Block Island has an allure like no other. It offers regular ferry service, beaches without insulting parking charges, almost endless empty stretches of shoreline after dark plus a history of big stories about big striped bass and until recently, lots of both.
At a recent RI Saltwater Anglers Association meeting, Don Smith and Peter Vican engaged a crowd of 150 fishermen and women with a conversation about fish and fishing, being tied to the Jamestown bridge, fifty fish nights and clear signs of change around Block Island. These two men silenced a room, made it laugh and filled it with ideas.
It helped that together they’ve landed two of the largest striped bass ever caught with rod and reel.
Don first fished the island in 1967. At age 13, Peter was there in 1959 with his dad. That’s after landing his first bass in the Providence River at age ten. Peter spoke of fishing for swords and makos with his Dad as well.
Don Smith recalled years of a different teenage experience than most sort of enjoy now: in his 13’ Whaler, he would tie off to the old Jamestown Bridge and fish through the night. No cell phone, no vhf (until a few years later when his Dad conceded to his wife’s concerns), no one to help start the motor or sight buoys on his way home.
Moms wield some serious power.
Incredibly, somehow young people managed to survive while learning real life skills, not thumb and forefinger dances for imaginary battles on make believe video islands. Don fished the hell out of that sweet spot under the bridge, “Until they blew it up,” he said, in 2006 which may have helped connect these two characters.
Both saw the island as a new frontier. At some point, they started fishing together and staying partners has been an equal ingredient to their success. “Was the fishing better on Block Island? Not really, but the fish were bigger,” Peter said. Back in the day, they only seriously fished at night, in tight to the island’s curvaceous and bony southern shore or maybe out deeper, depending on circumstances and bait. Peter said, “If we were fishing for bass in the daytime, it was because we didn’t go home from the night before.”
But that was then.
“I will say, in the last few years, the night fishing has gotten pretty bad out there,” Peter said.
Did you ever think you’d hear that? For years, they put so many marks on their plotter where they caught bass over 40 pounds, they created a record and started seeing patterns. “80 or 90% of the fish we used to see had the disease on them” Peter said about years past. “Now we see very little of them. Are they dead, are they too weak to migrate?” he wonders.
That’s powerful stuff.
He continued, “The Hudson (River) fish, we’re seeing Hudson fish going farther north, which means the last few years the Cape Cod Canal has been loaded with fish that used to go to Block Island.”
“We never used to see big bass in the daylight out there, now you’ll see forty pound bass in the daylight chasing bait,” Don said. “The whole type of fishing has changed out there,” Peter said, adding, “The striped bass are not feeding on the bottom like they used to because there’s no bait there. It’s tougher to find those fish at night. The best fishing we’re seeing is at five in the morning, just at dawn.” One cause might be the blanketing of invasive black sea bass. The rock piles, like their old reliable spot nicknamed, The Nest, are covered with sea bass. “They are like a vacuum,” Don said. “The Nest was a winner and in the last five years, I bet we haven’t taken two fish from that spot,” he added.
For perspective, The Nest is where Peter landed that record 77.4 pound bass. They’re seeing five pound schoolies where they never did before.
Black sea bass might be too fast for lazy bass. They’re consuming all the bait. They’re pushing out stripers. They’re headed up here en mass from New York and New Jersey without the yellow plates. That’s an ominous thought R.I. for striper fishermen.
Obviously gear is critical. Peter’s boat has a complete Furuno system, which, all things being equal, he said was worth about three thousand dollars more than his boat. Classic. “Every year we have changed something on the boat, like LED floodlights on the upper deck. It doesn’t scare the fish of at all,” Don said.
When the conversation moved to gear and hardware, Peter said, “I’ve always been a fan of spinning reels. I think Penn always made the best reels and I think they still do.” He still fishes some Penn 560’s. Don preferred the Calcutta 400 but has recently switched to Avet reels. They each carry a fluke rod. Peter reaches for a Penn 360 baitcaster while Don opts for a small Garcia reel.
They fish eels primarily. “The larger the bait you have the larger the fish you’re going to attract,” said Peter. Simple, sage advice.
Don chuckled at how Peter will spend all kinds of time choosing his eels, so they’ve agreed to pick out their own. Peter selects eels about 16” long with white bellies that are stored in the boat’s live well. “Don’t knock them out. Use a cloth, slide the hook through the chin and out through the eye socket then get it quickly over the side,” Peter advised. Peter likes to throw an unweighted eel if he sees bass feeding on the surface.
“With circle hooks”, which they’ve used since the sixties, Don said,”the stripers hook themselves. When the line starts singing, that’s when you take the rod from the holder.” Their preferred method is rigging eels with two ounce egg sinkers three feet off the bottom but six or eight ounce will be used in certain conditions. As for line, the two agreed on braid. “Over the years, we’ve used it all,” Don said, adding that they prefer the brand Tough Line.
That record fish was a story. That 78 pounder. It was a relatively slow night, near The Peanut, half a mile to a quarter mile west of The Peanut. It was 3 a.m. Peter was tired from reeling in fish, it was dead low tide, he had a chewed up eel on the hook, so he put the rod in the holder, went for a cigarette and a coffee. That’s when it hit.
Don said, “The funny thing is, Peter was going to put it back.” He had released a larger fish the week prior on the same spot. Then they figured it was somewhere between the state and world record.
Peter’s first record was 35 mins on the hook and she spooled him twice. The second was less than ten minutes. It swam to the boat and then swam to the net. These two guys are unbelievable.
By 5 a.m. they were heading in because there was no place on Block Island to weigh the fish. They headed for Snug Harbor, which opened at 5 a.m. They agreed that bass lost five pounds in the 98 degree heat because they didn’t have enough ice or a live well large enough to handle that fish.
Their measurements were saying the fish weighed more than 80 pounds.
Talking to a few captain on the steam to Snug Harbor, Captain Andy Deanglo weighed in, saying that fish likely weighed between 50 and 60 pounds Peter reminded him that Andy never caught a bass over 70 pounds. Drop the mic.
“There’s definitely fewer bass. We’ve been saying that for the last four or five years that there’s less fish,” Don said. Has the striper population changed because of fishing pressure? Surely that’s not helping. Peter said that when he was a kid, the crowd was zero. Those were the days. “After the moratorium, there were fish everywhere,” he added.
“The bulk of the boats we’re seeing are outside the 3 mile limit.”
That’s our reality right now and that’s the truth.
What’s the mix of boaters? “At one time is was mostly Massachusetts boats on the ledge. Now it’s a mixture of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts,” Peter said.
“There’s nothing for the big cows to graze on. They’re chasing bait up on the surface,” Don added. It seems they always fished for fish waiting for bait, now they’re fishing for fish chasing fish. One year, they caught and released a fifty pound bass they saw floundering on the surface. It had a four pound scup lodged in its mouth. After it swam away, Peter wondered about how big the bass while Don laughed that it probably was a state record scup.
Here’s part of the latest ASMFC striped bass stock assessment.
This is a new phenomenon: warming waters, changing currents, invasive species. It’s no hoax, our environment is changing, no matter what some fool at a podium tells you.
In the March RISAA newsletter, Dave Monti wrote, “According to a study released January 16, 2019 in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, 2018 set a new record of ocean heating, surpassing 2017, which was the previous warmest year ever recorded. This level of heat places 2018 as the hottest year ever recorded. In fact, according the study, the past five years are the warmest years on record.Peter noted they’ve seen a big difference in water temperatures rising not just at the surface but down on the bottom.” Things are changing and the fishing is changing.
These two have enjoyed a wonderful life catching, releasing, weighing, winning and enjoying each other’s company. Maybe all those years tied to a bridge, fishing rivers and seas as young men in small boats blessed them with a wide-eyed approach to understanding all they were fortunate enough to see.
Our waters are changing and these two have been saying it for years. Maybe it’s like looking at art; water speaks differently to people who listen. Don Smith and Peter Vican clearly are listening and it was a treat to listen to them.