“Ah summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it,” wrote Russell Baker. July sometimes means fishing cools as waters warm for she is a long month of hot water pushing trout to precious few cool pools, black sea bass to dark deep wrecks and stripers straight to the bottom. Temperature is everything so the bite can turn from day to day; finding the squid and sand eels will make all the difference. A few weeks ago, we met Newport’s Richard Laurie, an avid fishermen with a wonderfully dry martini wit who advised a RI Saltwater Anglers meeting that, “you just gotta be where the bait is.” This July, that means Block Island.
Sol Schwartz of Twin Maples Bait and Tackle has the inside line. “The southwest side lit up the last week, sunset into evening on the moving tide. Lots of bass, big bass, like the twenty pound class,” he said. There’s more.
Sol reported that a recent group of fishermen had the best week yet, with solid reports from the south, southwest and west sides. One of their guests caught a striper on the east side, signalling that bass are starting to encircle the island. “Most fish are on the west side, off Conneymous Road,” Sol said, adding, “no one has said anything about bluefish yet from shore.” Given some long weeks of rain and many cloudy days, that should change as surface temperatures are holding at a pleasing 64 F, right in the striper and bluefish wheelhouse. It gets better.
Sol told me there were, “more fluke near southwest bell and plenty of scup and small fluke in the channel. Someone even said they caught a bunch of sea bass there.” That’s significant because the Great Salt Pond channel is sandy, lacking the rocks and structure they prefer.
The island and that channel have a few July anniversaries as well. It was in July of 1773 that the RI General Assembly agreed to dispatch a committee to consider dredging the entrance to the Great Salt Pond, which prior to was more often a 12’ wide creek allowing for tidal flow and small sailing vessels to transport her at time of high tide. This was a time of abundant stocks, of bass and cod freely passing through the channel to feed in the rich inner harbor and a fishing industry, according to island historian Fred Benson, “which for years had been profitably conducted in Salt Pond.”
Shockingly, the politics of appealing for state construction funds included accusations of deception, voter fraud and some “I gotta a settler” syndrome. After the River and Harbor Act of July 13, 1892, some islanders brought suit to stop the breaching, complaining of, “improper pressure brought to bear on some voters through threats, promises of employment or other consideration and voting by illegally registered voters.” There was some reference in the writings of Nicholas Ball that, “It was also contested that names of other than legal voters were placed on the list…and enough illegal votes were cast to carry the day.” After more than one hundred years, not much has changed.
July 20, 1636 is also important for the murder of English trader John Oldham and the Pequot War. Oldham’s ship was overtaken by Pequots, his five mates killed and his two sons kidnapped. Sailing from the Connecticut River, John Gallup spied the suspect natives near the island’s coast. They raced for shore, he gave chase. After overtaking the small sail boat and forcing the Pequots into the sea, Oldham’s mangled body was found on board. Revenge for this act, brought by John Endicott and Narragansett chief Sachem, Canonicus, ended with the burning and destruction of wigwams, crop stores and canoes and essentially the Pequot tribe. Mr. Endicott became Governor of Massachusetts in 1644 and after being gifted the land, sold Block Island to Simon Ray and eight associates, thus opening the door to a steady flow of white settlers, fishermen, scallywags, day trippers, New Jersey license plates and those in search of organic banana mudslides with second degree sunburns at Ballard’s Beach.
“There’s a good amount of squid around,” Sol said. While the shoreline action is increasing, it’s the boat fishermen who are finding the big ones and they’re slinging eels. “There’s been some massive massive bass caught on the south side,” Sol said. “A sixty 61 pounder, a bunch in the fifties. People are just starting to buy eels,” he added. Stephen Sautner wrote in his 2016 Fish On, Fish Off, “Some old-time striper fishermen firmly believe stripers hate eels. They claim bass only grab them to kill them and spit them out. They argue you’ll never find an eel in a bass’s stomach.” Whatever their motivation, Sol is starting to sell a lot of eels.
If you don’t know Sol or his boss, John Swienton, you need to pay a visit.
Twin Maples is a holdover from the days of military housing and basic, spotlessly clean accommodations. They cater to fishermen who go to fish, eat, drink and if there’s time, sleep. It’s not uncommon for fishermen and families to return each summer for a generation or more.
John’s father, Mackie, was the best. Sitting behind the counter, he could fix any reel of any making.
Bills came with a price larger than money.
It could be the Fourth of July with bass stacked up off Pebble Beach but you waited patiently while he told you about the island, about how kids are a mess these days and what he heard on talk radio, mostly on the amplitude modulation side. A dollar-fifty worth of grease and plastic washers cost fifteen minutes and several “Yes sir’s.”
Mackie Swienton time was priceless.
July just may be the magic month for catching and releasing a big bass but the island can be tough and they’ll go where the bait is. “Do what we can, summer will have its flies,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Indeed and maybe a few giant bass off Cooneymous.