiding trips from the second week of may through October and sometimes into November – when I asked he what she thought the average client spent on their fishing vacation she could not offer any figures but speculated that it was definitely “a lot.”
In Narragansett Bay, Capt Ray Stachelek of Castafly Charters sees anglers from all over the country who come to Rhode Island waters to fish. I tagged along on one of his charters, where a local angler, John Connor, and a friend from Washington D.C., Ramsey Posten, had a good outing chasing bass and bluefish. According to Ray, this type of trip, where a local angler wants to introduce a friend from out-of-town to local waters, is common. “People are enthusiastic, particularly about the striped bass fishery, and proud of what we have,” said Ray.Ray sees the local interest growing, and his bookings steadily increasing. Ray explained, “Last week I had a young man who decided to come along with his father who was attending a trade show at the Providence’s Convention Center – he tagged along specifically, so he could fish. He had a ball with a good mix of bass and blues along the shores of the upper bay.”
It’s hard to tally this tag-a-long tourism, but it underscores the intrinsic value of the fish. People who want to fish often take non-conventional methods to get to their destinations. Along with conventional summer activities – like the beaches, shopping, and dining – many people now, rightly, consider New England a summer fishing destination.
Without the striped bass there would John still have invited his friend Ramsey to up from D.C. for a weekend of fishing? Would a son still decide to accompany his father on business? Financial value aside, the fishing brings people together, creating communities of anglers, and enriching lives in ways that can’t be quantified.
Though characterizing the striped bass as recovered species may be premature (there is still a dearth of larger fish) no one can argue that things have certainly improved from the dark days of the mid-late 80’s.
Of all the fishy destinations available to the traveling anglers, it’s little Block Island that ranks among the favorites. This teardrop shaped island, twelve miles of the coast of Rhode Island is quietly becoming a premier fishing destination. Blessed with superb access – there are virtually no parking restrictions – and oodles of striped bass habitat, the island is nothing short of a striperman’s dream.
No doubt, Roy Rowan’s literary tribute to Block Island surfcasting, Surfcaster’s Quest (Lyons Press, 1999)- which opened the soul of the sport with a new kind of fish story, has contributed to the island’s popularity. In his book, Rowan writes of the striper with reverence, and paints a picture of the surfcaster as a mystic hunter, plying the island’s shores as much in search of spiritual solace, as fish. Rowan details the island’s commercial and recreational fishing history, but solitude and the personal quest are the prevailing themes.
During July 2002, the island’s newspaper, The Block Island Times, ran a three-segment installment detailing the economic importance of the striper to the island’s tourism industry. The reason for the island’s popularity as a fishing destination is a simple one: there are lots of fish around
I have spent summer vacations on Block Island for the better part of ten years. When I first started visiting, I saw very few summer anglers – though there were good numbers fish around, even then. Over the past decade, this has changed considerably. Now, even in the “high season” of July and August, S.U.V.’s sporting fishing-rod roof racks, and anglers with rod holders on backpacks are common.
In its, pre-striped bass-moratorium heyday, Block Island was primarily considered a late-autumn fishery. Each fall, the regulars, called bassaholics, would invade the island. These were primarily surfcasters. A rough crew who ate little, slept little, and fished much. They were an eclectic, closed society, with a penchant for secrecy – given to following each other around the island and leading each other on wild goose chases when they suspected they were being trailed. Together with such island legends as Charlie Dodge and John Grant, many, many trophies slid up The Block’s sand and stone beaches.
During the 70’s, and into the 80’s, commercial rod-and-reel fishermen, made a good trade surfcasting for striped bass from the island’s beaches – particularly during the fall migration. The island was known to produce big fish – most of the fish sold commercially were between 20-40 pounds. The fish were shipped back to Point Judith on the morning ferries and were prized by cruise ships and fine restaurants in New York and Philadelphia that advertised the fish as Block Island Striped Bass.
The viability of the striped bass, both commercially and recreationally – as we all know -came to a crashing halt during the 1980’s and for several seasons fishing interest on Block Island waned. But as the bass has come back, so has the fishermen. Now, new waves of anglers are discovering the island, and a vibrant group of young guides with a vision for future, have invigorated the fishing community.
Capt. Chris Willi, of Block Island Fishworks in New Harbor, offers guided shore and boat trips. Chris may have the smallest shop on the island but it is well stocked with everything one needs for a successful outing. While I was interviewing Chris, a steady stream of customers and information seekers came by the shop. Fishworks seems to be more clubhouse than business, and that is a good thing. The atmosphere, and the passion for fishing reminded me of an earlier time, which I did not think existed any longer.
Chris, who does double-duty, as Block Island’s Assistant Harbor Master, sees interest in Block Island fishing as growing. “Each year, it just seems there are more people interested in fishing here. People come to Block Island, then realize there is not much to do if you are not an outdoor person. I get people who walk in, who never have fished before. They can come in, get a basic rod and reel and couple lures for around a hundred bucks. They can go out with little to no experience, and get fish – they’re hooked after that,” said Chris.
Capt. Pete Farrell of Blockhead Charters, an independent guide who charters out of the island’s Orvis store, Oceans and Ponds, is also quite enthusiastic about Block Island fishing. Pete explained to me how the fishing patterns, bait, and gamefish patterns are never the same, “Every year when we come, back it’s something different. It’s wonderful here. Right now, the water temperature is 70 degrees, and there are stripers all over the island…. where else can you get that?” Chris chimed in that this year’s unique visitor to, the island has been a run of spanish mackerel – a close cousin of false albacore, and infrequent visitor to northern waters. In the winter, Capt. Pete guides out of Florida.
Both Pete and Chris are strong advocates of promoting the island as a fishing destination. Unlike Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, Rhode Island has been slow to promote itself as a premier fishing locale. Chris has petitioned the Block Island Tourism Council to promote the island at this upcoming winter’s outdoor shows. Pete and Chris, though technically competitors, share an easy-going rapport and real love for the island. Each feels as though Block Island is only in its infancy as sport fishing destination.
Northeastern saltwater fishing, as a direct result of the conservation efforts directed at the striped bass, is in style again. Fishing, whether it is at Nantucket’s Eel Point, or Block Island’s Southeast Light, or New Jersey’s Barnegat Inlet is not just for locals and a few in-the-know sharpies. The striped bass, which so much our fishing lore has tied to, is back. And this time, everyone is invited.
Thanks to all who helped me produce this story:
Shore Catch Guide Service
85 Cowart Ave. Manasquan, NJ 08736
Vacations On The Fly
Producer/Host: Gary Edwards
Cross Rip Outfitters
Lynne & Jeff Heyer
24 Easy Street
PO Box 55
Nantucket, MA 02554
Capt Ray Stachelek
21 Plymouth Road
East Providence, RI 02914
Capt. Pete Farrell
Block Island Fishworks
Capt. Chris Willi
Avery special thanks to Roy Rowan. Roy was gracious enough to give me several hours for the production of this piece, as well as some excellent writing advice. Help is not the easiest thing to find in this world. Click to read more about Dr. Rowan.