It’s good to be in a good groove and it’s good to know there are lots of fish around, even if they are not really around you. The big bass we pined for all spring and early summer apparently passed on hanging around our beaches and for the most part, went directly to Block Island. Did you know it’s free to park at all the beaches on the island and that there are no gates to keep you out or to lock you in if you want to surf cast past midnight? And there are no parking companies checking your license plate before taking your money back to their state. So whether you come from Washington County, RI or Maine, it costs the same to go to the beach. Nothing. Imagine that.
Late July can be a tricky month to fish. From the beach, striper fishing typically slows as the inshore waters turn bath water warm, pushing bass down to deep, cool hideouts. Boaters are looking for piles of sand eels instead of pogies as conditions change. Deep Hole fills up quickly with paddle boarders, model drone pilots and flat water surfers. Benny’s is dangerously low on fluke rigs and NO TRESPASSING signs in all sizes. Scarborough beach is jammed so tightly you couldn’t park a T-Top Camaro there after 10 am.
Fluking is still strong in some deeper waters and not so much in close. Lately it seems wind and tide have been in disagreement, making drifting quite challenging. A few shorts are mingling with the keepers around the cans and nuns east of Jims Dock. There are plenty of big scup around and, as mentioned here several times, it’s a real winner of a fishery, especially for the kids. Get a few pre-made rigs, some sweet squid and hit the rocks and piers for fun or dinner. Sounds cheesy, maybe, but it’s true. And who doesn’t believe a fisherman?
East Matunuck has given up some fish but there seems to be lots of weed on the incoming tides, making all but a direct tied Sluggo pretty tough to retrieve cleanly. Based on footprint evidence, fishing from the east-facing beaches has also been spotty, at best. Drag marks behind boot prints have been heavy, a telling sign of slow walking fishermen. When prints are just prints, they tell me a fast walking fishermen was carrying a keeper fish back to be filleted and there haven’t been many of those.
Tautog season opens on August 1. With a wide range of habitat from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, there are most common from Massachusetts to the Chesapeake, where they are often called oyster fish. Known around here also as blackfish, they are well adapted to hunting through vegetated rock piles and local reefs. Their skin is thick and slimy, which may minimize injury from rough rocks and they have small strong mouths well designed to feed on the bottom. Both top and bottom plates of their throats have areas of sharp teeth to crush crustaceans and mollusks. Their preferred diet is mainly mussels, shrimp, crabs, lobsters and worms, so they are prized for the dinner plate. They can be a challenge to catch as they are typically nosing through the rocks for their own dinner, which leaves lots of fishermen with lots of lost hooks and baits. Tautog become largely docile at night, resting in groups, lying low from nocturnal predators. Some divers will tell of just reaching down to grab large resting tautog on night dives. Their skin gets darker as they age and older males will have pronounced white areas around their chin, giving them an appropriate nickname of chinners. Here in Rhode Island, this newest season will run until October 17 with a 3 fish per day limit and a 16 inch minimum size.
Big blues continue to corral the few remaining pogie schools near the Narragansett sea wall. From here to the island, lots of monster bluefish have been caught these last few weeks, with some reportedly weighing close to twenty pounds. Richard Rade was on top of the Pabst Blue Ribbon Tournament with a 13lb. 12oz blue and that was in the Junior Division. They are a real treat to wrestle, especially on light tackle with wire leaders. Blues have amazing flavor and because of their high oil content, most of which is in their skin, they are perfect for smoking. These oils are a result of a diet rich in silversides, pogies and plankton, all of which store natural oils. They have an astounding range of travel, populating seas around the east coast of North America, Africa, Australia, Cuba, the Azores and throughout the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Leaning on his crooked deck stairs, drawing long breaths through a half crushed Pall Mall, Block Island fisherman Spencer Smith would tell you the sea smells of watermelon when bluefish are schooling. More a result of the plankton they ingest rather than the fish themselves, it remains a true observation for the observant angler.
Officially named Pomatomas saltatrix in 1754 by the famous taxonomist Linnaeus, they are murderous feeders known to consume as much prey as their guts can handle, then proceed to attack other, even larger fish than they just consumed. They feed throughout the height of the water column on all sizes of lobsters, crabs, shrimp, menhaden and unfortunately on our own beloved alewives, using their stout, conical teeth to shred anything they can see. Handily, each eye is independent of the other, affording them an amazing range of sight, although they cannot see behind them. Complete hunters, they also will eat their own young. The saltatrix refers not to sea salt but to their acrobatic ability, indeed their habit of somersaulting through the air in a manic chase for more food. And unlike the tautog, they never rest. Schools break up at sunset, leaving individual bluefish to swim alone, waiting for any signal to hunt again.
There is a down side to keeping the big ones and that’s the presence of mercury and methyl mercury. Methyl mercury is formed in aquatic environments and as such, is biomagnified throughout the aquatic food web. Some mercury is absorbed at the bottom of the food chain by algae, which is eaten by higher level consumers. At each level of consumption, the concentration increases. Because bluefish are bio-accumulators, they excrete only minimal amounts of these and other contaminates, like PCB’s, which they consume through predation. Despite PCBs having been banned for more than thirty years, their complex chemical structures make them resistant to breakdown, as they settle in organs and body fat.
Simple math tells you the bigger the fish the more contaminants you risk ingesting from their flesh. While cooking fish with the skin on is typically recommended, for larger blues the skin should be removed prior. Both tautog and bluefish have wonderful flavors, a direct result of their particular diets although bluefish does not freeze well so is best served as fresh as possible. They are also alot like friends and family: they can both get old after three days…